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Mysterious death leaves family guessing

A 78-year-old solo sailor is found floating near his grounded ketch off Mexico under suspicious circumstances

A 78-year-old solo sailor is found floating near his grounded ketch off Mexico under suspicious circumstances

The family of John Long, whose body earlier this year was found floating a few miles from his grounded sailboat in Mexico, suspects the 78-year-old Irish-American sailor was murdered.

“He was a strong man and was able to handle himself,” says his brother Michael Long, 73, who spoke to Soundings in a telephone interview from his home on CorkHarbour in Ireland. “I know he put up a mother and a father of a battle.”

After living in America for more than 40 years, John Long, of Alameda, Calif., was sailing his 55-foot steel ketch, Culin, home to Ireland when he ran into trouble off Mexico’s Pacific coast. He had worked on the boat for 16 years at Fortman Marina in Alameda in preparation for the trip, according to his family. His dream was to round Cape Horn and cross the Atlantic to the Royal Cork Yacht Club in Crosshaven, where he was an overseas member, says Michael Long.

Long’s body was found Feb. 3 near the town of Puerto Madero in Chiapas, about 10 miles from the Guatemala border, according to Judith Bryan, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. She would not confirm reports published by the Associated Press that Long’s body was bruised severely and that suspicious men were seen leaving the boat with suitcases.

At press time, Mexican authorities were still investigating his death. “We’re aiding the Mexican authorities in the investigation and working with them to repatriate his body to the United States,” says Bryan.

However, Long’s son, Jason, says Mexican authorities are treating his father’s death as a homicide. Michael Long believes the reported bruises on his brother’s body indicate he was beaten. “I asked him [before he left], ‘What will you do if you’re attacked by pirates?’ He said he had two guns on board,” says Michael Long, who had been aboard Culin three or four times during visits to the United States.

John and Michael Long — along with three other siblings — grew up by the sea in Myrtleville, Ireland, a village 15 miles south of CorkCity. John Long inherited a passion for the sea from his father, Philip, who was in the navy, says Michael Long.

“He spent 28 years at sea,” Long says of his father. “I remember we went fishing with our father, and we used to catch hundreds of mackerel and pickle them. We had mackerel for the entire winter.”

The Cork area has a rich maritime heritage. CorkHarbour at the mouth of the River Lee is said to be the second largest natural harbor in the world. It also was the last port of call for the Titanic. The Royal Cork Yacht Club, founded in 1720, is one of the oldest yacht clubs in the world. Michael Long’s daughter, Anne Lordan, is the club steward.

John Long named his steel ketch Culin after a Gaelic song about a sailboat. Michael says the original owner died of cancer as it was being built. His brother, who was a carpenter, bought the unfinished boat and put his skills to use, building the vessel’s mahogany and teak interior, according to the family. “He had the greatest pair of hands and head of any man,” says Long. “It was strong, built of COR-TEN steel.” (COR-TEN is the brand name of a strong, weathering steel that needs no paint.)

Jason Long remembers the woodwork in the master stateroom as particularly impressive. “It was all hand-done; he did everything himself,” says Long, an English professor at Merced (Calif.) College.

John Long had kept a slip at Fortman Marina since 1992. “We all knew him,” says Beverly Foe, who works in the marina office. “He worked on his boat constantly. He was charming.”

Robert Jensen, who keeps his boat at Fortman Marina, was a good friend of Long’s. “He never sailed the boat until the day he headed south,” says Jensen. That was last November. Long stopped in Santa Barbara to see another son, Aaron, before continuing his passage. In December, there were electrical problems aboard Culin, and she was towed to the port of Manzanillo, in the Mexican state of Colima. Long remained there for about a month before casting off again.

On Feb. 2, the Coast Guard in Alameda informed the family that it had received an EPIRB signal from Culin, which was about two miles off Mexico, just north of the border with Guatemala. The Coast Guard handed off the rescue to Mexican authorities, since the boat was so close to shore, says district search-and-rescue controller Ed Skinner.

Authorities in Puerto Madero told the U.S. Embassy that Long may have encountered more electrical problems, which led to his distress signal, according to Bryan. The U.S. Embassy informed the family of his death Feb. 3.

Jason Long says the family knew a voyage of this scope would be risky and urged the senior Long not to go. “It was his thing,” says Jason Long. “We tried to talk him out of it, but he was determined.”