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A Tribute to Larry Briggs, 1940–2013

At age 73, power voyaging pioneer Larry Briggs recently died aboard his boat while docked at Ft. Lauderdale. Spanning the latitudes of the earth three times, a hefty marijuana charge and an alleged murder connection, Briggs leaves behind a legacy as complex as his character.

Power voyaging pioneer Larry Briggs died aboard his boat recently while docked at Ft. Lauderdale. He was 73.

Briggs on the bow of Neptune's Chariot.

Briggs on the bow of Neptune's Chariot.

Briggs completed his first circumnavigation (1977–80) in a 53-foot trawler named Champion, which set the record at the time as the smallest motoryacht to do so. He also circumnavigated in Neptune’s Chariot, a Knight & Carver 75, (1981–84) and in Chartwell, a 55-foot Cheoy Lee trawler, (1998–2003).

Briggs was working on a fourth world cruise when he “crossed the bar.” He was aboard Chartwell on September 25 when he died due to complications from heart disease. A witness told authorities that he appeared to have fallen asleep.

Briggs was described by some as a shy and modest man—a recluse. To others he was a “swashbuckler.” There was no disagreement, however, on the fact that Briggs was a master mariner and entrepreneur who spent much of his life at sea, starting with early voyages from the West Coast to Hawaii and the South Pacific.

He was one of those rare individuals who was telling the truth when he said he preferred being at sea to being in port. He would often complete long passages, such as from Singapore to Suez or Hong Kong to Los Angeles, without stopping.

When he built the 75-foot Neptune’s Chariot in 1981, it held 10,000 gallons of fuel and had a range of 17,000 nautical miles at 8.5 knots—enough to get from Thailand to Hawaii without stopping.

In 1990 Briggs was indicted by a federal grand jury for smuggling four tons of high-grade Thai marijuana into the U.S. aboard Neptune’s Chariot. Street value for the contraband was estimated at $10 million. At the time, Briggs was owner of Invader Cruises, a popular San Diego harbor tour company with several big vessels, so his arrest made headlines. The Drug Enforcement Administration seized Neptune’s Chariot.

Even at this lowpoint in his life Briggs proved to be both smart and lucky. Briggs hired a skilled San Diego criminal defense attorney, who presented the judge with a compelling narrative at sentencing. Briggs, he argued, was a romantic adventurer who crossed oceans and had rescued other mariners along the way. Briggs was also a well-liked entrepreneur who had amassed a great deal of goodwill in the local community. It didn’t hurt that the judge had only recently been appointed to the bench and that this was one of his first sentencings.

Briggs served six months in a facility for low-level offenders, less time than his accomplices. Paying a $500,000 fine enabled him to effectively “buy back” Neptune’s Chariot from the feds.

From top to bottom, Briggs’ three circumnavigators: Champion (1977-80), Neptune’s Chariot (1981-84) and Chartwell (1998-2003).

From top to bottom, Briggs’ three circumnavigators: Champion (1977-80), Neptune’s Chariot (1981-84) and Chartwell (1998-2003).

Six years earlier, Briggs had been called to different federal court. In 1985, he was the government’s first witness against Duane Buck Walker, charged with double murder on remote Palmyra Atoll, a U.S. possession a thousand miles south of Hawaii. Briggs had been captain of the Caroline, a twin-screw motorsailer on charter that was anchored at Palmyra in 1974 in the weeks leading up to the murders. Briggs and other cruisers had helped tow Walker’s rundown sailboat into the lagoon. When Walker and his girlfriend left Palmyra, however, they did so on Sea Wind, a sailboat belonging to a wealthy San Diego couple never again seen alive.

Walker was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. His girlfriend, represented by Vincent Bugliosi, was acquitted. Bugliosi, famous for his prosecution of Charles Manson, wrote a book about the Palmyra killings called And the Sea Will Tell, which quoted Briggs testimony at trial. The book was made into a 1991 TV movie of the same name.

More recently, Briggs was a great aid in updating the fourth edition of Voyaging Under Power, according to author Denis Umstot.

“Larry knew the owners of Westward, an 86-foot wooden yacht built in 1924, the first motoryacht to circumnavigate entirely on its own power from 1970 to 1976. He provided me with scans of the original articles detailing Westward’s passage, which I used in the book’s revision,” Umstot says. “He was reluctant to include any incidents that happened during his voyages, which included being attacked by Russians when he ventured too close to a military island in the Middle East or being robbed while at anchor in the South Pacific. His feeling was he did not want to discourage others from voyaging. Most of his thousands of cruising days were uneventful.”

For the past 18 years, Walter Filkins has owned Briggs’ old boat Champion (now with a home port of Block Island). He corresponded frequently with Briggs over the years and described the veteran voyager as shy, even “reclusive.”

In the late 1980s Briggs was diagnosed as having an aneurysm and believed he did not have long to live. “He sold his fleet of boats but never died,” Filkins says. “He thus bought Chartwell and continued another 20 years of sailing the seas.”

At its peak in the 1980s, Briggs and his partners at Invader Cruises owned two Luther Blount excursion boats. “Of even more importance he owned the famous 1904 Herreshoff 100-foot schooner Invader, sistership to Puritan,” Filkins says.

Chet Bannister has known Briggs ever since the 1960s when the two of them sailed from California to the South Seas Islands on a 30-foot Tahiti Ketch. “Larry dedicated his whole life to long-distance cruising. He loved being at sea,” Bannister says. “He’d go into port and for three or four days he’d be fine. Then he’d get antsy want to go.”

Bannister, who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, says Briggs had suffered from heart disease for more than a decade.

Briggs never married, and the fact that he had no family with him may account for why it took so long for word of his passing to circulate through the cruising community.

Denison Yacht Sales of Ft. Lauderdale has listed Chartwell, Briggs’ 1978 Cheoy Lee 55 long-range trawler, with an asking price of $199,000. Champion’s owner continues to cruise aboard her, having recently installed a new 6-71 Detroit diesel and new gensets. Neptune’s Chariot is said to have been purchased by an Australian.