Skip Steele and a team of former Air Force Officers made up the first crew to bring large scale Colombian cannabis into the United States. To do so, they connected with a man who would eventually fake his own death and become one of America’s most successful fugitives, Raymond Grady Stansel. At the time, the ganja trade was thrilling. But little did they know that their actions would influence the course of counterculture history. Read Skip’s story about the Cannabis Crew’s first 100,000 pound load of Colombian Gold.
One particular harbor
Like every good pirate, we needed a port. Not your typical harbor but something a bit more particular, off the beaten path, so-to-speak.
In the early 70s that locale was Key West; a true paradise for people on the fringes of accepted society, with a quirky and eclectic mix of people from all walks of life at the literal end of the road.
In those days, all the “heads” used to gather at Mallory Square to smoke a joint and applaud the sunset each evening. A long stretch from the overcrowded tourist trap of today.
When night came to “Key Weird”, you could saunter down to Captain Tony’s Saloon to hear Jimmy Buffett play some six-string music or drink yourself stupid on Duval Street.
However, in early 1974, my crew and I weren’t in Key West for the partying, at least not as a primary objective. We were on a mission to save our biggest load of cannabis to date.
It had only been three months since my brother Will Knox and I first met Captain Raymond Grady Stansel at an expansive, secluded ranch in South Georgia. Since that time our concentration had been on putting together our first collaborative Colombian cannabis gig.
As fate would have it, we would lose sight of Captain Ray a few months down the line. After faking his own death, Captain Ray began a new life for himself as an environmental activist with a beloved charter cruise business. Yet, at this point in my journey, none of this was imaginable.
Captain Ray and his partner, Midge, were the missing puzzle pieces for our rapidly expanding marijuana importation business. Captain Ray had the boats, captains and offloading operation necessary to pull off a gig of our scale. His partner Midge had the trucks and shipping center at his ranch, perfect for distributing thousands of pounds of Cannabis.
Looking back, our first gig together was probably a little over-ambitious; sending two 95′ shrimp trawlers, each capable of carrying 50,000 pounds of reefer.
An expanding international operation
Will and I had been hard at work for almost two years at that point. In that short time we had established our first (and THE First, to the best of my knowledge) Colombian connection for high grade, first generation sativa, or Colombian Gold as it was known, from the north coast of Colombia’s fertile farms.
Colombian Gold had a glow unrivaled by anything else on the market. While many cannabis fans in the North East had been stuck with bits of old, tired herb, Colombian Gold’s golden buds transported the cannabis world into a new era.
The biggest load that we successfully imported prior to that time had been a shrimp trawler loaded with 30,000 pounds of beautiful, tight yellow-hued buds. When I contacted “Gramps”, our Colombian connection, to ask if he could put together 100,000 pounds of reefer he initially laughed at my request. Then he realized that we were serious.
The gig required mini-ships that could be trusted in any weather to safely transport our valuable commodity to the designated off-load spot back in the States. The fact that the boats were shrimpers provided another form of disguise for our boys as they headed back North from Colombia and into the treacherous waters of the United States Coast Guard.
Captain Ray chose two of his most dependable trawlers for the job: “Bay Prince” captained by experienced Captain “Red” and “Great Pretender” captained by the salty “Rene”. Both boats were 95′ feet of steel with cargo holds that were over two stories high. The cavernous space in the trawlers was literally big enough to hide most houses within them.
The shrimper’s only weakness was that they were each driven by a single screw diesel engine, leaving them vulnerable to being stranded in the event of a breakdown.
For this gig, we figured that at least they would be traveling in tandem in the event of any mechanical problems. We had already been through an issue with a single engine boat breaking down with a full load of reefer onboard, and we did not want to play that game again.
The shrimpers left out of Port Aransas, Texas on a dreary, cold February day in 1974. They beat against rough weather all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula before finally finding some calm seas.
Unfortunately, the tranquility was not to last, as the prevailing winds of the Caribbean hit them square in the face as they made their way towards Playa Cinto on the North Coast of Colombia.
The perfect loading spot
After nearly 10 days on the water, both trawlers were relieved to find some rest in the expansive, protective bay that our connection “Gramps” had planned for the loading. The bay would be a perfect loading spot for such a mountain of marijuana, the largest ever to be exported out of Colombia at that time.
Thankfully, the entire area was under his control, a welcome relief for the water-logged captains and their crews.
My partners, Will Knox and Eric Spatz, took additional guys with them to assist with the loading of the cannabis onto our boats. The entire process took almost twenty-four hours from start to finish. This included getting the marijuana-laden trucks out of the mountains, down to the loading area and into the holds of the awaiting trawlers.
It was a massive endeavor, coordinated in harmony between roughly 50 of Gramps’ men and roughly a dozen of our team on the ground and on the trawlers. All of this took place on washed-out mountain roads with the occasional, gut-wrenching military checkpoint.
The success of the mission on the ground in Colombia hinged on military-like precision in both planning and execution. Luckily for all of us, my two partners, Will Knox and Eric Spatz, spearheaded the operation.
Will and Eric were roommates at the Air Force Academy where they set records being at the head of the class in academics while the bottom of the class for disciplinary actions. Both men were brilliant, disillusioned Air Force Academy Officers, tempered and tested by their experiences in Vietnam on behalf of the good old US of A.
During the course of the loading, lady luck rode with us at every turn. The trucks arrived on-time, Gramps’ men got the herb aboard without a hitch and the boats finally cleared the bay heading north with over 1000 gunny sack bags of reefer in each of their respective holds.
As they crept out of the bay into the Caribbean Sea to the north, both trawlers were lying very low in the water, heavily laden to the brim with gorgeous, fresh Colombian Gold. Once the boats were loaded, our job was technically complete. It was now up to Captain Ray to stay in communication with the boats and to prepare for the unloading, trucking and distribution of the reefer to Atlanta, Chicago, New York and points beyond.
Captain Ray stayed in touch with the boats every evening via Single Side Band Radio, using obscure communication methods to protect our privacy. Everything was in place, or so we thought…
Key West is for smugglers
A few days after the two boats were heading north out of the bay at Playa Cinto, the crew was enjoying the wild west of Key West.
In those days, at the foot of Duval Street in Key West, there was a small marina and refueling dock for boats on the north side of the Island. Today, the small cut still exists to the west side of the Pier House Resort, but to the best of my knowledge, it is no longer a marina.
Coming back from a full day of fishing and diving in the Marquesas, we approached that cut with the tide running full against us and the entrance of the channel small and very tricky for an 80-foot boat to navigate.
Luckily for us, it was a good thing that Captain Ray was on board because Will or I would have had challenges not putting the Lady on the seawall or worse.
Ray was a legend behind the wheel of any seafaring vessel and he brought the big steel beast of a boat into the harbor with an expertise that astounded both of us. Ray spun the giant steel behemoth into the small area and backed her down into a tight slip as we secured the lines to the pilings and the seawall.
Once secure, it was showers and a good dose of Colombian Gold before a night of debauchery in Key Weird.
A cold front crept across the island while I slept in late the next morning. Waking up, the wind was out of the north at twenty knots and the seas were very rough off of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. To say the least, it was a good day to be in port. When I came up to the dining area, Ray and Will were drinking what had to be their third cup of coffee. I could tell by vibration in the room that something was amiss.
“What’s up guys?” I asked thru the fog of the previous night’s excesses.
“We have a problem…” Will answered.
“Ray spoke with the boats late last night on single side-band while you guys were out getting drunk and Bay Prince has broken down. She’s now being towed by Great Pretender.”, Will continued.
“Shit…” was the only reply that came to my foggy mind as I considered the repercussions.
“Yea, and Rene can’t tow him all the way to the unloading spot because it’s simply too far and too much of a strain on the shrimper with such a heavy load. The last thing we want is them both broken down and stranded…” Ray added.
“Beyond that, with this cold front, the seas are building and that is not good for either of them if they get spotted by the Coast Guard who will surely check them out and offer assistance.” Ray continued.
“That would be lethal…”, Will followed up.
“Damn it….this is why I hate single engine boats!” I responded emphatically.
“Only one thing to do now.” Ray interjected.
“And, what would that be, Cap’n?” Will asked.
“I asked Red to get me a list of what he needs to fix the engine and we will pick up the parts. Problem is that we will personally have to go meet the boats to get them the parts necessary to complete the journey.”, Ray explained.
“Bull shit man,” Will interrupted. “That puts us way too close to a major load of herb in U.S. Waters.”
“We don’t have a choice, that’s what we have to do guys. There are no other boats in our fleet that can get to these guys with the supplies on time. It is roll the dice, or risk the biggest load of bud the east coast has ever seen.” Captain Ray encouraged with that familiar pirate smile.
On the positive side, Captain Red’s crew included a master mechanic and once the parts were in his hands, he could get the trawler steaming north again within hours.
The day was long as we waited for the call from Captain Red. It didn’t come until late in the evening, giving us some nervous hours until we heard the crackling response over the SSB radio. Captain Ray was on the radio longer than normal as he gathered the list of needed parts for the big Caterpillar Diesel.
With the dawn, came the realization that we needed to get these parts as fast as possible and start trucking towards the delivery point. Luckily for us, there was a Caterpillar Diesel dealer that provided parts for the shrimp boats on Stock Island, just east of Key West Island.
We collected all of the necessary parts on the list along with the tools requested by Captain Red and Captain Ray tried to hail the ships again.
“Miss Laura to the vessel Supersnapper.” Ray spoke into the mic.
With the boats closer and closer to us, the response came clear as a bell and immediately. “This is the vessel Supersnapper, go ahead captain.” Red spoke.
“We have all of the parts and the tools you requested, Captain.” Ray stated.
“How’re you going to get the parts out to us?” Red questioned.
“Lucky for you, I am in Key West on a vessel that will be able to deliver them asap.” Ray answered.
“Perfect.” was Red’s reply.
“Meet us ten miles north of Rebecca Shoals by tomorrow?” Ray questioned.
Rebecca Shoals lies 6.2 miles west of the Marquesas Keys and 31 miles east of Dry Tortugas. The treacherous, shallow reef and lighthouse were well known navigational hazards for any seasoned Caribbean Smuggler.
“Hold…over…” Red answered.
The minutes seemed like an hour as we awaited the next transmission from Red on “Bay Prince”. He finally came back on the radio.
“I have calculated it and we can be on that spot by midday tomorrow, will that work for you?” Red asked.
“Roger that captain, will be at our meeting spot at noon.” Ray replied.
“See you then, and oh, by the way, could you bring me a bottle of scotch?” Red queried.
“Consider it my pleasure, see you tomorrow, over and out!” Ray answered.
A close encounter
We decided to get an early start, as the wind was still howling out of the North and the seas were very rough. As we made our way out of the harbor, we looked to our right and saw the Key West U.S. Coast Guard Station.
“The weather is so bad, hopefully, those guys stay in port today.” Ray related to all of us as he pushed the throttles forward and the diesel engines came to life.
“Miss Laura to vessel Supersnapper.” Ray keyed the mic.
“Supersnapper here.” It was Rene answering and not Red as expected.
“We are underway to rendezvous midday.” Ray spoke.
“Roger that, looking forward to seeing you.” Rene onboard Great Pretender replied.
“That was Rene, not Red, I guess we’ll be meeting Great Pretender and that Bay Prince is gonna stay further offshore for a little added safety.” Ray told us.
We pushed on into a solid six-foot sea that had us making about ten knots toward our position North of Rebecca Shoal. We were all sitting there in the wheelhouse making our way towards the rendezvous when I spotted a vessel coming straight at us.
“She looks big and is moving fast.” Ray interjected, motioning for me to have a look…
I picked up the binoculars sitting just above the wheel, and focused toward the vessel approaching us.
“Yea, and she has a big red stripe across her bow.”, I informed everyone as my stomach turned to knots realizing that the boat in my view was a Coast Guard cutter.
We were still at least 25 miles from our destination and it was obvious that the vessel had turned towards us.
“She’s coming this way.” Will proclaimed.
“Yea, I got her.” Ray acknowledged, as he continued on our course without any adjustments.
“They are going to have a look at us and either board us or just proceed onward to Key West.” Ray said.
The tension in the wheel house was palpable.
“I bet they’ve been out all night and are heading back in…just going to be the luck of draw whether or not they decide to stop us.” Ray further informed us.
“Will, get Jean up here and go out on deck with her, if they see a girl they may not take the time to play around with us.” Captain Ray told Will.
My Sister, Jean, and Will went out on deck so that the “Coasties” could see them, the thought being that maybe they would think us just a family on an outing, as opposed to what we really were: a bunch of smugglers about to meet their fully laden reefer boat.
We all held our collective breath and turned on our VHF radio in case they decided to hail us on the radio waves. That would be a precursor if they were going to stop us and board us for some type of “inspection”. They came close enough to see all of us and we all waved to them with big smiles.
The water-logged crew must have been ready to get out of the shitty weather and back to port because they simply waved back at us and continued on their course towards Key West without breaking speed.
Ray and I looked at each other as “Lady Luck” smiled on us both.
A risky meet & greet
With adrenaline pumping from that close encounter, we all huddled together in the wheelhouse as we made our way towards the rendezvous. The seas were running four to six feet as we beat into the wind and waves. My eyes were glued to the radar screen as we continued the journey.
“I have something about ten miles out.” I relayed to Captain Ray.
“Keep your eye on it.” He responded.
“Whatever it is, I have a strong signal and it is moving in our direction.” I continued.
We continued on course as the object in the radar screen moved closer to us.
“She is about five out.” I announced.
Will grabbed the binoculars and scanned the horizon.
“She is a shrimp boat.” Will relayed.
We watched as the boat in the distance came into view as the Lazy Lady charged closer by the minute.
The shrimper was huge and was lying so low in the water that she had almost no freeboard. It was immediately obvious that she was carrying a tremendous load. We watched closely as we approached her and could see the name on the bow; “Great Pretender”.
“Get the Whaler in the water.” Ray ordered as soon as the identity of the vessel was confirmed.
I ran to the back upper deck and began the preparations to drop the 17′ Boston Whaler into the water as Captain Ray brought the Lazy Lady to a dead stop in the water with bow to the sea. Great Pretender was just off of our port side about 50 meters away. She looked even larger and more imposing than I had remembered.
The captain had dropped the “flopper-stoppers” as stabilizers and she was lying very still, even in these rough seas. Will assisted Captain Ray and I as we dropped the Whaler into the water on the lee side of the boat.
As we held the Whaler just off the side of our massive steel hull, Captain Ray jumped in and started the outboard engine.
“I’ll be right back, keep the engines running,” Ray shouted as he hit the throttle and circled away in the skiff.
We watched as he closed the short distance between the two boats, and came up to the shrimper, Captain Rene was visible coming out of the wheelhouse, snapping orders at the crew to help Captain Ray with the transition of supplies in rough weather.
Our job was pretty much complete. We had gotten the fresh supply of parts and tools to the stranded shrimpers, but the mission was far from over.
After a short trip to the Great Pretender, Captain Ray could be seen pulling away from the shrimper. As he got closer to us, I could see he had a new bag in hand.
Securing the whaler and stepping back on board, Captain Ray lit up with a huge smile.
“Got you a treat Skip.” Ray remarked, smiling as he passed the small canvas bag over my way.
As I opened the top of the small bag, gorgeous Colombian Gold buds poured out with the smell of the fresh herb overpowering the driving wind and rain.
“Nothing better than a bit of the Green Angel for a cruise south, huh Cap’n?” I queried Ray as I closed the bag and moved toward the wheelhouse for the return trip to Key West.
With the parts and tools delivered, our shrimpers could move to the north, linking up with Ray’s off-load crew on a secluded stretch of the Gulf Coast. To the South lie worlds of adventure in the Caribbean for our team of adrenaline-addicted ganjapreneurs. But that’s another story for another time.
Did you enjoy this story? This article is part of a collaborative series between Ganja Outpost and HERB. Tune in next month for the next installment. Let us know what you think!
See the first story on Herb.co.
See the complete story of Captain Raymond Grady Stansel in “Outside” magazine.
I remember hearing this story from Ray. Key West was where we met and the beginning of over forty years of adventures. Those were some times.