Yachtsmen’s foibles lead to drug arrest

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A three-man Colombian crew arrived in Opua in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands last year, via Pitcairn Island from Panama, and they immediately raised the suspicions of local New Zealand Customs officer, Allen Jones. Upon approach to the dock, the helmsman of the 40-foot yacht Bora Bora II “just about drove the boat under the wharf, bending her forestay. Then he turned around and nearly T-boned a super-yacht,” Jones explained.

The Bay of Islands is a favorite destination for hundreds of cruisers on the Coconut Run across the South Pacific. There are few drug problems in New Zealand, and boats generally endure only cursory inspection. Both yachtsmen and the Customs Department, alike, hope that will not change.

Jones said most yachts that bring in drugs are caught by tip-offs. Sometimes yachts are marked as suspicious during their sojourn across the Pacific.

"A marked boat stays a marked boat," Jones said.

Unfortunately, even if they have no drugs, a branded boat will continually experience uncomfortable inspections wherever it goes, although there are moves afoot to try to redress wrongly listed boats by carefully verifying the source of the accusations. It might be well to remember that a spiteful or nervous skipper may sometimes joke about another boat having drugs. "Every such reference spoken in the presence of an officer has to be taken seriously," Jones said.

When Bora Bora II arrived, it was thoroughly searched. In fact, Jones' suspicions were so great it was even hauled out of the water. Nevertheless, no contraband was found. However, a week later the yacht was abandoned, the crew having fled the country.

A few weeks after Bora Bora II's arrival in New Zealand, Australian Customs intercepted the yacht Ngaire Wha when it entered Sydney harbor at night — loaded with a cargo of 500 kg of cocaine. Several people were arrested, and two have been sentenced to life imprisonment. The drug haul was more than double the size of any single shipment seized before in Australia, with an estimated street value of $268 million (Australian), according to reports from Sydney.

It was revealed that in a joint New Zealand and Australian Customs and police inquiry, the Kiwi crew of Ngaire Wha and the Australian organizer had been under close surveillance for two months. Apparently, the half-ton of cocaine had been transferred from Bora Bora II to Ngaire Wha during a nighttime rendezvous in Spirits Bay near the northern tip of New Zealand. After that, the cell phone calls of the two men onboard were monitored. A week out, Ngaire Wha was overflown by a Dash-8 aircraft that locked their position on the radar and tracked them thereafter.

According to Jones, "99.9 percent of the cruising yachts that come here are halfway through a circumnavigation. By the time they arrive, they have accumulated a history from every port along the way, and that history is nearly always spotless. When ordinary cruising yachts enter New Zealand, we are interested only that they comply with the standard rules and regulations that tend to apply in any country. We are primarily interested in keeping New Zealand clean and green."

Should yachtsmen feel as though they're being watched, hassled maybe? "The Bora Bora II incident was a one-off situation," Jones said. Yachtsmen should feel reassured.

Tere Batham, aboard yacht Sea Quest in Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

By Ocean Navigator