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Power voyaging pioneer Larry Briggs leaves a fascinating legacy

I wrote an obituary recently. Obituaries were the first stories I was ever paid to write. Of course, I wasn’t really “writing” then, just taking dictation from local undertakers. Funeral personnel write most of our obituaries, and they don’t do a very good job. They send us to the afterlife with a couple of paragraphs of basic information and a short list of survivors. Many of us deserve more.

Larry Briggs definitely deserved more. Briggs, whom I never met, was a three-time circumnavigator and prominent San Diego tour-boat operator. He is survived by a brother and many good friends. He was 73.

I never did find an obituary for Briggs, but that’s how his obit might have read.

To be sure, circumnavigating once is a life achievement, let alone three times — actually 3-1/2. Briggs “crossed the bar” at the midpoint of a fourth world transit starting from Thailand. He died Sept. 25 aboard his last ride, a 55-foot Cheoy Lee trawler named Chartwell, which was docked at Fort Lauderdale.

Briggs is considered a power voyaging pioneer, having 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 (1998-2003).

Impressive as those achievements may be, they do not begin to reflect the man’s complexity. Different friends describe him very differently. He was a “swashbuckler” to his boatbuilder but seemed “reclusive” to others who knew him — qualities that seem contradictory. As I was to find out as I dug deeper, Briggs was a man of secrets.

A young Larry Briggs with a friend.

A young Larry Briggs with a friend.

Chet Bannister knew Briggs probably better than anyone. In the 1960s the two of them sailed from the West Coast to the South Sea Islands on a 30-foot Tahiti ketch. “Larry dedicated his whole life to long-distance cruising. He loved being at sea,” Bannister told me. “He’d go into port, and for three or four days he’d be fine. Then he’d get antsy and want to go.”

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

Here’s what I wrote in my obit:

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 4 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.

Bannister was not happy that I would include Briggs’ smuggling in the obit, but I think I convinced him that it could not be otherwise, given that it was part of the public record. Also, given the marijuana legalization movement now sweeping the United States, many readers might forgive Briggs for being ahead of his time, I argued.

More from the obit:

Even at this low point 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.

Larry Briggs’ three circumnavigators (from top): Champion, Neptune’s Chariot and Chartwell. A 1978 Cheoy Lee 55 long-range trawler, Chartwell has been listed by Denison Yacht Sales of Fort Lauderdale with an asking price of $199,000.

Larry Briggs’ three circumnavigators (from top): Champion, Neptune’s Chariot and Chartwell. A 1978 Cheoy Lee 55 long-range trawler, Chartwell has been listed by Denison Yacht Sales of Fort Lauderdale with an asking price of $199,000.

It turned out the feds had another reason to go easy on Briggs. He had helped them convict a double-murderer just six years before. In 1985, Briggs was the government’s first witness against Duane Buck Walker. Walker was being tried on charges of killing a cruising couple on remote Palmyra Atoll, a U.S. possession a thousand miles south of Hawaii. The crime was committed in 1974.

Briggs was in Palmyra as captain of the Caroline, a twin-screw motorsailer on charter to a group of ham radio operators. Briggs and some cruising sailors had helped to tow Walker’s dilapidated sailboat into the lagoon. When Walker and his girlfriend left Palmyra, however, they were sailing Sea Wind, which belonged to a wealthy San Diego couple never again seen alive.

It took a long time, but 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 Walker’s trial. The book was made into a 1991 TV movie of the same name.

A capable, complex man, Briggs was most at home at sea.