This is Part II of the series. To read Part I, click here.
I lost my virginity in Acapulco, Mexico on my 16th birthday. It’s a funny story but one that I mostly left out in my first book, The Red Circle. So much ended up on the cutting room floor. I’ll tell that story soon enough but more about my scuba diving now.
I learned how to scuba dive without any pool sessions; it was all open-water Pacific Ocean dives from the start. Pretty soon I found I preferred diving without a buoyancy compensator, a kind of inflatable vest with an air hose plugged into it that most divers wear. I thought it was a crutch. To me, it was like the difference between swimming in a full suit of clothes and swimming in a Speedo. So I never used one. I also found I liked going down with two tanks, instead of the single tank most sport divers prefer. A second tank adds significant weight, so you have to be fit enough to handle it, but you get more bottom time and can swim serious distances. Sport divers typically just drop straight down and goof around for a while. Serious hunters mean business and wear two tanks.
By my second summer on the Peace, I had logged over 200 dives and was equipped with twin steel 72s (72-cubic-foot-capacity scuba tanks), no buoyancy compensator — just a single- and second-stage scuba regulator and a large speargun.
It was Captain Mike and James Hrabak, the alternate second captain, who taught me how to stalk and hunt in the reefs and open waters. These skills would prove enormously useful later on. Soon I was an accomplished hunter both with tanks and free diving (breath-hold only). It didn’t matter if it was yellowtail, calico bass, halibut, abalone, or lobster — I was all over it, and nothing was safe.
Usually, when we took paying customers out on a dive it would be a pretty mellow thing. There was one group of hardcore divers, though, guys I thought of as the Animals, who would come out with us a few times a year. With the usual passengers, we might dive three times a day. With the Animals, we would do six serious dives every day, hunting for lobster in the winter, halibut, or some other fish in the summer. These guys got the biggest kick out of seeing me surface with no buoyancy compensator, two steel tanks, and a 40-pound halibut in my bag.
Eventually, I became a rescue diver and an accomplished deckhand. I was often trusted at the helm of the boat from midnight to 2:00 a.m. on a night transit to the islands. I knew it was a huge responsibility for a teenager to man the helm of a 70-foot dive boat transiting through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world with 32 sleeping passengers. I took it very seriously and never had an incident. By the time I approached my 16th birthday, I had made more than 1,000 dives and had enough hours and knowledge to take the Coast Guard 100-ton Master Captain license.
As wild a lifestyle as Bill Magee lived, with his hot tub and girlfriends and poker parties, I believe it was Bill and Captain Mike who set my ethical rudder toward true north. The phrase “they ran a tight ship” was never more apt: Bill and Captain Mike set a standard of excellence that I would often be reminded of during my time with the Navy SEALs. The guys I worked with on that boat were really good at what they did and took their jobs seriously.
I wish that had been true of everyone we encountered; unfortunately, it wasn’t.
There was one guy we especially hated because of his slipshod ways and sloppy attitude. George Borden owned a dive shop in the area. You could tell the dive shop owners and instructors who were genuinely professional, like my friend Mike Dahan, who ran a good class and really taught the fundamentals. Not George. To him, it was all a numbers game: Doesn’t matter if these people really know how to dive or not, just push ’em through. Every time George chartered the Peace, it would be a mess and create more work for us.
One time he brought a group out to do an advanced certification class. One of the students was an Iranian girl named Mahvash, which means “beauty of the moon” — and she was indeed absolutely beautiful. I was completely smitten with her.
Mahvash was just 18 and had done only six dives, which was the bare minimum to be certified. We couldn’t believe George was allowing her in this advanced class, which included making a few deep dives, deep enough to require decompression stops on the way up. When they boarded the boat, her mother was clearly against it. “I don’t know if you’re ready for this,” she would argue, but Mahvash joined the class anyway.
We took the boat out to Catalina Island, a fantastic place with its own little resort town on the southern end. We left that night and anchored at Catalina, then dove all the next day. The following day we went out to a deep-diving spot off the backside of Catalina. This area is a preserve. The reefs start at 100 feet out and the visibility goes on forever. I was not on duty that morning, so I made a dive on my own, just for fun. It was amazing, as it always is.
As I came back up, pausing to do a decompression stop on the anchor chain, I looked down and noticed a whole cluster of George’s students down there on a deep dive. “Oh man,” I thought, “what a mess.” I went all the way up, got on the boat, and took off my gear, then started helping the other divers with theirs.
A few minutes later, George surfaced with his students and his “assistant.” (By regulation, he was required to have a certified divemaster with him, but this guy was only a dive master-in-training. As I said, George always cut corners.)
As they helped the students up onto the boat one by one, someone suddenly said, “Hey, where’s Mahvash?”
George was only a few feet away from me, and when I saw the look in his eyes I said, “Oh, shit.” Mahvash wasn’t with them. None of them had a clue where she was. They panicked — but there was nothing they could do. None of them could go back down for her, because when you dive that deep, you can’t go back down again for at least 12 hours.
I had just come up from my own dive, so I couldn’t go either.
Our divemaster, Ivan Fuentes, whipped on his tanks, jumped over the side of the boat, and went down. We waited. A very long five minutes later he surfaced, a couple hundred yards from the boat, and waved for me. I swam a rescue line out to him. When I got close, I saw that he had Mahvash with him. She wasn’t moving. As I got even closer, I saw that the girl with the beauty of the moon was dead.
For a moment, my own heart stopped. It was the first time I had ever seen death up close. I wanted to cry and scream at the same time. I wanted to swim back and choke the life out of that idiot George. By his carelessness and disregard for safety, as far as I was concerned, he had caused this girl’s death.
Ivan told me he had found Mahvash about 100 feet down, hovering 10 feet off the ocean floor. Apparently, she had gotten separated from the group, panicked, spit her regulator out, and drowned. We tried doing rescue breathing with her, but it was too late. She had embolized coming up: That is, her lungs had burst.
That night I tried to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come — they were choked off by fury. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten: how precious life is, and at the same time, how fragile.
The family wanted to press charges, and I gave a deposition for them. But nothing came of it, and George was never prosecuted. It wasn’t the last time I would see innocence and beauty crushed with impunity by what I considered to be arrogance and crass thoughtlessness.
At the close of my freshman year at Ventura High, my parents decided the time was finally right for us to embark on our world-encircling sailing trip on the Agio. They had saved enough money, and they knew that the longer they put it off, the older my sister Rhiannon and I would be. They figured, better do it while we were still young enough to go along with the family’s plans.
Whenever they would talk about this voyage, I would ignore it and hope the whole idea would go away. I was having a great time working on the Peace and enjoying the incredible freedom of my harbor lifestyle. Because of my position as a deckhand, most of the shop owners assumed I was much older than I really was, and I was never carded for drinks when the boys and I went out for dinner. I was quite content in my own little world at the harbor. Sailing off to faraway places didn’t sound thrilling to me. I had more important things to do — like diving, surfing, chasing girls, and getting my driver’s license.
Unknown to me at the time, Captain Bill talked to my parents and offered to let me stay with him on the Peace if they wanted to leave me behind. They appreciated the offer, but no, they decided, the time had come, and we were going to make this trip all together as a family. They put Rhiannon and me on independent studies for a year, and we started packing up the boat to leave. The plan was to sail to New Zealand and see how things shook out. If things went well that far, we’d make the rest of the trip around the world, and if things weren’t going as well as we hoped, well, we could always turn back at that point.
Just as we were getting ready to leave, we had an unexpected visit from Ken and Gail, the parents of my childhood pal Justin from back in Kimberley. I was shocked when I saw them; we all were. They were both a complete mess, especially Gail, and we soon learned why.
In addition to being total ski animals, Justin and I had also been rabid hockey buffs even at the tender age of five. While my knee problems had later benched me, Justin had kept playing competitively right up through high school.
Ken told us that earlier that year Justin had been in a freak hockey accident. He got body-checked by another player, went down, and hit his head on the ice pretty hard, hard enough to give him a concussion. They took him home, put him to bed.
He never woke up.
When I heard what happened, the bottom fell out of my stomach. I couldn’t believe Justin was gone. It had been nearly 10 years since I’d seen him, but I’d always known he was there, somewhere, probably doing a lot of the same things I was doing. Only now he wasn’t.
Justin had been an only child. Now his parents were alone in the world. I felt awful for both of them, as well as heartbroken and freaked out that my friend was gone. I also felt something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The expression “lost innocence” didn’t occur to me at the time, and it was only later on, at the climax of our ocean voyage, that I began to identify that sinking feeling. It was as if Justin’s passing had marked the end of an era, a childhood I would never come back to.
Starting on our trip, our first stop was San Diego Harbor to stock up on supplies, after which we headed down to Guadalupe Island and Cabo San Lucas. After a few weeks’ stay in Cabo, we sailed around the tip of Baja into La Paz. We then spent a few weeks in and around the surrounding islands before heading over to mainland Mexico. We hit Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, and finally Acapulco, our last resupply point before leaving the continent behind. Soon we headed southwest, traversing thousands of miles of open water into the heart of the South Pacific, bound for the sparsely populated Marquesas Islands, not far from Tahiti. It would take us a month to reach our destination.
Thirty days doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re out on the open sea with nothing but water stretching to every horizon, it is an eternity. My sister and I had some good times on that voyage. We would sit up on the bow watching the dolphins jump and play in our bow’s wake. We always had a line out and caught quite a few fish.
A long stretch at sea is an excellent time to get to know yourself. My dad and I split the night watch between us. I would take over from my mom and sister at midnight, watch from then till 4:00 a.m., and then hand it off to my father, who took it till sunrise. The night sky over the South Pacific was amazing. There were times when the sky was so clear and filled with stars it felt like we were floating in space. Every 10 minutes or so I would see a shooting star.
These interludes of solitude, with the heavens opened up like the pages of a book before me, began working on my mind. During those long hours, I started reflecting on my life, on all the experiences I’d had. I could not help but think about the future and where it might be going.
I think this is something most kids never have the chance to experience. This kind of break in the day when there is nothing to think about but the expanse of time and the possibilities it holds. While my family and I were crossing the South Pacific, all my friends back home were at school, running around, going to class, chasing girls, going to bed, and then waking up and doing it all over again the next day. Distractions and commotion and little time for genuine introspection. As an adult, I have met people who grew up on ranches and found they had experiences similar to my ocean transit at 16.
I can’t say I came to any startling new self-knowledge during that time, but in some ineffable way it felt like my thinking sank a little deeper, and maybe grew bigger. I began getting a sense of wanting to do something different, something special, with my life. I didn’t know exactly what that might be. But I knew that as much as I loved the life of a dive boat captain, which is what Bill Magee and Captain Mike had been grooming me for during the last few years, I would never be content with the harbor. Despite the incredible tranquility of the ocean, there was an impatience growing inside me. An urge that was starting to whisper, “Wherever my life is heading, let’s get on with it!”
Those 30 days at sea also provided the time to accomplish a lot. I finished my entire school year months ahead of schedule, taught myself how to juggle, and read a ton of books. I went through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy and a carton full of classic novels. Steinbeck was one of my favorites. I liked his direct, in-your-face style, and I identified with his strong connection to California.
I also practiced celestial navigation with my dad. This was in the days before GPS. We had a sat nav (satellite navigation) unit, a precursor to today’s GPS devices, but it would take a wait of 12 hours for a satellite to get overhead for us to fix our position that way. So we did a lot of our navigation the old-fashioned way: celestial observation and dead reckoning.
After 30 days at sea, we made landfall at Hiva Oa, one of the larger (that is, least tiny) of the remote Marquesas Islands. Shrouded in a nearly constant cloud cover, the Marquesas rise majestically out of the Pacific, with an appearance similar to the north shore of the Hawaiian chain. The local harbor was a thing of beauty with its gorgeous black sand beaches and, high up on the distant cliffs, a panorama of waterfalls. Gauguin spent his last years here, as did the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. Both Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote books inspired by visits to Hiva Oa.
We anchored the Agio in a cove and took a small boat ashore. The lifestyle of the people we encountered was both amazing and hilarious to me: They lived in fairly primitive, thatched-roof huts — and drove brand-new Toyota four-wheel drives, subsidized by the French government.
On Hiva Oa, I met a girl I will never forget. I never knew her name; there was a complete language barrier between us. Somehow, though, we just clicked. We took long walks through the most stunning tropical scenery, past the most amazing waterfalls, and as beautiful as our surroundings were, she was even more so. She was something out of a dream. I never tried anything with her, never even kissed her, but after we left, I missed her badly. Of course, I knew we couldn’t stay there and that it wasn’t my dad’s fault we had to leave, but still, I hated it, and this added fuel to the coals of resentment that were already burning.
Up to this point in our trip, my dad and I had been having a steadily escalating series of disagreements on points of seamanship. So far these had been fairly minor — but things were about to change.
On the open ocean, it wasn’t that bad. When you’re sailing straight in one direction, all you’re really doing is taking fixes and monitoring your course. Every time we’d get closer to land, though, and especially when it came to navigating the coastal waterways, the two of us would start to butt heads. I wanted more of a say in how we managed the boat. I felt like I should be consulted. By this time I’d had a lot of experience in coastal waterway navigation. “Look,” I’d say, “I’m no slouch, I know what I’m doing here.”
In the South Pacific, because of the nature of the deepwater reefs, it’s common to set two anchors. First, you set a bow hook, and then you throw a stern anchor off the back and snug the boat up tight. For both anchors, my father was using a type of anchor called a CQR which he’d used for most of his cruising life in Seattle, California, and Mexico. A CQR is a plow type of anchor that does an excellent job of holding in sand, clay, or mud bottoms. But it’s not the best choice to hold in rocks or coral reef.
We also had on board a multipurpose Bruce anchor I had salvaged from my time on the dive boat, and this was the anchor I favored. The Bruce is designed to function in a wide range of seafloor compositions. Because of its fierce reliability, it is the choice of most commercial boats. The Bruce and I knew each other well, going back to my early days working on the dive boat. In fact, it was the reason for many of those 2:00 a.m. wake-up calls. That frigging Bruce anchor would hold fast in anything.
“Look,” I said, “we’re in a coral reef. I get what the underwater topography looks like here, Dad, I’m a diver. Do you have any idea how many stuck anchors I’ve dealt with? Trust me, we need the Bruce on the bow.”
But my father didn’t see it that way. “There’s only one captain on this boat,” was all he’d say, “and you know who that is.”
I was so frustrated. At the same time, I was being a cocky smartass about the whole thing. I was well aware that my own attitude was not going a long way toward selling the idea, but my heels were dug in. My parents couldn’t stop me from screaming my head off when I was two weeks old, and at 16 I guess I hadn’t gotten much easier to persuade.
That first night in port we set our bow and rear anchors, again both CQRs. Of the two, the bow is the more important — and when we awoke the next morning I was delighted to see that we had dragged the bow anchor right along the ocean floor and nearly grounded our boat. I couldn’t wait to give my dad an earful about what a useless piece of crap that damn CQR was. Equally well spelled out was the ancillary point of what an obnoxious prick I was being.
Every time we argued, my sister would go to her room to get away from the tension while my mom would try to be the peacemaker. Of course, she would side with my dad, but then later on she would come to my stateroom privately, sit down with me, and say, “Brandon, you have to chill out. I know you have a lot of experience, but this is your dad’s boat.” I would vent my frustration to her, and she would be understanding and try to keep the situation from spiraling out of control. For a while, she succeeded.
Our trip continued on through the rest of the island chain to the Marquesas’ main northern island, Nuka Hiva. From then, we headed to the Tuamotu Archipelago, a series of coral atolls that comprise the largest atoll chain in the world. All the while, my father and I continued arguing. By the time we pulled into Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, the situation had badly deteriorated.
I don’t remember what I said that finally set him off, but whatever it was, it brought to an end not only my trip with my family but also my life with my family. Suddenly my dad had me by the scruff of the neck, his fist curled and ready to lash out, both of us screaming at each other. “My God,” my mother thought, “he’s going to kick the crap out of Brandon.” He didn’t hit me, but we both knew we were going to a place that neither of us wanted to. We’d reached a point of no return. One of us had to go — and it wasn’t going to be him. With my mom and sister wailing in grief and disbelief, my father threw me off the boat.
He didn’t actually hurl me off physically. He just told me that I should take a pack with me and find passage aboard another boat to my destination of choice. He said it as he meant it.
Before I knew it I was off the Agio for good — and on my own in the middle of the South Pacific.
In a way, I was relieved. The tension between us had grown unbearable, and I knew that if we hadn’t parted ways, something really bad would have happened, and it would have caused irreparable harm to both of us, and for sure to our relationship.
In a way, though, I didn’t blame my father for throwing me off the family boat. It felt like the only possible thing to do. My mom was completely torn up and had pleaded and pleaded with him to relent, and yet I think that she also realized that there was no going back.
Still, I was somewhat in shock at what had happened. I was also scared.
In later years we would reconnect and rebuild our friendship, but for now, my father wanted nothing to do with me. My mom knew there was no reconciling us at that point, but she did what she could to make sure I would be okay. She knew that if I could make my way home, Bill Magee would take me in and look after me. And before I left Tahiti she helped me get a radio call patched through to Ventura so we could fill him in on my situation. She also helped me secure passage on the Shilo, a 40-foot catamaran headed north for Hilo, Hawaii, a journey of nearly 3,000 miles. My boatmates were a family of three: a couple and their three-year-old boy. The mom’s hands were pretty full taking care of their infant son, and they had been looking for crew. I stood the midnight shift, which left me plenty of time to think about the future.
During the day on the Shilo, I was either asleep or occupied with the practical matters of the boat. During the nights, I was alone with my thoughts. Those nights were rough. Rhiannon and I had been a lot less close since we’d both become California teenagers with our own sets of friends. But she was my sister and had been a part of my life since as early as I could remember. Now she was gone. My whole family was gone. I was alone. Those first few nights on that 40-foot cat, I cried myself to sleep.
As I said, I was scared, too. But I told myself I had to get past being scared, and when I did I found there was also a part of me that was excited about whatever lay ahead. I knew my life had hit a major turning point. I’d had experiences most other 16-year-olds had not. Still, I was far from an adult. I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet.
Often, during those lonely nights, I thought about what had happened with my dad and me back in the harbor off Papeete. On the one hand, it was a hard lesson in the demands of authority. My dad was right: There’s only one captain on a ship, just like there’s only one person in charge of a mission, or a department, or any venture. At the same time, he was making the wrong decision. I had learned how to take orders during my time on the Peace, and that sense of respect for the chain of command would become a crucial trait later on during my service in the military. Still, as we shall see, there would be quite a few other occasions when I would feel it was my duty to challenge authority, despite my training, when my gut told me the guy in charge was leading us down the wrong path.
That catamaran was fast — way faster than any single-hull boat I’d ever sailed. It took us less than two weeks to make Hilo.
A day before we reached our destination, I came up on deck from my stateroom on the port side of the boat. It was a gorgeous morning. As I stood on deck, something in the hull caught my eye. I bent down to look. Just above the waterline, a swordfish had rammed our boat during the night, spearing itself straight through the hull and breaking off the tip of its snout. That damn fish must have leaped clear out of the water to spear us. I grabbed my camera to take a picture of it. I still have that snapshot. The next day we breezed into the harbor at Hilo with a short length of swordfish beak jammed through our hull.
The image of that swordfish stuck in my mind as firmly as its beak stuck in the Shilo’s flank. What the hell was going on for that fish? What made it leap up out of the water to attack this strange, unknown vessel? Did it know it was going up against something more than 10 times larger and heavier than itself?
And for which future was I leaping out of the water to go up against?
Years later I would learn this odd factoid of biology: Although the swordfish, like all fish, is cold-blooded, it has special organs in its head that heat the eyes and brain as much as 60°F above ambient temperature. This greatly enhances the animal’s vision and therefore its ability to nail its prey. The falcon or eagle would probably be most people’s choice, but if you were looking for a totem to represent the idea of a sniper — especially a sniper who works in water — the swordfish would not be a bad pick.
Perhaps this had been a vision quest, after all.
Once we reached Hilo I made my way back to the mainland by plane and met up with my old boss, Bill Magee. As my mom had known would be the case, Bill was happy to see me and said I could go back to work for him and live on board. “Hey,” he said, “you’ve already got your schoolwork out of the way for the rest of the year. Why don’t you just settle into boat life?”
I can’t even imagine how my life might have turned out if he hadn’t made this kind offer.
Soon after I rejoined Captain Bill and the Peace, the Animals showed up for a few days of diving. This time one of them, a younger guy, brought a few friends with him. These guys were rugged. I didn’t know what they did, but you could see that whatever it was, they knew it inside and out. They weren’t muscle-bound showoffs or tough guys with attitude; it was more subtle than that. Being around them, you could just sense that there was something special about the way these guys carried themselves. It felt like they could take on a shark on a bad day and come out smiling.
On our first dive, when these guys saw me, a 16-year-old kid diving with no buoyancy compensator and my twin steel 72s, they noticed. “Holy shit,” said one of them, “who is this kid?”
The two of us got to talking. He wanted to know how I’d come to be a deckhand, and I told him a little bit about my background.
“You know,” he said, “you should check out the seals.”
At least that’s what I thought he said. I had no idea what he was talking about. Seals? Was this guy seriously into seals, like whale-watching and shit? Was he making a joke?
“No,” he said, “not seals — SEALs.”
I still didn’t get it.
“Navy maritime Special Operations forces,” he explained. “SEALs. It stands for Sea, Air, and Land. SEALs.”
I’d never heard of them before.
“To become a SEAL,” he added, “you go through the toughest military training in the world.”
Now that got my attention. I didn’t know much about the military, but I had always been fascinated with aviation and wanted to be a pilot when I grew up, maybe even an astronaut. What he was describing intrigued me. “I love the water,” I thought, “and I’m a pretty good diver. That sounds like a hell of a challenge.”
The truth was, I knew I needed a plan, somewhere to go and something to aim at. At the time, when I wasn’t on the dive boat, I would surf and hang out with some guys around the harbor. They were starting to get into crystal meth. I had no interest in it. I would drink beer and that was the extent of it — but seeing them and where they were heading scared me. I knew that I had to get the hell out of there sooner or later if I wanted to make anything better out of my life.
From that point on, my goal was fixed: I was going to become a Navy SEAL.
I had no idea how hard it would be.
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