I’ll shoot anyone who comes aboard me
The captain of the schooner I’m Alone stared silently at the black night horizon. The gunshot wound in his leg that he had sustained a few hours ago was not helping to focus his thoughts. He knew that one of his men had been standing behind him for a good few minutes, but he didn’t dare interrupt the captain’s musings. „Let him stand while he can” thought John Thomas Randell „There’s no one standing at the bottom of the ocean, and that’s where we’ll end up if we can’t escape”. He closed his eyes and tried to sense where the Wolcot was, the US Coast Guard ship that had been following them for several hours and looked like it wasn’t going to let up this time.
The captain was not at all surprised by this. It was March 21, 1929, already six years his schooner had spent supplying thirsty Americans with alcohol. Six years, during which he had escaped perhaps every U.S. Coast Guard vessel, the captain had earned the nickname „the greatest rum smuggler in history,” and the ship itself had been christened the „Bismarck” of the smuggling fleet. The schooner was over 38 meters long, nearly 8 wide, had two masts, and had a cargo capacity of over 200 tons, which translated to about 28,000 cases of liquor. During this March expedition, it had more than $62,000 worth of goods in its holds, today the equivalent of nearly $1,000,000. Equipped with two diesel engines and under full sail, she could reach speeds of up to 9 knots, which was too much for most US Coast Guard ships. She was registered in Canada and sailed under its flag. It was manned by up to eight crew members, exactly how many were on this expedition. A year earlier it had managed to escape officer Frank Paul, who was then in command of the Wolcot. The ships came upon each other within U.S. territorial waters. Wolcot took up the chase, but the experienced Randell first changed directions frequently, and when night came he escaped pursuit. A similar story happened with the second ship, the Dexter, which was now heading in their direction. The captain of the Dexter, Alfred W. Powell, felt humiliated by this escape, and this feeling was intensified by the taunts of other smugglers and captains. He often heard: „You’re a smart guy, but whatever you do, I’m alone” will outsmart you anyway.” Powell vowed to get that schooner at any cost. Despite many spectacular escapes and thousands of gallons of smuggled liquor, I’m Alone became best known for its arrest.
Effective January 17, 1920, the Volstead Act, also known as the „Noble Experiment” or simply the „National Prohibition Act,” prohibited the sale of alcohol throughout the United States. Locally, Prohibition had been in effect before. Religious fanatics, feminist organizations were happy about this law, but probably even more so the gangsters and distilleries located in neighboring states near the border with the US. Americans did not stop consuming alcohol, simply the state stopped making money on it, and a wide stream of money flowed into the pockets of local criminals. Empires were created that turned out to be bigger than Prohibition. Alcohol, however, had to be transported across the border. Many smuggling routes emerged: some through the wilds of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, some by water. It also created new opportunities for people like Randell.
The shelling the captain had experienced a few hours earlier wasn’t the first in his life, and despite his wound, it didn’t make much of an impression on him. He was more concerned about the damage to the ship that prevented it from developing full speed. Randell was born in 1877 and first wanted to enlist on a ship at age 11. Apparently he had damaged something at home and, out of fear of his Mother, decided to run away to sea. His first trip ended up in port where his parents found him, he got a beating at home, but the very next summer they let him go on his first voyage. By 1929 he was involved in two wars: The Second Boer War and World War I, then still called the Great War, he earned the rank of lieutenant and commanded many units. During World War I he managed to sink two submarines, and none of his ships sank during the war. When he left the army he took up various jobs, including rum smuggling. His first ship was trapped in the ice somewhere in the north of the continent when he was surprised by the „fastest and coldest winter” in many years. When the ship was finally freed, his partner stripped him of his interest in the ship, but Randell did not remain unemployed for long. He was contacted by an „organization from the States” who offered him a partnership. They valued skilled workers and Randell took over I’m Alone. The smuggling model was unchanging. Large vessels, like Captain Randell’s ship, would enter U.S. territorial waters with holds full of alcohol, and smaller vessels would come up and pick up the goods. Of course, beforehand they had to present a half dollar that matched the one each ship’s captain received with the goods. Then the big ships would go for the next shipment, and the smaller ones would wait for an opportunity to reach the shore and unload the crates. When Border Patrol ships appeared on the horizon, the large vessels would simply sail more than 12 miles offshore to be outside U.S. territorial waters and avoid inspection.
The schooner I’m Alone did not succeed this time. Wolcot spotted them on March 20 around 6 a.m. when they were sailing from Belize with a cargo of rum and began to follow them. When the ships were close, Captain Frank Paul called through a megaphone for Randell to stop. „You can shoot at us and sink us, but I will personally shoot anyone who comes aboard me!” replied Randell. Paul didn’t want to make any nervous moves, so he continued to follow the smugglers. For a while the ships sailed at a more or less constant distance, but eventually I’m Alone slowed down and Randell let Captain Paul aboard, provided he came alone and unarmed. That’s what happened, too. The captains discussed jurisdiction and treaty restrictions and after two hours Paul returned to his ship. He later recalled that Randell offered him a drink at the end, but he declined. Randell most likely did this just to let his schooner’s engines rest. Without them he would have no chance of escape. Captain Paul, after speaking to his superiors who ordered him to stop „that damned schooner” at all costs urged Randell once again to stop or they would be fired upon. I’m Alone did not slow down. After fifteen minutes, Wolcot began firing firearms, including a Tommy gun. They also fired several rounds from the deck cannon, but one of the bullets got stuck in the barrel and blew it apart. Paul was not about to abort the smuggling schooner and called on other vessels for help. This call was answered by the nearby Dexter still commanded by Alfred Powell eager for blood, or rather the planks of the smugglers’ Bismarck.
Randell was wounded during the initial shelling, but he was not about to give up. He knew he was now close to neutral waters where he would be safe. The captain sighed deeply and turned to face his sailor. Frenchman Leon Mainguy stood behind him with his coat in his hands. „I thought you might need it, Captain, it’s cold today,” he said. Randell took the coat and wrapped himself more tightly in it. „Do you think, Captain, that we will escape?” the sailor asked. Randell only smiled. „We’ll certainly try.” The sailor mused. „I don’t swim very well, Captain,” he said. Randell was not surprised. The ability to swim wasn’t essential; as long as the sailor didn’t fall into the water, no one on board needed to swim. If he kept a good lookout and had a little luck and none of his ships sank, no one would ever know about it. „If it were to happen, just find the biggest piece of the ship and hold on to it at all costs. We’d all do the same thing in that situation.” The sailor nodded and you could see he was relieved. „Where are we?” asked Randell. „Twelve and a half miles,” replied the sailor. Randell smiled slightly. A little more, to be sure, and they would be safe.
Dexter appeared near I’m Alone at 8 a.m. on March 22. The ship’s commander, Alfred W. Powell, seeing his nemesis so close, was not about to let up. He urged Randell to stop or he would open fire with complete disregard for the fact that they were already in neutral waters. Randell did not slow down. American units were ordered to stop the smugglers „at all costs.” A second chance like this might not come for a long time. Fifteen minutes later, Dexter opened fire. Thirty-eight cannon rounds were fired and over 400 small arms rounds were fired, literally tearing the schooner apart. Crates of liquor went to the bottom and sailors fell into the water. Of the eight crew members, only Leon Mainguy, who drowned after the ship sank, was killed. The others were fished out by sailors from the Dexter and Wolcot. They all ended up in prison, but that was not the end of the story.
The sinking of I’m Alone caused a major diplomatic crisis between Canada and the United States. Coast Guard ships operated outside their territorial waters and sank the Canadian ship. The public was tired of the bloodshed due to alcohol and demanded an explanation of the matter and an end to the senseless slaughter. Some politicians in Britain and Canada wondered about another issue. If the sinking of I’m Alone was ordered by the American government, then it was a declaration of war. If it was a Coast Guard decision, it was piracy. Either way, the Americans had to be punished for it. The Canadian government demanded reparations of $355,000. However, while investigating the case, it came to light that I’m Alone had an American owner, a post set up by the Mafia, but that was enough. After years of negotiations, which continued even after the Volstead Act was abolished, it was determined that the sinking of the schooner was an „unlawful act” and ultimately settled for $50,000 in damages. Half to the Canadian government and the remainder to Captain Randell, the sailors and Mainguy’s widow.
Randell and the other sailors left the prison walls fairly quickly. However, it is not known what the captain did until the outbreak of World War II, when he again enlisted in the army, from where he was released in 1942 after suffering a stroke. He died in 1944. The legend of the schooner I’m Alone lived a life of its own. Even during the political controversy immediately following the sinking of the schooner, the press glorified the smugglers by romanticizing their trade, calling them defenders of freedom and heroes. On this wave, Captain Randell even published his autobiography. Two years after the schooner’s sinking, bottles from his last shipment began appearing on American shores, which only strengthened his myth of steadfast resistance to the brutal force of an oppressive government.