Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Friday, November 19, 2004

Having a gun on a boat
can cause trouble

Get a gun." That's the first thing my friend Paula said when I told her I was sailing to Palmyra.

"Why?" I said. "In case a fairy tern goes berserk?"

"You can buy them at Sports Authority," she said. "I saw them there in a glass case."

"Paula, I'm not buying a gun. Palmyra is a wildlife refuge full of seabirds and giant crabs."

"Exactly my point," she said. "What if pirates show up?"

I laughed.

"I'm serious, Susan," she said. "I'm worried about you."

Paula's concern was genuine, and she didn't even know yet about the murders.

I learned about the 1974 Palmyra murders long before they were made famous in a 1991 book called "And the Sea Will Tell" by Vincent Bugliosi. My neighbors in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor knew the victims, Mac and Muffy Graham. They'd all waved goodbye to one another as the Grahams left the harbor for Palmyra on their boat, the Sea Wind.

In those days, Palmyra Atoll, although privately owned, was open to passers-by. Sailors sometimes anchored in the idyllic lagoon for months at a time.

Tragically, an ex-convict and his girlfriend, living on a wreck of a boat there, took a hankering to the Sea Wind, killed the Grahams and stole their boat. When the murderers sailed it back to Honolulu, they got caught, and the man got life in prison.

It was a terrible incident, and I do wish Mac and Muff had a gun aboard on that ill-fated day. Most of the time, though, guns on boats are nothing but trouble.

A German sailor once told me a story that confirmed this belief. He and his girlfriend were sailing offshore of Columbia on their way to Panama. Because the stories about pirates in the area scared them, the couple took down their radar reflector and sailed at night without lights.

Their paranoia was justified, they thought, when, one dark night, boat lights appeared on the horizon from the direction of the Colombian coast.

Gradually, the lights grew brighter; the boat was getting closer. As the lights got bigger and bigger, the man became more and more frightened. Certain the mystery vessel was aiming to hijack them, he went below and got his gun.

He loaded the weapon and stood on the deck, waiting to defend his girlfriend, himself and his boat to the death if necessary. All he could think about, he told me, were the stories about drug runners killing cruisers.

The lights drew near. The German aimed his gun. And then came a voice from a loudspeaker: "This is the United States Coast Guard. Prepare to be boarded."

Since the German was sailing with no lights and didn't answer their call (he had his radio turned off), the coasties thought he was a drug runner. They had all come very close to shooting one another.

At dinner one evening, Paula found out about the Palmyra murders and insisted, again, that I buy a gun. Craig told her I already have one. It came with six flares.

"Would a flare kill someone?" she asked.

"Probably," he said. "At close range."

Paula felt better about my trip then. But as we left the restaurant, she leaned toward me and said, "Get six guns."

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.



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