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April 14, 2008

Were Those Masked Men Actually Mexican Navy?

"We read the April 9 ‘Lectronic item about Besame, the Southern California-based mini-megayacht that was approached by a panga full of armed and masked men off the coast of mainland Mexico recently," write Guy and Deborah Bunting, former residents of Vista who have been cruising their M&M 46 catamaran Elan in Mexico and Central America for years now.

"On the evening of March 5, off the coast of Zihuatanejo, during our passage from the Galapagos Islands to Zihuatanejo, we heard a frantic call on the VHF from a large sportsfishing boat to the Coast Guard, reporting they were being approached by a vessel manned by men in black masks. I don’t recall the exact description of the vessel the men were in, but I’m pretty sure it was a large panga. After several responses from English-speaking folks on boats in the area, none of which were Coast Guard vessels, the men on the approaching panga lifted their masks — and turned out to indeed be members of the Mexican Navy about to conduct a routine vessel inspection! They were allowed aboard, and the skipper of the large sportfishing boat said that the boarding party was professional and courteous, and that the inspection was minimal. They gave no explanation for the masks.

"The skipper of the sport fishing boat also said the boarders were all dressed in SWAT team-like garb, were heavily armed, and that it was quite frightening at first. No mention was made as to whether or not they were hailed by the Navy in advance of the boarding, but we heard many hails to vessels from the Mexican Navy in English and Spanish during that night.

"Although many boats were boarded by the Navy off Zihua on the evening of March 5, we somehow avoided the picket line. Once we got to port, I asked the port captain about Navy personnel being masked. He said he knew nothing about it.

"I have to admit, seeing a boatload of men wearing black masks approaching would be unnerving, but in this case at least, they were indeed Mexican Navy personnel."

Why would the members of the Mexican military wear masks? There is a massive drug war going on in Mexico right now, both between the most powerful cartels, and between the relatively new administration of President Calderon and the drug cartels. Thousands have been killed, and the drug cartels have been known to do things like decapitate members of the police/Federales/military and leave the heads in front of bases or on disco floors. In addition, families of members of the police/Federales/military involved in drug interdiction operations have been kidnapped and/or killed. As such, even the good guys have been wearing masks to hide their identities.

There are three reasons we think that Besame was not being trailed by "pirates." First, had they been pirates, we assume they would have shot the hell out of the boat after not being allowed to board. Second, because, in similar operations, members of the Mexican Navy have worn masks. Finally, because there haven’t been any other such attacks in Mexico to date. Indeed, the remarkable thing is how safe coastal Mexico is despite these massive drug battles. The one thing both the drug cartels and government know is that tourism in Mexico is sacred, so while some Mexico towns are battlefields, those frequented by higher end tourists, and the coast, are actually very safe. It’s the same thing with Cartagena in Colombia — everybody has agreed there will be no drug wars in that historic city.

Le Ponant Hostages Released

The 30 crewmembers of Le Ponant were released Friday, after seven days in captivity.

© French Ministry of Defense

The 30 crewmembers of the 288-ft French luxury yacht Le Ponant, taken hostage on April 4 by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, were released Friday after the yacht’s owners paid a $2 million ransom. The French government reports that the hostages were treated well and none were injured during their week-long ordeal.

Several of the estimated 12 pirates tried to make a getaway on land but French commandos in a Gazelle helo swooped down, "disabling" their vehicle with gunfire. Six pirates were arrested. While Somali government officials claim at least three people were killed by gunfire with several more injured, the French government claims no pirates were killed.

The incident has spurred French diplomats into proposing a plan to the UN that will step up international patrols in piracy hotspots such as the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Malacca.

Readers Write on the State of the AC

BMW Oracle Racing sailors go back to school for a multihull education courtesy of Franck Cammas and the Groupama team. They’ve been dialing up against Pascal Bidegorry’s Banque Populaire in some high-speed match racing scrimmages.

© 2008 Yvan Zedda / Groupama

On Wednesday, we asked ‘Lectronic readers for their thoughts on a giant-multihull match for America’s Cup 33. We received a wide range of responses from enthusiasm to derision — and apathy. We don’t have room to publish them all but here’s a sampling:

"Very exciting. Let’s get on with it." — Dave Davis, Wind Dragon, San Francisco

"This whole episode is really sad. The America’s Cup had the chance to capitalize on some of the best racing the contest has ever seen and it has degenerated into an egomaniacal farce. Who cares if Larry’s tri beats Ernesto’s tri?" — Bob Munsor

"Best thing that could have happened!  We’re going to see a lot of  innovation and learning. We may conclude that multihull match racing is not a good thing, but it won’t be for lack of investment or effort. Based on the comments from Spithill and Baird, they may have a difficult time going back to the lead mines." — Russ Irwin, New Morning, Sausalito

"It can be summed up in two words: Who cares? This battle does not conform to the stipulation in the Deed Of Gift that it is for ‘friendly competition’. Nothing could be further from the truth. The personal animosity between Bertarelli and Coutts will see to that. Hand the Cup to NYYC for permanent display with a plaque saying the competition died in 2007. I will then sponsor ‘The Rectum Cup’  for those who qualify as assholes." — John Harwood-Bee, Ware, UK

Happy Birthday, Olin

Birthday boy – Olin Stephens turned 100 this past weekend.

© 2008 Webb Logg

We would like to join the rest of the sailing world in wishing happy birthday to Olin Stephens, who turned 100 yesterday (April 13).

Stephens, who was born in the Bronx in 1908, once said "I was lucky. I had a goal. As far back as I remember, I wanted to design fast boats." And that’s what he did. After exactly one semester at MIT, he apprenticed to several designers, including Phil Rhodes. In 1928, at the age of 19, he partnered up with a yacht broker named Drake Sparkman and, a year later, Sparkman and Stephens formally hung out their shingle. In addition to Olin and Drake, the five partners included Olin’s brother Rod, Drake’s brother, James, and James Murray.

Stephens’ first big success was the lovely yawl Dorade, which launched in 1930 and pulled a clean sweep in the 1936 TransPac — first to finish, first in class and first overall. Stephens went on to design many more spectacular yachts, including the ’37 America’s Cup winner Ranger and — count ’em — seven more A-Cup winners in a career lasting more than 50 years. In all, Stephens designed more than 2,000 boats.

Stephens, who lives in New Hampshire, retired from designing in the 1980s but continues to remain active in the creation and refinement of rating rules. He also continues a keen interest in racing and yachting in general.

Happy birthday to a man who truly deserves the title ‘living legend’!

At 16, Zac Sunderland hopes to become the youngest solo circumnavigator. © Marianne Sunderland Laurence and Marianne Sunderland of Marina del Rey report that their 16-year-old son Zac, who has 15,000 ocean miles to his credit, will set off next month from Southern California in an attempt to become the youngest person to circumnavigate singlehanded.
Further to the above report, annoucing that Zac Sunderland, 16, hopes to set a record as the youngest solo circumnavigator, we should point out that another 16-year-old, Josh Clark of Panama City, Panama, may attempt the same feat.
If you miss Lin and Larry Pardey’s talks at Strictly Sail next weekend (click here for details), you’ll have a chance to catch their "Sixteen Ways to Keep Your Lover" seminar at the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center in Sausalito on April 24 at 7 p.m.