For Sandi Blatchley and her husband, it was an idyllic, adventure-filled life. When the rest of the world was moving at a work-grind pace, the Charleston couple enjoyed sailing the seas on their 36-foot sailboat "Bomba Shack," visiting Caribbean ports and watching the sun set.
Now, her days are filled with stress and uncertainty while her husband sits in a Bermuda jail facing drug charges.
Seven months ago, Andrew "Steve" Blatchley, a regular figure in Charleston's sailing world, and two of his sailing mates were arrested by Bermuda authorities, accused of trying to smuggle marijuana valued at up to $30 million, according to media accounts from the island.
On Oct. 3, the trio were about 14 miles off the coast of Bermuda and making their way back to Jamaica when a group of masked men reportedly dressed in black and armed with machine guns approached on a small boat. "My immediate thought was that they were pirates," Jeannie Harden, who was on the sailboat, said in describing the events.
When Harden was questioned by a detective, she was told that officials had photographs of her moving pot onto another Bermudian boat. "I knew this was impossible," she said, "as it never happened so I wasn't really too worried."
It would be the start of nearly three months of imprisonment for Harden until charges against her eventually were dropped. The other member of the crew, Canadian Edide Plourde -- the man who'd actually chartered the Blatchleys' boat -- was freed as well.
Blatchley, meanwhile, has been sitting in Bermuda's Westgate prison.
Among Charleston's sailing set, Blatchley, 58, has many friends who want him home. A native of the south coast of England, he long has been considered an accomplished seaman with a keen knowledge of engines from his days as a car mechanic. "He was a good guy to have on a boat if you're offshore," said Bob Kelley of the Charleston Cruising Club.
The Blatchleys met some 20 years ago when they were introduced by a mutual friend. Sandi had lost her previous husband, and was attracted to Andrew's love of the water and general good nature. They married, cruised the water and bought sailboats together.
In the late 1990s, the couple moved to Charleston, eventually keeping Bomba Shack, a 36-foot Beneteau, at a Charleston marina. The vessel's name comes from a British Virgin Island pub made of hurricane debris. Over the years, the couple spent endless time on the water, Sandi Blatchley said, but the fateful trip that ended with the Bermuda arrests started Sept. 8, in Montego Bay.
In the Caribbean, the Blatchleys sometimes would offer their boat up for charter. Plourde, 68, of Quebec, said he wanted to charter the sailboat so he could explore living on a boat long-term and whether he liked it. The duration would be 50 days, with the first stop in Cuba. Sandi Blatchley, however, opted not to tag along. She returned home to Charleston, suffering from asthma.
The first leg of the sail was uneventful. "We had no problem getting to Cuba, and once there, customs, health officers, a dog and about 15 other officials came aboard and practically dismantled the boat, looking for drugs, I imagine," Harden recalled. After four hours, the group was declared fit. They stayed in Cuba four days, enjoying the sites.
The sail to Bermuda, though, was more problematic. There were engine problems en route, Harden said, likely from bad fuel, and repairs awaited once they reached the island. Bomba Shack made it to Bermuda OK, but there were cash problems when they arrived. The money Plourde had promised to pay for the charter wasn't forthcoming.
Sandi Blatchley says she flew to Bermuda, bringing with her about $2,000 in cash for the repairs and expenses. Kelley said it's not unusual for North American sailors to have money delivered since it is often difficult to arrange wire transfers in foreign island banks. After a few days in Bermuda, Sandi left for home. The sail continued.
'Everyone on deck'
About six hours after getting under way Oct. 3, the boat was moving well and all signs pointed toward a favorable sea, Harden said.
"I was below deck reading when I heard the engine of another boat," Harden said. "Then I heard a voice over a megaphone saying 'Everyone on deck.' " Harden went above and saw there were two boats, including a black rubber boat with men fitted all in black, including face masks. They had machine guns "with bullets the size of walnuts pointing at us," she said.
Bomba Shack was boarded and the crew was told they were suspected of conspiring to import marijuana. The three were questioned and everyone returned to Bermuda.
Within hours, they were all government prisoners.
Weeks later, Harden was cleared and released. So was Plourde. He returned home to Quebec, arriving Christmas Eve, but died within a few days, reportedly suffering from cancer. A fourth man, also a Canadian but who wasn't on the sailboat, later was charged in the drug conspiracy case.
The charges against Blatchley include conspiring to smuggle drugs and money laundering. There was enough evidence presented to an island magistrate to hold him, which under Bermuda law sent his case to the country's Supreme Court. Friends and supporters say there is no way he could have been involved in a drug ring.
For any foreigner arrested in Bermuda, the legal system is a difficult process to navigate and absent of many of the protections guaranteed in the United States. The island's constitution applies only to Bermudians, and there is no freedom of information law giving the media the right to review government or court documents. Even reporting on cases much beyond the basic arrest information is prevented by law.
The U.S. State Department also tries to make it known that breaking the law in Bermuda can be more severe than in the U.S., especially for drugs.
"Penalties for possessing, using or trafficking in illegal drugs in Bermuda are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines," the warning states.
Another distinction is that $30 million worth of marijuana in America doesn't necessarily translate to similar quantities in Bermuda, where the drug economy is much tighter.
Bermuda prosecutor Cindy Clarke said she could not comment on many aspects of the case, other than to confirm the charges of conspiring to deliver cannabis and money laundering. Blatchley's trial could go forth at the end of summer.
Help from home
While there is a lull in the case, Blatchley's friends are hoping to organize a campaign to get him freed. Letters have been sent to government officials, and Harden has created a page on Facebook, trying to drum up support.
"The police do not have any evidence, one man is dead, I will never be the same and they are still holding Andrew, and he has no court date in sight," Harden said.
The entire matter has weighed heavily on Sandi Blatchley, who says the fear of the unknown makes the stress much worse.
Bomba Shack's fate also appears at an end. She said she was told the sailboat was cut into pieces during an in-depth search by authorities and sits scattered in a police yard.
"It will never sail again," she said, adding she still owes about $65,000 in payments.
She often wonders how this all could happen and if the arrest was something as simple as authorities becoming confused by other sailboats on the water that day, or some other mistake.
"I think my boat was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Reach Schuyler Kropf at email@example.com or 937-5551.