The Talk of the Harbor
His foot propped on the side of his 33-foot racing yacht, a balmy breeze licking his gray hair, Mike Dwight said his last worry as a boat owner was being murdered.
After prosecutors’ disclosure Friday that the buyer of a Newport Beach couple’s yacht is suspected of killing them, Dwight and other members of the Orange County boating community view the situation as the tragic result of a questionable deal gone wrong.
“They sold their boat for cash, which pretty much any good businessperson would look askance at,” said Dwight, 60, a home building executive whose boat was docked for lunch Sunday at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Corona del Mar.
“Sounds like there was an element of greed and a large chunk of inexperience involved in whatever happened.”
All around him, under a cloud-streaked sky, were rows of boats. The vessels’ names included the boastful -- High Maintenance, Real Success and Finally Us -- and the whimsical Hooligan and LunaSea. Sitting among them is Well Deserved, the 55-foot vessel that belonged to Thomas and Jackie Hawks.
Speculation is widespread about what happened to the retired probation officer and his wife, who had sold their Arizona home to buy the yacht four years before they disappeared in November. The man suspected of killing them is Skylar J. Deleon of Long Beach, an unemployed former child actor who told police he bought the boat for $400,000 in cash.
The Hawkses’ bodies have not been found, but their car was recovered in Ensenada, Mexico.
Other boaters know the story and keep an eye out for Well Deserved.
“The most morbid thoughts come into your mind when you see that boat,” said Chuck Gelhaar, a retired La Canada Flintridge insurance company owner tying up in Newport. “A robbery would be scarier to a boat owner than what seemed to have happened to them. It’s just too unusual.”
Gelhaar sails his 10-year-old boat, the 19th Hole, nearly every weekend with his wife, Becky, and their Scottish terrier, Skipper. The 53-foot yacht has two staterooms and a glassed-in seating area facing the stern, from where they like to order in lunch from the Balboa Bay Club.
They find weekends on the boat full of unexpected pleasures, like the whales and dolphins that surrounded them during their Sunday morning trip.
Chuck Gelhaar said he felt safer on the water than anywhere else, a sentiment echoed by many boaters.
“I never fear when I’m on a boat,” said Rosanne Gillmore, who owns a 30-foot sailboat.
Gillmore and her husband don’t carry weapons on board, just flares for emergencies. The boat, dubbed Xantippe, the name of Socrates’ shrewish wife, is currently docked in Santa Barbara, but the couple spent the weekend at the Balboa Bay Club.
Keith Gillmore, a former yacht broker who sells real estate, said yacht sales were similar transactions. Much paperwork needs to be completed, the cost is huge, and people don’t typically pay with cash. Hence the need, he said, for a broker to conduct the sale, although there are sellers and buyers who don’t use them to skirt the 10% commission.
“You need that third party as a buffer,” Gillmore said. “You’re letting someone into your life when you get them out on your boat.”
Dwight, owner of the racing boat Red Line, said the thought of someone showing up with a briefcase full of cash to pay for the boat should have caused concern. “It raises the hairs on my neck just thinking about it,” he said.
There are musings that the Hawkses weren’t killed at all, and that they could be in South America or that their disappearance was unrelated to their yacht.
But anything that happens in the boating community, Gillmore said, is quick to travel the “coconut telegraph” of harbor gossip.
“You’re going to hear about this in every port everywhere in the world,” Gillmore said. “The fact remains that no one really knows what happened, but we still talk about it.”