TARPON SPRINGS — For 52 days behind bars in a dilapidated Central American jail, the six-man crew of the Aqua Quest suffered through heat, mosquitoes, bad food, isolation, volatile inmates and guards and occasional gunshots.
No one could say when they would be released, or even if they would. They faced up to 12 years in prison after Honduran authorities found guns aboard their boat and jailed them on weapons charges. The crew said they kept the guns for protection.
"We'd hear stories — we're going to be released this day, or that day. We'd get our hopes up," said Nick Cook, a 31-year-old scuba diver and deck hand. "Then our hopes would get crushed. It's a roller coaster ride."
The crew finally arrived home on Wednesday. Their 65-foot boat pulled into the Tarpon Springs' Sponge Docks district, where a crowd waited with balloons, flags, iced cans of Budweiser and cries of "God bless America!"
Crew members disembarked for emotional reunions with their spouses, parents and children. Relatives hugged them long and tight, marveling at how much weight they had lost.
"We didn't know what was going to happen to us," ship captain Robert Mayne said as he embraced his tearful 86-year-old mother. "The physical discomfort was one thing, but the hardest part was the not knowing."
Mayne, 60, is a longtime Tarpon Springs resident. Four of his crew also live in Tarpon: first mate James Kelly "Boo Boo" Garrett, 53; diver/deck hands Devon Butler, 26; Steve Matanich, 34; and Cook. Crew member Michael Mayne, 57, is from Cape Cod, Mass.
The Aqua Quest typically salvages precious cargo from shipwrecks. This time, its job was to recover mahogany logs from a river bed in partnership with the rural Honduran town of Ahuas.
For protection against piracy in international waters, the crew had two shotguns, two pistols and a semiautomatic rifle that resembles an AK-47. Upon arrival in Honduras, they say, they notified maritime authorities that they had weapons on board.
But once they pulled into port on May 2, police raided the boat and arrested the crew, accusing them of smuggling guns.
Thus began the men's seven-week stay in a dingy cell in a ramshackle jail in Puerto Lempira, a backwater town of 4,000 souls on northeastern Honduras' Mosquito Coast.
The crew believes their incarceration was a shakedown for money by corrupt officials. "It's total extortion, that's all it is," Garrett said.
There was no air conditioning or running water. Each night, they were locked in their cell for 13 hours. The mosquitoes were a nightmare.
For safety, they paid to share a cell instead of bunking with the jail's general population. They rented the cell from another inmate for $10 a night, and slept on the floor or in hammocks.
They subsisted on meager rations of beans and rice until a missionary hooked them up with a restaurant near the jail that delivered chicken or fish or goat.
They tried to keep their spirits up. Mayne speed-walked around the jail's courtyard for an hour every morning. Matanich lifted weights made from concrete poured into 5-gallon buckets. Cook played checkers with another inmate. Garrett wrote a song.
"You hold yourself together as best you can," Cook said. "The guards there really didn't have any involvement in the jail itself except for locking you in at night. At night time, they'd drink and smoke their drugs. They'd hallucinate and see inmates trying to escape. In the middle of the night, you'd hear gunshots."
The scariest moment came when a fight erupted. An inmate was hit with a 2-by-4 that had a nail stuck in it. Guards fired their guns to break it up.
Back in the United States, the saga of the Aqua Quest reached Washington, D.C. Congressmen, Vice President Joe Biden and the U.S. State Department pressured Honduras to free the men. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio mentioned the crew's plight in a Senate hearing.
Honduras wants to lure more American cruise ship traffic. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, kept telling Honduran authorities that the Aqua Quest story was making them look terrible in the American media.
In jail, the crew got a visit from U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., whose constituents include crew member Butler's family.
"When you're in prison in the jungle, you feel like you're alone," Butler said. "To have someone back you up, that's the coolest thing about this."
At some point, the crew wants to return to Honduras to finish the job. The Aqua Quest and the impoverished town of Ahuas were to split the profits. Dredging the river to reach the mahogany would have reduced local flooding, increased fish counts and sped up navigation for boats in an area with few roads.
"We went down there with open hearts," Mayne said. "I'm still committed to the project and I want to see it through."
Once they were safely in U.S. waters, crew members said they had one final piece of business.
They felt that the weapons that had caused them so many problems were a bad omen. They made the guns "walk the plank," and buried them at sea.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.