Since our move to Beaufort about a year and a half ago, I’ve tried to immerse myself in the Lowcountry life. Part of this immersion is reading lots of books about this beautiful area of the country. Reading several works on the colonial history of Beaufort, I’ve learned that pirates used to land on these shores to steal, party and pillage.
Some things never change. Recently I picked up a book covering some modern history and a different type of pirating. “Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs” chronicles the life of the South Carolina “gentlemen smugglers”. Many of these guys were from right here in the Lowcountry. In the late 70s and the early 80s they left their colleges at places like Newberry College, USC and the College of Charleston, and took to the rivers and creeks in and around Beaufort (see Google Map image above). Small sales of marijuana led to larger sales until eventually the shores were rife with sailing yachts and speed boats brining marijuana and hash from Jamaica, Columbia and eventually war torn Lebanon.
The author, Jason Ryan, left his reporting job at the state newspaper in Columbia, SC and spent years researching and interviewing the smugglers and the members of “Operation Jackpot.” Jackpot was a Federal task force that went after the assets of the smugglers and chased them all around the globe, eventually getting their last conviction in 2008.
The fascinating part about this book for me is that I now know some of the characters in the book. All of the old time Beaufortonians know these guys and discuss their escapades as if it happened yesterday. These rivers and creeks where millions of dollars of drugs were smuggled into the country, are the same waters where I boat and fish on the weekends.
Even if you do not live in the area, this book is a gripping read. There are wild parties, boat chases, narrow escapes and years of living on the lamb. The smugglers are eventually rounded up, some as far away as Australia. Thankfully, this is smuggling before the cocaine wars and turf battles of today. Through it all there are no gun battles or deaths. Most of the “gentleman smugglers” didn’t even carry weapons. I think with a little embellishing, this book could make a fantastic movie!