Skip Steele’s first real interaction with smuggling cannabis gigs was during an offload from his buddies share in an early Jamaica gig.
In this episode, Skip recounts the surprise he received during his first offload, and how it helped him make quick inroads to the entire marijuana smuggling industry of the early 1970’s…
The education of a Pothead
Mathematics was never my strong suit. Even though my father was a mathematics professor, in Physics and Calculus, I had challenges getting excited or even focusing on the extended variable equations that were required for advanced mathematics processes.
Soon after my graduation from High School, I had saved enough money to go see my older sister and her husband, Sue and Will. They were living overseas just outside of London, where Will was stationed in the U.S. Air Force. Will had just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, he returned a decorated pilot. He had flown numerous missions and was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “Professional Competence, Aerial Skill and Devotion to Duty”. As active military service personnel, Will and Sue lived in base housing on a base outside of London, known as RAF, Upper Heyford. As a bit of a rite of passage, I took action to ensure that I made the trip to Europe. It was an extremely blessed time to be a young American in the world. Backpacking young people were traveling all over the world and the hostels on the European continent led me from my home base , just north of Oxford to all over the European continent, from Paris to Madrid to Morocco back to Switzerland and eventually over to Munich. (But that’s another story)
By the time I returned to the states, it was time to start thinking about what I was going do with this life. Fortunately, I drew a really high number in the draft for Vietnam and was spared from the war. While I watched a handful of good friends trod off to war never to return the same, or even at all, I was blessed with the opportunity to either start a career, most likely in the marine industry, or to go to college.
I had worked my entire young life through High School as an apprentice to one of my hometown’s most respected yacht builders and with that experience under my belt, I decided that I should maybe go try my hand at college studies. I guess I figured that I could always return to the marine industry and start work there if I needed to once I had my college degree.
I started classes and had a couple challenging subjects to study for, including advanced Algebra, which was continuing to give me challenges. I clearly recall a very cool evening in late fall as a mid-semester comprehensive exam approached. I decided that if I was going to go after a college degree, that I had to give 100% of myself in order to be the best that I possibly could. Unfortunately, being eighteen in 1970 wasn’t the most conducive environment to buckling down and studying for a degree.
I can clearly remember thinking, Why am I doing this? When will I ever need to do this equation to make a difference in my life? I was conflicted. I didn’t know what I was going to do. All I knew was that on this night I had to get some studying finished in front of this exam or I was going to fail my mid-term.
So many roads to walk
My house was typical of the southern beach town where my family lived. The home was one story, with an open living and family room that looked out onto the bay. Behind the house, my small boat swayed gently with the rise and fall of the tides, while the family cat scampered about waiting for the stray fish to be thrown her way.
My parents lived on the opposite side of the house, while my younger sister Tallulah and I shared the south end. On this particular night, I heard chatter from the other room as my sister and her boyfriend quietly argued about something. I tried in vain not to allow the chatter to break my concentration on my studies. As I looked back down at the foreign language that was my algebra studies, I tried to focus back in to the task at hand.
Just then, my sister and her boyfriend RJ, burst through my door with big smiles on their faces. It was easy to tell that something mischievous was going down from the expression that they both flashed in my direction.
“Hey, what you doing?”, RJ asked as I took my concentration away yet again from my studies.
“I’m studying man, got a mid-term on Friday. Sorry man, I’m busy.” I told RJ as the smile melted from his face and morphed into a frustrated frown.
“That’s too bad, I thought maybe you would want to make a few dollars tonight.” RJ responded, brightly reviving the smile that had so quickly faded from his face.
RJ was quite a character. He was a fun guy, but very intense, I was intimidated by him, as he was what I considered a little bit on the crazy side. He was older than me and he owned a nightclub on the beach known as the White Rabbit. I knew that somehow he was involved in the local “Pot” business as he always had a lot of really good reefer on-hand. His comment more than peaked my interest as I quickly disregarded any commitment that I made to myself to get my studying finished.
“Why, what do you have in mind?” I queried as I tried to figure out what could possibly be going on that RJ would need my help.
RJ responded with what was to be opportunity knocking at my door. “I got a fresh load of Jamaican pot coming in tonight, but don’t have anyone to help me off load my share from the boats, if you can help, I’ll pay you and give you a good amount of pot for yourself.” RJ told me with a grin.
At this point, hesitation was out the window. I was sitting inside studying for what seemed like the most useless subject of all time. At my door, opportunity was knocking, both literally and figuratively. I decided it was time to get up and go for it. There was no reason to wait for another minute. Here was an offer for the adventure and excitement that I was looking for, even if only for a night’s work.
I didn’t know it at the time but my response to RJ’s offer would be a critical junction in my life. Had I refused RJ’s offer to help with the load that night and continued studying it is very likely that my life and the lives of many others would have turned out completely different.
“Ok, I’m in, I’ll go help you out.” I told RJ.
“Perfect! Just meet me out front in like five minutes.”he said.
“Ok, one thing,” I asked in curiosity. “Where are we headed man?”
“Oh” RJ responded. “We’re heading down to the bridge to wait for a boat. We’ll meet them on the causeway, on the south side of the span”
“If we are going to be waiting for long, we may want to take fishing poles with us so it looks like we are there fishing and not just sitting around.” I mentioned to RJ.
“Good idea kid!” RJ sniped back. “Grab some fishing poles and meet me out front.”
Taking the leap…
With that, it was off into the unknown. I was a bit tentative at first but decided that it was time to go forth and let events unfold. I grabbed a pea coat out of my closet and grabbed my fishing boots and poles in the event that I would have to do some wading in the water.
Once inside the van with RJ, my heart started pounding. RJ began by telling me that I shouldn’t try and speak to any of the guys on the boat because anonymity was well respected among the group of guys he was working with. He told me that the guys on the off load boat would have just come from an offshore mother-ship that was loaded with ganja, and that it was likely that the guys would have ski masks, over their faces to help conceal their identities.
In response, I told RJ that that scenario was fine with me as I only intended to help him this one time.
As we approached the area to meet the boat, fear began to creep into my conscious mind.
“What am I doing?” I thought as we got closer.
I pondered all the possible outcomes of this situation, including those that were not so nice to have floating around in your mind.
Finally, the van came to a stop and RJ turned to tell me that this is where we would be waiting for the boat. I jumped out of the van and went to the back to get the fishing poles. In retrospect it is a good thing I took the fishing poles, because in the end we waited for the boat for almost two hours.
Then suddenly, on the distant horizon, I made out what looked like a spotlight beaming on and off in sporadic patterns.
“Hey, There’s a light shining over there, you think that’s them?” I asked.
“Yeah, probably,” RJ said as he handed me a light.
“Shine that light towards where you saw the boat. Let’s get them over here quickly.”
As the boat approached and got closer, I must admit that I was scared as shit. Having grown up around boats my whole life, I recognized the boat that approached us as a mullet boat. Friends of mine had used these boats my entire childhood to catch loads of mullet using a “gill net”. Gill nets were used to surround large schools of mullet fish and in a single netting could bring in thousands of pounds of mullet, for the fishermen.
As the boat got closer, I made out the silhouette of two guys on the boat. One on the bow area and one back towards the stern. Normally the stern of a gill netting boat would have a flat area where the net could be put out easily. On this night, I noticed that the stern of the boat was now loaded down and covered with a canvas to protect whatever the contents were on the stern of the boat.
A familiar face
As the boat approached the shore, I remembered what RJ had told me and made it a point not to look directly at the guys on the boat. As the small craft got closer and I began to ready myself for the lines that the guy on the bow was about to throw to me, I heard a familiar voice.
“Skip?!? What the fuck are you doing here??” the mystery man exclaimed from the bow of the boat.
I looked up to the boat and instantly recognized the two guys aboard as two of my brothers from the beach, Tom and Gerry Wood. I had no idea that either of them were involved in the reefer business. We used the ropes from the boat to turn the boat around, placing the stern of the boat to the shore, closest to the back of the van. Tom and Gerry jumped off the boat and came over to me before even acknowledging RJ. I looked over to where RJ was standing and he had a look of total disbelief as I began to chat with my friends.
I jumped into the boat with Gerry as he was uncovering the gunny-sack bales of fresh ganja that were beneath the canvas. Instantly, the first thing that was noticeable was the smell of the fresh buds. It was over-powering, and as I picked up the first fifty pound bale to throw to RJ, some of the sticky bud got on my fingers. It was a pothead’s absolute biggest dream. More ganja than you could even think to smoke and all of it here in my hands.
Working quickly, the four of us loaded forty gunny-sack bags of sweet, fresh, Jamaican ganja into the back of the van. With the unloading complete, we hurried to get out of there before anyone saw anything suspicious.
Before leaving the scene, Tom yelled to me. “Skip give me a call. I can’t believe you were here. Good to see you man.”
“Will do Tom…Safe travels” I shouted back to him as I jumped into the van and headed off into the night.
Back inside the van, RJ was visibly perturbed. As he sped away with me in the passenger seat the fear in the air began to be a bit unbearable. At first, both of us were silent as we dealt with our own internal feelings that were resonating from the load of ganja filling the back of the van.
Finally, RJ broke the uncomfortable silence.
“What the fuck?” RJ asked, “How did you know those guys?”
His temper was now a bit visible at how I could know his “connection”..
I explained that they were guys from around the beach, that I had gone to High School with Gerry and that I knew his brother Tom from hanging with the group of local surfers and fisherman. After that, RJ didn’t say much for the remainder of the trip. We arrived back at my house just after midnight that evening. As I jumped out of the van and ran around to say my goodbyes for the evening to RJ, he handed me ten fresh one hundred dollar bills and grabbed a handful of fresh Jamaican Ganja. Getting a big handful of fresh ganja helped me forgot about everything else and realized that I had made it back home safely.
I snuck into my house through the garage, and stashed my new supply of sweet Jamaican weed safely away in my favorite hiding spot before venturing around to the front.
Walking in my front door, my Dad greeted me. “Hey son, where have you been?” he asked.
“Oh Dad, hey what’s going on? I was out with RJ. I left after I finished my studying.” I told him with a grin.
“Ok Buddy” my Dad responded. “ As long as you finished your studies, sleep well pal.”
As I lay in my bed, trying to find some sleep, I was thankful to have made it through the process safely, and the rush of it all made me seem very alive. I was excited by the fact that my friends were the ones that met us at the offload, I had no idea what was to come.
Little did I know that the winds of change were beginning to blow.