Pirate Blitz: The sinking of the Captain Jack

The real life act of piracy that inspired an iOS game.
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When Antanasio Knowles was younger he was a crab fisherman. With a long oxygen hose attached to a belt-driven respirator, he could spearfish along the bottom of the ocean for hours.

"I know about boats," Knowles says, "flipping over and then spending the night in a little 15 foot dinghy, with no radios and no compass, broke down and hoping people find you. I've done that before."

But this time was different.

First, this wasn't a boat. It was a multi-million dollar yacht named the Captain Jack.

Second, this was no ordinary accident. The 90-foot pleasure craft was dying, listing to one side as it filled with water from a mortal wound. He and the captain were trapped there, and a tropical storm was closing in.

And they weren't alone. An unknown vessel was circling them. Hunting them.

As he filled a lifeboat with drinking water and canned food, the last thing on Knowles' mind was how to turn the experience into a video game. Seven years later Pirate Blitz aims to do just that.

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The crew of the Captain Jack circa 2006. Antanasio Knowles stands third from the left and owner Wayne Williams is in the middle with his arms crossed. Captain Norman Clark stands between them.

The engineer

As the ship's engineer, Knowles knew every inch of the Captain Jack.

"Yes, she was a very nice boat," says Knowles in his deep, Bahamian accented voice. "She was a 90-foot sport fish with a 26-foot beam."

It was an older yacht, but it was a classic and the first of its kind. Most sport fish boats are made of lighter, more flexible fiberglass. Captain Jack was aluminum-hulled, designed and built by Burger, a manufacturer known for making larger, slower yachts.

Knowles says his yacht was equally capable of planing along the top of a calm sea at nearly 30 miles an hour and making a long, methodical trans-Atlantic cruise. Like a luxury touring bus crammed into a sports car.

Knowles was there in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. when the Captain Jack's first voyage began in early 2005. It was his job to get the boat ready for a year-long journey south through the Panama Canal and back, to live on board and fix whatever could be fixed.

The owner, Wayne Williams, wanted to spend as many as six months there in the deep, cool waters of the Pacific. There he would be able to chase the rare black marlin, a deep sea fish that can grow as large as half a ton.

"She was made for catching marlin," Knowles says. "The whole back cockpit was designed for rods, reels and fighting chairs. She could maneuver very easily depending where the fish was on. ... It was a fishing machine."

The crew consisted of Knowles, another ship's mate from Mexico and the captain, a southerner by the name of Norman Clark. Williams invited two high school friends for this, the trip of a lifetime. The men flew into Florida and boarded Captain Jack in August.

"Hurricane Katrina was on her way," Knowles says. "We were rushing to fill her with fuel when the weather started to get a little funny. [Katrina] was still a good ways away, but we were in port so when we ... heard that it was coming toward us we rushed and got out of there."

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They fled to Key West, the southern-most tip of Florida. But Katrina turned, chasing them further east toward the Bahamas. As the weather calmed, they were able to slow down and get to the business of fishing, tracking a lazy course as far east as Grand Turk. There they turned sharply southwest into international waters off the coast of Cuba to make the long run to Honduras.

A few weeks into the trip they docked on the tiny island of San Andres, Colombia to take on fuel. The passengers and crew all went ashore for the evening. But something was different about this port.

Knowles says the men in the Colombian bars looked hard-bitten and grim. Knowles noticed several long, fast boats docked there, each with as many as four huge outboard engines in the back.

Growing up in the Bahamas in the 1980s, he recognized these kinds of boats — and the men who owned them. They were drug runners. When the crew cast off the next morning, they decided not to stay in one place for too long, and to avoid ports if they could until they reached safer waters.

Several days later the harbor master on a tiny Honduran island hailed them on their VHF set. The man on the radio threatened to send the Honduran military after them because they wouldn't stop and check in with customs. The crew of the Captain Jack told him they'd be back later in the day, but instead of risking more encounters with criminals inland they sailed out of range of the port's radar.

Eventually the man on the radio stopped trying to reach them at all.

The arms dealer

A little after two the next morning Knowles was taking his shift at the helm. He was alone in the wheelhouse when he noticed something strange.

"We always had two radars," he says. "I could see this boat really moving fast ... and then it stopped. Then it starts picking up speed again. And then it gets going really, really fast."

He woke the captain. For the next hour they tried to reach the other vessel by radio. Perhaps this was the Honduran military out to get them. But the ship didn't respond to their hails, and it was running completely dark.

"They wouldn't turn any lights on," Knowles says. From the deck on the back of the Captain Jack the visible horizon was, at most, five miles away. The radar contact came as close as two miles, but the crew couldn't see the other ship at all.

Even Captain Clark began to worry when another contact showed up on their radar. And then another.

He gave the order to change course. All three ships changed course with them. That was when Clark slammed the yacht's engines full ahead, burning fuel in an attempt to outrun them.

"She had two 3408 Caterpillar engines in her," Knowles says of the Captain Jack with pride. They were commercial power plants — sturdy, reliable and easy to maintain. "She was not a really fast boat for a sport fish, but she could hop out of the water. Depends on the fuel you had in her."

With the tanks half-empty, the yacht rose up at more than 20 knots. The huge engines roared until dawn, and when the sun rose, the mysterious ships were nowhere to be seen. The experience left both the crew and passengers alike shaken.

When they arrived at the Panama Canal, a professional pilot came aboard to guide them through the locks. To pass the time the crew told him the story of the ships that chased them off the coast of Honduras.

"The Panamanian we were talking to," Knowles says, "is like, 'Man, you guys are crazy! Nobody comes that way [south of Cuba], and especially nobody travels that way at night. You're gonna run into drug dealers, pirates, all kinds of different people who will board you and try to rob you!'"

The pilot said they would be a lot better off if they had some guns on board. At the very least, they could fire them into the darkness to scare off pursuers. Not long after he left them, the yacht's satellite phone rang. On the other end was the pilot's friend, a Panamanian arms dealer.

"I see [Mr. William's friends] coming back on the boat with these towels," Knowles says. "They had this shotgun and a 9 millimeter pistol. ... I felt more safe with them, to be honest with you."

But those guns wouldn't be a comfort to Knowles for very long. In fact, they proved more dangerous to the crew than anyone expected.

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The Panama Canal consists of three sets of locks. Ships climb two steps to reach Gatun Lake from the north, and one more step to reach the South Pacific on the other side.

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The Jamaican police

Six months later, in the spring of 2006, the Captain Jack was making its way back to Fort Lauderdale. Williams and his friends had flown home weeks before after a long and successful voyage. Captain Clark, engineer Knowles and another ship's mate from Mexico were clearing customs at a port in Kingston, Jamaica.

"Every one of these yachts," Knowles says, "[has] arsenals on board. They have machine guns. They have everything! No end to weapons. When you enter a port ... and you say you have weapons ... you go and you bring the weapons up and of course you bring your paperwork for the weapons.

"When you reach a port they already know your boat, because the computers call down and they check and they know if you cleared weapons in the last port. They count every bullet.

"Say you had 300 bullets for one particular firearm in another country, say the last country that you checked into. If you only have 299 now, they want to know where that next bullet went; who you fired that at, or why you fired it, because you can't just fire it into the water. You're not supposed to."

Captain Clark told the customs official they had guns on board. The problem was that since the guns were brought on board they had been remained hidden. There was no paper trail and the guns were, for all intents and purposes, illegal contraband.

Knowles was able to bribe the immigration official with $500, who in turn asked the customs official to look the other way. But that next morning a Jeep pulled up alongside the Captain Jack and Jamaican police took Captain Norman Clark into custody.

Knowles went along for the ride, leaving the Mexican mate alone to protect the yacht.

"Oh my god, what if I push one of these clips in there and shoot the three of them and then drive back to the boat and go?"

"I'm sitting there in the back of the Jeep," Knowles says, "in the middle with all these weapons in my lap and the two cops are on either side of me and I'm thinking 'Oh my god, what if I push one of these clips in there and shoot the three of them and then drive back to the boat and go?'" Instead of murder, he busied himself by trying to wipe away his fingerprints.

Later that same day with the help of a few more $500 bribes, Knowles says he was able to bust Clark out of jail. Unbelievably, the Jamaican police gave them back their guns and sent them on their way.

"As soon as we got out to the shipping lanes," Knowles says, "there in the middle of the ocean I threw [the guns] in." Knowles laughs about it now.

"So they're probably still falling, that's how deep that is out there. Ten, twelve years later they're probably still trying' to reach bottom. Won't let anybody find them guns, I can guarantee."

The Silver Banks

It was late November, 2006. The Captain Jack, then with only Knowles and the captain on board, was cruising north from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic toward Grand Turk Island. It would be Knowles' last trip.

"I had already told Mr. Williams that I was leaving," he says. "The captain asked me ... to do him a favor and help take the boat back as far as Nassau where I could get off, start a different chapter of my life."

This would be a long, overnight run. They were sailing straight through to meet Williams, who was flying in from Orlando, Fla. for a winter cruise in the Caribbean.

The Captain Jack's course put it along a narrow corridor through the Silver Banks, a massive coral head in the Caribbean Sea famous for two things — breeding humpback whales and wrecking ships. Knowles had been at the wheel since 10 the night before. Around 8 a.m., the captain came to relieve him, and he shuffled off to his cabin for some sleep.

"You know you just get these feelings certain times," Knowles says, "these feelings that something is just not right? And I kinda got up because I felt that way. Captain Clark was at the wheel, and as soon as I got up out of bed she hit."

There was a horrible rending noise of aluminum giving way. The whole yacht rose up out of the water and came to a complete stop. Knowles was thrown against the walls inside his cabin and then backward into a closet. Wine bottles and glassware exploded on the floor of the hallway.

He pulled himself up and made his way, barefoot, to the wheelhouse. Captain Clark was there, frantically racking the engines forward and back, trying to pull the boat back off the rocks or ram them through.

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The Silver Banks are a massive coral head located north of the Dominican Republic. Lanes through it are well documented, but require care to navigate.

"He's really freaking right out," Knowles says. "He was devastated. Forty years, he's never hit a boat. That's all he's saying, over and over. 'I don't want to face anybody anymore. I just feel like strapping on some lead and dropping overboard.'"

Knowles calmed the captain enough to leave him alone and went below to inspect the damage. He wriggled his way between the floor and the double hull, under a set of fuel tanks. With the yacht's emergency pumps working at full speed they were still taking on water, and he had to find out why.

"She had forward bilge pumps, midship bilge pumps, main bilge pumps," Knowles says. "Sometimes you can climb underneath there to try and push a rag, even as simple as a cloth or an old towel, and jam it in with a screw driver and a hammer or something, just to slow it down.

"It's about your pumps ... pumping out more water than is coming in. If you can do that, you can save the boat. We could keep the boat afloat."

Wedged inside the ship, in the slurry of water and oil Knowles could see the pale, white reef staring back at him. The gash was 12 feet long.

When he hauled himself out, the captain was standing there.

"I told him I think she's finished. I don't think there's nothing we can do about it. There's too much water coming in too fast. There's just no way."

"I just feel like strapping on some lead and dropping overboard."
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Wayne Williams (center) fishing with friends on one of his smaller yachts.

The fishermen

The Captain Jack was Wayne Williams' baby. It had taken the sale of two other yachts, one 100 feet long and another 60 feet long, just to afford it.

"It was a beautiful vessel, just gorgeous," Williams says. "The top had two big double doors in the back that slid open. And we had the deck on the back where you ... sat with two tables for dinner ... You had spiral staircases going down on each side to the lower level where you went fishing."

She was worth millions. And she was dead in the water, nearly 100 miles from shore.

For two hours Knowles and Captain Clark tried to save her, but by 10 in the morning they knew it was futile. With the captain in hysterics, it was Knowles who had to break the news to Williams.

"I'm sitting there like 15 minutes," Knowles says. "How am I gonna say this? How? That's all I'm thinking to myself. How am I gonna tell this man that his boat is finished, and everything on it is basically already underwater? ... And what the hell is his response going to be?"

Finally he drew up the courage to dial the number.

"I just said it. I said, boss it's not good. ... I don't know how to tell you this ... I don't know any nice way of putting it, but I think I'm just going to say it all in one sentence. We hit a reef and it doesn't look good; the boat is gone.'

"And so he paused for a few minutes, and then I said 'Boss, you there?' ... He said, 'I'm here. Really 'Nasio how bad is it?' I said, 'Well ... the only thing I could tell you, boss, is that right now the mattress in your bedroom is floating three feet off of your bed.'

"Well ... the only thing I could tell you, boss, is that right now the mattress in your bedroom is floating three feet off of your bed."

"From that point on all Mr. Williams wanted to know ... was if we were alright."

They were safe for the time being, but a tropical storm was only six hours behind them. To make matters worse, a small group of fishermen saw the accident and came to investigate.

Where the Captain Jack had hit, there was another boat anchored not far away. It was a 50-foot long, nameless wooden vessel. Knowles assumes it was from the Dominican Republic, but it could have just as easily been a Haitian ship.

She was a mothership for a small fleet of six or eight fishing boats, little more than rafts. Each of them came in turn to try and speak with Knowles and the captain. Most of the fishermen had dreadlocks; some sported long beards. And those who weren't armed with spearguns had machetes. Before long the yacht was surrounded.

"We have really no weapons at all because we threw them overboard months ago," Knowles says. "And they're all around the boat, on every side of the boat. They come alongside and ... we can't really communicate with them because we don't speak any Spanish and they don't speak any English. ... Who knows what they could have done."

Meanwhile, Wayne Williams had his insurance company in one ear and the U.S. Coast Guard in the other.

His insurer said that if his crew abandoned ship, his multi-million dollar yacht, and everything on it, was forfeit.

The Coast Guard said that if his crew stayed on the boat past sunset they would never live to see another morning.

Unwilling to sacrifice the men for his yacht, Williams ordered his crew into a lifeboat. If the fishermen wanted his yacht, the best place for his crew was off of it.

"So I'm on the phone with the Coast Guard," Williams says. "I say, OK, go get 'em.'"

Rescue

The U.S. Coast Guard scrambled a small passenger jet. It reached the Silver Banks in the early afternoon. The sight of the plane pushed the fishermen back. The mothership gathered up its smaller boats and moved itself further away.

Knowles and Clark were bobbing in the lifeboat a few hundred feet from the wreck, which was now in danger of rolling over as the tide began to rise. They huddled in their tiny boat as the storm swept in and the waves picked up. There was lightning on the horizon.

Through their radio the pilot of the jet told them he was out of fuel. He would have to turn back.

Night fell. The fishing boat quietly circled them. Hours passed.

Then a bright orange U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter thundered into view from the east less than 100 feet off the waves, sweeping low with a powerful searchlight over the tops of the waves. Knowles fired off a flare and the chopper orbited over them, called out with a loudspeaker, and eventually lowered a diver into the sea on a cable.

One at a time the rescue swimmer helped the two cold, frightened men into a basket to be winched up into the aircraft. They'd gathered clothes and valuables from the yacht, but the only thing they were allowed to carry into the basket were their passports. The diver showed them how to hold them in their teeth.

"It's amazing because, when you get pulled up in that basket, you're relieved. You're starting to get some relief, starting to feel a little bit better. And then you're going up and then you're looking at this rotor that's spinning. And the breeze from that rotor that's pushing down is almost like a fucking hurricane. I was going up and up, and then falling down, and oh my god what am I doing in this! I'm freaking out, thinking I'm going to go into this rotor now and it's going to chop me up. My day can't get any worse, you know?"

After they pulled Clark, Knowles and then the diver on board, the helicopter turned and made one last pass over the wreck. When they last saw the Captain Jack, the beams of a dozen or more flashlights moved along it as the fishermen began to loot the floundering ship, right there in the middle of a storm.

A few days later, when a salvage crew flew over the wreck, they found the Captain Jack had been towed off the reef and purposefully sunk in shallow water nearby. Looking down on it from the air, they could tell the boat had been carved open, its giant Caterpillar engines hauled away.

Its empty hull still sits along the Silver Banks to this day.

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Release

Pirate Blitz came to the iPhone in October 2013. It tells a fictional tale of the embattled Captain Waynimus and his hardy cartoon crew who blaze a trail through steampunk pirates in a free-to-play game. For bonus points you can pick up your Facebook friends, whose profile pictures bob in little orange rafts.

It's the game Williams asked his son John to make, a game to help him vent his frustration over the sinking of his yacht. What makes the game unique is that every once in a while the pirates board the player's ship. The perspective changes from a top-down twin-stick shooter, a la Geometry Wars, to a shooting gallery. Tap the upper screen to gun the pirates down, tap the bottom to reload.

In a way, Pirate Blitz is the alternate version of events that transpired on the Captain Jack that day. It's a version where the crew was armed and able to defend themselves through the night. A version where the yacht is saved along with the crew.

But the story that the game tells ultimately has little to do with the real story behind the sinking of the Captain Jack. That doesn't bother Knowles.

"I think that the story ... would make a good game," he says. "But there has to be a little fiction about it to make people play it. That's just the way it is."

Knowles runs a refrigeration and air-conditioning company in the Bahamas. He sometimes flies to Florida to do work for Williams. It's what he went to school for, and he's happy.

Norman Clark still lives on a boat in the Caribbean, which makes him a hard man to reach by phone. Knowles says that he's semi-retired. Williams says that after the accident he never captained a ship again. No one would insure him.

Knowles wasn't there in the wheelhouse when the accident happened. He tells Polygon that Clark claims the yacht's GPS system malfunctioned, that the course it gave him put them straight into that reef.

Williams received a settlement from his insurance company. The Captain Jack was a total loss, but he says his payout was fair. Since it sunk, he's named other yachts after the Captain Jack. All sport the logo of a pirate on the back, a dagger clenched in his teeth and a flintlock pistol at the ready. Babykayak





Images: Wayne Williams, John Williams, 12 Gauge Studio, Antanasio Knowles, Shutterstock
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

Design / Layout: Tyson Whiting, Ally Palanzi

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