Torn map

Castigo Cay: Part Three

In the afternoon, the GPS chart plotter in the pilothouse let us know we were nearing the Castigos, and I prepared the Raven UAV. It had a five-foot wingspan and an electric motor. The mini-drone broke down into its major components, and they fit into the Raven's own hard plastic case. Nick was visibly pleased when he saw the wings and fuselage emerge from the case. Our technical assets seemed to give him increasing confidence. I told him that I'd thought he was psychic the night before when he'd called Rebel Yell an aircraft carrier.

The Raven was painted flat off-white, with its battery and camera housed inside what looked like a flattened football. The one-piece wing unit was attached to the top of the "football." A backward-facing pusher propeller extended rearward from the electric motor, which was located just beneath the middle of the uni-wing. This rear position protected the prop and motor during hard landings on the Raven's blunt nose. A long, skinny fuselage stalk extended from the bottom of the "football," and at its end was a conventional-looking tail assembly, with a rudder and elevators.

Actual military Ravens came equipped with infrared night cameras, as well as a color day camera. The IR technology wasn't available on the black-market Raven I had bought (at least not at a price I could pay), but I didn't need it for my purposes. Without the weight of the IR camera, my Raven was able to climb to over 2,000 feet above ground level. It could fly as fast as sixty miles per hour, and was controllable at a range of ten miles from the ground control unit. On the negative side, my battery packs were not holding a full charge anymore, and the Raven would have no more than forty minutes of flying time.

We lowered the foresail, the big white Dacron sail that runs up the back of the foremast. This sail had full-length fiberglass battens running horizontally from the mast track back to the trailing edge of the sail, so when it came down it didn't whip or flog but was easily gathered and lashed to the boom. This cleared the area between the masts for launching the drone, and slowed our speed from seven to five and a half knots. We were still well balanced, with the big mainsail over the pilothouse and cockpit, and the two overlapping jibs extending from the foremast out to the bowsprit.

Even with the inflatable boat stowed between the masts, there was still a five-foot-wide space on the side deck for launching the UAV. With about twenty knots of wind coming across the port bow, it was easy to launch the Raven. I just held the plane's fuselage over my head and into the wind while Victor started the electric motor with the remote control ground unit. When the engine was humming and the propeller was a blur, I heaved the UAV out like a quarterback throwing a football.

Victor was better than I was at manually flying the Raven by the remote controls, and he really enjoyed it, so that was his job. He established flight control immediately, steadied it out, and began its ascent under visual direction. The R/C ground unit had a small screen showing the incoming video, a keypad, and a toggle stick for flying the bird visually. When we launched the Raven, the Castigo Cays were five miles away to our southeast, no more than an eyelash on the horizon. Once the plane had gained a few hundred feet of altitude, Victor switched over to automatic control and sent the Raven climbing to its predetermined GPS coordinates above the cays. He then handed the R/C ground unit over to me.

On this tack Rebel Yell was heeled over to starboard, so I sat on the higher port-side deck, with my back leaning against the inflatable's side tube like a comfy sofa and the ground unit on my lap. The Raven climbed through a thousand feet and headed toward Castigo Cay, showing just blue ocean beneath it on the screen. The course heading, altitude and other flight data were superimposed over the top of the video image in white letters and numbers. Victor sat next to me on my right and Nick was on my left, both of them also watching the small screen.

The Raven was at two thousand feet by the time the western sandbar island appeared on the screen. I'd memorized the details of the Castigos from Nick's chart and soon recognized the comma-shaped main island. From the initial run-in heading, it looked like a tadpole swimming north, toward the screen's left. The sun was behind us to the west, so the shallow water around the island appeared transparent, with no reflected glint or dazzle. From seven football fields straight up, every detail down to individual palm trees and shrubs was visible. In the water, every reef and coral head was revealed, as were several old shipwrecks. Above water, the hulk of a small ship or fishing trawler was resting just off the rocky island north of Castigo Cay. It had plowed head-on into the land, and was stuck there until eternity converted it into a rusty stain on the coral.

But I didn't care about the wrecks. I cared only about the motor yacht anchored in the small harbor that until recently had been a landlocked salt pond. Topaz was there--Nick hadn't been telling tall tales. When the megayacht became visible, he nudged me and said, "What did I tell you!" The 120-foot vessel was easily identifiable. The big white inflatable was pulled up on the beach on the east side of the basin. Topaz's lower transom was open above the full-width swim platform like a garage door. This was where modern megayachts usually stored their big tenders, so they could conveniently be launched and recovered by rolling them out and winching them back in. This was also where their jet skis and other water toys were normally kept.

Above the dinghy garage in the middle of the aft deck was a circular jacuzzi, a detail that had escaped my notice until seeing Topaz from directly above. It was full of water, glittering in the sun like a diamond on the tan deck. I wondered if Cori had taken a dip in it yet, and if so, with whom. I knew from several memorable experiences that almost nothing was guaranteed to put Cori in the mood for love like a warm soak in a bubbling hot tub, and my jealous anger took flight. If the Raven had had a missile to drop, I would have used that leering "O" for my aiming point.

Forward and above the aft deck was the superstructure, with a super deck half the length of the hull. The forward end of the super deck consisted of rakishly slanted and darkly tinted pilothouse windows. I'd been on a few megayachts, and inside those tinted windows their bridges were as modern as those on the Navy's newest destroyers. Above the super deck was a rearward slanting arch, with satellite communication domes and other antennas taking up every foot of space. Above them all, a radar was turning in endless circles. Hawser lines extended out from the bow and the stern to the land. No pier or dock had been built, at least not yet. Topaz was the biggest vessel that would ever be able to use the little custom-made harbor. There was just enough room in the basin for the vessel to turn around, working both engines and the bow thruster and using the lines ashore.

As far as modern megayachts went, Topaz was not extraordinary. Maybe twenty years ago anything over 100 feet was considered mega, but 50 meters, or 165 feet, was coming to be considered the new bar. Some were over 300 feet long, but these "hyperyachts" were extremely limited in the number of desirable ports and anchorages they could use. Worldwide, there were over seven thousand private yachts greater than a hundred feet in length, and Richard Prechter could no doubt afford a bigger one. But anything larger than Topaz wouldn't be able to enter the basin we were studying. At 120 feet, she was sized just right: big and fast enough to race over the open ocean from Florida in almost any weather, but small enough to enter his own private harbor, four hundred miles away on Castigo Cay.

Using Topaz as a reference, I estimated that the original shallow salt pond had been nearly three hundred feet in diameter, like a big eyeball in the head of the tadpole-shaped island. The northern half of the pond had been dredged to eight or ten feet, judging by the color. Most of it was still very shallow. In the Bahamas, the crystal-clear water acted as a light filter, darkening with greater depth. A foot or two of water over sand appeared from above as pure white. The water then ran the blue-green spectrum from lime to turquoise to azure to sapphire to indigo as it grew deeper.

The unusual paint scheme of Topaz now made perfect sense. Instead of the typical blinding white hull and deck of most megayachts, her hull and superstructure were pale turquoise, her teak decks the color of light sandalwood. Back in George Town, I had thought that the paint scheme was somewhat unusual, while still pleasant to the eye. Now I could see that it was more than a matter of aesthetics. Topaz was subtly camouflaged to blend in with the shallow Bahamian waters when observed from the very high altitude of passenger jets and military aircraft. The camouflage was not effective, though, at hiding it from the Raven's eye just two thousand feet above.

A new channel about a hundred feet in length and fifty wide had been blasted through the northwest shoreline of Castigo Cay, to connect the landlocked salt pond to the shallow lagoon separating the four cays. North of Castigo Cay was a rocky cliff-edged island a quarter the size of the main island. Deep water led in a winding path from the new yacht basin north around the top of Castigo Cay, and then east into the open Atlantic. This deep-water passage was twisting and constricted, but usable by a vessel the size of Topaz if it had twin screws or water jets, and a bow thruster to assist in maneuvering. In places, the channel leading from the basin appeared natural, with the sides changing depth gradually, according to the water's color. In other places, the deep blue was straight, symmetrical, and steep-sided, evidence of recent dredging or blasting.

Observing from the Atlantic, a mariner would see only a wild coast of cliffs, bluffs, rocks, and small sandy beaches, all pounded by surf and guarded by offshore reefs and pinnacle rocks. If they were not enough of a deterrent, the shipwrecked coastal freighter would serve as a final warning. In a thousand years, no sailor would suppose that a safe deepwater channel led from the Atlantic around the top of Castigo Cay and into a protected harbor. From the ocean, the narrow cut would appear to be only a cleft in an unbroken rocky cliff. No mariner would ever risk getting close enough to that fatal shore to see the opening and wonder if it led to a safe harbor.

Southeast of the yacht basin was a scattering of trucks and trailers, a backhoe digger, a few shipping containers, piles and pallets of construction material, and what looked like a gray mobile home. Of particular interest to me was a pair of tanker trailers, small ones like those we had towed behind military vehicles all over Iraq and Afghanistan. One was probably diesel fuel for the equipment and the generators, and the other probably contained potable water. I recognized a circular patch of blowing scrub: camouflage netting. Evidently a construction project was ongoing at Castigo Cay, and some of it was meant to be hidden from aerial surveillance.

The normal practice was to use military-surplus landing craft to bring in building supplies and workers. This was standard operating procedure in the Bahamas, where the owners of flat-bottomed landing craft did a brisk business catering to the construction whims of millionaires. There was no other way to deliver a first-world level of luxury to an uninhabited island hundreds of miles from Florida. Four hundred miles from the nearest Home Depot, it was slow and cumbersome, but effective in the end.

All of this imagery was being recorded on the UAV's ground control unit, and I could study it in detail later after loading it onto my laptop, with its larger screen. I was searching for only one thing, one person: Cori Vargas. But nobody was visible on the yacht.

The little Raven UAV did not have the ability to pan, tilt or zoom its camera. I could see only what was captured directly below it within a thousand-foot circle, which grew or shrank with the camera?s altitude. The picture jiggled as the Raven was buffeted by the gusty winds up at two grand. It was initially flying on a preprogrammed orbit around the cays, so I let it run its course and studied the rest of the islands.

The bluff on Castigo Cay ran along the east side facing the open ocean, and halfway down the island's length. On the Atlantic side, lines of white breakers marched in to crash against the cliffs and small beaches. Offshore reefs took away some of their punch. The long hill flattened out toward the tail of the tadpole, again in accordance with the chart. To the south across a narrow and shallow inlet was a separate island half the size of Castigo Cay, but it was flat, low and covered with thick forest. On Nick?s chart mangroves had been indicated, so this also fit with what we expected.

The Raven continued its clockwise circuit around the cays, next flying northward above the sand bar island that protected the western side of the Castigos. Ocean currents off-shore on the western side of the long sandy key left a corduroy ripple pattern in the underwater sand. Pale turquoise water filled the area between the four cays, along with a sprinkling of black coral heads, brown reefs and deeper blue pools and pockets.

I studied the area around the vehicles and construction equipment, and noticed four people trudging toward the long hill against the Atlantic. I examined them carefully, wishing that I could zoom in the camera's lens, but soon satisfied myself that they were all men. They were too tiny when seen from two thousand feet up to notice particular details other than shape and the color of their clothing, but I could tell they were male, not female.

I redirected the Raven with typed commands, putting it into a new, tighter orbit over the northern end of Castigo Cay, with the yacht basin as the pivot. The group of four men appeared doubled in size by their shadows on the white sand. Soon they were standing along the top of the bluff, east of the basin. I imagined that they were discussing some upcoming construction project; what else would men be talking about on a barren island near idle construction equipment?

They walked partway downhill toward the Atlantic and then, one at a time, disappeared from view. The Raven was to their west when they disappeared, and when it next orbited around to the east there was no building or structure or cave visible, only a line of deep shadow across the ocean side of the bluff. That was a puzzle I could solve later, when reviewing the flight video after transferring it to my laptop.