Seshing with a saltwater cowboy:

Reflections from a former pot-hauler

From 1979 to 1989, Tim McBride and a band of pot hauling pirates ran the southwestern waters of the Florida Everglades. At the time, Columbia supplied over 40 per cent of cannabis to the United States, but it was small town locals liaising with the cartels and navigating their familiar backchannels who were key to its undetected route across the border. They called themselves the "Saltwater Cowboys".

When I walked into the office where I met McBride, he stood to greet me. I’d seen him on the cover of his book, Saltwater Cowboy (2015), but he was gentler looking in person—even though he towered over me. Head-to-toe, he was striking. He wore his stark white hair in a neat mullet reminiscent of his 80s heydays, and his beard was tightly knotted into a long, beaded braid. Tattoos faded by a Floridian tan peaked out of every seam of the grey Bob Marley shirt he was wearing, which seemed on brand. For a man now in his 60s, he still looked like he could haul hundreds of bails of weed off the side of damn near anything. But the thing that stood out to me the most were his shoes.

“I am digging the red and green Converse,” I exclaimed as we settled into two comfortable leather chairs.

I dive into a story about how I had pairs and pairs of different Converse, as well. “Hot pink ones, these Dr. Seuss-themed ones, and a leather pair for fancy occasions, of course.” He laughs at my excitement.

“The reason I wear these guys is ‘cause I’m red-green deficient colour-blind. It’s a joke between me and my kids.”

I instantly feel stupid, then blurt out an even more blunderous: “but you drove boats!”

The irony was that the two sides of a nautical vessel are marked, dusk to dawn, by navigation lights—the vessel's starboard side by green and its port side by red. And boats were how McBride hauled weed in the 80s.

“Yeah, of all the colours to be blind to, hey?” he chuckles. “I could see colour when I was younger. I guess it just happened over time. But I figured it out when I was going for my coast guard captain’s license in my pot hauling days. I had bought this chase boat—a 31-foot Chris Craft Scorpion—and somehow had to justify how a 25-year-old with no real means of income was zipping around in a $100,000 boat.”

He tells me he decided to make his weed-slash-money launderer, which he named Pair a Dice (a cheeky gambling taunt), appear to be a charter vehicle. For that, he needed a valid licence—a coast guard’s licence, to be specific. During his physical exam, he had to pass a colour blindness test. A shock to him, he failed.

“The doctor showed me all these patterns and asked what the numbers were, so I said: “that’s a two, that’s a six” and so on. Doc pauses for a second and looks at me funny, and goes: ‘you’re fucking with me, right?’ I wasn’t.”

Luckily, McBride could distinguish enough of a difference between the two shades to get approved by the doctor anyway, who knew he had been operating boats for six years without issue so far. The good ol’ days, we joke.

“What’s a chase boat?” I ask.

McBride explains that the crab boats used to offload tankers full of thousands of pounds of pot are usually a lot slower than one would like it to be if they get caught. So, haulers bring chase boats.

“The captains on the bigger ships can see for miles, so if it looks like something’s coming towards you, you and your crew jump off onto the chase boat, which is way faster than anything the feds have, and you’re gone. They can have whatever you left behind but at least they don't have you.”

As he cooly motions through the steps of how smaller boats sidle up alongside freighters, bails of burlap-wrapped pot are tossed over the side, and then explains the paths he would take through the mangrove forests of Ten Thousand Islands to hide from coast guards, I’m suddenly reminded that I am sitting in a room sharing a joint with a man responsible for smuggling over 30 million pounds of weed into the U.S.—in one decade.

The backstory

I ask him to take me all the way back. I wanted to know how an outdoorsy kid from the Midwest became one of the most notorious dope smugglers in North America. How did an army brat from a nice family in North Carolina become a middleman for Columbian drug lords?

He has stories—herds of live cattle being dumped into the Gulf, monkeys climbing ship masts, chatting shop with the heads of armed drug cartel, and waving to federal officers who had accidentally stranded themselves on sandbars as he sailed on by with a joint sticking out of his mouth. But the story of how he got involved in his lucrative line of work, earning those bizarre tales, was pretty straightforward.

In the late 70s and into the 80s, Miami was being heavily monitored by federal customs agents. So were other port cities like Marco Island. But nestled in between the two was Everglades City—a small coastal community that had remained relatively overlooked by the authorities. Even the feds who did keep an eye on it couldn't do much because they didn’t know the islands like drug runners. The environment was a snaking labyrinth of dead ends, shallows, banks, oyster bars, and mangrove tunnels, and McBride says the first generation smugglers could navigate them with their eyes closed. The feds, on the other hand, navigated them like they actually had their eyes closed.

As such, the Gulf of Mexico was a ripe entry point for Jamaican and Columbian grass.

Cut to 1979: at the age of 21, McBride was living in wisconsin when he got a call from a friend who said he was heading to a place called Chokoloskee Island, in the Everglades. His buddy was going to run stone crab at his brother-in-law’s fishing hut and wanted to know if McBride would tag along.

“I had nothing better to do, so I packed up and went with him.”

Hopping in his Mustang Clark, he drove 24 hours to a “pinprick” on Florida’s southwest coast—a place he refers to as a pile of sand and trailer parks that perpetually smelled of low-tide.

It was a few days into his exciting new career as a trap puller when things took a turn. McBride says it was like any other sunny day setting out onto the water. When the boat pulled far enough from shore, however, his friend, “Captain Red” he calls him, told McBride they weren't going to be hauling crab that day.

“He looks at me, smiles, and goes—today, we’re going to haul pot.”

The boat was off to meet a Columbian pot freighter waiting just off the coast.

“Weren’t you freaked out?” I ask.

“No,” he laughs. “The only time I have ever been scared was when I was in the hands of U.S. authorities. Those are the real dangers. When Red told me what we were doing that day, I thought it was cool. And they knew I’d be cool ‘cause they knew I smoked pot. And I was always the kid pushing boundaries, ready for a new challenge.”

On his first two jobs, he made $10,000 for hauling 30 U.S. tonnes of weed. After that, he wasn't a rookie anymore. He went from making $5,000 a night to upwards of $50,000 depending on the size of the haul.

In his book, McBride explains that $300,000 USD would buy roughly 15 tonnes of weed in Columbia, which equates to $10 USD a pound. When it crossed the Gulf, that inflated to over $450 a pound.

The Columbian cartel would cut him about $5 million for a job like that.

How it worked

McBride explains that the largest production of Columbian grass occurs along a coastal tip called the Guijara Peninsula.

Traffickers would purchase cannabis from growers during two peak seasons each year—the largest of which occurring in the fall. The majority of product was shipped by sea in what he calls “motherships”: large fishing vessels, tankers, or freighters that could lug between 25 to 75 tonnes of weed. These ships, generally owned or at least controlled by the haulers and kept dormant in various Columbian ports until needed. When product was harvested, the mothership moved a few miles offshore where it would be loaded by smaller boats.

“Usually, that would take place during the night so there were less eyes on the water,” he says.

With cargo on board, the ships would either sail from the Guajira coast directly to the southeastern U.S. or to Caribbean transshipment points.

As the motherships approach the American coast, they waited 50 to 100 miles (80 to 100 kilometres) offshore in international waters where McBride and his cowboys met them with crab boats.

During high trafficking season, McBride says his crew sometimes worked a month straight, two or three jobs a night, 20 tonnes at a time.

McBride's chase boat, Pair a Dice, as pictured in his book, Saltwater Cowboy (2015)

Operation Everglades

For several years, McBride would build and run one of the largest pot hauling operations in the U.S.

But in 1983, things began to shift. The feds were embarrassed by fire they couldn't seem to snuff out in the Everglades, so it was time to hit harder. They initially set out on two operations—an attack McBride affectionately refers to as “a total federally sponsored clusterfuck”—with the aim of capturing and charging as many local smugglers as possible.

Over two hundred agents descended on the Gulf Coast, raiding homes, blocking the causeway, and confiscating boats.

“The first time, they took around 30 guys. Eventually they got nearly 300 of us,” says McBride.

“In the first two operations, they thought they had taken everybody, but couldn't figure out why there was still shit coming through the Everglades. They quickly realized they had left the kids behind—and those kids knew how to run the family business,” he chuckles.

“We were doing all the work in the first place for the adults. You think the old guys were out there hucking 1,000, 1,500 bails a night? Nah! It was the kids breaking our asses doing that shit, and I have a degenerated disk in my back to prove it!”

McBride goes on to explain that the government’s ignorance was their downfall, and it had been for some time. “They didn't understand the significance of what it was we were doing. In a town of just under 500 people, half the town was working. It was providing an economic infrastructure to a whole community, it was integrated into our way of life.”

What the feds didn't understand was it wasn’t just the haulers they needed to keep up with; the whole town was in on the operation. At the time, illegal cannabis was the second-largest cash crop in the state, eclipsed only by citrus. So, one can imagine how deeply woven it was into the economy of the small seafaring town it came through. McBride says half the city was dependent on the cash flow and jobs that came from the smuggling operation, which is why everyone was so unwilling to roll over on any of their local pirates.

At the height of his hauling days, McBride was running four different crews working on the southwestern Floridan city: a crew in Everglades City, one in Naples, a third on a little island in an area called Goodwin, and one in a little island area north of that called Pine Island. At any given time, he could wrangle a crew of 60 guys from any one of those areas—which made him impossible to track and ready to move from anywhere.

There would be a third push in Operation Everglades in ’84, but oddly enough, the crackdown wasn't when they got him. Yes, McBride was eventually arrested and sentenced to 40 years to life with a fine of $4 million. But it wasn’t because he was caught on the water.

A family business

As we broke into another joint, I asked him how he got away with it for so many years. He says it was partly his ability to navigate Florida’s backwaters and the scrub brush, and partly the naivety of the federal officers assigned to hunting guys like him down. But he mostly credits it to family.

“It was truly a family business,” he says. “My friend’s parents were like my adopted parents. I learned to haul from the uncles, fathers, older cousins, and all of them were first- and second-generation haulers. That lifetime of knowledge was poured into each and every one of us kids. It was learning and listening to stories from pot haulers who had gone down to Panama and Columbia and found the weed and blazed that trail for us.”

Weed culture was ingrained into the small town community. If someone “went away” for a few months, the community would rally around their family, pay their bills, keep their kids in line, and the lights on until they got back. When that person returned, they’d start work on the boats again.

“Pot hauling 101,” he tells me. “First thing I learned when I was a kid was you never approach a boat straight on and come straight back. That’s just telling them where the ship is at.” He adds that it was these passed-down tidbits of seemingly common sense that kept him unscathed for so long. The feds had none of this wisdom.

Then, sitting straight up in his chair and peering over his white sunglasses at me, he dives into another story.

He tells me that one of his best friends now, John Deacy, was a former U.S. customs agent—one involved in his eventual arrest. Years after McBride got out of prison, he asked Deacy if he knew any agents working any of the Everglades crackdown. Two came to mind. One was a former Secret Service agent for President Carter who left after that administration and went to Florida to run interdiction vessels for U.S. Customs. The second, a former CIA agent. Both of whom, now retired, were interested in sitting down to pick McBride’s brain. So, obligingly, he had lunch with them.

“I’m sitting there teasing these guys, because what the fuck does a CIA agent and a Secret Service agent know about running boats? Especially in my backyard, right?” he gives a fully belly laugh. “For six years these are the clowns they had running around out there and trying to chase me, and I asked them: “where the fuck were you?””

Mid tease—one of the retired agents sitting across from McBride snaps into a serious tone, then says: “You don't remember me, do you?”

The agent continues: “I boarded your boat one night.”

McBride says his boat was only ever boarded three times—and he remembers each one vividly.

“This agent tells me that when he boarded my boat, he remembers seeing a big tarp. He threw back the tarp and underneath was about 25 containers with diesel in them.”

It was common back then for haulers to bring fuel, food, fresh water, and booze to the tankers during a handover, and that day he was taking supplies to a ship that had been left desperately low on sustenance by a Caribbean storm.

The agent asked McBride why he had so much fuel on such a small crab boat and the only thing he could think to respond with was: “I use a lot of fuel.”

The agent let out a laugh and left the boat with nothing to show for the stop.

“Truth is, I let him stop me. My boat had 30-miles-an-hour on his and I could have left him sitting there like he was tied to a pole. But what I didn't need to have happen was him to call on the radio and have other guys out there trying to find me when two hours later, after he let me go, I unloaded a boat on Pine Island 21 miles north of where he boarded me... of 47,000 pounds.”

The end of the Saltwater Cowboys

In 1989, when the feds busted into McBride’s house and blitzed him like he was “an NFL quarterback”, he writes, it was part of an undercover investigation called Operation Peacemaker.

He was hauled into a court, alongside a number of his counterparts, and put in front of U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich where he was officially charged and fined.

“When you’re going through that moment, you can’t wrap your head around it. Especially when someone says 160-mandatory-to-life and $16 million in fines (split between four men)… that shit doesn't click, because it doesn't seem real.”

He pauses and takes a long drag from the joint dangling between his fingers, looks at it, and hands it over to me.

“The first guy I met inside told me he had been there 28 years already, and it still didn't even seem real. Humans, or at least I, didn't have any basis by which to formulate an emotion that can respond to that kind of sentence.”

He lived in that mindset for many years, even long after the sentencing. He calls it the “it’s never going to happen” headspace.

“Ultimately, I discovered it was real. And it was my reality.”

Before starting his sentence, the judge took an opportunity to share her thoughts on why she had levied a life sentence and multimillion dollar fee.

“You are traitors,” she told him and his counterparts. “And traitors are given the death penalty.”

I asked him what it felt like to be lumped in with the likes of terrorists and murderers in her assessment of his actions.

The room goes quiet for a moment.

“She thought what we were doing was equivalent to killing people, effectively that we were contributing to the death of the population. That attitude came from the stigma around pot at the time,” he starts.

“Of course what we were doing from there point of view was criminal behaviour, because we were breaking their law. That was their law. But what they didn't understand was it wasn't our law. We didn't agree with it.”

He then explains to me the code of ethics by which he and his crew lived—the fine line between criminal and outlaw.

A criminal, he poses, has no respect for any law whatsoever, regardless of what it is, victimless or not. “What we were doing was a victimless crime. We were outlaws. Saltwater cowboys. We hurt no one. We were not violent, didn't use guns. We gave no one anything they didn't already want. It was pot. Pot.”

Now resuming control of what was left of our joint, he held it up and peered once again over his sunglasses into my eyes.

The first generation pot haulers—before the 80s—hadn’t seen sentences like McBride’s to-be-40-years. It was in 1987, when the authorities trying to snuff out weed trafficking weren't seeing the results they wanted, that they decided to increase federal sentencing guidelines.

“No more slaps on the wrist, you know? Now, it’s serious. That's when kids—young kids—were looking at life sentences,” he says. “We didn't know that shit. We were operating under the assumption that if we got caught we’d be looking at eight months.”

And that was the norm amongst his group of guys. Someone would get caught, serve a bit of time, get out, and get back on the water.

“But then judges became the righteous prevailer over, you know, your ultimate life sentence. Mine said to me: ‘I will warehouse you for the rest of your life,’ and for a statement like that you’d think I was a terrorist," he says.

“If a very specific set of circumstances hadn’t fallen into place, if I hadn't surrounded myself with clever individuals, including my attorney, I certainly wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today. I’d still be sitting in prison cell.”

The reason McBride isn't still incarcerated is because eventually the U.S. Treasury Department agreed to release him on probation if he educated them on exactly how he and his haulers managed to import such huge amounts of pot without getting caught. No names.

McBride agreed and all counts in the indictments were dropped barring one. He was sentenced to no more than 10 years without parole.

Nearing the end of our extensive sesh, I, now heavily stoned, asked him to consider some of the political shifts taking place around the world—legalizing what he had served a decade behind bars for. I guess what I really wanted to know was if someone who had taken a hard smack from the law felt anger as mega-corporations were now the ones making millions on “drug smuggling”.

“We never considered it drug smuggling. We never even called it drug smuggling. We called it pot hauling. The wives would sit around the campfire and if someone’s husband was missing, they'd say: “oh, there off on a haul”. That heavy term, “smuggling”, wasn't ours. That belonged to the cops. And now they’ve just changed the words “drug smuggling” to “cannabis industry”,” he says.

“But don’t ever expect to see an apology—a “we fucked up and this truly is a miracle drug”—you’ll never hear that. Because that would mean they’d have to apologize to people like me, all the way down to kids they’ve incarcerated for having a joint in their pocket.”