The Journey Of The White Bird

by Jake Rohrer, December 24, 2013

Max and Maureen sailed White Bird, a sleek 42-foot trimaran, across the Pacific from Lahaina to the San Francisco Bay, where Max would oversee some refurbishing, purchase new sails and rigging, and get the vessel shipshape. Afterward, we planned to voyage down the coast into Mexico. Max and Maureen would sail home to Maui from Mexico, and I would fly home to Berkeley from La Paz. From the days he worked for our dad in the auto business, Max became family-close to my brother and me, his smiling country ways always a reminder of dad. We helped Max purchase White Bird and he lived aboard with his lady, Maureen, at the Lahaina roadstead. Stu Cook, our pal from high school and Creedence, joined us in the partnership.

Years before I was involved in the drug trade, Max was arrested after being fingered as the ring leader of a marijuana grow in Idaho, making front page news in that state. I was working for Creedence at the time and I enlisted John Fogerty's financial support to save Max from the clutches of Idaho justice. John never hesitated, figuratively opening his wallet and telling me to take what I needed. Our relationship was probably about as close as John ever allowed anyone to get to him, other than his family and band members. He was always warm and generous toward me, and I admired his person as much as I admired his talent. I got Max bailed and hired legal gunslinger, Carl Maxey, former attorney general for the state of Washington, who blew the state's case against Max out of the water in short order. It was our connection to Max that brought John and me to Troy, Oregon, where we both spent whole chapters of our lives outside the bright lights of the record business. Years later, my association with John long over, the feds caught up with my brother and me, and Max and Maureen started on a journey that would take them and White Bird around the world.

* * *

I spotted White Bird in a temporary berth at the Berkeley marina and started down the dock toward the handsome sailing ship. There was no sign of anyone above deck. Just as I walked up to the vessel, a silver missile flew from the open engine hatch and plopped into the marina followed by a stream of curses, “...when the goddam hell is someone going to invent a flashlight that works?” Max was below deck trying to install a new cable for the knot-meter and having a rough go of it. He climbed out and greeted me, still cursing the flashlight.

“Maybe the gods have determined we don't need a knot-meter,” he said. Max had an abstract way of thinking about things, as though maybe things were the way they were supposed to be, broken or not. When he'd encounter something beyond repair or his ability to alter, then it must be the way it's supposed to be.

“Oh yes we do need it, Max,” said Maureen, coming up the stairway out of the galley. “It could be hard to determine our position without it.” Maureen held the captain's license and did most of the navigation. “Hiya, Jaker,” she said, smiling her greeting. Max was always a ladies man, the pretty Maureen nearly 30 years his junior.

“Okay, Maureen, I'll get 'er done in good time,” said Max, “...soon as I find a flashlight that works.” He showed me the new pilot's chair and rigging, the new dodger stretching across the center hull, near mid-ship in front of the compass and wheel, guaranteed to keep heavy seas off the helmsman. New hardware sparkled everywhere, stainless steel clips, pulleys, ties and stanchions. “...don't ever bring no black iron aboard White Bird,” said Max, as though a curse portending serious consequence. I gave him a hand replacing the cable, and we found it's length had somehow been stretched by the prior installation attempts. “Must'a needed stretching,” said Max.

We spent the afternoon planning our voyage to Mexico. Because of time restraints, I would meet them in San Diego. I invited an old high school friend, Freddie, to come along, and we hooked up with Max in San Diego to start our journey down Baja's western coast.

I'll always remember being stopped in my tracks when I saw the headlines in the San Diego paper racks on the day we set out: John Lennon had been killed, gunned down in front of his New York apartment by some crazy punk. His death stunned me, and I enlisted inner defenses to blunt and desensitize the shock of loss. It felt personal, as though I'd lost a friend, similar to the way I felt when the Kennedys were killed. I buried the knowledge somewhere deep inside and busied myself with the chores of preparing for the voyage. Through his music, Lennon was special, to me and to most of the world. Thirty-two years after his death, an absurd line of John Lennon “fashion” clothing gets released, spectacles around your tits, hand-prints on your crotch. Just imagine.

* * *

Max woke me at midnight. It was my watch on a quiet night in calm seas. There was no wind to propel us and we were motoring parallel to the Baja coast with the sails dropped. White Bird's sturdy little diesel engine pushed us along at about eight knots. I was alone at the helm, the big wheel in my grip, holding to a compass heading and keeping an eye out for other vessels. Moonlight played off the water highlighting the ripple and splash of our wake, alive with the plentiful phosphorescence in the sea, electric and mystifying.

I heard their high-pitched clicks and squeaks before I saw them, a pod of dolphins. Then the vessel was surrounded, far too many to be remotely countable. They surged around our bow, keeping pace and weaving back and forth among themselves, their numbers spilling out and down each side of our 42-foot length. We were being escorted, carried along in a spectacular sea of dolphins, playful, sleek, and galvanized by the phosphorescence, their silhouettes distinct, outlined in an eerie glow as though each animal was defined in its own neon signage. Now and then an individual would leave the pod to capture a baitfish, speeding out ahead or peeling off on one side or the other, then rejoining the group. The pursuers left a zigzagged trail of phosphorescence that mapped the chase and capture, like the tail of a crazed comet out of control in the heavens. The quarry had no chance once locked onto by these hunter-missiles of the sea. I was mesmerized by this stunning show of nature, unable to do anything but drink it in. By the time it occurred to me to wake the others so that they, too, could experience this unimaginable show of light, beauty and grace, the pod was gone, moving on to their next order of business.

In the morning we saw enormous dolphin pods moving across the sea, in side-by-side formations seeming to stretch a quarter-mile across — thousands of dolphins in motion like a Serengeti migration, moving away from us. Their splashing, jumping and diving was visible for 10 minutes or so before eventually falling off the horizon. We came across a sea turtle that morning, in apparent distress and being harassed by circling game fish. Freddie insisted we come to its aid. Max maneuvered White Bird into position and I held Freddie by his legs as he lay on the deck and leaned over the side and grabbed the turtle on each side of the shell. When he tried to lift it, the turtle panicked and started splashing the surface with its flippers, creating a pretty good ruckus. Almost immediately sleek dark shadows knifed through the water at remarkable speed just beneath the turtle, sharks, probably makos, investigating the commotion. I don't think Freddie saw them, but I held on a little tighter while he managed to haul the turtle on board. The turtle traveled with us most of the day, and we took turns keeping it wet and cool with buckets of sea water. When we released it in the afternoon it seemed to have regained its strength and stamina. I put out a bone and feather lure on a trolling line and we soon had a couple of small barracuda for dinner.

Two nights later Max and Maureen were engaged in a heated argument concerning our position. It was nearing dark and the sea was turning angry. White caps appeared all around us and waves started to break over the bow. The wind was noticeably picking up. “We should have seen that beacon by now,” hollered Max, busy reefing the main sail. We were searching the ever-darkening horizon for a rotating lighthouse beacon that was supposed to be visible for two seconds at 60-second intervals, marking the southern end of the Baja peninsula.

“I think we've passed it,” said Max, not at all pleased with the lack of information on where we might be. “I think we should head east.” GPS was in its infancy, beyond our means at the time. We instead relied on charts, sextant and compass, technology unchanged for centuries.

“It's too dark, Max,” insisted Maureen. “We could run into the Baja peninsula, if not the Mexican mainland.” Stormy skies obscured the moon and stars.

  Max moved to the bow and began hauling in the foresail, hanging onto the rigging for dear life, swinging around the deck like a rag doll in the closing darkness. “What balls!” said Freddie, standing back at the helm with me, watching Max wrestle the sail. The wind continued to rise and seas turned increasingly rough.

“C'mon, Maureen, let's head east!” called Max.

“No Max, we can't! It's too dangerous!”

Max wondered if they had navigated one stretch of our course in kilometers instead of nautical miles, throwing our reckoning to a miscalculated guess. The sound of their argument was getting lost in the howl of the furious wind. I feared the stalemate over our position would lead us to a possibly dangerous path eastward, or leave us with an uncomfortable and scary night at sea. Then it began to rain and we were pelted with cold, heavy raindrops driven by the wind, stinging our faces. Just when it couldn't get any worse, I saw a brief flash on the eastern horizon out ahead of us, faint, like a candle at a distance.

“Beacon ho!” I called. All eyes turned to where I was pointing. Soon it flashed again, still dim on the horizon, and Max began tracking it with his watch, timing the flash and sequence.

“Sure as hell!” he cried after a couple more flashes. All of the stress and heaviness of the previous hour was left behind as White Bird headed east and into calmer seas.

When the sun came up we were passing the coast and beaches at Cabo San Lucas, close in. Then we headed north, up into the Sea of Cortez, and followed our charts into the bay that fronts La Paz. Back on dry land after several days at sea, the ground wouldn't stop moving, but we soon recovered our land legs. Once settled in La Paz, Freddie and I went looking for what we had known since high school as basic Mexican trade commodities: cherry bombs and switchblades. Then we tried to buy some uppers and downers at a pharmacy. We couldn't believe it. There were no cherry bombs or switchblades for sale anywhere, and the pharmacy wanted to see our prescriptions. What the hell has happened to Mexico?

* * *

At the border coming home I was watching the immigration officer's face across the counter from me. Something told me I should pay attention to him. He was entering my particulars into his computer, the screen filled with numbers and characters reflected in his glasses. Suddenly his eyes visibly widened and his expression changed from routine to alert. He moved from his post and motioned for me to bring my belongings and come with him. We went to the back of the room where he had a few private words with an aggressive-looking customs cop who locked onto me with his eyes, holding me in his gaze. Should central casting ever need a nasty looking SS lieutenant, here was the guy.

With a few clipped commands the cop had me remove everything from my pockets and gave me a thorough pat-down. He went through everything I possessed with an exhaustive search, removing the contents of my wallet and ordering me to wind the unexposed film in my camera onto the spool so he could open it. He shot curt questions at me, treating me like the criminal I was, though I wasn't engaged in any crime at that moment. Then they pulled Freddie out of line and brought him to the back of the room with me, giving him the same hard time and treatment.

“...why's your hand shaking, pal?” the snotty bastard customs cop asked Freddie.

“My hand's not shaking,” asserted Freddie, thrusting his hand out in front of him, rock steady. “Let's see yours,” he said.

As cool and belligerent as Freddie was with the customs cops, he then had an onset of acute paranoia for the rest of the journey, picking out people he thought were following us, imagining our every move under surveillance. His imaginings continued into the days following our return, becoming a genuine pain in the ass while I was trying to make sense of what I had learned.

They weren't supposed to know I was a bad guy. Who the hell told them? There was no question in my mind that something was up. My cover as an innocent taxpayer had been blown: the feds had a file on me, flagged in their computers as a bad guy. Almost a year would go by before they arrested me, during which time I could only look over my shoulder and wonder about what was going on. I never dreamed Stephen Green was the root of it. I never dreamed that words out of someone's mouth, accusations from a drowning man trying to save his own ass, could be evidence enough to convict someone of a crime, not in this country. There was no victim, no smoking gun, no dead body, no drugs, no money...just words that chronicled a time gone by in which a hundred pounds of blow had changed hands. The law and the feds, of course, looked on society as the victim and, as far as they were concerned, that blow was real, and a lot of it was deemed to have been found in my possession, adding weight to the conspiracy charges against me. Again the hard way, I would learn more about the feds than I ever wanted to know.

* * *

When the feds finally let the hammer drop, my brother and I found ourselves in a period of turmoil and uncertain future. Defending ourselves from criminal charges was all new territory for us. Among other things, we feared that the feds might try to confiscate White Bird, depending on what Stephen Green might have told them. It was an unlikely scenario given our histories as taxpayers with legitimate income, as well as Max and Stu's interests, but these were times of less than reasoned judgment, fueled by fear of prison and the unknown. I got in touch with Max and suggested that it might be a good time to visit the Marquesas and Tahiti, possible adventures we had discussed in the past. Max was in agreement, and White Bird was on her way within the week.

We counted ourselves lucky that White Bird was still afloat. One summer earlier, my family and I, along with Max and Maureen, ventured off for a week aboard White Bird to visit Moloka`i and sail around Lana'i. During our absence at the Lahaina roadstead, where dozens of private vessels are normally moored, a pissed-off Samoan named Benjamin Ko, angered that his passage to Tahiti had been withdrawn by a vessel neighboring ours, threw a fit of rampage and mayhem. He commandeered a large double-decked dinner boat that catered to the tourist trade, and roared through the roadstead at full throttle, ramming every vessel he could get in his sights, sinking many of them. It was said that crew members on the tourist boat, attempting to allay the mayhem, sneaked up behind him at the wheel and broke an oar over his head, which didn't faze him at all. The massive Samoan grabbed two of them and threw them overboard and went back to his version of nautical bumper cars. When the aftermath was tallied, Benjamin faced something like 130 felony charges. Don't fuck with the feds; don't fuck with Samoans, either.

After the initial landfall at the Marquesas, throughout the following months and years, White Bird visited numerous island groups across the south Pacific, then headed to Australia's northern coast, then northwest through the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka, ever westward to the Gulf of Aden, then north through the Red Sea and Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, where they again headed west before passing through Gibraltar and turning south, following Africa's western coast to a southwest crossing of the Atlantic to the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, following the western horizon all the way back to Maui. The whole journey was completed with just charts, sextant, compass, radio and the remarkable courage of the two sailors.

The journey of White Bird wouldn't be over until they had sailed around the world, arriving back at the starting point, equaling in time my journey through the Federal maze of trial, appeal, prison and eventual release. While in prison, we'd get an occasional letter from Max telling us about his adventures. What a grand reunion awaited us at the end of our journeys, each of us indelibly branded for the rest of our lives by the people we'd meet and the places we'd been, each looking forward to the next horizon.

Portions from a few of those letters from Max are excerpted below. In them I again hear his voice and remember his smiling face. Max died in Hilo in 1997, aged 78 years.

Aboard White Bird, the Red Sea, March, 1984. 

Dear Brothers:

It's a hard push up the Red Sea. We left our last anchorage against strong northerlies, but it got too bad and we turned back. We've followed coastline since the Gulf of Aden, crossing from Yemen to Sudan and Egypt. Each stop along this coast features desert, camels, dust storms and flies. We keep an eye out for pirates and the Mini-14 at ready. We have some 600 miles to go before our next stopover target, Cyprus. Egyptian military has been none too friendly, so we hit it again, right into crashing seas and 40-knot gale winds. Day and night with no relief, no moon to guide us. We got separated from our “buddy-boat” sailing partner, 45 hours without sleep, the main sail in tatters.

We finally spotted the Egyptian coast and headed for some shelter where we could lick our wounds. I was taking stock of everything that needed fixing when I paused to let the smallest of farts and completely shit my pants. I took them off and tried to throw them off the stern, but they hung up on the VHF antenna where they stayed, flying high, our disgusting flag and symbol of the last 48 hours. We heard on the radio that our buddy boat had gone on the shore in North Yemen and was waiting for a commercial tug to come and pull them off.

Heading out again, this time into calm seas, winds NNW at ten knots. It's warm, the sea is flat and I'm happy. Your brother, Max

* * *

Aboard White Bird, Cyprus, July, 1984.

 Dear Brothers:

The smooth sailing up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal didn't last very long, a repeat movie of 40-knot winds and high seas, lots of big ship traffic. We had to take on a pilot who brought along his prayer blanket and kneels to pray to Mecca several times daily. We finally found some shelter and the steering cable broke just as we dropped anchor. I jury-rigged it and we made it to Suez through one hard blow. I wanted to go to the pyramids, but felt the need to keep going on to Cyprus and make White Bird new again.

Cyprus at last! The sun shines, the people smile and the food is good. White Bird is safe in the marina. Coming into Cyprus at night, we were blown off course toward Lebanon where we saw flashes of shell fire and war ships. We raised a French aircraft carrier on VHF and they wanted to know what the hell we were doing there. They wouldn't give us a position fix, but did give us a bearing on Larnica, Cyprus. Then they launched a plane that made a low pass over us, and they followed us for two hours to be sure we were leaving the war zone. We'll be in Cyprus for some time, doing repairs and getting a new sail or two. Your brother, Max

* * *

Aboard White Bird, Adriatic Sea, September, 1984. 

Dear Brothers:

Anchored in a protective cove tonight, making slow northerly progress between storms. Looks like about 175 miles to Venice. The thread in the main sail is rotten and we blew out the lower seam, but were able to take one reef and get by. This morning we blew out the next one up, and we're now running with a double reef. The cloth is still good, so it's just a matter of getting to a good sail-maker for restitching. There are hundreds of island along this coast, so we have good stops each night. We'll cross over to Yugoslavia before long. Once we reach Venice, we'll find a winter home and White Bird will get the v.i.p. treatment, awaiting the next leg of our journey in the Spring. Your brother, Max

* * *

Aboard White Bird, Venice, Italy, December, 1984. 

Dear Brothers:

As we moved across the Pacific, from island to island, we never stopped for more than a few weeks before we were on our way again. Most of these stops meant working on the boat, getting her ready for the next leg at sea and new horizons. The longest stop to date was Sri Lanka. We were there for four months, waiting out the hurricane season. I was always frantic to move on when the horizons had become too familiar.

Now it's winter and I must stay here in Venice until the spring, and already I am restless. I want to go to sea, keep moving westward until I can drop my anchor where I first picked it up, a complete circumnavigation. To ease my restlessness, I have lowered my line of sight to things closer around me, trying not to look at those distant horizons. Venice is a unique city and there's plenty to see, so, between excursions and getting the boat back in shape, I'll hang on until spring. Last week we took the train to Florence, stayed a day or two, then went on to Rome. The holy father wasn't there to greet me, so we didn't stay too long. Your brother, Max

* * *

Aboard White Bird, Los Christianos, Canary Islands, November 1985. 

Dear Brothers:

We're trying to get it together for the Atlantic crossing, but pushing does no good as my speed around the world is governed by #1, my income, and #2, the seasons and weather. Direct to Florida from here is not a good route for us. We will go south, down the African coast as far as the Cape Verde Islands, then start our curve west, depending on trades, Atlantic currents, and possible hurricanes. We should start across the Atlantic early December and expect landfall in Barbados or St. Lucia after about three weeks at sea. I have no complaints and no fears. It's been a great sail and I'm looking forward to the green, green grass of Maui. Love from your brother, Max

P.S. Still believe in miracles.

continued →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *