Line Guard Narcos: Slingin’ Propeller Guards in Mexico
Most of our customers here at Adventure Marine come out of Canada, the USA, Australia, and a few other countries in the EU.
However, we do get the odd email from a customer in third world countries who claim to be starting up a marine company and are hoping to place a large order of parts to get going. These requests normally follow a similar pattern, and you don’t need to be a genius to figure it out. So when I got an email from a woman in Mexico claiming she needed over 100 propeller guards, I brushed it off as another scam. But a day later, I received a phone call from a man in Mexico insisting that they needed over 100 propeller guards for whale shark tour boats. He claimed to be a US citizen who married a woman in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. He went on to say that they ran a hotel and a fishing charter company there, and it was his wife who had messaged me. He decided to place an order for a just few guards at this time, claiming that many more guards would be needed for the tour boats, if I was interested. While I couldn’t mail them to Mexico, he had a location in Florida I could ship them to instead. Kinda strange, but a payment is a payment, and we shipped his guards.
Not even a day later, I received yet another email from someone claiming they needed 100 propeller guards in Isla Mujeres. What on earth was going on here? With the Japanese term “gemba” (go to the source) echoing in my head (see our blog on Kaizen), I made the decision that I needed to go Mexico and find out what was going on here. Closing a deal on 100 line guards (our brand of propeller guard) would be a handsome payday for the company, and one I didn’t want our competitors to scoop from us. Within a week, I was on a plane headed for Cancun. The events that unfolded would change me forever, and transform how I think about Mexico and the people there.
I landed at the airport amidst a hoard of excited vacationers. My customer had convinced me to bring some of his line guards down with me, as shipping to Mexico was an issue.
I agreed, but when I was the last person at the baggage carousel, I was already regretting this decision. I got saddled with a $500 import fee and many questions about what I was bringing into the county. Propeller guards didn’t seem to be a normal import item there!
By the time I arrived on the little island outside of Cancun, it was late at night, and I finally got to meet the couple that had reached out to me. They graciously fed me dinner and provided me with a room in their hotel. Unfortunately, I would later regret not paying for my own room in a different part of the island.
The next day, we got down to business. It turns out that the local Park Service was concerned about an increasing number of whale shark injuries. As it turns out, this little island in Mexico is home to the largest annual migration of whale sharks in the world. Every year, around the same time, hundreds show up to feed on the plankton that comes to the surface in the summertime. The whale sharks follow the plankton, and these gentle giants are put in the path of boat traffic. Many get torn to shreds by the propellers.
Because of this, the Park Service demanded that, this season, all boaters would need a propeller guard to get a license. A great idea, but little-to-no direction was given, and there was panic to get guards on boats.
The Park Service issues all licenses for fishing and tour boats. Anyone not complying with their regulations will not get a license. Being caught without a license could result in termination of their operation. As commercial fishing died off in this region, fisherman discovered whale shark tours were a way to boost their income. This had been a win-win for fish stocks and lucrative for the locals. But it came at a cost to the sharks.
My hosts introduced me to a local fisherman, who was interested in testing the guards that I gone through such pains to bring.
I mounted two of my guards to a test boat and we were off. I had claimed the guards would not cause cavitation, and would have little impact on top-speed and fuel economy. Now, I was on a boat in Mexico putting my money where my mouth was. There were almost 100 boats in the fleet, and they all needed guards. I understood that I had to close this deal, but any misleading information on my behalf would now be exposed.
As the captain put the boat into a series of hard turns, trying to find any weakness in the design, I held my breath. But, as I expected, they performed as advertised, and the man was happy with their performance.
Later that day, my hosts assembled all the boat captains for a presentation. Fortunately, I had frantically prepared a slide show/sales pitch while on the plane, which illustrated the benefits of our guards. The woman who had first messaged me translated my presentation. She had also graciously helped me convert my slide show to Spanish. As it turns out, you can’t just copy and paste from google translate. You can see a video of the presentation here.
This is where the trouble began… Like all good business people, there was money to be made on this deal, and I was quickly approached by my hosts as well as others, who wanted to broker the deal and get their cut.
I was soon whisked away by a man who I would become good friends with. However, I had accidentally slighted my hosts, who had put me up in their room, and created a quarrel. I had promised to go to dinner with them that night, but at 2 am and after many tequilas with my new friend, I had inadvertently forgotten about my obligations.
The next day was quite productive. Misael, my new friend and owner of Mexico Divers, took me around the island and donated his time to teach me about doing business in Mexico. I learned some interesting facts about their dominantly cash society, as well as the sales tax enforced by the government that prompted the preference for cash dealings. There was another issue to contend with as well: getting the propeller guards into the country after everyone had placed their orders. At the time, many shipping companies didn’t even ship to Mexico, and I couldn’t find any reasonable pricing for the ones that did. Misael also said that, based on experience, there would be a 50/50 chance that the packages would even have the items inside. And of course, you had to pay the 16% sales tax first, before you even received the box. To make matters worse, some items were banned altogether, such as petroleum products. The oil industry in Mexico is run by the government, and it’s illegal to import oil products that are not made in Mexico. This includes boat paint. As I soon learned, there is quite a smuggling operation going on for boat paint. Would our guards even be allowed in? The locals didn’t want to find out, and I was getting inundated with questions about falsifying invoices and cash deals.
I had been hoping that my host or Misael would be able to operate as a middle-man and broker the deal. They too wanted this, but no one really seemed to trust each other, and I was caught in the middle.
I was also being approached by some of the people who had attended the presentation. They wanted to pay cash for guards and go around my brokers. In the end, with no clear leadership stepping up and only a day left before I was supposed to fly home, the pressure was on for me to close a deal. In the end, I excepted a large order from one of the captains. He had promised to pay me a large deposit in cash, and would fly to Canada with his family to bring the line guards back and pay the remainder. I was blown away by this surprising offer, and he explained to me how this would be cheaper for him than shipping the guards and risking the insane taxes that would be placed on them, or even losing them altogether.
The Great Escape
The night before I was scheduled to leave, a man on a motorcycle showed up at my hotel with a satchel of US dollars sent by the boat captain.
I led him upstairs to my room and we counted out the cash. After converting to Canadian dollars, I was just under the limit I could bring back without a declaration, which would involve trying to prove to the Canadian authorities that I was doing legitimate business in Mexico with a pile of US dollars. I’m sure that, given enough time, I could have sold them the story about propeller guards for protecting whale sharks. But my bigger concern now was that I was sitting on a pile of US money, and wondering if someone else would show up to claim it.
Later that night, I shot out of a deep sleep when the phone started ringing. The man on the other end was screaming at me, full of accusations and shouting.
It was 5 am, and I tried to make sense of what was happening. It was the man who had put me up in the hotel in the first place, my host. He had caught wind of the deal that I had struck with the boat captain, and he wanted his cut. We had never discussed such an arrangement, but the accusations and bully tactics continued. He had put me up in the hotel, free of charge, and I had slighted him the night I left for cocktails with Misael. That I was sitting on a large sum of US money, and now my host was threatening me in a county known for its criminal activities and murder, I had only one thing on my mind: escape back to Canada.
I quickly packed my bags, telling no one at the hotel where I was going. There was only one way off the island, and that was by a government ferry. If they were going to rob me anywhere, it would be on that boat. I rushed through the city streets, looking for anyone who was following me or who seemed suspicious. A taxi driver spotted me, and for the first time ever, I had never been happier to be in a Mexican taxi. He took me to the boat and I hurried through the line to get on board. Like in a Jason Borne movie, I felt like Tredstone was coming after me and there would be some “asset” on that boat looking to take me out.
My phone was going crazy with messages from my host’s wife, asking where I was and if we could meet up. I didn’t answer her. I was on the run now. I couldn’t trust anyone and I was “expletive-ing” myself. But oddly enough, I was blown away with that I had accomplished.
I had flown to Mexico to broker a huge line guard deal, and here I was with thousands of US dollars in my backpack, and en-route to Canada.
I got off the boat and into the first taxi I saw and said “aeropeurto internacional.” The driver acknowledged and started to drive off. His phone rang and he started speaking Spanish with the person on the other line. After a short conversation in a friendly tone, he started explaining in his best English how his brother was involved with the drug cartels. He explained how life was getting more dangerous now, and he was worried about him. Normally, I would have been interested in this conversion, as tourists generally don’t see any trouble. But most tourists have not been chased off an island with $10,000 of cash on them. I was back to “expletive-ing” myself, and looking desperately for signs confirming I was in fact headed for the airport. I arrived moments later and cleared customs without incident. After clearing customs, I felt a wave of relief. I was safe.
I flew back to Canada and started putting together the order.
More orders came in shortly, and sorting out the myriad of orders being shipping to random people in Florida, who would take them back to Isla, was confusing, to say the least. But we managed to get close to a hundred guards sold and shipped. The man who had sent me the money did, in fact, fly to Canada to collect his guards. I was blown away at the trust this man had put in me. To give me that sum of money with little guarantee that he would even see these line guards blew my mind. Trust is still extremely important in business.
To this end, he had brought his entire family with him so they could all qualify for a checked bag filled with line guards, as there was a limit per person on which there was no duty charge. If I had known this, I’m sure I could have got away without paying the $500 I got dinged for in Mexico. I gave him and his family a tour of our facility, and showed them around town. They were amazing, but it took some convincing that they all couldn’t just pile into the back of my pickup truck, as is so common in Mexico.
I still talk to Misael, and one day, I hope to go back and do a whale shark tour with him and Mexico Divers. I am proud, though, that Adventure Marine took part in helping to protect the whale sharks. They are majestic and beautiful animals. Some can reach a length of 40 feet, and they are completely harmless to humans. Like so many animals on this planet, they are being affected by industry. Tourism brings awareness but also puts them at risk.
The propeller line guard started out as a guard to protect a fishing line from propeller entanglement.
Since my time at Adventure Marine, I have seen it used to protect propellers from damage, save people from personal injury, and now to protect wildlife. It’s a wonderful feeling to be a part of this.
If you want to book a whale shark tour I would recommend Mexico Divers, but there are many companies on the island that offer this, plus other great activities. It’s a wonderful place and the people are friendly. If you pay in cash and leave the credit card at home, you will get a better deal as businesses can avoid the extremely high sales taxes. Many of these people work for next to nothing and tourism has been destroyed by COVID-19. I really feel for them and I hope this blog can help in some small way.
For more information on our propeller line guards and other products from Adventure Marine, please visit our website. Thank you for reading and please leave a comment. It really helps me know what you enjoyed and what topics are interesting to you.
As always, go outside and live your adventure. Life is short and the memories you create make life worth living. Happy boating!
CEO Adventure Marine
For more about Greg Epp, visit his website GregEpp.com
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