Friday, January 11, 2008

Sailboat mystery, ocean winds and currents blend

A mysterious sailboat drifts abandoned in the Kaua'i channel.

(Photo: The stricken Bug Trap at the Coast Guard dock in Nāwiliwili.)

A longtime resident is thrilled to find a glass ball floating off the coast of Maui.

A turtle off Wai'anae mistakes a drifting plastic bag for a jellyfish.

A giant cluster of net and ropes tears up coral heads as the surf pounds it across a French Frigate Shoals reef.

What do these things have in common?

The north Pacific's currents and winds.

They are a vast interconnected network of water and air moves like a living thing.

This is the system that Spanish navigators used to carry gold from Acapulco to Manila, taking a southern route that took them westward between Hawai'i and the Equator, and returning on a northerly route that carried them eastward in the region a few hundred miles north of the Hawaiian archipelago.

It is the system that carries glass fishing floats from the Chinese and Japanese coasts to Hawaiian shores. The system that drifts cargo, storm-washed off trans-Pacific ships, round and round the ocean until it disintegrates or washes up on some coast.

In addition to the clockwise flow of the North Pacific Current, between California and Hawai'i there is the wind system sometimes known as the Pacific High, a clockwise air flow that Transpac sailors use to most quickly accomplish the downhill ride to the Islands.

These winds and currents also carry a lot of junk, littering our reefs and beaches with nets, ropes, plastic cups, bottles, fishing floats and lots more.

It can be tough to identify the source of some of that material, but occasionally the debris flow is punctuated by a poignant item.

In the most recent example, it was the Catalina 30 sloop, Bug Trap.

Kaua'i fisherman Henry Zeevat and his father Hans were out fishing about 20 miles east of Nāwiliwili when they came across the stricken vessel, its mast missing, rigging hanging over the side, a barnacle-encrusted nylon line dragging from the bow and a sail flapping on the deck.

“We started yelling and screaming to see if there was anybody aboard,” said Hans Zeevat. There wasn't. After consulting the Coast Guard by radio, they towed the sloop into port.

The Bug Trap had left Dana Point Harbor on the coast of California Oct. 3, 2007, headed south to San Diego, a 100-mile trip, with its new owner, Darrin Bunker, an inexperienced sailor, at the helm.

When it was found Jan. 6, 2008, the boat had evidence of a fire, perhaps an explosion, in the cabin. At least some of the wire rigging had been cut. There was still gasoline for the engine, along with food, cigarettes, beer, personal computer and Bunker's personal effects. No notes indicating what might have happened to the boat and its skipper, or when it might have happened.

Law enforcement authorities, including the Coast Guard and Kaua'i police, are investigating. Some folks discussing the mystery on the Web have suggested pirates, but it seems doubtful a self-respecting pirate would take a boat and then leave beer, cigarettes and a computer behind.

More likely some kind of catastrophe, although it's difficult to imagine a single scenario that combines a cabin fire with a lost mast.

In any case, the inexorable winds and currents took over, pushing Bug Trap south and east until it drifted, rolling in calm weather last Sunday, in the Ka'ie'iewaho Channel, a third of the way from Kaua'i to O'ahu.

Like another piece of marine debris.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate