The new piracy on the Spanish main

By Robert Sarner, The Canadian magazine, April 28, 1979

It was to be the trip of a lifetime - the kind fantasized by many, embarked on by few. It was January 1977, and Peter Prankerd, a wealthy 39-year-old Englishman, was already four months into a 40,000-km odyssey that was intended to take him and his family around the globe.

Despite bad weather off the coasts of northern Spain and Portugal, the journey south from England had passed without incident. The further England receded, the more fixed Prankerd's smile became. The Winnie Rigg, a rugged 75-foot refurbished trawler, was proving faithful to all expectation. Two days out of Gibraltar, it was now briskly cutting through the Atlantic Ocean 80 km off the northwest coast of Morocco. As Prankerd was completing a leisurely shift at the helm, his wife, Pat, appeared and shoved a cup of tea into his hand. In a worried whisper, she insisted that they move up to the bow where they could talk without being overheard.

"We've got a load of trouble on board!" Pat blurted. "You mean Marschner?" Prankerd asked. His wife nodded. "Hell, Pat, the man's been checked out by Immigration and even if they overlooked anything, the Russians won't have. What do you suspect?"

Pat looked out to sea, perplexed. "I think he's on drugs," she said at last. "He's in some racket or other. He keeps sniffling. He looks ill. He's white as a sheet, volunteers nothing about himself, and anyone who's been roaming the seven seas, the way he says he has, should be brown as a berry. I don't like it, luv...But I suppose there's little we can do now unless we ditch him in the Canary Islands."

Prankerd paused. He knew that in matters like this it was unlike his wife to be wrong. But he also knew that losing Marschner would mean losing a wheelhand for the Atlantic crossing. "Well we'll see how it goes," he replied cautiously. For all the preparation that had gone into the trip, the prospect of unwanted company on board had never figured in their plans.

Prankerd had banked everything on this voyage. It was a major turning point in his life, the realization of a long-nurtured dream that had started during the early '70s, as Prankerd grew increasingly disenchanted with his life in England. On the surface, he had little to lament. He was a self-made man who owned a lucrative chain of discount stores that was turning over $21/2 million a year. In addition to his main home just outside Gloucester, he had two large country houses and two Rolls-Royces. His three bright, healthy children went to the finest private schools. Everything, it seemed, was hunky-dory.

Not so. His intense involvement in his business had cut severely into his family life. He resented the fact that the more he made, the more went in taxes. His income had reached the formidable level at which the British government extracts 84%. He felt a prisoner of the very system that had allowed him to start with nothing and make it big. He had come to see himself "on some kind of tyrannical treadmill, blinkered and geared exclusively to the deity of money."

Finally, in late 1973, Peter and Pat Prankerd decided to break out of the rat race. They spent the next two years getting ready for this great escape, divesting themselves of all business interests and selling off all possessions to liberate themselves for a five-year cruise. A formal education for their children, they decided, could be forsaken in the name of more profound, worldly experience. Prankerd knew the sea. After two years of merchant marine training in the late 1940s, he had spent seven years as a navigational officer aboard Canadian Pacific liners crisscrossing the North Atlantic between Liverpool and Montreal or Saint John, New Brunswick.

In 1966, when the British navy put some older vessels up for sale, Prankerd bought the Winnie Rigg for the traditional "₤1 and other considerations." It had been built in Scotland in 1948 and, as with anything designed for the Admiralty, exemplified superb craftsmanship and solid construction.

In 1969, Prankerd took the Winnie Rigg to a shipyard for major renovation. Three years and more than $100,000 later, the once general-purpose naval boat emerged as a luxurious seagoing yacht complete with a new five-ton 400-hp. engine, a new teak deck, oak paneling, four cabins that could sleep 12, three washrooms including a full-size bath, two large saloons (living rooms) and a large galley. By the summer of 1975, Prankerd and his wife had completed their preparations and loaded the Winnie Rigg with as many provisions and amenities as her capacity would permit. They even installed a piano in one of the saloons. Their escape was to be as comfortable as the life they were abandoning.

Finally, late that September, the Prankerds and their children, Elizabeth, 11, Simon, 9, and Timothy, 8, set off for a new life from Plymouth, in southwestern England. They planned to follow a leisurely course that would take them to the Channel Islands, the West Indies, South America, and the west coast of North America, with the first extended stop to be in Vancouver.

In early November, 1976, Prankerd docked at Gibraltar, where he and his family decided to stay over until after New Year's. On December 17, two British Immigration officers boarded the Winnie Rigg to ask Prankerd if he would give a ride to a West German who, they said, had been shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, picked up by a Soviet tanker and recently dropped off at Gibraltar. It was quickly apparent to Prankerd that the German was a seasoned seaman. Tall, gaunt, in his late 30s, he spoke five languages and gave his name as Erich Marschner. Prankerd knew he could use extra help for the Atlantic crossing so it was agreed that Marschner would join the boat in early January, along with Graham Godsall, a 21-year-old Englishman who was paying $300 for passage to the Caribbean.

Within two days of setting off from Gibraltar, Prankerd's wife was already uneasy about their new German traveling companion. But her suggestion that Marschner be ditched in the Canary Islands came to naught. The Islands came and went with Marschner still on board. After a brief stopover in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, they began their southwesterly trek to the Windward Islands in the Caribbean, some 4,800 km away. Suddenly, during the early hours of the second day out, the Winnie Rigg's propeller picked up a fishing net, a singularly unusual occurrence to befall any boat that far out at sea. Prankerd had no option but to head back to Tenerife where, two days later, he docked at the southern tip of the island and freed the entangled net from the propeller. Things had started to go curiously askew. Prankerd, an optimistic and trusting man, began to wonder if there wasn't more to his wife's intuition than he had originally conceded.

Once again, Prankerd and company set out to cross the Atlantic. The following day, a second incident led Pat to comment that they had a jinx on board. Marschner managed to hurt his hand during his shift at the wheel. Somehow the overhead hatch crashed down on his fingers while he was hanging from the overhead opening. Prankerd was baffled. He had done the same thing hundreds of times without once meeting such a fate. Marschner capered in agony before finally seeking solace in a whisky bottle. He became unusually talkative. He had, he said, once seen a witch doctor in Haiti to have a curse removed. Replied Prankerd tersely, "You'd better see him again and get your money back."

Further evidence that the witch doctor hadn't done the job occurred several days later. In mid-January, a little over halfway across the Atlantic, the Winnie Rigg went to the rescue of a French trawler that had radioed for fuel. For five days as the trawler towed the Winnie Rigg, Prankerd, Marschner and Godsall transferred fuel in five-gallon drums. On the fifth day, Prankerd lost his anchor chain when the towline broke. Moments later, sickly noises from the engine convinced him that the boat's gearbox had been damaged. With no anchor chain and a crippled transmission, the Winnie Rigg now had to travel at reduced speed and indeed seemed to be jinxed.

Three weeks later, the Winnie Rigg pulled into St. Lucia's Castries harbor while it was still dark. In the morning Prankerd went ashore to clear Immigration. Godsall said goodbye, departing ostensibly to catch a flight to another Caribbean island. That evening, Marschner volunteered to stand the night watch over the moored boat.

Early the next morning, Valentine's Day, 1977, Prankerd was abruptly awakened by his two sons. "Daddy, Daddy, everything's gone!" they shrieked. "We've been robbed!" Prankerd dashed up to the wheelhouse and found a disaster area. Costly and vital radios, compasses, sextants, navigating charts, binoculars, cameras-all had vanished. Moments later Pat Brankerd appeared in her dressing gown. "It's Marschner," she said resignedly. Sure enough, Marschner and all of his belongings were gone too-and with them Prankerd's 12- and 15-foot dinghies and their outboard motors. Not even the cooking spices remained. The galley had been stripped, every cupboard emptied. Thousands of dollars in cash hidden by Prankerd in the engine room was now somebody else's secret. Prankerd was beside himself. Overnight, he had lost more than $10,000 worth of equipment and supplies (to say nothing of his stash of cash) that virtually knocked out the Winnie Rigg as a seagoing proposition .He was not insured.

"You see, Peter, I wasn't wrong," his wife lamented. "We should've put Marschner off at the Canary Islands." Prankerd was not about to argue.

His dismay was only increased by the attitude and inertia of local police and the hands-off policy of the British consul. By late afternoon the police had made little effort to search for the bandit or bandits. But Prankerd's own inquiries turned up stunning information that made him realize this whole calamity was a result of the incompetence of two British Immigration officers back in Gibraltar: Marschner, the man he had clothed and fed for the past seven weeks, was an international pirate wanted by police forces on both sides of the Atlantic.

It took a few months for Prankerd to discover that his was only a minor chapter in a true saga of modern-day buccaneers whose victims are often far less fortunate. Only then would he realize that, for all his misfortune, he and his family were lucky to be alive.

Danger, of course, has always been part of life at sea. Hurricanes, collisions, tidal waves, faulty equipment are risks any seaman accepts as inescapable parts of his heritage. Now another danger - piracy - has resurfaced to spread like a dark stain through the leisure-boating world.

Admittedly, piracy is about as old as man's use of the sea as a means of transport. It flourished throughout the centuries until the mid-1800s, when most maritime countries developed national navies and merchant ships began heavily arming themselves to ward off attack. This century organized piracy has been relegated to breathless novels and skull-and-crossboned Hollywood myths. The hero (Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn) was always some handsome swashbuckler who captured corruptly rich merchant ships, and spent an inordinate amount of time swinging athletically in the rigging or making love to the beautiful, always helpless, female passengers.

Recently, however, the buccaneering spirit has returned to reality. In the last decade, as the hijacking of planes became a favorite terrorist pastime, a new generation of pirates more ruthless than their counterparts in the skies have been creating havoc on the seas. In North America, the growth in pleasure boating that began in the late '60s has produced flotillas of yachts throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico - a development not lost on a criminal fringe that knows an easy and profitable prey when it sees one. By the early '70s, reports of private boats being stolen, crews mysteriously vanishing, were heard with alarming frequency.

Finally, in 1974, in response to mounting concern among the yachting community, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a public notice advising mariners: "Yachtsmen planning to set out for a cruise...should be aware that their yachts may become a target for a modern-day pirate or hijacker, not by way of boarding by force a la Captain Teach [Blackbeard's real name] but by way of stealth and trickery." To many yachtsmen, who accused - and still accuse - the Coast Guard of downplaying the situation, the warning was long overdue.

The following year, after seven months of investigation and congressional hearings, the U.S. House of Representatives' committee on merchant marine and fisheries released its report on the "pirating of privately owned pleasure craft and fishing vessels." From 1971 to 1974, according to its findings, at least 610 boats had disappeared under mysterious circumstances - along with, incredibly, some 2,000 people. Vanished. There was strong enough evidence for the committee to identify 50 of these as "yachtjackings" in which more than 200 lives were lost. But even these awesome figures - still the most comprehensive compiled - didn't tell the whole story, since they applied only to U.S. registered vessels. The report made no mention of similarly ill-fated, non-U.S.-registered yachts in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, where it's estimated more than half are European or Canadian.

By far the most celebrated case of suspected hijacking in the past decades involves the luxurious 75-foot yacht called, strangely enough, Pirate's Lady. It disappeared with an experienced captain and another man aboard after leaving Apalachicola, Florida, on January 27, 1977, for what was to be a simple two-day cruise south to Clearwater. Its owner, New Orleans millionaire Charles Slater, embarked on a costly and noisy search within days of the boat's no-show in Clearwater. He notified police forces in several countries personally and repeatedly. He flew down to the Caribbean and Colombia to investigate. He circulated posters around the world offering a $25,000 reward for information that could solve the riddle. He gave dozens of interviews to the media, in which he lambasted the police and Coast Guard. He spent thousands and found nothing - but did collect close to $1 million in insurance.

Today, Slater is mysteriously reticent about the whole affair. Eighteen months ago he turned suddenly silent and has remained so, unwilling to say anything more than "I cannot comment on that." Why? "I cannot comment on that." Even the most innocuous questions elicit nothing more. Does he still have little confidence in the law enforcement agencies involved? "Yes," said Slater tersely in response to the only question from The Canadian he was prepared to answer.

It's impossible to know just how many hijackings have been committed at sea. The incompetence, patent lack of concern and suspected corruption of certain police forces in the Caribbean, coupled with the lack of coordination between the different law enforcement agencies in the U.S., make it maddeningly difficult to establish the extent of these pirates' crimes, much less bring them to justice. Not surprisingly, there's little consensus among official agencies and the yachting community on the scale of the problem.

"I don't want to say that hijacking isn't a problem, because it is," says Commander Larry Hyde, chief of the U.S. Coast Guard's law enforcement branch in Washington. "But the number we have identified as definite hijackings is relatively small considering the number of boats out there." In contrast to the unsettling findings of the congressional report, the Coast Guard's official files list only 43 "possible hijacks" occurring between 1971 and January, 1979, and only six others are classified as "known, definite" cases. The FBI has found even less cause for alarm. "We have little to indicate that there's a serious problem involving piracy and hijacking of private boats," says a spokesman from its Washington headquarters. "There's no hard evidence."

But of course. The very nature of a crime in which the best clues may drift to the ocean floor precludes the existence of hard evidence. After pirates have captured a yacht at sea, murdered the crew, ditched the bodies overboard, and scuttled the vessel, there's not likely to be much left to prove anything

"It's the closest thing to a perfect crime you can have," says congressional investigator Carl Perian, now chief of staff of the merchant marine committee. "Since the criminals usually dispose of the boat and crew at sea, leaving no tangible evidence, the Coast Guard will merely classify it as another boat lost at sea without probing any further."

There are also many yachtsmen who feel the problem is far greater than is officially acknowledged or known. "You go to almost any marina and you'll find a dozen guys hanging around waiting to crew or just looking for a ride," explains Gary Bearne, an American yachtsman in the Virgin Islands. "A yacht will leave with a couple of strangers on board. Maybe they're off for a two-month cruise. Maybe they're going to Australia. They don't file a trip plan. Yachtsmen are like that. So they take off and who's to know when they're due somewhere? Maybe three months later their families start worrying, but it's a little late by then."

The fate of the boats is another matter that's hotly contested. Congressman John Murphy, who headed the 1974-75 House investigation, reported that most of the hijacked boats were stolen by drug traffickers to funnel narcotics from South America to the shores of Florida and Puerto Rico. Others, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, disputed Murphy's finding in more recent hearings. They do acknowledge that Caribbean sea lanes have become superhighways for drug runners, but they claim that most traffickers aren't crazy enough to resort to stolen boats that would only increase the risk - and penalty - of being caught. The DEA has testified it has never seized a stolen boat from drug smugglers it has apprehended. With the kind of money they're raking in, the argument goes, the smugglers can easily afford to buy their boats legitimately.

"We know for a fact," says Larry Mallon, staff counsel to the subcommittee on the Coast Guard and navigation, "that there's systematic, organized theft-to-order of large, private, oceangoing yachts in the 40-foot-plus category. Somewhere between 100 and several hundred a year." The stolen vessels, with new paint job and new name, Mallon explains, are usually laundered by way of easy re-registration in Panama or Honduras, later to be sold in Latin America and the Far and Middle East where there's a ready market for custom-made, expensive yachts. Drug smugglers, according to Mallon, are not involved anymore.

"My judgment is that the number of hijackings has remained constant over the last few years," says Carl Perian, "and I'll agree that most drug smugglers aren't involved. But with drug smugglers, as in any group of criminals, you also have your amateur fringe who won't hesitate to do anything - including murder."

And therein lie the long knives of the new piracy.

Today, more than two years since they last saw each other in St. Lucia, Peter Prankerd is living in Canada while Erich Marschner is living behind bars in the U.S. After he was ripped off, Prankerd remained for a while in the Caribbean awaiting new equipment for the Winnie Rigg from England. The Marschner debacle and a bad back injury persuaded Prankerd to forego the rest of the world odyssey. He and his family headed for Canada as originally planed but this time via the most direct route, due north along the eastern North American coast up to Halifax.

Eventually, Prankerd learned that the episode aboard the Winnie Rigg was but a mere footnote to the Marschner story. Marschner was alleged to have stolen as many as 12 boats in both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. He had even figured in the congressional report, which referred to him by name as a "known drug smuggler, armed and dangerous (carrying several side arms) and wanted in the theft of three yachts..." He had been released from prison in Martinique on December 12, 1976, after serving over two years for yacht theft; he was given a one-way ticket to Hamburg and five days later (in his now understandably anemic condition) he walked aboard the Winnie Rigg at Gibraltar.

While in New York, where Prankerd stayed for almost a year before continuing on to Canada, he learned that Marschner had finally been nabbed. But not for theft aboard the Winnie Rigg. He and Godsall were arrested by French police in Martinique in late 1977 for the theft of an American yacht called the Flyaway, whose name Marschner had changed to Mona Toronto after purloining it in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Marschner was extradited to St. Thomas, where he pleaded guilty to "interstate transportation of stolen property," and was sentenced to five years. Now 40, he is currently doing his time in the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Connecticut. His prison stay, shortened somewhat by time off for good behavior, will end late next year. Godsall was also imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Prankerd and his family are living aboard the Winnie Rigg in Mahone Bay, 80 km southwest of Halifax, where they dropped anchor last July. Whenever Prankerd thinks of the fate he and his family might have met, he thanks God they're still alive. Dead men, after all, tell no tales. Prankerd is very much alive and intends to tell as many as he can: right now he's writing a lengthy book on his misadventures.

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