Photo by Robert Burroughs
Bill Koch. Vanity Fair was the first I'd read about Koch's use of SEALs to spy on America's Cup competitors.
"Koch's edge over Conner, and later over the Italian team he thrashed to take the Cup, was achieved with the help of espionage tactics... [that included] sending frogmen armed with bubble-free 'rebreathers' to inspect competing hull designs." — Vanity Fair, June 1994
Moro di Venezia towed into San Diego Bay. "He hadn't been at the buoy anchor chain more than 15 minutes when here comes a big powerboat with a flying bridge and Il Moro under tow."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
I was knocking back triple espressos at Bay Books in Coronado when I came across this revelation buried in a feature article on "Wild Bill" Koch, the Kansas billionaire bad boy who had kicked ass and taken names during his 1982 quest for the America's Cup. I was disappointed Koch didn't elaborate on how these "frogmen" — who in fact were U.S. Navy Seals — had helped him and how the scientific data the SEALs had collected through their underwater espionage might still be helping Koch's almost all-women crew now competing to defend the cup.
The pithy reference in Vanity Fair was the first public mention I'd read about Koch's use of SEAL combat swimmers to spy on fellow yachtsmen and America's Cup competitors. I had, however, heard some serious scuttlebutt about the espionage whispered through the boozy atmosphere of McP's Irish Pub in Coronado and among the tables of a sushi shack behind McP's, called the Fish Factory, where SEALs who like their food raw meet to eat.
It was during a midafternoon lunch at the Fish Factory several months ago that I'd learned the scuttlebutt was much more than rumor. My mess-mate and source — let's call him Jack Straw from Wichita — was a retired SEAL enlisted man who knew firsthand how a not-so-merry band of SEAL pranksters in the hire of Koch had gathered intel he'd used to snatch the cup. Jack had been so close to the action that I'd classify him and his info A-1 if I were using the Navy code for such matters.
Through mouthfuls of sashimi, Jack told me how a retired SEAL officer and CIA operative had recruited SEAL Team guys, past and present, for a screwy but potentially profitable commando op: to recon the underwater hulls — and especially the keels — of the 75-foot racing sloops that were being prepared in various boat basins and marinas of San Diego Bay for the 1992 America's Cup.
"The ops began in July of '91 and continued right up until the goombahs and Koch squared off for the cup in May of '92," Jack said. "We must have done more than a hundred dives; and for every dive, we did surveillance to get the hot cock on defenses, sailing schedules, how the syndicates put their sloops in the water, how they hooked them up to their powerboats for tow, how they took them out of the water. We drew timelines." Jack paused to drain his Kirin and ask the attentive Japanese waiter for another.
"The ops became just like real missions — we even prepared five-paragraph patrol orders, although not everybody thought that was necessary, especially the salty enlisted guys who didn't like zeros anyway."
How many zeros, officers, and how many enlisted?
"It varied. Of course, the guy who set it up was a zero. Then there was an officer from the East Coast, but he only came out a few times — just to tell us how fucking easy the ops were. He didn't stay long enough to be interrogated by the Harbor Police, nearly get decapitated, or have to worry about how to keep things going after Dave Billings bought it. Except for the first two clusterfucks in July against the goombahs, it was the enlisted who did the diving, took the risks."
Jack left unsaid what we both knew he was thinking, "As usual." He surprised me when he added, "Of course, Marlon almost fed the screw, too, but that was in his Bonita swimming pool, for chrissakes."
Marlon was the retired SEAL officer who had recruited, paid, and directed the SEALs in Koch's silent service for nearly a year. Marlon is not his real name. Jack and I called him that because of his head, which was as sloping, slick, and hairless as an egg. That head reminded us of Marlon Brando playing Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But unlike Fatso Brando, our Marlon was in great shape. Like a lot of retired SEALs, including Jack, Marlon was a compulsive long-distance runner and had the air of concentration camps about him.
Marlon told me the accident had happened in the bay while he was test diving a new rig for the Teams. Said the Team doc saved him by hustling him into the recompression chamber at BUDS and taking him down with pure O2.
"The part about the Team doc and recompression chamber is right, but Marlon went tits-up in his own swimming pool testing an Italian Fenzi rebreather we thought we'd have to use after we lost the Draeger with Billings. Marlon woulda been a goner if another zero hadn't been there with him. Pulled Marlon out, gave him CPR, called the Teams, and they took over from there.
Did the Teams know what was going on with Koch and Marlon?
"Probably. Billings was on active duty; other divers were in the reserve unit, and we had retired SEALs onboard. In fact, I heard a senior officer from the Head Shed showed up at the recompression chamber looking like he'd been rode hard and put away wet. First thing he asked was if Marlon had been using a Team rig."
The Teams use Draegers, not Fenzis. "Right you are, mate. So this senior officer was greatly relieved. I heard Marlon got the Fenzi from an East Coast commanding officer, who got it during exchange duty with a European Special Warfare outfit — maybe the krauts' GS-G9. Anyway, the Fanzi is a piece of shit."
Tell me about the first ops against the Italians.
Jack glanced at his empty plate and half-empty bottle of Kirin. "Sorry, Bill," he said. "I gotta haul my sons to tae kwon do class down in I.B. Let's make it some other time."
I don't know a hell of a lot about the America's Cup. Where were the Italians keeping their boat in '92?
"Boats, Bill, boats. The goombahs had five of the suckers at $3.5 million each, but they only had one in San Diego the summer before Cup '92, and Marlon couldn't even recon that mother. It was on skids with the keel covered by a canvas shroud. The Italian syndicate's compound was on Shelter Island, just inland of the Bali Ha'i, alongside the commercial boat basin."
Why don't we meet tomorrow at 1700 in the Bali Ha'i parking lot?
"Sounds like a plan." Jack unwormed his 6'4" Abraham Lincoln frame from his chair and reached for the tab. I beat him to it.
Hey, let me buy. You're telling an interesting sea story.
"Ain't no sea story, mate. And you don't have to buy, I still owe you."
That was a long time ago. I got this one. Aren't you going to finish your beer?
"Naw, I'm training for the Fourth of July hlf-marathon. Shouldn't of had any beer, but I been a good boy. Got my body fat way down. In fact, the doc saus I've probably even managed to get rid of the little circle of fat that surrounds the sphincter — all your world-class marathoners have fat-free sphincters."
I pulled into the Bali Ha'i parking lot 15 minutes early for my meeting with Jack. I cut the engine, settled back, and gazed across the channel toward North Island. To my right, the springtime sun was still above Point Loma, just beginning to drift down through a dirty yellow band of L.A. smog that circled San Diego like the ring around a vast toilet bowl. I though of Marlon and his espionage work for Koch.
Koch had certainly chosen the right man for the job. Marlon was not only a retired SEAL and Vietnam vet who knew his way around clandestine missions, he was also reportedly a second-generation spook. They said Marlon's daddy had been a CIA case officer, among other things, for several years. While Marlon was on active duty, he would from time to time disappear behind company walls in Langley, Virginia, not to be seen for months.
We guessed he was up to something in the company's maritime operations branch. He scurried behind the walls and deep, deep into shadows during the Iran-Contra affair when he worked for Alfred E. Newman, the gap-toothed wonder boy.
Marlon's cover for status while he was spookin' it up was Task Force 157. TF 157 dated back to the heyday of SEAL-CIA covert ops in Vietnam, most notably during the infamous Phoenix Program. As part of Phoenix, the Company used and abused preternaturally fit and slightly maniacal SEAL enlisted men to ride herd on Provincial Reconnaissance Units — PRUs. The Company manned these units with Vietnamese sociopaths of one sort or another recruited mostly from prisons of the Delta.
Young SEAL petty officers trained, organized, and led PRUs on missions to terrorize and terminate the VCI: Vietcong Infrastructure or political cadres that ran shadow governments in villages beyond the control of "Marvin the Arvin," which is to say most of the Delta and all of the U Minh Forest.
The PRU mission profile was simple. A PRU homeboy would return to his village for a visit, finger a VC political chief and his family, transmit this intel to his unit — usually located in a provincial capital like Rach Gia — then lead a hit team on a snatch or snuff op. A few SEALs sometimes questioned the reliability of the homeboy's intel; they suspected the victims might not be truly VCI but some luckless Nguyens with whom the homeboy had scores to settle. Most mistakes, however, were chalked up to the fog of war and the province of chance. Despite unsettling reports of excesses such as the cannibalism of so-called "Victory banquets," the Company was ecstatic about the PRU program; SEAL-CIA cooperation during Nam blossomed into future undertakings that continue to this day.
I'm told one of these undertakings was Marlon's successful combat swimmer attack against Bluefields in 1983. Bluefields was a steamy, syphilitic port on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua that worried Alfred F. and his boss, the Cowboy, for no good military reason. Marlon trained up a bunch of Contra frogmen with the help of other SEALs detailed to the Company, equipped them with sanitized, third-country rebreathers and limpet mines, then launched the frogmen from a specially outfitted mother ship anchored over the horizon. The ship carried all the bells and whistles so dear to the hearts of War Room strap-hangers in the Pentagon and at Langley — stuff like covered satcom circuits and real-time video.
Marlon had placed his considerable covert skills, experience, and contacts at the service of nouveau yachtsman Bill Koch to target the likes of Raul Gardini and Dennis Conner. At what price, I wondered, as Jack drove his battered Nissan pickup into the parking space next to mine.
"Am I late?" he asked, looking at the Rolex strapped to his wrist with an ancient cloth band that probably smelled like a sewer. He wore a blue T-shirt with yellow lining showing through a galaxy of holes, and faded Levis that rode low on narrow, nearly skeletal hips. A ball cap, visor pointed aft, sat firmly atop his head. Tufts of grey hair swarmed from beneath the cap. He towered above me.
I looked up and said, "Nope, Jack, I'm early. Just wanted to breathe a little cleansing sea air."
"Well, if you wanna take a look at where Marlon reconned the dagos for the first time, we gotta move over there." Jack pointed inland, across the lot at a narrow lawn dotted with palms that bordered the Shelter Cove Marina.
As we walked toward the palms, I asked Jack if he knew how much money Koch had paid Marlon to spy for him.
"I have no idea. Marlon, never, but never talked about what he got from Koch. Hell, in the beginning he wouldn't even tell us who we were working for. But it didn't take long to figure out. I mean, we're doing ops against the goombahs, Conner's Stars & Stripes, the kiwis over on Coronado, the frogs and the Japs in Mission Bay — everybody but A'. Then after Marlon figured we knew who our big boss was, he decided to send Billings against Koch just once to show him how fucking good we were.
"Jesus, you don't know much about the cup, do you? A' is the name of Koch's syndicate. We usually just called them the Cubens like the press did."
So how much did you get paid?
"Not very much for the risks, I can tell you that. I started at $18.50 an hour, then I got up to $150 for a half-day, $300 for a full day. The divers maybe got twice that: $300 for an aborted dive, $600 for a success."
What counted as a success?
"If they got the data, the film, the measurements."
What kind of data, film, measurements?
"The Cubens wanted intel on the keels. Our divers measured each keel with a knotted line for length, width, and various circumferences from top to bottom. Then they filmed the keel with a Sony camcorder, 8mm, that fit inside a waterproof housing with two big handles. The camcorder was simple to operate. You hooked up a couple of switches inside the housing, shut the housing, then covered that seam at the closing point with rigger's tape. A small light on the top of the housing, which we partially covered with tape, blinked red when the camcorder was ready to rock 'n' roll.
"The divers also used some technical gizmo the Cubens gave Marlon. Thing looked like a regular underwater flashlight and that's what it was, except the Cubans had gutted it, and where the bulb went it had, like, this little calculator with a digital readout kept dry by a glass bubble. The on/off switch was at the bottom of the flashlight, where there was also a little brass nut with a hole in it for seawater to flow through. You took readings from the calculator inside the bubble."
What was the gizmo called?
"Didn't have a name we knew of. We just called it the Genesis Device, after that machine in a Star Trek movie, the one where this machine brings a dead planet back to life. Marlon told us to drag the device through the water on a line from the insertion boat before each dive, just before the divers began their underwater run against the target. After we reeled the device in and before giving it to the divers, we'd hold the brass nut as close as possible to the water, then take a reading from the calculator. The reading, as I remember, was a whole number followed by several numbers after a decimal like 5.6132."
Have any idea what you were measuring?
What would the divers do with the Genesis Device?
"They'd take it with them to the target and put it directly under the lowest part of the keel — the part that looks like a bullet — then take a reading from the calculator like we'd done on the surface. They wrote the reading on the slate together with the time. So they'd bring back a reading like '1.2345 at 1024.' Marlon took these readings to include in a report he sent the Cubens after each mission. Usually gave it to a guy named Vince. He would also send a videotape of the keel. That was the product — a written report with the keel measurements, data from the Genesis Device, plus the tape. The divers were also supposed to be alert for any unusual appendages on the hull and rudder."
Why was the keel so important?
"Beats the shit outta me. The only keel I'm familiar with is the inflatable ridge that runs from bow to stern on an IBS."
IBS stands for "inflatable boat, small," at one time the seven-man insertion craft for frogmen and SEALs but now relegated to an instrument of torture for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDS) trainees who have to lug the 200-pound monster everywhere they went during their interminable course at the amphibious base.
We'd reached the lawn and palm trees. The Bali Ha'i was to our right, the main channel of the bay behind us, and the Shelter Cove Marina directly in front of us. The marina had three floating docks that stretched 100 meters or so into the commercial boat basin. The nearest the Bali Ha'i had several slips on each side for large charter fishing boats; the other two docks just in front of us had perhaps twice the number of slips, and all were filled with smaller sail and powerboats.
Jack pointed across the jumble of swaying spars and masts toward a spot on Shelter Island Drive near a seafood restaurant named the Red Sails Inn, where you usually got what you paid for.
"Gardini had his compound over there. I think the kiwis or the Japs are in there now."
Where are the Italians?
"Not here. Gardini killed himself after he lost the cup to Koch."
Sounds more like something the Japanese would do.
"I don't think he killed himself because Koch beat him. I heard he'd been charged with defrauding the Italian government, bribing politicians, shit like that. But I think if he'd brought the cup home to Italy, maybe that woulda saved his ass. Made him too big a national hero for the authorities to snatch."
Let's sit and you tell me about Marlon's first recon.
We settled ourselves on the edge of the closely cut lawn, where it ended at a small, rocky sea wall bordering the marina. Jack began, "This recon took place in July of '91 and was a not a dive...just an 0-dark-30 surface swim to see if we could penetrate the compound from the water, then photograph and measure the keel while the sloop was on skids. See, getting the product when they put the boats in the water was a very tight deal.
"For starters, we had to lock down the time the syndicates were going to put their sloops in the water for tow to the racecourse off Point Loma. They weren't publishing schedules for practice runs when we got most of our intel. So one of us would call the target syndicate, saying something like we were Snopes family from Mississippi here to see one of them America's Cup boats in the water, and would y'all be so kind as to tell us when we could come look?
"Sometimes that worked, but not often, especially with super-security-conscious syndicates like the dagos, kiwis and Stars & Stripes. We had to set up surveillance on those people. In the beginning we'd watch a compound for a week or more to discover a routine we could work against."
Where were your observation posts?
"We varied them, but we usually scoped out Gardini's action from across the basin." Jack waved toward North Harbor Drive, a half-mile or so from us. "See that long, two-story grey building with white trim? Well, the top deck has offices for a fish marketing business. Underneath is more offices and storage areas. Commercial fishing boats tie up a piers because of all the boats anchored in the basin."
The commercial boat basin was indeed cluttered with an assortment of vessels; I could just glimpse the building Jack was describing. Through fading twilight, however, I had a clear look across about 300 meters of open water separating the Bali Ha'i from a cozy bar in the Blue Crab Restaurant on North Harbor Drive. Mellow yellow lights beckoned, but Jack was getting into it.
"One of us would on a second-story landing of the fish market building next to Koch compound. We'd keep a log of what the goombahs would do from the time their crane lifted to sloop — usually Il Moro di Venezia — off her skids until the powerboat took her under tow for the main channel and Point Loma".
"See, our window of opportunity for the keel data was from the time they removed the shroud until they took the sloop under tow. Usually worked out to between three and four minutes. But with the kiwis, it wasn't much more than a minute, because those wily coyotes put their own divers in the water when they removed the shroud. Our only look came during the transfer of tow from their Zodiac to a larger powerboat on station just beyond their enclosed dock area. But us roadrunners got 'em anyways."
Let's take one target at a time. Why don't we do the kiwis next? But wasn't Amir Pishdad captured by the kiwis? I remember seeing him on TV with his head down, seated against a wall, and surrounded by guards like some Iraqi POW.
"Amir wasn't one of us. Not ready for prime time. That's why the kiwi divers policed him up with his open-circuit bubble machine — something that helped us, 'cause the kiwis relaxed, thought they had the threat neutralized. Heh, heh." The laugh rattled in Jack's throat like washers in a #10 can.
"So here's the hot cock on Marlon's famous midnight recon that had none of the planning I've been telling you about. I'd been doing odd jobs for Marlon ever since I retired, so I wasn't surprised when he called and asked if I'd like to help on a deal he had going with the America's Cup. I said sure and asked what I was s'posed to do. He said just show up at midnight in a little park off North Harbor Drive, between the Koch compound and the fish market building. Told me I should be prepared to stand by until first light. I asked if I was gonna get wet, and he said no, so I said I'd be there.
"When I got to the park, which was just a bunch of low bushes around a public shitter, Marlon was there with two guys. I recognized one as Pete Peralta, but I'd never seen the other. He looked like some old gummer Marlon had recruited outta the Night and Day Cafe [in Coronado]. If the gummer had ever been in the Teams, he was definitely a Korean tunnel-blaster. But I saw he had a Rolex with a Tudor movement on his wrist. Band musta stunk worse than mine.
Peralta have his bag of fruit with him?
"Yeah, he even gave me a plum."
Peralta was another retired SEAL who was a fitness lunatic. But he didn't just run marathons. He could play most sports very, very well. He was seldom without a Ziploc bag of fruit and raw vegetables from which he would incessantly snack. This habit had earned him the nickname Fruit Fly or just the Fly.
Why was the Fly there?
"He was gonna stand by with me while Marlon and the gummer swam across the basin to penetrate Gardini's compound. Me 'n the Fly was gonna pick 'em up after the op right here where we're sitting. The emergency extraction point was at the ass-end of the basic, next to Point Loma Seafoods. Little did we know we'd spend most of the night there.
"Marlon and the Ancient Mariner carried their gear in parachute bags. While me 'n Fly stood guard, they went into the public shitter to jock up. That's when they started arguing and didn't quit the whole fuckin' night. Old guy wanted to take a straight shot from the Blue Crab across that open water to the Bali Ha'i, then work down this sea wall and up the shoreline parallel with Shelter Island Drive to Gardini.
"Marlon said, 'No, that's fucked. We could be seen in the open water. What we have to do is maneuver across the basin, going from boat to boat until we reach the end of the floating piers in the Cova Marina. Then we go from pier to pier. We'll be less than 50 meters from the compound at the end of the last pier'" — Jack paused to indicate the pier filled with small boats just in front of us.
"Well," he continued, "the gummer wasn't buying this, 'cause he knew he'd end up having to kick, stroke, and glide for half a mile or more. But he finally caved in — after Marlon said, 'It's either my way or the highway.'
"When they came outta the shitter, Marlon had on a full wetsuit with probably a cheater underneath. But you shoulda seen the gummer. He was wearin' nothing but midnight-blue thermal under-wear and UDT swim trunks; he had a facemask that could have come from War Two — small and round with a crumbling skirt and no place to squeeze your nose."
"Yeah, like Al Huey. And he was carrying those old Volt UDT model fins, the gum-rubber duck feet that worked your legs to death. Marlon had Jet Fins.
"While Marlon was leaning on his swim buddy to adjust his fins, I said, 'Old-timer, how come you're doing this?' He looked me in the eye and said, 'Because I need the money. I ain't got a pot to piss in or window to throw it out of. What brings you here, sonny?'
"I told him it sure wasn't the hours or the working conditions and shook his hand. Then he and Marlon were backing through the shadows of the darkened Koch compound to the quiet waters of the basic. Both eased into their sidestrokes, nice underwater recovery, and then all you could see was tin, bioluminescent whirlpools stirred by the sweep of their fins. So far so fucking good, I thought.
"But about ten minutes after they'd cleared the commercial piers, things got hairy. You could mark their passage through the boats moored in the basin by the dogs: barking, yapping, snarling dogs. Seemed like every goddam boat had a goddam dog.
"For some crazy reason I said to Fly, 'Why don't they use their hush puppies?' "Fly said, 'Jack, you're having a flashback. This isn't Nam.'"
You were thinking about our silenced .22 Rugers.
"Yeah, what we carried to take out the mutts in VC hamlets. Anyway, it dawned on me that hush puppies probably wasn't the only gear Marlon and the old-timer lacked. I'm sure the old-timer wasn't wearing a UDT life jacket, and if he was, the CO2 initiator woulda been frozen even if he'd remembered to screw in a cartridge.
"And I don't recall seeing either swimmer with a Ka-Bar or flare. Jesus, what a pigfuck? Didn't even have a dive supe check before they entered the water."
Jack shook his head, reached into his Levi's, and pulled out a pack of unfiltered Camels. I declined his offer and watched him fire up. The sun was down, and the cigarette tip glowed red as Jack inhaled. He continued his story through the momentary veil of smoke that enveloped my face.
"Once the dogs alerted, lights started coming on all over the place — on the boats, in a storage area beneath the fish market, even on the upper deck of the Koch compound. Me 'n Fly leaned back into the bushes like a couple of sacked out bums. We sat straight up when we hear someone rack a shotgun and shout, 'Think it's a motherfuckin' sea lion! Shoot the sumbitch if you see him!'
"We hit my truck running. Took less than a minute from the time I cranked her up till I shut her down in the parking lot between Point Loma Seafoods and the Vagabond Inn on Scott. The dogs were still raising hell, but I couldn't hear voices as I scouted the shoreline back toward North Harbor Drive. Pete worked opposite, toward Shelter Island Drive. I kept looking for a flare, listening for a whistle, hoping I didn't hear a shotgun blast.
"By the time I linked up with Pete back at the truck, all was quiet, but no sign of Marlon or the gummer. We spent the next three hours or so at the emergency extraction point, every once in a while, driving over and back from Koch's compound and down to the Bali Ha'i. We didn't expect to find swimmers, because Marlon had said not to park at the Bali Ha'i for an extraction until between 0400 and 0500. But we were worried about cop patrols that might take us for a couple of burglars or faggots and hook us up if we stayed parked too long behind the Vagabond.
"At 0400 we drove into the Bali Ha'i lot, which was empty and dark. No traffic in the area at all, but we knew that would change when the early-morning fishing crowd began to arrive. We made a couple of passes on foot along this sea wall but didn't see nothing, except that the gommbah compound had floods lighted all 'round the perimeter. Of course we didn't think to bring binoculars or a starlight scope, and the stretch of water between us and the compound was blacker than an XO's heart.
"Then about 0430, when we were walking by this spot here, we heard someone say, 'Fuck you mate, I ain't goin' back and I ain't going into that compound. It's lit up like Stalag fucking 17!'
"No point in being clandestine anymore, so I said, 'Hey, Marlon, old-timer. We're over here.' Great recognition signal for the friendly agent, huh? Anyways, they come crawling up over these rocks, facemasks dangling around their necks, snot flowing from their noses, and both looking hot enough to fuck.
"Nobody said nothing on the way back to the truck, and I never saw the old-timer again."
Did they collect any intel?
"Naw. Of course Marlon, the hero, blamed the enlisted old-timer for not having the balls to sneak and peak through that flood-lit compound. But I'll be fucked if I woulda done it. I mean, we weren't back in training with nothing to worry about except the instructors pissin' on your head if they caught you. All the syndicates had guards, and some were armed." Jack took a last hard draw on the Camel, used it to stoke another, then propelled the butt into the water lapping the bottom of the sea wall.
"A few days go by, and I get a call from Marlon saying we got to go after the gommbahs again. The contract with our employer is pay for product — no product, no pay. 'Okay.' I said, 'what's the next bright idea?'
"Marlon tells me he's learned the dagos are gonna take their boat out the next day between 0930 and 1000, and he knows their track. The powerboat is gonna tow the sloop right by this big mooring buoy alongside the channel, maybe a hundred meters straight out from the compound.
Jack took a fierce draw on a fresh Camel, exhaled, and waved the cigarette toward some invisible spot beyond the charter boat pier.
"Marlon's bright idea was to strap on open-circuit scuba, have me and one of his officer buddies insert him off a boat. The insertion point would put the buoy between him and the compound. He'd dive, swim a hundred-meter compass course to the buoy's mooring chain, then go to the bottom and sit alongside the chain until the sloop passed by. The genius of this, he said, was that the chain would break up the bubbles."
Those bubbles expand quite a bit on their way to the surface from...what's the depth out there?
"Depends on the tide, but I'd say 25 to 30 feet. The racing sloops draw 13 feet at the bottom of the bullet."
Was Marlon going to film the keel as it passed?
"Naw, he was gonna take stills with a Nikonis. We didn't get the Sony or the Genesis Device until August or maybe September, after Billings came onboard. I got half-assed logs I kept during the ops at home. Maybe I wrote down when we got the sexy gear from the Cubens."
Do you have anything else? Documents or other stuff the Cubens gave you?
Jack sucked hard again on the Camel, which was already half-vaporized, and said, "Yeah, I think I got some diagrams. See, after the syndicates got rolling, just before the Defender and Challenger elimination races in early '92, they had all their boats in the compounds and wouldn't always take out the fastest, or sometimes they put two in the water. The kiwis liked to do that. The Cubens had us target specific boats, like Il Moro di Venezia, the frogs' Ville de Paris, the kiwis' New Zealand, the Japs' Nippon. We had to know which boats the Cubens wanted reconned, so this guy Vince would give Marlon silhouettes and descriptions of the right boats. Only syndicate we didn't have to worry about was Dennis Conner's, 'cause all he had was Stars & Stripes. But Dennis was a tough nut to crack, just like the kiwis."
Cubens give you anything else?
"Let's see...oh, yeah. When CNN caught our divers on national TV trying to film Stars & Stripes in December '91, the divers lost the Genesis Device during their escape. Vince gave us another device to use, but it was different from the original. He gave us a schematic on how it worked."
Maybe next time we meet, you could bring the stuff you got from the Cubens.
"Sure. Wanna hear the rest of the story about Marlon and his amazing bubble machine?"
But of course.
"We linked up at first light over in Coronado, at the Boy Scout landing. When I arrived, Marlon and a buddy had just finished winching an 18-footer with a 90-horse Evinrude off a trailer in Glorietta Bay. We sat on a park bench next to the launching ramp, and he introduced me to the zero — if that's what he was. I didn't recognize the guy, and for all I knew at the time he coulda been one of Marlon's spook-mates from the agency. Was a little foolhardy with a face that looked like a clenched fist. Had scars all though his eyebrows and a flat, pug nose. Reminded me of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. I told him of the resemblance and took to calling him Bull, which he seemed to enjoy. Bull 'n me was to become asshole buddies in the months ahead. Marlon made him ops boss after Billings died, and he was a firm believer in the six P's: Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance, something we needed to keep in mind, especially after the Conner clusterfuck on CNN."
One target at a time.
"Okay, okay. Marlon hurried us off the bench and into the boat tied up at that little pier alongside the landing. He said we had to be outta there before the Teams came by for their morning run-swim-runs. He didn't want the Teams asking questions, but our cover for ops was fishing and a rec dive off Point Loma is anyone did ask.
"To kill time we circumnavigated the bay, heading south down the Strand to the salt beds at I.B., then north to the 32nd Street Navy piers.
That must have brought back memories.
"Yeah, we ran a shitload of Zulu-Five-Oscars against the ships at those piers, didn't we? Surface line, mighty fine!"
Jack paused to forge another link in his chain of Camels. Zulu-Five-Oscars were Navy exercises to test a ship's security. SEALs were tasked with breaching the security, both over the quarterdeck — disguised, for example, as repairmen — and through the water. SEALs used rebreathers, such as the German-made Draeger, for these "ship attacks." The Draeger was a closed-circuit scuba that emitted no telltale bubbles. The diver inhaled his own exhaled breath after it had been routed by a hose through a CO2 scrubber, such as baralyme or Sodasorb, then refreshed with pure oxygen from a small bottle fixed to the rig. ""Surface line"" referred to the ship-drivers of the Navy.
"But the ship attacks I remember best," Jack was saying, "was the ones we ran against the dolphins. Remember those beasts? Musta weighed at least 500 pounds, and you could hear 'em coming after you at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour. I'll never forget those screeching noises their sonar made. Sounded like bats flushed from a cave. The closer the beast got, the louder he screeched; eeesEEEE WHAM! You had about ten seconds from the time you heard the screeches until he hammered you. Thing you had to do was tuck into a fetal curl with one hand protecting your nuts and the other securing your facemask."
I remember. You could also confuse the dolphin sonar if you worked along a quarry wall. They couldn't pick you up in the clutter from the rocks. And at least they weren't aremed as they would be in combat with explosive darts or the Cruncher. But tell me what happened when Marlon went against the Italians with the open-circuit.
"We inserted him on time, then pulled away toward the Koch compound maybe 200 meters from the buoy, where we dropped the hook and pretended to fish. We followed Marlon's course all the way to the buoy. The open circuit rig was cranking out bubbles the size of Volkswagons by the time they erupted on the surface. Bull looked at me, and we both shook our heads. He said to keep a weather eye our for the Harbor Patrol, because diving in the bay, as we know, is illegal.
"But Marlon's intel on the dago timetable was good. He hadn't been at the buoy anchor chain more than 15 minutes when here comes a big powerboat with a flying bridge and Il Moro under tow. We couldn't see the surface of the water at the buoy, but we saw a guy on the flying bridge pointing like crazy toward the buoy as they approached for a turn up the channel past the Bali Ha'i.
"'Ah, Jesus," says the Bull and turns over the Evinrude. We stay back as the powerboat and the sloop make their turn around the buoy, this guy still pointing, and now there's two more in the bow waving their hands. I see one guy with a camera and hope Marlon's got the Nikonis working. But it looks like Il Moro is too far from the buoy and the visibility too shitty for any kind of shot.
"Soon as we see the boats aren't stopping but keep heading for the main channel and Point Loma, Bull throttles back, disengages the prop, and we coast up to the buoy. I put a line over right next to where these gigantic bubbles are churning to the surface, and here comes Marlon following the last one.
"I take his weight belt, bottles and stay clear as he kicks up and over the gunwake. While he stows his gear, he tells me to head for Coronado, but to stop at Peohe's for coffee and danish. He looks beat to shit, depressed, y'know. He says the vis was so bad he could barely see the outline of the hull. When Bull tells him how Gardini's crew was carrying on about the bubbles and may have taken photos, Marlon looks like his parakeet died.
"Marlon changes from his wetsuit into sweats and says we'd talk about it over coffee. We tie up at Peohe's floating dock and order coffee and fat pills on the patio.
"First thing Bull says is we gotta get a rebreather and some stud who knows how to use it, is strong enough to stay underwater two or three hours if necessary. No more of this inserting right on top of the goddam target in broad fucking daylight. We're running these ops like we was VNs, he says.
That's when Marion mentions Dave Billings. They were in the Teams together, and Dave was still on active duty. Had a rep for being the best underwater warrior around."
I didn't know him, only what I read in the newspapers after he washed up on the beach in La Jolla.
"Dave went through BUDS late and didn't get to the Teams until his mid-20s or so. Right from the get-go he specialized in underwater ship attacks. Nicest guy you would ever meet. I never heard Dave say a bad word about anybody."
That makes him somewhat unique in the Teams.
"Yeah...and Dave was strong as an ox. Always working out. Dedicated to swimming. Wanted to be on the leading edge of combat swimming and was always coordinating with the Draeger Company, telling them how to improve the rig. But what he was best at was laying out and navigating underwater compass courses. He set up Team Three's combat swimmer range. Lots of doglegs, no straight shot to the target. Dave based the range on the Germans but added his personal touches. Insisted the SEAL's determine how many strokes they took to go a given distance against a given current. He made them run box maneuvers to see how good they were at returning to their point of origin without any surface peeks.
"Dave made senior chief quick...just the nicest guy, real calm, but a perfectionist. Proud of his craft. Anyway, within a few days of our talk at Peohe's, Marlon brought him onboard with his Draeger, and we had him for all our ops through November, when we lost him. What a wast. An amazing guy, he really was."
Later I want you to tell me the circumstances of his death, because the Union-Tribune certainly didn't write anything about his working for Marlon and the Cubens. Also, the articles said the Draeger they found on the body was his, not the Navy's.
"The press pukes got that right. Billings had his own Draeger, probably because he worked so closely with the manufacturer." Jack reached for another Camel.
Why don't you hold off on that. I'm getting cold, hungry, and thirsty. Let's continue this at the Blue Crab.
"Sounds like a plan. Only you gotta let me pay my own way."
Let's do this. I'll tell you a joke except the punchline. If you know the punchline, it's your call who buys.
SEALs can't resist competition; I wasn't surprised when Jack said, "You're on mate."
Why are martinis like a woman's breasts?
Jack didn't hesitate, "Because one's not enough and three's too many." He added, "And you stole the joke from Gene Hackman, who told it in Parallax View, where he played a blanket-head SF sergeant. Let's hit the Crabs. You're buying."