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My Memories of Larry Briggs (WEB EXTRA)

With sadness, we learned of Larry Briggs’ passing through PassageMaker's March issue. Knowing him over 30 years, to me Larry was variously my captain, boss, client, teacher, shipmate and friend. A friend of mine said it best, "he was a colorful character in an increasingly monochromatic world.”

With sadness, we learned of Larry Briggs’ passing through your March issue. Knowing him over 30 years, to me Larry was variously my captain, boss, client, teacher, shipmate and friend. I think he’d relish being described as a “swashbuckler,” but he was the finest seaman I ever knew. Of my many Larry Briggs stories, all remarkable and some funny, most aren’t appropriate for publication. So I’ll share what I can.

Larry had just brought his schooner, Invader, from Honolulu to San Diego when I first met him face to face in 1983. (Previously, he’d called me for advice about bringing his 75-foot Neptune’s Chariot around from Florida, after having read my Cruising Ports guidebook.) Now Larry intended to use Invader to start San Diego’s first dinner-cruise business, just as he’d nearly invented the dinner-cruise industry in Honolulu in the 1960s. Larry asked me if I’d like to run Invader in San Diego Bay.

Invader was 151 feet overall (not 100 feet as someone said). She was steel, 14-foot draft, displaced 165 tons and licensed to carry 315 passengers.

I’d been a happy delivery captain for seven years, so was reluctant to give up that freedom to drive in circles on the bay. But I really wanted to increase the tonnage of my license, so I said yes.

Larry trained me on Invader’s unusual configuration and docking quirks. Larry had built a new passenger dock tucked into the corner of B Street Pier, highly visible downtown, but it was a tight spot with lots of traffic.

“Basically,” Briggs said, “you have to spin her in her own length and back into the berth.” Her twin 6-71 GMCs didn’t give much maneuvering power for such a heavy vessel. The twin screws were very close together, so not much turning moment. She had a huge single “barn door” rudder; when turning with any way on at all, Briggs emphasized that the rudder angle was the main factor. Invader had a bow thruster, but it was hooked up backward. Instead of pushing the joystick to starboard to make the bow move starboard, she was just the opposite.

Briggs taught me with great patience, and I learned first hand that he was the finest ship handler I’d ever met. After a couple of practice dockings I was on my own. I ran Invader for a year until I had the time and tonnage to upgrade my license, then went back to delivering yachts full time with my wife, Pat.

In the mid 1990s Larry took Invader out of passenger service to convert her back into a yacht. He delivered her down to the Bahamas and then Trinidad for yard work, where he hired local crew. Larry had a knack for hiring and managing third-world crew for cheap. He told me he made a deal that he’d provide all the food and they could always eat as much as they wanted. Never having such opportunity, his grateful crew always put on weight.

Larry Briggs was always a hands-on engineer. But it was in this Caribbean era that he lost the tip of one finger while working on an engine that was running.

Larry sold Invader to “a person of great wealth” as he described it, and the boat was taken to Italy where she was restored to her original 1905 yacht glory, complete with topmasts.

In 1986 Larry asked Pat and me to help him bring Neptune’s Chariot back from Hawaii. Pat and I flew over a few days ahead of Larry to prepare the boat in Oahu’s commercial Keehi Lagoon. One morning after we’d got Neptune’s Chariot ready, Pat and I were driving on the distant North Shore when weird air-raid sirens went off—like in movies about 1941. Turns out it was a tsunami warning. A huge earthquake had just struck Alaska’s Aleutian chain and giant waves could strike the Hawaiian Islands in a couple of hours. We were only halfway back to Keehi Lagoon against gridlock traffic when emergency radios said all vessels are ordered to put to sea.

Larry’s flight was supposed to have landed in Honolulu minutes before we made it back to the boat and fired up. We didn’t plan to wait because the tsunami was due in five minutes. Lo and behold, Larry appeared on the dock, cast off the last line and yelled, “Let’s go!” As we headed out of Keehi Lagoon to deep water, along with anything that had propulsion or could be towed, Larry explained that he’d learned about the earthquake and tsunami on the plane, had run across the tarmac, jumped a security fence and given a passing motorcyclist $100 to get him over to Keehi docks. Luckily, that tsunami was minor, but Larry said he took such warnings seriously.

Our 10-day crossing to San Diego was a slog against the trades, but Neptune’s Chariot handled it well. Larry said she was a perfect balance between a yacht and a work boat. He was more concerned with reliability than cosmetics. For instance, Chariot had a Wood Freeman autopilot, a standard for decades. Rather than have an electrical device to engage the clutch, you simply reached down beside the wheel, opened a hatch and manually engaged the clutch to its direct chain drive to the wheel. Larry said it was much less to go wrong.

We spent that Thanksgiving under way aboard Chariot. Pat had provisioned with a turkey, but thought the heavy pounding seas were too rough to roast it. “Not so,” said Larry, and he showed her how—using a coat hanger—to wire the turkey and roaster onto the oven racks, and another hanger to wire the oven door shut, so it couldn’t fly out. I add high-seas cook to Larry’s skill set; not fancy under way but it got the job done.

On that 10-day ocean passage we had plenty of time for trading sea stories. Larry told us how he’d been hired to deliver a mine sweeper that was in a repair dock in the Philippines being converted to a passenger vessel. The yard was taking forever, just running up the bill, so the owner, a friend of Larry’s, asked him to just get it out of there. Of course, the yard workers didn’t want to lose their “rice bowl” so they slashed the hydraulic lines on the steering. Larry and his crew sneaked on board that night, fired up and got the twin screw boat under way. They drove her all the way to Singapore, steering with just the throttles.

On another voyage in the Far East, Larry came on watch early one morning to relieve the only overnight watch-stander to discover that he’d disappeared, apparently fallen overboard during the night. When Larry arrived in the Philippines minus a crew member, a murder investigation ensued. He was proved innocent and cleared of any wrong-doing. But from then on Larry always briefed his crew at the outset of a voyage to never urinate over the side, because he assumed that’s how the crew member was lost.

In 1998, I helped Larry on part of his circumnavigation on Chartwell, his 57-foot Cheoy Lee trawler. We went from Ensenada, Mexico, to American Samoa via Hawaii and Palmyra. It was an El Niño year with strong trades: never less than 25 knots, as high as 35 knots, with huge seas that we ran off before. Chartwell had paravane stabilizers. They worked, but the seas were so big that we still rolled nearly rail to rail. We’d intended to go to Honolulu where Larry had a new generator sitting on a dock. As we neared the Hawaiian Islands, the trades spiked to gale force, and it was all we could do to keep from broaching by running dead down wind. Hilo was the only port dead down wind, so we were lucky to make it into Radio Bay. A week later the gale dropped to small craft warning, so we took off for Honolulu. There we spent two weeks swapping out the generators and preparing for the next leg.

Larry had a new crew member coming on in Samoa who was Muslim. So he asked me to find a mosque in Honolulu and buy some frozen halal, which is the Muslim version of kosher meat. On Good Friday morning I found a mosque that was open; the brother who helped me purchase halal provisions kept remarking what a considerate act Larry was doing for his Muslim crew.

Continuing toward Samoa, the trades began to lessen as we got closer to the Equator. We stopped at the remote and idyllic Palmyra Atoll for a couple of days. As mentioned in your article, Palmyra is where the Grahams were murdered in the 1970s. Being a good mariner, Larry had actually helped the future murderer by towing his disabled boat in through the channel. This trip, Larry and I took his dinghy around to the cove where the Grahams’ boat had been moored. I had met the Grahams while they lived aboard in San Diego before leaving for Palmyra.

Finally we arrived in Pago Pago, which had recently cleaned up its beautiful harbor. After weeks at sea, we really wanted to get ashore, but the authorities were rather rude. They required we stay on board for two days before they inspected us and finally allowed us ashore. I flew home from Pago Pago and Larry continued his circumnavigation.

Over the years, our paths continued to cross and we periodically communicated. In 2009 Larry emailed me from Ensenada that he was going to be there awhile on Neptune’s Chariot, which he’d just bought back after all these years. Pat and I were just heading to Ensenada, the first stop on the FUBAR powerboat rally down Baja. As luck would have it, the dockmaster put us in a slip right next to Chariot and Larry was standing there taking our lines. Pat and I went aboard Chariot for the first time in 20 years and we got to spend a couple of days catching up.

When the tsunami of 2010 struck Indonesia, I knew Larry had his boat on the island of Phuket in Thailand, which was hit badly. I emailed him and two days later he emailed back, saying he and the boat were OK because he’d anchored on the opposite end of the island that got so devastated and thus avoided the worst of it. He’d been instrumental in many rescues for those not so fortunate.

That was our last communication and no word until I read in PassageMaker of Larry’s passing. I shared the news with Capt. Stuart Lochner of Seattle, who had been a shipmate of Larry’s on a long passage up from Polynesia. Lochner said, “I always felt he was living a bit on borrowed time while living life large. He was a colorful character in an increasingly monochromatic world.”