Thomas Calabrese — The sun broke through the last remaining remnants of the low hanging morning coastal fog and Navy veteran, Lee ‘Guns’ Gunnison felt the warmth of sunlight on the back of his neck as he worked on the boat’s throttle mechanism. He knew from years of being near or on the water that it was going to be a warm sunny day in Oceanside, California in less than two hours.
The marina had a combination of fishing and pleasure boats with a few multi-million yachts docked in the private area. After finishing his work, Lee sat down and looked over at one of the mega-yachts as a helicopter landed on its helipad.
Lou Pultaski was a short stocky muscular man in his early seventies. He was a lifelong sailor, having worked on freighters, tankers and cruise ships after returning from the Vietnam War where he served as a gunner’s mate on a swift boat in the Mekong Delta. “You’re getting paid to do a job, not sit on your butt!”
Lee didn’t turn around, but calmly replied, “I recognize that sweet voice. Is that Mister Morning Sunshine? Remember that I work by the job, not by the hour so I’ll sit down when I feel like it.”
“Did you finish putting in that oil pump and filter?”
Lee smiled, “What do you think? I also repaired the manifold, it was leaking and you were losing ten percent of your power, I also found that your throttle was sticking so I made a few adjustments, it should run smoother now.”
“How much are you going to charge me for this extra work?” Lou asked.
“We agreed on a hundred dollars for the pump and filter, nothing’s changed,” Lee sighed, “Next time you catch some fish, save me some.”
“You are one strange fellow,” Lou commented, “You charge one-fifth of what every other boat mechanic does and then you do extra work. That is no way to run a business.”
“It’s the way I do it, I work for who I want, when I want and charge what I want. If you don’t like it, then don’t hire me,” Lee suggested.
Lou walked over to a small refrigerator and pulled out two beers and offered one to Lee who responded, “It’s early in the day for me.”
“If you won’t accept more money, the least I can do is cook you breakfast,” Lou offered.
While sitting across from each other in the small galley and eating omelets, “You’re a pretty good cook,” Lee said.
“When you’ve been alone as long as me, you have two choices, either get good at cooking or develop a preference for take-out, canned goods and pre-packaged meals.”
“You made the right choice,” Lee took a large bite of his breakfast and followed it with a long swallow of cranberry juice.
“How’s the salvage tug plan of yours coming along?” Lou inquired.
“At the rate you’re going, you’ll be my age before you get one,” Lou said.
“Everybody needs an impossible dream.”
“Mine have two legs, blue eyes and blond air,” Lou grinned, “Let me run something across your bow; tell me what you think.”
“How about if I became your partner?” Lou asked.
“Why would you want to do something crazy like that? You got a pretty good gig with diving and fishing trips,” Lee said.
“Yeah, it’s alright, but I’m bored. I’m basically just a tour guide who takes people to the best fishing and diving spots then brings them back again. I need a change. ”
“Good tugs don’t come cheap and I’m not even close to having half the money I need for the one I want.” Lee volunteered.
“After you mentioned it last time, I made a phone call to a couple banks that specialize in nautical loans. I told them to give me a call if they hear about any repos on tugs.” Lou slipped a manila folder across the table, “They sent me this.”
Lee opened it and began reading aloud, “110 feet, twin V-16 2500 horsepower diesels, two Yannar 5KDL auxiliary generators, fuel capacity 15,000 gallons and accommodations for 9 crew members in three single and three double cabins, Hercules 33 ton deck crane, fire- fighting equipment and spacious galley and mess area. What does something like this cost, a million, a million two?”
“Not even close,” Lou responded.
“More?” Lee asked.
“Seven hundred thousand, it has some mechanical and electrical issues, but my friend says that it’s nothing a good mechanic can’t fix and you’re the best mechanic I know.”
“Sounds like a great deal, but I don’t have 700 grand,” Lee sighed.
“I do,” Lou said without hesitation.
“It’s not much of a partnership if it’s all your money,” Lee questioned.
“I’ve given this considerable thought so you just sit there and eat your breakfast and I’ll go through it point by point. This is a 50-50 partnership with my money and your skills and hard work. You can buy me out anytime you want. You can do it in installments or all at one time with no interest. I can help you and or be a silent partner. You’ll be the captain and I’ll just be part of the crew. Any way that you want to do it is fine with me.”
Lee was so moved by Lou’s offer that he didn’t know what to say except, “Why?”
“There are not many men in this world that I truly respect. Actually I can count them on two fingers and you’re one of them. As for the money, I don’t have any family to leave it to and if I die the government is going to get it. I would rather you use it than let some politicians waste it. Let’s be clear, this is not a gift, it’s a safer investment than the stock market. I know that you won’t cheat me and we might even make a profit, so what’s the risk?”
“I never realized that you were such an optimist,” Lee smiled.
“I’m not, I’m a coldhearted realist,” Lou countered.
Lee and Lou were driving north from Oceanside to San Pedro, California to where the Port of Los Angeles was located. It was 4AM and pitch black except for a few isolated lights in the distance as they drove north on Interstate Five through the wide open space between Camp Pendleton and San Clemente, California. Lou was behind the wheel of his Toyota Tundra truck and Lee was in the passenger seat, staring out into the nothingness. “Other being a hell of a mechanic, I don’t know that much about you.” Lou casually commented.
“Is this like our first date where we make small talk on our way to the Waffle House?” Lee joked.
“Forget it then,” Lou responded with mock anger.
“I graduated from the Naval Academy with a degree in mechanical engineering. I was assigned to an ocean tug in Sasebo, Japan. We had an equipment malfunction with an aging underwater crane that should have been replaced years earlier while we were on a salvage operation. Two of the crew were injured and there was a lot of damage to our tug and the other ship. An investigation followed and you know the old rule in the Navy.”
“Everything that happens on a ship is the captain’s responsibility,” Lou responded.
“The commander was getting close to retirement and since I was new, I figured I had more options so I told the investigators that I overlooked normal safety protocol and it was my fault. The commander still lost his ship, but was allowed to finish his career behind a desk.
With that in my service record book, I was never going to get my own ship so after I was demoted from a lieutenant to ensign I put in a transfer to the SEALS. I was with them for five years until I got wounded on a mission off the coast of Somalia,” Lee pulled his shirt down just low enough to expose a nine inch jagged scar across his upper chest. It broke my collarbone, and I lost twenty per cent in range of motion of my left arm. Not enough to affect my normal activities, but definitely enough to end my career in my special ops.”
“Sorry?” Lou said.
“What for, you’re not the one who shot me, I killed the pirate who did?”
“I’m sorry that you lost two careers then,” Lou responded.
“Don’t be, better men than I have lost a hell of a lot more,” Lee couldn’t help, but flash back to his days in combat.
The two drove in silence for the next 75 miles.
The tugboat Salvage Prince was docked at Pier 14. Lee and Lou spent the entire day inspecting the vessel from bow to stern. Lee put on his scuba diving equipment and went into the water to examine the hull. He used a powerful underwater light to look for any cracks or significant damage. They didn’t start back for Oceanside until 8:30PM that night.
“What do you think?” Lou asked.
“I think it’s a good deal,” Lee replied, “Good deal or not, I wish you would reconsider.”
“I know people from Ensenada to Newport Beach. There will no shortage of work once we get the Salvage Prince down to Oceanside,” Lou added, “If you’re so worried about my investment then make a lot of money and buy me out.”
“When you put it that way then let do this deal,” Lee smiled.
Lee and Lou arrived at Oceanside Harbor at 10:30PM and stopped off at Jimmy’s Sport Bar and Grill to celebrate. Lee said, “One beer and I’m outa’ here.”
“You’ve got to be hungry, we’ve haven’t eaten anything since lunch,” Lou reminded his friend.
“If I eat now then I’m going to have stay up a few hours to digest it. I’d rather go to bed on an empty stomach than a full one,” Lee said.
Jimmy walked over, “Don’t usually see you in here this late.”
“Just got back from San Pedro,” Lee replied.
“I’m going to have a tri-tip sandwich with sweet potato fries and a slice of banana cream pie,” Lou reached.
“Seriously,” Lee interjected.
“At your age, you better watch what you eat and when you eat it,” Lee warned.
“At my age!” Lou protested, “I’m still in my prime!”
“If we’re going to be partners then I expect you to take care of yourself.”
Jimmy returned with a business card and handed it to Lee, “This guy came in twice today looking for you. He said it’s important so I gave him your number.”
Lee pulled out his phone and saw that the battery was dead, “I’ll call him in the morning.”
“Jimmy responded, “He said call him anytime, no matter how late.”
“Let me borrow your phone,” Lee asked.
Lou handed his phone to Lee, who dialed a number, “Lee Gunnison calling.” After listening for a couple of minutes, “I’m on my way.”
Lee got up, “Where you going?” Lou asked.
“A guy has got a problem with his boat. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“I’ll call the bank and tell them we’ll take the Salvage Prince,” Lou promised.
When Lee reached a section of the harbor parking lot, there were a dozen offshore racing teams in the area. Crews were lounging among the motor homes, trailers and equipment. Lee walked among them until he found the Miss Malibu team and asked a man, “I’m looking for Joe Higgins,”
“Hey Joe!” The man called out.
Joe Higgins walked out of his motor home. He was in his late fifties, salt and pepper hair a slightly weathered face and was a billionaire and the majority owner of the racing team.
“You’ve been trying to reach me?” Lee asked.
“If you’re Gunnison,” Joe Higgins replied.
“What can I do for you?”
“C’mon on in, we’ll talk,” Joe offered.
“I’ve been up 20 hours and I’m a little tired. Can you give me the short version of what you want?” Lee asked.
“My driver and head mechanic went to Tijuana with some friends. They had a gun in their car and now they’re stuck in a Mexican jail. The State Department is working on getting them out, but it could take a while. The Oceanside Regatta is in four days and I need a driver who knows boats,” Joe explained.
There a lot of drivers out there,” Lee said, “I haven’t raced in three years.”
“I saw you win the Miami Open Championship with the Red Bull Team. Since you lived in the area, I figured that I would ask you first.”
“I don’t know, I’m working on something right now.”
“There’s a million dollar purse and the winning driver gets ten percent. I’ll pay you twenty- five thousand dollars regardless.”
“I’ll meet you here at zero seven,” Lee said.
Class 1 World Powerboat Championship is the highest class of offshore powerboat racing in the world and considered one of the most spectacular motorsports in the world. The sleek watercraft can reach speeds in excess of 160 mph with twin V-12 850 horsepower engines.
Lee met Joe the next morning and at the 60 foot black and gold Miss Malibu ocean racer, “Mind if I take a look?”
“Be my guest,” Joe responded.
Lee climbed aboard and opened the engine compartment and gazed down, “Lamborghini turbos, very impressive.”
Let’s take her out and you can see what she can do,” Joe suggested.
The boat was launched and Joe took control and slowly maneuvered it out to sea, its massive engines rumbling, begging to be unleashed and once they were a mile offshore, “Ready?”
“Let me see if I still remember how to do this,” Lee quickly scanned the control panel to check the status of the engines then gently placed his right hand on the steering wheel and the left one on the throttle. There was a long delay as Lee closed his eyes and began to develop a connection with the machine.
“Are you alright?” Joe asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Lee smiled and slowly accelerated the boat and after a few practice runs at half speed along the coast of Oceanside and Carlsbad, Lee felt comfortable enough to open it up and got Miss Malibu up to 165 miles per hour over the ocean’s surface.
As they headed back to the harbor, Joe commented, “Doesn’t look like you’ve lost much.”
“Could do better, need to do better,” Lee responded calmly.
After returning to shore, Lee got his testing equipment and did a complete diagnostic on the engines,
The Western Regatta was the premier and last event of the racing season. The Miss Malibu team was in second place and three points behind the current leader, Salty Samurai. A win would give them seven points and the championship so a lot rested on this victory. It was a 500 mile, 10 laps race that started at the Oceanside Harbor and went to Mission Bay in San Diego, twenty-five nautical miles each way. The course was marked by ten foot yellow buoys situated between a half mile and one mile off-shore so that spectators could view the race. All racers were required to stay on course; going outside the boundaries would result in penalties or disqualification.
The twelve boats began the race at 0800 on Sunday morning in staggered intervals of one minute. Miss Malibu was sixth to begin and Lee ran a strategic race, staying within striking distance of the leader, Salty Samurai until the beginning of the eighth lap. Lee turned to Joe, “Time to make our move.”
On the final stretch, Miss Malibu was two hundred yards behind Salty Samurai as they passed the city of Del Mar. Lee pressed the throttle all the way down and the boat lunged forward. The gauges were all in the red, “We’re going to blow the engines,” Joe warned.
“They’ll hold,” Lee retorted, “It’s your boat so I’ll back off if you don’t want to win.”
As they passed Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, the engines were pleading for a reprieve, but Lee was focused on the boat up ahead.
“ Maybe let up just a little,” Joe suggested nervously.
“You hired me to race…let me race!” Joe snapped back.
When they reached South Carlsbad, Miss Malibu was only fifty yards behind Salty Samurai. By the time they reached North Carlsbad, both ocean racers were side by side, less than two feet away from each other and flying over the water at 180 miles per hour. Joe was speechless as the engines screamed for mercy. Both boats were at maximum power and ready to blow. Just as they passed the Oceanside Pier, Salty Samurai blew both engines as fire and smoke belched out of its exhaust pipes and she fell dead in the water. Miss Malibu flew past her as Lee pulled back on the throttle and cruised victoriously into the harbor.
“How in the hell did you know that the engines wouldn’t blow?” Joe asked.
“I didn’t, I just had a feeling,” Lee shrugged.
Joe was visibly shaken as he disembarked the boat, “That’s a ride, I won’t forget. I might be calling you for next season.”
“I might be answering the call,” Lee responded.
Lee took a physical pounding during the race and every muscle in his body ached, especially his forearms that were so tight and sore that he could hardly make a fist. Seven days later however, he was back in San Pedro working on the Salvage Prince, in preparation for bringing the tug down to Oceanside.
“Are you going to get back into racing?” Lou asked.
“I’m considering it…the pay is good if I win. A racing season isn’t that long and it won’t interfere with this. If I decide to do it then I’ll fly out a week early, do some practice runs and the race and then come back. I’ve still got a few months to make my decision. What the hell Lou, you should be encouraging me, the sooner I make money the sooner I can pay you back.”
“Don’t do it on my account…I’m in no hurry,” Lou responded.
Three months later, The Salvage Prince was docked in Oceanside. Lou turned his fishing boat over to a long time member of his crew to operate and was now working full time with Lee on the Salvage Prince.
Meanwhile, word came down down through intelligence channels that weapons grade nuclear material has gone missing from the decommissioned San Onofre nuclear facility. Iranian operatives were believed to be on the cruise ship Neptune after meeting with a disgruntled nuclear physicist who turned the material into a functional nuclear weapon. Members of Seal Teams Five were dispatched to Long Beach to retrieve the nuclear device and kill the operatives. While dressed in civilian clothing they blended in with the passengers. The Iranian operatives plan was to make it to the first port of call, Cabo San Lucas, disembark and fly by private jet to the Middle East.
The cruise ship was thirty miles off the coast of Oceanside while heading south to Mexico when one of the Iranian agents became suspicious. Rather than be taken alive or have the bomb taken from him, he activated the timer as the Navy Seals approached him on deck. A fight ensued and Master Chief John Paulson got control of the bomb. He looked at the timer; it showed five minutes! The Navy Seal had choice but to throw the device overboard.
The Navy Seals yelled out warnings of the impending explosion. When the bomb exploded it created a massive sinkhole and the subsequent tsunami flipped the Neptune on its side. Ten miles away, Lee and Lou were on the Salvage Prince on their way to tow a disabled yacht to port. Both men’s eyes opened wide when they saw a 30-foot wave approaching in the distance.
“I think we’d better turn around!” Lou nervously said.
“We’ll never outrun it, secure all the hatches and strap yourself to something!” Lee tried to act calm and in control, of which he felt neither. He knew that there was only way to survive this. He pushed the throttle down and went into the wave. The power of the tugboat pushed it over the wave although it was bounced around like a toy for two minutes and staying afloat was in doubt until the very last second. No sooner did they reach calm water that Lee ran down to check on Lou who was badly shaken, but not seriously hurt. By the time both men returned to the bridge, a distress call was coming in from the Neptune cruise ship. Lee did not hesitate to set course for it.
One of the other effects of the massive explosion was that it destroyed the massive underwater habitat where a gigantic octopus lived. The Salvage Prince was the first ship on site and pulled alongside the Neptune. Lee could hear gunshots aboard the cruise ship. Not taking any chances, he went below deck to his gun safe and took out a pistol and several magazines and strapped on holster. When he got back on deck he secured himself to the crane and Lou swung him over to the access ladder of the ship. Lee climbed up to the highest point of the Neptune where the Navy Seals were engaged in a gunfight with the Iranian operatives. He recognized one Navy Seal and called out, “J.P.!”
“Guns!” J.P. replied and continued firing
The Americans were eventually able to kill the Iranian operatives when all of a sudden the long tentacle of the octopus swept across the top of the ship and knocked several passengers into the water. Lee and J.P. looked over the side and saw the massive sea creature directly below them.
“That’s a lot of calamari,” Lee commented then ran back to the access ladder, climbed down and jumped to the crane and made his way down to the deck of the Salvage Prince. He took a large grappling hook and secured a cable to it.
When Lou saw the giant octopus, he stammered in belief, “Where did that come from?”
“Take the helm and get me close,” Lee ordered.
When the tug got close enough to the octopus, Lee threw the grappling hook and the three pronged hooks imbedded into the flesh of the creature. He engaged the powerful winch and pulled the octopus away from the cruise ship. “Lee called out, “Full speed ahead.” Lou accelerated and the powerful engines responded to his command. They dragged the creature through the water as it is struggled and thrashed about, but could not free itself.
Lee ran below deck and returned with a Barrett M107 50 caliber rifle and began firing into the Octopus. It took a dozen well place shots, but eventually the creature stopped moving. It was an only hour later and that this part of the Pacific Ocean was crowded with Navy, Coast Guard and civilian watercraft. There was even a research vessel from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography on site to examine the octopus.
Lee and the Navy Seals were a few hundred yards away from the rescue operation and sitting on the deck of the Salvage Prince. It was a clear and calm night as Lou grilled hamburgers and steaks under a starlight canopy. From their jovial demeanor and playful bantering, no one would have ever guessed that these men had stopped a nuclear disaster, survived a tsunami, engaged in a firefight with terrorists and defeated an angry prehistoric sea beast. If you asked them about danger or risk, they would probably just shrug with typical heroic modesty and respond, “The only easy day was yesterday.”