Photo by Robert Burroughs
Il Moro di Venezia. "Marlon tried to photograph Il Moro as she was being towed around a mooring buoy on her way to the race course off Point Loma."
Jack and I made our way through the low-intensity night jog of the Bali Ha'i parking lot that was now nearly filled. We reached our vehicles — Jack's Nissan pickup and my Ford Escort — and agreed to meet in the bar at the Blue Crab Restaurant on North Harbor Drive, not far from where Jack and Pete Peralta had inserted Marlon and the Oldtimer for their midnight swim across the commercial basin to recon Il Moro di Venezia, the late Reed Sardini's hope for America's Cup '92.
Keel of the Stars & Stripes. "This time, Dave took super video of the keel and made all the measurements undetected."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Jack told me how to find the parking lot off North Harbor. "Hang a quick right as you pass the A' compound. They're busy getting the place ready for Koch's all-women crew to compete in Cup '95. Drive down the side of the compound, toward the basin, and you'll see this public shitter with a tile roof off to your left. Park next to the shitter, and you'll see where we inserted Marlon and the Oldtimer. I'll meet you later at the bar.
As Jack climbed in the truck, the cuffs of his Levi's rode up and I saw he was wearing Jungle boots with a lot of time on them.
Bill Koch celebrates after America's Cup victory in 1992. "I got some kinda lame contract Marlon wanted us to sign, promising not to tell about our commando raids for Koch."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
I leaned against my car and looked across the bay toward the city. San Diego's increasingly phallic skyline thrust up through the yellow street lighting so favored by criminals and Mount Palomar scientists. Scientists and criminals. Strange, but now unheard of, running mates.
Nippon is shrouded as it is lifted from water. "We'd first set up surveillance on the syndicate compounds to establish their routine: how they took their boats outta the water; when and how they removed the canvas shroud that hid the keel...."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Bill Koch was a scientist. I'd read somewhere that he held three degrees from MIT, and science had been the theme in the few stories I'd glanced at about his yachting exploits. I recalled one of his many mottoes and slogans: Boat speed is a science, sailing is an art.
And the science of America's Cup boat speed, like the science of anything, needs data — timely, accurate data for analysis in such bastions of disciplined learning and application as MIT and Stanford, where Koch had his wind tunnels, test tanks, and models Garbage in, as the saying goes, garbage out. Koch, used to the best and willing to pay for it, had hired Navy SEALs through Marlon, a retired SEAL officer and former CIA operative, to ensure that the A' scientists knew what the competition was designing below the water line to increase boat speed.
Were the SEALs who had labored in Koch's silent service videotaping and measuring for nearly a year, criminals? They had certainly broken the law with their unauthorized dives in the bay, and then there was the matter of perhaps stealing design secrets, but that
seemed to be so widespread among the America's Cup syndicates as to be an industry practice rather than a crime.
As for the diving...well, most of us SEALs were misdemeanants in that regard, having time and again used Navy gear to harvest scallops that hung from bayside dock pilings like grapes from vines — not to mention the 14-pound bags some of us took from their hiding places beneath the old seaplane ramp at North Island.
Any ethical considerations? I couldn't speak for the yachtsmen, having never once set foot on a sailboat, let alone a racing sloop, but I'd been in and around SEAL Teams that better part of 30 years. What Marlon, Jack, and the boys had done didn't seem so bad when measured against other over-the-edge activities through the years by a few of America's roughest, toughest, meanest mothers.
During Vietnam, for example, junior officers and their men were caught with their hands in the per diem cookie jar and had to repay thousands of dollars improperly claimed as payment for ordinary grunt duty, sitting in the mud of Vietnam's Rung Sat Special Zone. Some officers routinely smuggled monkey pod and other products back from the Philippines in Team Conex boxes for wives and girlfriends to hawk at enormous markups during sales in the South Bay.
Then there was the SEAL lieutenant, Stanford grad and son of a Navy captain, who had found a more profitable commodity to smuggle back in the Conexes: heroin packed in gutted starlight scopes. The Stanford grad did time in Lompoc for that op.
And "The Three Amigos," Team commanding officers who, as junior officers, had run off and left their men in enemy territory — one such incident occurring in North Vietnam. If a third-class coxswain on the extraction boat hadn't refused to leave as ordered by the officer, the NVA would quite likely have snatched their first SEALs.
Then there's that whole nasty business of SEAL Team Six and Commander Demo Dick Marcinko: federal felony convictions, court martial convictions, Admiral's Masts — all for fraud and other crimes of moral turpitude — with sinister talk, never resulting in criminal charges, of renegade Team Six officers conspiring to murder other SEAL officers who were causing trouble by insisting on ethical and legal behavior from their comrades-in-arms.
So it goes. Teams 'n shit.
I found the parking lot next to Koch's A' compound easily enough. As I left my car and walked toward the edge of the boat basin, I saw a homeless old man and his dog asleepin the low bushes edging the public toilet. The old man had pulled a tattered, thin sleeping bag up under his chin; the dog, a Lab mix, rested his broad, black head on the man's stomach. The dog raised his head and looked at me without much interest as I made my way toward the Blue Crab, along a promenade bordering the basin.
I was walking in front of the two-story fish market building that Jack had used as an observation post to collect intel on the Italians in their compound, which was directly across the basin at a distance of 800 meters or so. I was also passing a series of piers on my right, their slips filled with live-aboards. Iron gates, accessed by keypads, barred the pier entrances. Large signs on each gate read, "Dogs Must Be Leashed." This reminded me of the troubles Marlon and the Oldtimer encountered during their midnight surface swim from the A' compound in that first, futile attempt in July '91 to photograph the keel of Il Moro di Venezia. Even my muffled steps elicited a few feeble barks.
I arrived at the Blue Crab Restaurant and entered its bayside bar. Jack was seated at a booth next to a large window that framed the commercial basin and the Bali Ha'i across the way. I saw a nearly empty glass of beer and an empty shot glass before him. He'd covered his blue-and-gold T-shirt with a grease-stained blue sweatshirt. He'd also removed his ball cap to reveal a rat's nest of iron-gray hair and the hint of a bald spot. Cigarette smoke whirled about him, much to the discomfort of the couple seated in the booth behind him. As I slid in opposite Jack, I noticed the woman's face over his shoulder. It reminded me of how Kermit the Frog looked when something was amiss.
"Jesus, Jack, why don't you put that fucking thing out? If you're not worried about killing yourself, think of others. Anyway, there's a law against smoking in public now."
"No shit? I didn't know that," he said through the noxious cloud enveloping me. A waitress with a broad beam and enormous fenders approached to take our order.
Jack said, "More of the same for me, Miss Emerson, and my father here will probably have something like a martini or a Rob Roy. He used to be a Navy officer."
The waitress turned to me with a tired smile, pencil poised over her order pad.
"Bud in a bottle, please."
The waitress moved off, trailing a faint, agreeable scent of lilacs in her wake. I was surprised to see Jack snuff his Camel in the ashtray the waitress had left. "So," he said, "what op do you want to hear about now?"
"Let's go through the best ops chronologically. That means one after another, as they occurred over time."
In a fair imitation of James Cagney as Captain Morton in Mister Roberts, Jack said, "You smart college kid...you smart college kid...you think you're so smart. I know what the fuck chronological means, mister!"
"Good. Now, you've told me Marlon contacted you in July '91 for a job. He had to secretly videotape and measure the keels of racing sloops that would compete for the '92 America's Cup. Although he didn't tell you at the time, you and other Team guys involved with the work figured out that Bill Koch was the recipient of your intel."
"Right. The product Marlon delivered to Koch's representative, a guy named Vince, was a written report containing measurements our divers took and their videotape of the keel and sometimes the rest of the hull and rudder. We used a gizmo Vince gave us — we called it the Genesis Device — to take readings at the surface of the water and again at the bottom of the keel bulb, what we called the bullet. The Genesis Device was some kind of calculator with a digital readout housed in the casing for a dive light."
"But the first two attempts at obtaining any part of the product were clusterfucks, and those took place in July '91."
"Yeah. Marlon tried to photograph Il Moro de Venezia as she was being towed around a mooring buoy on her way to the race course off Point Loma. He was using an open-circuit scuba, and of course, the tow boat crew spotted these huge bubbles erupting alongside the buoy. Marlon, officer and zero that he was, thought the anchor chain would break up the bubbles. Me 'n Raging Bull were in the insertion boat maybe 100 meters from the buoy taking all this in. When we saw the tow boat wasn't going to stop, we picked up Marlon, went to the Bayside Cafe over on Coronado, and decided this shit wasn't getting it. The deal was, no product, no pay."
"So, enter the Draeger."
"Hey, that's not bad. But we didn't get Bruce Lee with the Draeger; we got the baddest underwater warrior in the Teams, Dave Billings. Marlon had been in the Teams with Dave. He offered him $600 for each successful dive on the keels and $300 for each unsuccessful dive. Dave brought his personal Draeger to the table, and with this gear and his skill, things got professional in a hurry. Vince also gave us the Genesis Device and the underwater Sony minicam about that time.
"The Draeger is a scuba that is also a closed-circuit rebreather, like the smelly Pirelli, the Fenzi, the Emerson — except it's a littler harder to kill yourself in the Draeger than in those widowmakers. Your sport scuba is an open-circuit rig that releases bubbles each time the diver exhales, revealing his presence. Rebreathers like the Draeger solve the problem by trapping the diver's exhaled breath in a rubber hose. The hose circulates the air through a small canister filled with a chemical — usually Sodasorb or baralyme — that scrubs the CO2 from the exhaled breath. The exhaled breath is then replenished in rubberized air bags with a metered flow of O2 from a small bottle fixed to the rig. The diver breathes his exhaled air, and the whole deal is repeated.
"The Draeger rides on the diver's chest instead of his back. Besides not releasing bubbles, the Draeger also allows you to stay underwater a lot longer than open-circuit — three hours or more, depending on how hard you work the rig and at what depth. There's other factors like water temp and whether you're a gas hog — like, to ride the bypass valve for bigger shot of O2 than the metered flow."
"How deep can you dive the Draeger?"
"The Draeger's used for ship attacks, harbor penetration and sabotage, so you don't need to dive deeper 'n 30 feet. If you do go below 30 feet for any prolonged time, you risk an O2 hit. Pure oxygen under pressure poisons the body, really fucks you up without warning. You start to convulse and this makes it dangerous for your buddy to help, 'cause you're jerking all over and are gonna grab your buddy in a death grip if you can."
"You ain't shittin'. You gotta have your head and ass wired real tight when you're riding a rebreather. That's why sport divers can't walk in off the street and buy a rig from their local dive shop.
"But Dave Billings was one of the best with rebreathers. He'd designed the Teams' underwater compass course and was an adviser to the Draeger Company, a German outfit.
"Dave joined us Koch commandos a week or so after Marlon's open-circuit fiasco with the goombahs. His first mission was the end of July '91 or maybe first week in August, against the kiwis on Coronado. They had their compound between Peohe's and the Oakwood Apartments.
"We developed a mission profile we pretty much followed for all our ops from August '91 through April '92, when Koch apparently had all the data he needed to thump Gardini for the Cup. We'd first set up surveillance on the syndicate compounds to establish their routine: how they took their boats outta the water; when and how they removed the canvas shroud that hid the keel; how long all these steps took; what kind of security they had. Conner and the kiwis had easy locations to work against, but they had the tightest security. The kiwis were the toughest because they put two divers in the water every time they removed or replaced the shroud."
"Where did you set up your observation post for the kiwis?"
"On the Meridian Hotel pier — between the Oakwood Apartments and the Coronado bridge, about 300 meters south of the kiwi compound, Raging Bull or me would take a folding chair onto the pier and pretend to read a newspaper. From that pier we had a good look north, right into the kiwi dock area where they put in and took out their boats. In fact, you couldn't see into the area from anywhere else, 'cause they had the area concealed on three sides.
"We couldn't see into the compound itself, but we could see those tall masts and the crane that lifted the boats. That's what we keyed on for all syndicates — when those cranes began to swing over to pick up the boats. That's when the timing began, to determine how long Dave had to be on-station and ready to film when the boats reached the water with their keel shrouds removed. Ideally, we'd launch Dave from the insertion boat for his swim to the objective area when the crane began to move."
"So you kept logs on what you observed in the target compound?"
"Sure. We'd note what was going on and when. We also drew diagrams of the dock areas. I probably still have some of those logs. I'll get them to you, together with any other stuff I can find from the missions, like our five paragraph patrol orders. I even think I got some kinda lame contract Marlon wanted us to sign, promising not to tell about our commando raids for Koch.
"Once we got our mission intel, we'd give it to Billings, and he'd plan the op. Bull came up with a good idea on how to insert Dave. We had an 18-foot runabout with a 90-horse Evinrude. Rented it from a Team guy's cousin. We'd scattered gear around to make her look like something Joe Shit the Ragman would use to go fishing with his buddies; pails, fishing rods, a cooler full of beer, half-eaten sandwiches in Ziplocks, torn landing nets and a rusty gaff for the big ones. By the way, we never cracked the beers until the ops was over for the day.
"So, that was our cover for ops. Just a few raggedy-ass buddies out fishin' and knockin' back brewskis. Dave's parachute bag with the Draeger, Genesis Device, and personal dive gear was stored under a beat up tarp.
"To insert Dave, Bull had lashed an eight-foot metal pole to the boats stern ladder. After Dave locked up in some fish related place, like behind a Coronado bridge stanchion, he would ease into the water and hang off the bottom of the pole under the ramp until we reached the insertion point. For the kiwis, if we had a flooding tide, he'd be on the pole until we got near the Coronado ferry landing, well above the kiwi compound, and we'd use binocs to watch the crane. When that hummer cranked up, we'd bang on the pole, and Dave would start his run, helped along by a following ride.
"Dave liked to swim directly under the Harbor Patrol slip at Peohe's pier, where the fuzz
tied up every day for coffee and fat-pills at the Bayside Cafe. Dave just loved to swim right under those lazy fuckers.
"Then he'd dogleg out toward the main channel, return on a heading that took him five meters or so from the opening to the kiwi dock area. At that point he'd just settle down, looking like some ol' rock or turd hill on the bottom of the bay. He'd wait for the kiwi RIB, the inflatable, to tow the sloop out after they'd removed the shroud from the keel."
"Could he see into the dock area?"
Not too good, but he could follow the kiwi divers with their bubble machines while they uncovered the keel. Once they'd freed it, the RIB would tow the sloop right over Dave, and he'd get the video.
"Getting the keel measurements and using the Genesis Device was tougher, and sometimes he couldn't get it all done. He had less than a minute for the work, the time it took to transfer tow from the RIB to a powerboat that hauled the sloop to Point Loma. The lines went slack and the sloop settled during transfer, so that's when Dave hit it.
"Of course, if the kiwi divers had followed the sloop out of the enclosed dock area, they'd have seen Dave move. But they always stayed inside.
"After Dave finished the recon, he'd set a course back to the bridge stanchion where he'd first got on the pole, and we'd extract him. He'd remove his gear quick, stow it under the tarp and we'd take out at the Boy Scout landing.
"Marlon would be waiting for us. He never rode the boat when I was aboard. First thing he'd ask was, "Did you get it? Did you get the film? The measurements?" He'd review the film at home, write up his report, and deliver the product to Vince or one of Vince's gofers."
"Mission sounds simple enough."
"Yeah, but things didn't always go as planned. Admiral Murphy would show up every once in awhile. Sometimes the kiwis wouldn't start the lift like we'd expected. We'd have to wait, and wait, and wait. Now we're near the middle of the bay, with all kinds of boats and Gray Hogs passing us. Poor old Dave is hangin' off his pole, sucking that Draeger down, waiting for us to signal him.
"He only had maybe three hours total on-bag before his gas gave out, so sometimes we'd have to send him before we saw the crane move. He'd have to settle in the mud outside the kiwi dock area and hope for the best. Sometimes they never put the boat in, and Dave would only get $300 instead of $600. You can bet your ass he never left that target area until the last possible minute — which was a little dangerous 'cause he coulda passed out breathing stale air without enough replacement O2. He had a bar gauge to measure the O2, but the fuckers aren't real accurate. Dave played it awful close to the line more than once."
"Admiral Murphy really showed his flag on the first dive against Stars & Stripes." Jack paused as the waitress brought our drinks and we each ordered two dozen raw oysters, clam chowder, and sourdough rolls.
Jack continued, "We set up our observation post on the upper deck of the Convention Center and kept it active for a week. We could look right down into Conner's compound next to the Chart House restaurant and across a small boat basin from the Campbell Shipyard. Whoever had the watch would dress like a tourist and wander back and forth across the deck, checking out the action inside the compound. We'd scribble our notes behind an elevator tower that concealed us from Conner's boys.
"The big road curves around the basin from the Civic Center and Connor's compound past the shipyard and on out to Harbor Drive. This open quay wall runs along the road for 300 meters or so. Water from the basin floods and ebbs with the tide back under the road.
"Dave decided to swim away from the pole when we got to the middle of the main channel and take a straight shot to the quay wall, at a point about 150 meters from Stars & Stripes. Once he got under the road, he could surface and go off-bag while he watched from the shadows for the crane to lift the sloop.
"Just like with the kiwis, we started the intel timeline when the crane began to move. It took ten minutes on average from when the crane first moved till it lowered Stars & Stripes into the water near some small floating docks in front of the compound.
"Once the sloop was in the water, the crew would start dicking around, putting lines out, taking lines in, stowing sail bags and gear. Some of the men would remove the shroud while all this other stuff was going on. Conner didn't have divers in the water.
"Just like the kiwis, though, a RIB would tow Stars & Stripes out of the dock area to a larger powerboat— about a 50-footer — for transit to Point Loma. But their towboat wasn't at the mouth of the dock area. It was way out in the main channel. No chance for Dave to measure the keel during the exchange of tow. So he decided to swim the 150 meters from the quay wall to the floating dock as soon as he saw the crane move. That gave him plenty of time to be on-station and ready under the docks before the crew uncovered the keel. Once the keel was uncovered, he could collect the data no sweat before the RIB took the sloop under tow.
"Only problem was all the shit in the basin — tuna boats by the shipyard's floating dock, Conner's security Zodiacs zipping back and forth, and this huge barge with a 60-foot crane anchored dead-center between Dave and the compound. Sometimes this big tugboat with a monster three-bladed screw would tow the barge from the basin to work down in the South Bay.
"Conner was the most punctual of all the syndicates. The kiwis were the worst, but that was maybe part of their security plan, to make it harder to set up on them. Conner usually put in at 1000 hours or so, which made it easy for Dave to plan his dive.
"First hit on Conner took place a week after the kiwi op. We launched early from the Boy Scout landing, went to breakfast, then pulled under the Coronado bridge at 0930 for Dave to jock up and get on the pole.
"Tide was ebbing, so we idled up from the south at a knot or less to put as little strain on Dave as possible. Basin looked pretty clean for that first op. Only one tuna clipper was alongside the dock. Conner didn't have any Zodiacs in the basin yet, but the barge was anchored between the quay wall and the compound.
"Bull banged on the pole, and Dave swam toward the basin. We dropped the hook not far from Conner's 50-footer and started to fish. After 15 minutes, I sneaked a peek at the quay wall through my binocs and, sure enough, there was Dave, back up among the pilings and cross-members, off-bag, waiting for the crane to move.
"I turned toward the compound and saw the crane swinging over the sloop, which was perched above the compound fence in its cradle. So far, so fucking good, I thought. Dave would now be making his run under the barge to the floating docks.
"I started to lower the binocs, but I saw something that put my nuts in my throat. Here comes that big tug with that huge screw thrashing the water all along the reciprocal of Dave's course. Jesus, I thought, now I'm gonna actually see a Team guy feed the screw.
"But Dave cheated death that time. He later told us he had less than a meter between him and those blades. He was swimming blind through the muck kicked up by the screw. His belly and the Draeger scraped the true bottom of the bay. Tide was out. Couldn't have been more than 15 feet of water in the basin. That shallow basin at low tide came to cause us big fuckin' trouble later on.
"But this time, Dave took super video of the keel and made all the measurements undetected. Marlon was happy as a dog with three peckers."
The waitress had placed our oysters, soup, and rolls on the table. We ordered more beer and were after the oysters with such enthusiasm that the fellow in the neighboring
booth game us a disapproving look over his shoulder.
I told Jack and he said in a voice befitting a SEAL master chief retired at 26. "Hey, Bill! Why don't you suck one of them hangers up through your nose like Demo Dick does."
I declined, but shortly afterward the couple swept past us on the way to the door without so much as a downward glance.
"You say you did Koch once to show he'd hired the best."
"Yeah. Billings hid while she was in her slip. No need for surveillance. Marlon just walked near the compound, scoped things out, and told Dave what he saw.
"Of all the syndicates, the Cubans was the only ones who had completely enclosed their dock area with solid panels — probably because that's what Marlon advised.
"But even with these panels, Dave figured there'd be enough bottom muck to dig under the panels and get inside the slip. Once inside though, he'd have a problem with the shroud because Koch's crew never uncovered the keel until the tow began — probably another counter-measure from Marlon.
"We played the games with the insertion. We put in at the public ramp at Shelter Island headed toward Point Loma where Dave picked up and swam to the point. Then we towed him into the commercial basin in the same mooring boat where Marlon had tried to photograph Il Moro di Venezia, banged on the pole, and off he went for the 100-meter swim to A'.
"We stayed at the buoy for no more than 45 minutes when I saw him glide onto the pole. He signaled he was low on gas, so we took a small chance and hauled him aboard in the lee of a vacant houseboat.
"Dave stowed his gear under the tarp, big grin on his face, reached into the cooler, popped a brew, and told us how he'd done it.
"Said he dug under the panels no sweat, but it was a bitch getting inside the shroud. He checked all around without finding an opening. Shroud covered that keel like a cocoon. Finally Dave found a tear in the canvas that had been hand-sewn shut with small stuff knotted on both ends. He untied the knots, pulled out the small stuff that held the tear together. But even with the tear opened, he still couldn't get inside wearing the Draeger. He took a gulp of gas, shut the mouthpiece to keep water out of the rig, removed the rig, and shoved it through the tear. He followed fast, opened the mouthpiece to go back on-bag, put on the rig, and got to work."
"Must have been tight in there."
"Yeah. No place to be if you were clausty. Dave said the canvas kept billowing up around him, catching on the rig and sometimes knocking him into the hull. Still, he had enough room and light to get the film and measurements.
"Marlon later told us how impressed Koch and Vince were. Wanted to know how Dave had pulled it off. See, before Dave left, he sewed the tear back together. The Cubens thought he musta been Harry fucking Houdini. Marlon said he couldn't tell how Dave had done it. Trade secret."
"Dave's now hit the Italians, Stars & Stripes, the kiwis, and Koch. Who else did he get?"
"Koch didn't care about the Aussies, Swedes, or Spaniards, but we did the Spaniards once just because it was easy. They had their boat in the same basin as Stars & Stripes. We collected data from them during a mission against Conner.
"Koch did have us target the frogs and Japs over at Mission Bay Marina, in Quivira Basin. Security for those syndicates was a joke, but their location presented special problems that nearly did us in.
"Billings would don his gear in a quiet little cove just inside the channel on your portside as you enter from the ocean. Bonita Cove, Quivira Basin is opposite the channel from the cove, and crossing over is a motherfucker. You got heavy traffic moving both ways at seven, eight knots, with us crabbing through it at a knot. Dave hanging off his pole. Then there's the current to deal with, not to mention the Harbor Police staring down our throats from an observation tower at the channel mouth.
"On one mission, this white patrol boat with a blue awning over the bridge bears down on us and I thought for sure we were headed for the slammer. Dave wasn't no more than six, seven feet below the surface. You had to look real close to see him in that puke-green suit he wore over his rubber to blend in with the water. But if you paid close attention, you'd see him.
"Anyways, this patrol boat roars up, and the cops ask why we're moving so slow, say they'll have to tow us in because we're a hazard. I say we had a problem with the throttle linkage, but now it's fine. I open her up a little and hope like hell Dave doesn't get swept off.
"He managed to hang on somehow until we inserted him just inside the basin. The frogs had Ville de Paris in a dock area close to the basin entrance and near the Harbor Police tower. the Japs were several piers away, near the end of the basin. Dave would sometimes get a twinster against the Japs and the frogs. He'd do Ville de Paris first, then work his way under the piers until he reached the Japs. If Nipper was in the water, he did her too and Marlon paid him $1200. Nice morning's work. Dave would link up with us in a bait barge anchored in the middle of the basin. Great fishing around that barge. We'd cross that fucking channel again and take him aboard in Bonita Cove.
"Now we're into November and hitting on all cylinders. Doing two sometimes three ops a day. A great team, great product. Business is good. Then Dave feeds the screw.
"Happened on 9 November 1991, while he was working out on his own. When he wasn't diving for us, on weekends he'd swim underwater courses from Mission Bay to La Jolla. No dive buddy, nobody but him and his Draeger in the open ocean making a three-mile fun run."
"Sounds nice. Quiet, great scenery."
"Yeah. And it would've been really great to pop a few abs along the way, what with the price at 45 bucks a pound. but Dave wasn't like that. He just wanted to hone his skills.
"Dave's wife reported him missing, and the Teams right away started a search. They found his body with the Draeger near Bird Rock. The Union ran front-page stories for a few days. Big questions were, what was he doing alone, how did he die, and why was he wearing a military rebreather? First thing the Teams made sure was the public knew the rig on Dave was his, not theirs. Nothing mentioned in the papers about Dave moonlighting for the Cubens.
"Coroner's report said Dave died of a massive heart attack. Hard to believe, seein' what great shape he was in. Must have been his genes, like Jim Fixx, the runner. Makes me feel better about the smokin', drinkin', and steamin' I been doing all my life.
"Still, you gotta wonder about the strain Dave was putting on the pump with all the diving he was doing. Christ, he'd put in eight hours with the Teams, then dive for Koch, then take on those monster swims between Mission Bay and La Jolla. No matter how much smoke they blow up your ass in training about a man can do anything if he has the will, sometimes the ol' bod just quits. Sure quit on Dave in a real bad place. Long way from 911."
"How did you feel after Dave died? Go to the funeral, memorial service?"
"I felt, you know, real bad. He was such a great guy. But hey! He knew the risks. I felt about him like I felt about our mates got killed in 'Nam. Dead motherfuckers, and that was it. We all wanted to go, wanted to be there. I mean, I felt bad they died but I wasn't thinking, "Oh, this was a wasted life and what a shame." Dave wanted to dive the Draeger, our mates wanted to church the VC. You do things like that, you take your chances. If you get killed, you get killed. Tough shit. I don't know. Death never troubled me much.
"Dave had a private funeral after which I think they deep-sixed him. I was gonna attend the memorial service at the Phib Base chapel — Jesus, we been inside that fuckin' place more times than I wanna remember — but Marlon right away started scramblin' to continue the mission.
"He had Bull 'n Me running around doing things. Bull went to the memorial service, and that was just fine."
"How did Dave's death affect the America's Cup mission?"
"Shut us down for a fuckin' month. Had to cancel a trip to Disneyland I'd planned for the old lady and the kids. No fuckin' money.
"Not long after the memorial service, we began pressing Dave's widow to go through his gear, see what we could salvage, maybe get enough spare parts to build a Draeger.
"She let us go through the house, and, oh, did he have a ton of Draeger parts and kit bags filled with operational gear. If you'd played "The Star Spangled Banner," Dave's house and garage woulda snapped to attention."
"You could say that about the house and garage of more than one Team guy, some of them former commodores, maybe even admirals."
"Yeah, but Dave... he had Draeger shit all through his house, laying out in the open. I don't know if he and his old lady were living like that or if she was just trying to sort through his stuff. There was gear in the bedrooms, in the living room — two, three oxygen bottles, Draeger parts, life jackets, buckets and buckets of Sodasorb.
"I felt spooky going through his gear. And you could tell his wife was feeling real low, watching us rummage around to pull out what we wanted. I think we took the bottles, some parts, a regulator, couple of the Draeger life jackets. We left, and I never saw her again. I think Marlon keeps in touch.
"What we got wasn't enough to build a complete rig. Marlon did finally locate a rebreather, a Fenzi, that he bought from a SEAL company on the East Coast for something like $1500. Guy was a zero who'd got the rig while he was on exchange duty with the French or the German GSG-9 Commandos.
"You could tell by looking at it and hefting the rig that it was junk. Didn't have that substantial appearance and feel of the Draeger.
"And sure enough, the piece of shit almost killed Marlon the first time he checked it out in his swimming pool. Bull was tending him and said Marlon just passed out in five feet of water, rolled on his back, stretched out his arms like Christ on the Cross, and looked up through his mask with a thousand-yard stare.
"Bull thought at first he was joking, but Marlon's not what you'd call a joker. Bull jumped in the pool, hauled Marlon out, tore off the rig and began CPR. Said he was pounding on Marlon's chest, hollering at him to 'Wake up you sonofabitch!' blowing into Marlon's mouth and nose. Said he couldn't remember the CPR sequence. Was it pound the heart once, blow five times or pound the heart five time, blow once? Said he figured Marlon needed O2 more than anything, 'cause his face had turned purple, with his eyes, you know, rolled back in his skull.'
"Bull told me he got scared, 'cause he thought, 'This fucker's dead.' He shouted, 'Don't die, you cocksucker...man, come on! Don't fucking die!'
"Finally, after three, four minutes, Marlon coughs and gurgles. That's when Bull really started jamming air to him. Suddenly Marlon opens his eyes and says in a slurred voice, 'I'm so tired...I have to go to sleep... Oh, I feel so bad. I have to lay down.'
"Bull tells him he can't fucking lay down, that he almost drowned, and he's got to keep talking or he'll die. Bull also douses him with water from the pool until he sits up on his own. After that, Bull calls the Teams, and they come get Marlon, rush him into the recompression chamber at BUDS, where they put him on pure O2, Table 60a, I think. Took Marlon more than a week to recover.
"But he was no sooner outta the chamber than he was on the horn trying to find Draegers and divers. He came up with two Draegers, from where I don't know, but I think they were Agency rigs. Marlon used to work in the CIA's Maritime Ops branch. Had a ton of Company contacts. He never said where the rigs came from but told us to take good care of them because they were loaners.
"Marlon recruited two divers who were former SEALs and I think were in the SEAL Reserve Unit. One guy I'll call Pretty Boy come on active duty, I think, for the Gulf War — returned as one of them four-day wonders. I mean, what the fuck kinda war lasts four days unless it's the Big One!"
I understood where Jack was coming from. He'd served seven six-month, full-combat tours in 'Nam and had little respect for Gulf warriors, despite and perhaps because of the acclaim and parades that had heralded their return. But I doubt Jack resented the lack of parades for our generation of SEAL Vietnam Vets. He liked to say, "We went to 'Nam to kill Cong for our country, not for no fuckin' homecoming parades."
"Why do you call the new guy Pretty Boy, and who was his buddy?"
"Call him Pretty Boy 'cause he was one of those Beach Club SEALs, proud of his body and surfer good looks. I think he posed for those ridiculous SEAL beefcake calendars and appeared as an extra in a few of those ridiculous SEAL movies.
"I'll call the other new guy Bojarski — he was a Polack. The Polack was small and wiry. Quiet, but a hard-core motherfucker. Wasn't in the Gulf.
"We started training Pretty Boy and Bojarski in early December '91, first in Marlon's pool with the Draegers and then on the pole in the bay, making practice runs against boats tied up at the Amphib Base marina, off Highway 75.
“They didn't have no trouble with the Draegers, had trained on them in the Teams. But their navigation was shitty, even though they were using the newer attack board with the bigger compasses.
"An attack board is kinda horseshoe shaped and looks like a swimmer's kick board, except it's got hand-hold slots on both sides. A free-floating compass under a clear bubble is fixed to the middle of the board. You got your very important depth gauge attached above the compass.
"One diver navigates while his buddy rides shotgun, usually holding onto the navigator's biceps and checking things out along the course — looking for enemy frogmen or God's great whites.
"Pretty Boy and the Polack learned to use the Genesis Device and Sony minicam real quick. They were also good at taking keel measurements and recording the data on slates we'd molded to fit their forearms.
"But since they were such shitty navigators, Marlon decided to make Stars & Stripes their first target. He figured there was no way they could miss that 300-meter open quay wall stretching between the Conner compound and the Campbell Shipyard.
"They'd also be swimming their course at low tide, so Marlon told them to hit the floating docks with an L-shaped approach — to avoid the tug's screw that nearly ate Dave. They'd swim north along the quay wall to where it ended at the sea wall bordering the compound. They'd hook a 90-degree turn and just follow the sea wall about 20 meters, until they were under the floating docks alongside the area where the crane would lower Stars & Stripes. Easy day. Hoo-yah!"
"The only easy day was yesterday."
"You got that right, mate, but the op started fine. Bright, sunny December morn. Thursday the 12th. I remember it well, our 'Longest Day.' Admiral Murphy and his whole staff got piped aboard before the goat-fuck finally ended.
"We inserted the divers, and sure enough, they managed to hit the wall not more than a hundred meters south of where they were supposed to go off-bag until the crane moved.
"Bull said we'd be inhaling cool ones before noon. But one thing bothered me right off, and it didn't have nothing to do with the divers. I saw an awful lot of activity in and around the floating docks that I'd never seen before. Through the binocs it looked like people were setting up TV cameras, and I saw a mobile van with a dish on top parked in the Chart House lot.
"I also saw lots of Conner's red security RIBs in the basin, even though Stars & Stripes was still in her cradle. I'd never seen that before. And I'd never seen the Harbor Patrol boat that was moving slowly back and forth across the mouth of the basin.
"I mentioned all this to Bull, and he said, correctly as it turned out, that Conner had probably set up a media event. What an event it turned out to be!
"Bull motioned to me that the crane was swinging out to lift Stars & Stripes. I scanned the quay wall and couldn't locate our divers. Good, I thought, they've gone back on-bag and are headed for the objective area.
"Twenty minutes pass while I'm watching Conner's crew dicking around, putting sail bags and shit in the sloop that has been in the water for several minutes. They've already removed the shroud. Pretty Boy and the Polack oughta be collecting data now.
"Then, holy shit! I see guys running back and forth along the floating dock. One guy falls or jumps into the basin. Another's got a fucking boat hook he keeps jabbing into the water off Stars & Stripes' stern, like he's trying to spear the rudder.
"Cameramen are flingin' tripods outta the way, grabbin' minicams, pointing them toward the stern, where this maniac is still thrusting the boat hook into the water like crazy. I mean, that compound's a fuckin' nuthouse.
"Next I hear whistles, sirens, Christ, I don't know what else. Two RIBs bounce off each other on a high-speed run toward the quay wall. The Harbor patrol beat opens the throttle, and her wake nearly swamps us.
"I see another Harbor Patrol boat roar outta the slip at Peohe's, off to our left. The sirens wailing, bubble lights blazing. Coxswain on the bridge has a donut in his mouth, one hand on the wheel, and the other clutching a coffee cup.
"'Fuck this,' Bull says and fires up the Evinrude. We pass the Harbor Police doing our best to look casual as we aim for Peohe's.
"Without a backward glance, we ease into the slip the Harbor Police have just left. But as we're tying up, here comes one of Conner's security RIBs, balls to the wall, straight at us from across the bay. We finish tying up and are about to step onto the dock when the RIB throttles back, coasts up too fast, and bumps us.
"'Hey! What the fuck you doing', man?' says Raging Bull to the guy driving the RIB, who I recognize right away as Conner's chief of security. Seen him on other ops ordering RIBs around. He's maybe 40, got white hair, real blue eyes, and a sun-blasted face. Looks like an albino villain outta some james Bond movie.
"'Sorry,' the albino says, 'but we're looking for divers who were under Dennis Conner's boat, you know, Stars & Stripes, the sloop he's going to race in the America's Cup.'
"While he's talkin', I can see he's checking out the boat real good, but he ain't seeing anything except fishing stuff. We'd long ago stowed the little dive gear still on the boat in the parachute bag under our tarp.
"Bull tells him we don't know shit about the America's Cup. All we're doing is having a bad-fish day.
"The albino asks us to please let him know if we spot any divers, then waves as he pulls away. Bull waves back and mutters, 'Sure, cockbreath.’
"We settle in on the Bayside's patio and watch the activity across the bay. Bull calls Marlon on the Radio Shack walkie-talkies we use to keep in touch during ops. Bad news, he says, and updates Marlon.
"Within ten minutes, Marlon has joined us, and Pete Peralta's with him. Pete's got his Ziploc open and is munching like crazy on plums and raw carrots. We're all drinking coffee. Marlon's really sweating, drops rolling off his bald head like BBs.
"'They're dead,' he's saying, 'I know they're dead. They'd have been captured by now or we'd see them back up under the road or under the pier at the emergency extraction point.'
"See, we always had an emergency extraction point for each op. For Conner it was a little pier running out from the shipyard, where the workers would sometimes eat their lunch and fish. The pier was across the basin from Conner's compound and behind the tuna clippers. But we could see it from Peohe's through the binoculars."
"'Calm down, Marlon,' Bull says. 'Pretty boy and Bojarski still got 30 minutes or so on-bag. They're probably lying on the bottom of the bay or maybe they've headed for the bridge. Let's just be cool like the Fonz, okay?'
"Marlon mops his head with a cammie snotrag and agrees it's too early to panic. But after three, four hours go by, during which we walk the promenade several times between Peohe's and the bridge, tour the basin in the boat a few times without seeing a trace of our divers, Marlon's developed a thousand-yard stare like he had on the bottom of his pool. I know he's thinking like all of us about Dave Billings and the end of the mission, the end of the money, not to mention two more dead motherfuckers. Marlon's probably also thinking how the hell he's going to explain the loss of the Draegers to the CIA.
"We're sitting in the boat after the last basin check. The sun's drifting down behind Peohe's, and it's getting cold. We all got sweats on with the hoods up. The Harbor patrol and security RIBS are long gone. Marlon starts in again about how he knows Pretty Boy and the Polack are dead, that they've been gone too long. He says he knew Bojarski's wife, that it's time to call her and the police."
"'Hey!' Bull says, 'Bojarski's one tough Polack! Made of frogman steel. He ain't dead; and if he's alive, so's Pretty Boy. We ain't calling nobody. Anyway, if they're dead now, they'll still be dead tomorrow.'
"I was surprised Peralta agreed. That was enough for Marlon. We decided to split up and continue the search, keeping in touch with our walkie-talkies. Pete and Marlon took off, we drove the boat back to the Boy Scout landing, making one final pass around the basin without seeing shit, then started patrolling both sides of the bay in my truck.
"A little after midnight, I'm driving for, like, the tenth time along the road on top of the quay wall between the Conner compound and the shipyard, when Bull grabs my arm and tells me to slow down. And there they are, big as life in my high beams, squatting like two VNs, just outside the main entrance to the shipyards. The Draegers are beside them, looking like baby monsters outta Alien.
"We debriefed back at Marlon's. They said the recon went so good at first that they finished the keel with lots of time to spare. Like a good SEAL, Pretty Boy 'showed initiative,' started looking around for something else to film and measure. He thinks, ‘Hey! What about the rudder? Maybe Conner's been putting fins or something on the rudder.’ So Pretty Boy kicks up to take a look, forgetting that now he's no more than five feet below the surface and coming out from under the hull.
"Next thing he knows, he's got a boat hook in front of his face, and somebody's jumped in the water next to him. He takes a few power kicks and clears himself. Polack's beside him. Just when he thinks everything's cool, Bojarski's turned back toward the docks. He quickly grabs him and motions toward the quay wall. They swim back under the road as far as they can and take off the Draegers. They watch Zodiacs searching for them all afternoon. A couple times the Zodiacs try to penetrate the open wall, but they're blocked by pilings and cross-members.
"Along about 2200, they're getting real cold and decide, fuck it, time to go. First thing they did was go to the emergency extraction point and wait for an hour or so. Then they talk about swimming across the bay to the Boy Scout landing but don't think they got enough gas left. So they just climb up on the shipyard pier and head out the gate. Rent-a-cop sees them says, 'You boys been working on the tuna clipper hulls? Bad hours, but I guess the pay's good.' And that's it until we pick them up."
"Why did Bojarski turn back toward the floating docks?"
"Said he was really pissed off at the jerk who was jabbing at Pretty Boy and the asshole who jumped in the water. He wanted to grab the motherfuckers and pile-drive them headfirst into the bottom of the basin.
"Our divers made CNN, local news at 11, and the papers. Funny thing was, some of the local media distrusted Conner so much that they suggested Dennis probably set the whole thing up to prove his charges that other syndicates were spying on him.
"After that hairy episode, things got better quick. The more Pretty Boy and the Polack worked together, the better they got. We had heavy ops all the way through April '92 without any more serious problems. In fact, we got pretty tight. Sort of like 'Nam, I was sorry to see it end."
While we had been talking and draining our beers, God had been draining the night. Before we knew it, we'd had last call, I'd paid a tab as large as our waitress's fenders, and Jack was shaking my hand in the parking lot.
I asked a final question. "What's your opinion of the America's Cup? I mean, about the actual racing, the competition?"
Jack didn't hesitate. "Big-dick contest for filthy rich grommets." He climbed into the Nissan and drove off.
I strolled somewhat unsteadily along the promenade in front of the fish market toward my car, parked between the Cuben compound and the public toilet. The wind no longer blew down from the L.A. Basin, bringing with it the babyshit brown smog that had ringed American's Finest City during the day. The wind now swept in from the east, off the cooling desert to erase the smog. A Santa Ana. Nature's Ty-D-bol. Tomorrow would be clear enough to see beyond the Coronados.
I passed the homeless old man and his dog. Both were awash in the harsh white glare of security lights flooding the Cuben compound. Bill Koch seemed to care little for the concerns of his fellow scientists toiling among their telescopes atop Mount Palomar.
The old man had shielded his eyes from the glare by pulling his sleeping bag over his head. The dog had stretched his back tight along the old man's body. Dog and master softly snored.
As I approached my car, I noticed movement within the compound. Figures shuffled about, a welder was at work near the dock area. Never too late, I thought, to ensure all would be ready for the arrival of those scientific marvels, those $3.4 million racing sloops.
What would Koch call them?
Peggy of the Flint Hills? Carrie Nation? Attagirl? Heifer? In Cold Blood?
I got in my car for the long drive home, having heard and considered all I could stand for one night about Gentleman Koch, keels, SEAL Commandos, and America's Cup.