Locals weigh in on dangers of pirate-filled seas

Newport Beach sailors could only imagine the horror.

The four Americans allegedly shot dead by pirates off the coast of Oman on Tuesday morning were like any other "yachties" — couples, friends and families who sail the world's oceans in search of adventure.

Some local sailors say the slayings may prompt long-distance seafarers to reconsider dangerous areas, while others say it'll be hard to keep people from taking risks.

One local circumnavigator actually had to fend off pirates in the Gulf of Aden recently. Michael Lawler and his girlfriend Barbara Burdick were sailing their 47-foot yacht Traveler from Salalah, Oman — where the doomed S/V Quest was heading — into the Red Sea when three pirates aboard a small fishing boat approached them, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle.

Lawler, a Newport Beach attorney specializing in estate planning, and Burdick, of Manhattan Beach, outsmarted the pirates. They continued to sail in the rough seas and pretended like they didn't understand the pirates' orders to stop.

"Not all pirates are the same," Lawler said, adding that they were probably "beginner pirates."

Lawler and his girlfriend, like the sailors on the Quest, had planned to sail either in a convoy or "buddy boat" with another cruiser, but their schedule didn't allow for it.

He speculated that Jean and Scott Adam, the former Newport Beach residents and slain Southern California couple who owned and sailed the Quest, had to make repairs — that's why their sailing vessel dropped out of the Blue Water Rally, an organized long-distance voyage with other boats that can cost thousands of dollars to join.

"When it's that big of an investment," he said, "it's got to be some big reason why you're going to drop out."

Lawler, who will be giving a public presentation of his voyage at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club on Wednesday ($13 admission), said he studied stories of pirates, and after much thought he decided to take his chances through the Gulf of Aden. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope off Africa's southern tip has its own dangers — namely weather — but it also means missing cruising in the spectacular Mediterranean.

"You have to look at the risks and the rewards," he said.

One sailor who avoided the Gulf was Ernie Minney, owner of Minney's Yacht Surplus on Newport Boulevard.

Minney sailed around the world in the late 1970s aboard his 82-foot schooner, the Shearwater. Instead of passing through the Suez Canal, he and his family sailed around the Cape of Good Hope.

Pirates weren't as big of a concern then, he said, but he did hear stories of boats being fired upon, so Minney stowed a rifle and shotgun below.

"Our attitude was, 'We were going to use them if we had to,'" he said.

He never had to use the weapons, but Minney said he spent a tense night in Panama next to a boat he thought was smuggling drugs.

Most of his customers stick to the Western Hemisphere, Minney said, where pirates aren't as big of a concern. But now and then, he will hear of someone being attacked in Latin America, he said.

"There's crime right here in our own backyard," Minney said. "You just got to try to be smart, and take your chances."

The danger is daunting for a younger Newport sailor, 29-year-old David Levy. Levy said that if he wanted to sail through the Indian Ocean, he would consider having his boat shipped to steer clear of pirates.

"It's definitely nerve-racking," he said.

Levy and his wife Katie recently purchased a 44-foot cruiser and have been taking courses at the Orange Coast College School of Sailing & Seamanship.

At OCC, Sailing Program Coordinator Mette Segerblom said an upcoming cruising seminar will probably touch on pirates, as students will be wondering what to do when in danger. Teaching that class are circumnavigators Lin & Larry Pardey.

They, along with Minney, Lawler and seven other crews, have circumnavigated the world from Newport Beach, according to Latitude 38, a sailing magazine.

Minney doesn't think the deaths will dissuade sailors from taking risks.

"Nothing's going to stop people from cruising; it's their dream," he said.

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