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Dark mysteries unfold from ghost sailing boat in South Pacific

by Des Ryan/Sail-World Cruising round-up on 8 Oct 2013
Bonny as she is today .. .
Most of us take for granted that the boat crew just arrived in the marina berth next to us will be like most cruising sailors - keen on sailing, gregarious, pretty honest, down-to-earth and practical as most sailors are. So it's always a slight shock to learn that the darkest of secrets could be swirling in the bilge in a boat we know. Read this story of a boat found drifting in the South Pacific:

Story from boat's new owner:
Local Cook Islander, expat New Zealander Keith Christian, bought a 36-ft sloop, Bonny, earlier this year from Cook Islands police, who had impounded the vessel after the disappearance of its skipper, fellow New Zealander David Peppiatt.

Christian, who runs a boat charter business in Rarotonga, paid $2000 for the yacht so he could use it for parts. He doesn't hold back when describing the boat's ugliness: 'She's a pig.'

What he didn't know when he purchased the boat is that Bonny lies at the centre of one of the Cook Islands' great mysteries.

The boat was sailed into Avatiu Harbour in January last year by Peppiatt, 62, who, unbeknown to the locals, was due to stand trial the following month on charges dating back to 1998.

Peppiatt had changed his name by deed poll to Gavin Maitland, and it was that name he gave to authorities in Rarotonga when he arrived without a passport complaining of heart problems.

Peppiatt went to the hospital for medical treatment before sailing off again. He returned a couple of days later for a mysterious rendezvous, before once again sailing away.

Next he made a mayday call saying he was having trouble breathing. When authorities rushed to the position he gave, they found Bonny, drifting and abandoned, about 20 nautical miles off Rarotonga, there was no sign of life. According to police reports the sails were furled and the boat in good order.

But Christian, who now owns the boat and has studied it, says it makes no sense that Peppiatt could have fallen into the sea. There was netting all around the guard rails, and the yacht's radio was down several sets of stairs.

'If you're down there saying 'mayday, mayday, I'm having a heart attack' at 4 o'clock in the morning on a dead calm day, how do you get from your radio up onto the deck and fall overboard? There was no-one to push him over. Someone must have come and picked him up in another boat.'

Some witnesses described seeing a second person on board the boat when it sailed into Avatiu Harbour.

Fisheries Officer:
Fisheries officer Andrew Jones, an another expat Kiwi also has a strange tale. He told one news outlet that he saw the yacht sailed around in circles, never coming close to the wharf, and Peppiatt yelled out if anyone had a cellphone.

'I could see into the cabin area and I saw another guy stick his head out the door, and pull it back in when he saw me. It was super suspicious.'

Jones said Peppiatt asked to speak to a taxi driver who had taken him to the hospital two days earlier. When the woman taxi driver arrived at the wharf he threw her a piece of paper weighted by some nuts and bolts, with writing on it.

'He said 'ring that number in New Zealand at six o'clock, and tell them I'm not heading east, I'm gonna head back to New Zealand'. She said 'OK Dave', and he yelled 'no don't tell them it's Dave, say Gavin'.'

Jones said he believed the phone call was a signal for a second vessel to come to pick up Peppiatt and his passenger.

And he thinks the mayday call was made from the opposite side of the island when Peppiatt was already on the other vessel, to confuse authorities. Jones said he reported the story to police, but they did not seem to take it seriously.

Jones said customs and immigration staff should have detained Peppiatt when he first arrived while they made inquiries in New Zealand.

Harbourmaster:
Harbourmaster Saungaki Rasmussen, who was working as a maritime police officer at the time of Bonny's arrival, said he discovered there was a USB stick in the package that Peppiatt threw ashore to the taxi driver, with instructions to send it to New Zealand.

Rasmussen said he alerted his police bosses, but no effort was made to intercept the package.

'My gut feeling says he faked it, he's still alive.'

Meanwhile, Christian has been discovering surprises on the boat. There were 65 bottles of methylated spirits, containers of acid, thousands of pills and a small pill press - none of which apparently aroused the suspicion of police.

At the top of the mast he found a small bronze statue containing a mysterious white powder, which he gave to authorities.

Within a couple of hours of buying the boat, he received emails from Australia and New Zealand from people wanting things on board, including a guitar, a statue and a heater.

'I smashed the guitar open thinking it would be full of drugs, but found nothing.

'Someone else rang up from Tauranga wanting the heater out of it. Why would you want a heater out of a boat in Rarotonga?'

Christian said everything on board Bonny, including the electronics and sails, was brand new, and there was enough food on board for a year.

There was also $9000 on board, but, in another bizarre twist, that was stolen by a police officer, who was later convicted of theft and sentenced to probation and community work.

Police:
Inspector John Strickland of Cook Islands police defended the handling of the investigation. He said all leads had been followed up, including the suggestion a second person was on board and that a second vessel might have been involved, but inquiries had come to nothing.

'We looked at all avenues as best we could, we had Interpol involvement, New Zealand police. We have no evidence to substantiate the fact that this person is alive or dead.'

He said he did not know about Christian's claims that there was drug-making equipment on board. He added that police would be happy to investigate any new information that came to light.

'The law is very clear, the person is declared dead after seven years . . . so the matter is still open at this time.'

But Christian admits he is intrigued by Bonny, known previously in New Zealand as Sojourn, and firmly believes the boat holds more secrets.

'There's something strange about that boat, I want to pull it apart - there's something else on there.'

But what happened to David Peppiatt, aka Gavin Maitland, still remains a mystery almost two years later.
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