Panga Boats, Nova Scotia and a Reprise of the Banana Fleet

Bluenose II

When we moved our family from the Dallas area to Goleta last summer I was immediately struck by the things that tied it back to my ancestral home in Nova Scotia, Canada. On a cool foggy morning in Goleta the air tastes the same as what I grew up with on the South Shore. ‘Goleta‘ is Spanish for ‘schooner‘, another thing that I grew up with: Nova Scotians are known as ‘bluenosers‘ after a famed schooner, The Bluenose. With gulls overhead, the local fleet pulling up traps and the sound of a fog buoy in the distance I have found myself quite at home.

Recent news in the on the Central Coast has included a number of stories of a spate of Panga Boats arriving on secluded beaches full of gasoline, big outboard motors, and marijuana. The drug smugglers use a combination of a fast boat, a quick trip from Baja and hidden beaches close to Highway 101 to get their contraband transferred into the U.S. black market with a reasonable chance of success. I was reminded of this yesterday as I sat at Refugio Beach and watched a small Coast Guard vessel tow an empty Panga Boat back to the Santa Barbara harbor. This one had been found with $4million in weed.

Panga Boat in Santa Barbara Harbor

Panga Boat towed by Coast Guard at Refugio Beach

As the boats passed in front of me I was struck by the similarity to another path of Nova Scotia: its rum running past. During the American Prohibition years, Canadians filled their boats with liquor barrels and made smuggling runs from the Maritimes down to Long Island, Boston, and other ports along the eastern seaboard. Here is a description of that period:

Shipbuilding communities such as Lunenburg, Liverpool and Mahone Bay produced rum running vessels that were designed and constructed to lay low in the water, giving them the greatest chance to escape detection by Canadian and U.S. authorities. Their shape and low profile led to the name Banana Fleet.

 Crews were almost exclusively from in and around Lunenburg with a notable number of men from the community of Riverport. The shore captain of the Banana Fleet was Byron Ritcey, who was known to accompany each vessel on its initial run to ensure that every aspect of the operation was in place and running smoothly.

¬†There is no question that the smuggling operations of the rum runners were against the law. But the men who crewed aboard rum running vessels were not hardened criminals. Though they were certainly aware of the illegal nature of their activities, most viewed their work as they would any other form of employment. Proof of this can be seen in the life of Hugh H. Corkum, a Lunenburg native who worked as a rum runner on various vessels yet later pursued a career in law enforcement and became Lunenburg’s Chief of Police.

Rum Running – A Colourful Chapter of Lunenburg’s History

So, here I sit in 2013 nearly 100 years and 3000 miles removed from those smugglers and yet I see the same thing in almost the same context. War on Drugs vs. Prohibition. Mexicans in Panga boats full of marijuana being chased by the Coast Guard vs. Canadians in low-slung sloops full of barrels of rye being chased by the Coast Guard. In both cases an ill-advised moral stance by government simply created a black market and a smuggling economy. The economically disadvantaged will always be eager to try to gain the rewards above the risk of being caught. History sees them as ‘Colourful’, not as villains. I tend to agree.




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