Chapter Seven – The Skyhook
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“Where the hell have you been?” said an impatient Roberto Mercante,
sweating in the mid-morning sun across the street from the harbor in Papeete,
“First you tell me to meet you here at nine, and now it’s ten! And why here? I
thought we were going to go see the reef!”
“Roberto, did you re-set your watch to Polynesian time? And as for our
recon of the reef, that’s exactly what we are going to do,” said Ian Clark,
emerging from the taxi in aviator sunglasses and a khaki outfit. He paid the
driver and took a look up and down the street. Traffic was heavy, but he saw a
gap and that was all he needed.
He grabbed Mercante’s arm and they hustled across two lanes, paused on
the center divider, and then ran across two more. Mercante slowed down when
they hit the sidewalk, but Clark didn’t stop.
“Clark! What the fuck is this?”
“I’ll explain in a minute, Roberto. Let’s keep going.”
They jogged down a long wharf, dodging trucks and forklifts going in and
out of large warehouses . At the end of the wharf they went down a gangplank to
where, in complete contrast to everything behind them, a true Polynesian
outrigger canoe was tied up.
“Clark, you’ve got to be kidding! We aren’t going to paddle this thing to the
reef, are we? I don’t need to be put through a bunch of bullshit!”
“Just get in and sit down. Up front, please.”
Clark released the line from the cleat on the dock and hopped in. There
were two paddles in the bottom of the hull. He grabbed one and pushed them
away from the dock. He offered the other to Mercante.
“Here’s your paddle, Roberto. It will be easier if you help.”
“What kind of crap is this, Clark? I don’t want to go on some harbor tour!”
The noise from the city and the docks receded as a fresh wind blew into
their faces across the clear, blue water. Mercante’s shirt began to dry out. Had
he been a tourist, it would have been fun paddling a canoe in the heart of
Polynesia. But Roberto Mercante was not having fun.
“Listen, Clark, we don’t have time for this nonsense. My wife expects a
phone call from me today, and I’d better have good news for her.”
“Will you stop whining and just paddle? Here, together. Stroke, stroke,
“All right, Clark, this isn’t a roman galley.”
The canoe started to pick up speed, and within minutes they were both
putting their backs into it.
“Where the hell are we going?”
“To meet our ride. See that buoy?”
“You will once we get outside the harbor. Keep paddling. Ramming speed!”
Clark picked up the pace and used his paddle to change their course. The
wind was stronger in the channel, and Mercante was getting wet all over again.
“Now do you see the buoy?”
“No I don’t. Clark, this is getting me edgy.”
“Just keep going. We’re almost there.”
They didn’t stop paddling for almost ten minutes, and when Mercante
finally saw the buoy he thought they would stop and simply glide up to it. But
Clark kept going, and Mercante kept up with him.
Finally Clark slowed down and then stopped. Although it had looked only a
few feet high from a distance, the red and white stripped pole now towered
almost eight feet over their heads, bobbing up and down in the low swells
rolling through the light chop.
“Roberto, tie up the bow to that steel ring on the buoy. Use a bowline knot.
You remember, the rabbit came out of the hole, around the tree –“
“Yeah, yeah, Clark, I remember. So now what?”
“We wait for our ride. They’ll be here any minute now. Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Who’ll be here? Why aren’t they waiting for us? Clark, if this is all
bullshit, my wife, will, I mean I will make sure you never do business in the surf
“Yeah, I know Roberto, and you’ll be running Geosurf as per the contract.
But patience, my man. In fact, I think I see them coming right now.”
“I don’t see anything, Clark.”
“Try looking straight out to sea and up around ten o’clock.”
Mercante turned to where Clark was pointing. Then he heard the engines, a
strange sound to him in a world of jets and helicopters. He could make out a
long wide wing, and then a fuselage hanging down from it, and then two circles
of props as she leveled out at an altitude of no more than a hundred feet.
“Clark, you can’t be serious!” he shouted over the roar as the pilot went into
a tight 180-degree turn and came back over the buoy. Mercante saw a face
framed by a baseball cap and a headset looking down at him from a side window
of the cockpit. The seaplane headed out to sea, banked another hard turn, and
lined up with the buoy. It slowly lost altitude and the tips of the wings swung
down on struts and turned into pontoons. Then the bow touched the water and a
perfect V of spray shot up from the keel of the fuselage going seventy miles an
hour. The pilot kept the power on and was closing fast.
“Ian! They’re gonna hit us!”
With fifty yards to go the pilot throttled all the way back and the seaplane
settled down dead in the water. A touch on the throttles and she began to drift
slowly towards the buoy. She was all white trimmed with international orange.
Her name was in flowing blue script beneath the cockpit window: The Skyhook.
The cargo bay door opened up behind the wing. A barrel-chested crewman
wearing a flight suit appeared.
“Y’all got the cash, Ian?”
“As instructed. Permission aboard?”
The plane was now floating close to the buoy with the outrigger in the
shadow of the huge wing. Clark took a clear plastic bag out of his pack and held
“All right, Clark. Permission granted.”
“Ok, Roberto, this is it. You go first.”
Mercante stood up unsteadily in the canoe and hesitated.
“C’mon, pal. In we go!”
A strong arm grabbed his hand and practically lifted him bodily into the
cargo bay. Then Ian Clark gripped a handhold on the seaplane and stepped up
quickly into the cargo bay opening. He wasn’t going to get any help from the
Skyhook ’s flight engineer, and he knew why.
“How cum L.J. ain’t with you?”
“What do you care? Isn’t this what you need to see?”
Clark handed him a plastic bag with a wad of hundred dollar bills clearly
“It all better be here, Clark. Took us twenny hours to get here, an’ the
Captain wasn’t happy ‘bout it t’all.”
“Well I figured you guys wouldn’t pass up a quick charter. Mac, this is my
client Roberto Mercante.”
The flight engineer extended his hand.
“Mac Owens. Welcome aboard the Skyhook .”
“Uh, yeah, nice to meet you too,” said Mercante, but his eyes were on the
bag in Owens’ hand.
“Uh, Ian, I think we have to have a little talk.”
Clark cut him off.
“Not now, Roberto. Mac, where do you want us?”
“Back in the sunroom.”
Ian Clark led the way towards the rear of the seaplane into a compartment
with two large Plexiglas blisters built into each side of the fuselage.
“Sit over on the port side, Roberto.”
“Ian, we’ve got to - -”
“No, on the port side, the left side. Don’t forget port and left have the same
number of letters. And you’ll get a better view when we take off,” said Clark as
he sat down opposite Mercante and strapped in.
Mercante did as he was told until – and then went back to losing his cool
over the bag of money.
“Clark, how much is this costing me?”
“Don’t worry, Roberto. You’ll get an invoice.”
Owens came through the hatch and glanced at the seat belts of the two
passengers before touching a button on a small box riveted to the bulkhead.
“Passengers aboard, Captain.”
“Do you have their boarding passes?” said a gruff voice on the intercom.
“Don’t worry, Captain Sanchez, its all there,” said Clark, raising his voice
so he could be heard over the intercom, “Ten grand for eight hours, as agreed.”
“Clark you SOB, where the hell are we going?”
“To check out the best surfing reef on the planet, Captain Sanchez. And
madam co-pilot! Set your course to one-eleven east. How’s it going, Tina?”
“Just fine, Ian. But one-eleven? There’s nothing out there that I know of.
You’re sure about that course?”
“I know exactly where we’re going, so don’t worry, Tina.”
“We won’t as long as you’re paying cash. Mac, passengers ready for
liftoff?” interjected her husband.
“We’re go, Captain.”
“Copy that, Mac. Tina, systems?”
“Ok, talk to you guys later.”
Mac Owens strapped himself into a folddown seat bolted to the bulkhead at
the rear of the ‘sunroom’ . Sanchez revved the starboard engine to turn the
Skyhook into the wind. As she came around, Roberto Mercante became even
more disoriented: the outrigger, the Skyhook , the cash, Clark’s vague directions,
and now he was in the tail of a seaplane about to take off.
“Hey Roberto,” yelled Clark.
Mercante stopped looking out the canopy and turned to Clark.
“Let’s go check the reef!”
“Uh, yeah, Clark, but - - -”
His voice was drowned out by the engines throttled wide open and the noise
of the hull slicing through the sea like a racing powerboat. The sound changed
as the Skyhook came “up on step” and began clipping through the tops of the
swells . Suddenly there was only the roar of the engines as the Catalina PBY-6A,
first flown on its maiden flight in 1943, broke free and climbed into the sky.
The Skyhook was flying about eighty feet above the sea surface. Clark and
Mercante were all eyes looking out the domes as submerged reefs went by in
every gorgeous shade imaginable of blue, aqua marine, and turquoise. Mac
Owens just sat there watching the two passengers, remembering what it was like
to simply enjoy the ride from a first-timer’s point of view.
But within minutes the spell was broken. Roberto Mercante couldn’t help
himself when he remembered what Clark had said about time and money.
“Eight hours? Ten thousand bucks for eight hours?” he said, turning to look
across the compartment.
“Yup. Thousand bucks an hour plus charter costs.”
“But eight hours? I’ve got to be back before then!”
“Not a chance, Roberto,” said Clark, not bothering to look back, “The plan
is to get to the reef, set down and taxi around to check it out. Then we take off
and fly back. Now, if we run into storms, or the winds are bad, or something
mechanical happens - -”
“What do you mean something mechanical? Is this plane going to get us
there and back or not?”
“Roberto, if there’s one thing about a PBY, it’s that they always brought
their crews home safely.”
“Yeah, pal,” interjected Mac Owens, “an’ tain’t polite ta run down a plane
while yer flyin’ in ‘er. Kinda bad luck, in fact.”
“Well, I’ve got a call to make this afternoon. Will my cell work where
“Well then is there a radio I can use?”
“Tell ya what, Mr. Mercante, lemme give ya a tour, an’ then we’ll go up to
the flight deck an’ see what we kin do ta keep y’all in touch with yer busy life.
C’mon, bud, this way.”
The flight engineer unbuckled his seatbelt and stood up near the rear of the
“Besides, if we go down ya’ need ta know how ta exit the aircraft.”
“If we go down?” he said, darting a dirty look at Ian Clark who was
completely absorbed in the view of the South Seas streaming by.
Owens led the way through the hatch in the rear bulkhead separating the
“sunroom” from the last compartment of the PBY.
“This used ta be a machine gunner’s station. Now we kinda use it fer cargo
Mercante stepped in to the aft compartment. Fins, masks, snorkels, and
several spear guns were mounted on the curved walls of the final tail section.
“Dependin’ on conditions, we usually exit back ‘ere. Keeps tha rest the
aircraft dry when we’re goin’ divin’, an’ if we hafta ditch, this section stays
afloat longest. ‘course, that ain’t never happened in tha seventy-one years of this
aircraft’s operation, but ya never know. Now Roberto, ya need ta unnerstand
how ta work tha hatch. She opens up an’ secures with this latch, so if yer the
first guy out, be sure she stays open fer the rest of us. Jes’ like on a regular jet.”
Mercante looked down and saw the ocean blurring by seemingly only a few
feet away through a clear Plexiglas window centered in the emergency hatch on
“Uh, why are we flying so low?”
“Takin’ ‘vantage of a trick they used durin’ the war. We pick up a little
extra lift from tha push o’f tha wing ‘gainst tha air squeezed between us an’ tha
water. End up usin’ a little less fuel.”
He started to open the hatch but a nervous Mercante held up his hand to
“That’s ok, I get the picture.”
“Oh c’mon, yer having fun, ain’t cha? Now let’s go forward an’ I’ll show
y’all everythin’ alla way forward.”
Back in the ‘sunroom’ Ian Clark was studying the display of a small GPS
unit. “Mac, can you get a position check for me? I’ve got 148 degrees 34
minutes west, 18 degrees 10 minutes south.”
“Nice gadget ya got there, Clark. Since when didja care ‘bout such minor
details as latitude and longitude? Thought that was L.J.’s department.”
“Since I started paying cash, Mac.”
The flight engineer didn’t miss the intent of the tone in Clark’s voice.
“Mr. Mercante, would you kindly wait fer me in tha cargo bay? ‘nd here,”
he said, taking a thin plastic binder out of a built-in rack on the bulkhead, “This
will answer a lotta yer questions ‘bout the Skyhook . I’ll be right with ya.”
The flight engineer held the hatch open and Mercante stepped into the cargo
bay. The hatch closed abruptly, and once again he wasn’t quite sure what was
going on. He looked around, and other than several metal boxes bolted to the
forward bulkhead, it was completely empty. There was nowhere to sit, so he
crouched with his back against the bulkhead and opened the binder.
Welcome aboard the Skyhook, owned and operated by the
Skyrider Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to
increasing educational opportunities for the youth of Polynesia.
You are flying in a Catalina PBY6A amphibious airplane, one of
2,943 such planes built during the Second World War. Their acronym,
PBY, signified their purpose as patrol bombers, with the Y
designating their manufacturer, Consolidated of San Diego, founded
by the colorful Reuben H. Fleet.
The PBY flew in every naval theater of war around the world. It
was a PBY that first saw the Japanese fleet steaming towards
Midway, and a PBY that dropped the first bombs on Japanese soil. It
was a PBY that spotted the German battleship Bismarck in the North
Atlantic and PBY’s that were the first line of defense against the Uboat
wolfpacks. But for many veterans, the real legend of the Catalina
stems from the countless missions flown to rescue them after their
planes crashed or ships sank.
After the war, hundreds were converted to serve a wide variety
of purposes . For several decades Catalinas were flown for adventure
tour companies, oil exploration outfits, fire-fighting crews, and even
private owners who had them re-fitted as global air -yachts. To this
day they can be seen flying in air shows around the globe.
The lineage of the Skyhook can be traced back to her squadron
known as the Snafu Snatchers. She followed B-29s on bombing runs
and P-40s into battle and picked up any pilots who were shot down or
had to bail out. In fact, some fighter pilots knew they would run out of
gas on the way home but they also knew the Snafu Snatchers would be
right there to fis h them out of the drink.
In 1944 the Skyhook was painted black for midnight missions to
retrieve downed flyers hidden by native Polynesians from the
Japanese. A roar coming in from the horizon, a white wake appearing
on the sea – and many a young pilot waiting nervously in an outrigger
knew he would soon be out of harm’s way.
After the war a special squadron of Catalinas, led by the
Skyhook, spent two years searching for the remains of pilots in the
wreckage of downed aircraft on reefs, atolls, and islands across the
Pacific. Flight crews pushed themselves and the planes to their limits
to recover dogtags - or anything - that would serve to identify the
fallen and bring closure to their kin.
The Skyhook was then flown by the Navy in support of nuclear
testing operations conducted during the fifties and sixties . In the
seventies she was sold to the newly independent government of Fiji
and used to transport medical services, patients and government
officials to the far-flung islands of the new nation.
Into the eighties and nineties she saw service in the States and
Europe flying a succession of wealthy owners to their yachts in the
Caribbean, secluded islands around the Bahamas or private lakes in
Switzerland. She was owned and operated by a tourist adventure
company in Africa for several years before being bought by the
government of India during the conflicts with Ceylon.
Finally, she was acquired by Australian businessmen to fly
surfers to remote islands throughout Indonesia. But after a few
months in service, she was replaced by high-speed power yachts in
response to the demands of the fast-paced surf travel industry. She
was mothballed to a hangar in Brisbane and gathered dust for several
years until she was tracked down by Victor Sanchez.
Captain Sanchez’ father had flown her in World War Two and
his stories of recovery missions during and after the war left a strong
impression on Victor, who vowed one day to find the Skyhook and get
her in the air again. After flying jets for the Navy in the Gulf War,
Captain Sanchez decided to muster out of the military and start a new
life in the South Seas. He had a vision of providing passenger service,
ferrying medical services and patients, and even taking divers and
surfers to remote sites inaccessible by boat. Captain Sanchez met his
wife Tina on a flight to a remote island in French Polynesia, and
thanks to her concern for her people, they formed the Skyrider
Foundation. Supported by charter income, grants, and retainer fees
from Polynesian governments, the Foundation operates a school for
promising youth from throughout Polynesia to prepare them for
university studies in medicine and other careers in service to their
We hope you enjoy your flight aboard the Skyhook . Please read
on for more information about her exact specifications, a list of
missions flown during the war, a timeline of ownership, and other
fascinating facts about our beloved Catalina flying boat.
Mercante reflected for a moment on what he had just read until his mind
darted quickly to wondering what was taking so long with Owens and Clark.
When Owens saw the hatch close, he pushed a small dead bolt on his side to
secure it completely. Then he turned to Ian Clark, looking out across the ocean
as if he did not have a care in the world.
“What tha hell is this about Clark, an’ don’ gimme any crap. Tha plane
commander don’t like yer style one bit, an’ I’m inclined to ‘gree with him.
Where we goin’ an’ what’s tha deal with L.J.?”
Clark turned slowly, letting Owens see his annoyance at being distracted.
“Listen, Mac, I don’t have to tell you a thing about Merrill. You have ten
grand in your hands, and exactly where we are going is classified information
for now. Which reminds me, I need you, Victor and Tina to sign these.”
He pulled three forms out of his backpack and handed them to Owens.
Without breaking eye contact, the flight engineer tore the papers in half and
handed them back.
“Clark, I’m not goin’ fer yer bullshit. Besides, if we signed yer pissant nondisclosures and then violated the terms, whatcha gonna do, sue us? So try bein’
straight with me or y’all never gonna fly on this aircraft agin.”
Clark knew Owens was a man not given to idle threats, and with his entire
plan depending on the capabilities of a Catalina, he knew he had better come
clean, and fast.
“Ok, Mac, here’s the deal. I found a reef with the best big waves on the
planet. I sold the rights to Wavelife International. Their surfers are going to ride
the place and I’ll need you and the Skyhook to make it happen.”
Mac Owens looked at Clark with a sharp eye for more than a few seconds.
The flight engineer turned and slid open the dead bolt, but before he opened
the hatch, he looked back at Ian Clark.
“Oh, jes one thing, Ian. I don’ know where we’re goin’, but I do know y’all
didn’t find the place. So I’d ‘preciate it if ya don’ ever lie to me again, pal.”
The hatch closed and Ian Clark was very much alone. Owens’ comment
made him wonder what L.J. Merrill was doing at that very moment. He didn’t
have a clue, but one thing he did know: not only did he owe the reef to his
former scout, but also the Skyhook .
Before they had met that fateful day in Australia, Merrill had twice hitched
rides on the seaplane to remote islands throughout Polynesia on his search for
surf. Once Geosurf got going, they chartered the Skyhook on numerous
occasions, and though Clark didn’t like the bills, the investment had paid off
with several major finds. And for years afterwards, the Skyhook flew Geosurf
customers to remote resorts . Clark smiled at the thought of the prices he used to
charge, but the smile faded when he remembered how things changed overnight.
Two years ago he bounced a check to Tina Sanchez drawn on a bank in
Samoa when one of his Third World commodities schemes did not work out. He
quickly made good on it, but Victor Sanchez took it personally given that the
whole idea of flying the Skyhook was to support the Skyrider Foundation and its
work with young Polynesians across the Pacific. He let Clark know that
although the Skyhook would continue to be available for charter, the terms
would strictly cash in U.S. dollars from then on.
That condition precluded any further business since Ian Clark was always
skimming the cash and thus never had any for operations. And at the time, it
didn’t matter anyway. He found he could save money using light planes and
chartered yachts instead of the Skyhook while charging his clients the same topdollar
rates. Although the PBY continued to be pictured on Geosurf’s brochures
and website, she had never flown again for Clark since the bounced check.
But now here he was, paying top dollar and yet having to put up with
Owens’ attitude, because he knew had no choice: his entire plan depended on
the Skyhook . She had the range, the cargo capacity, and the ability to set down in the middle of the ocean. Merrill’s video gave no indication of what it would be
like to anchor a large yacht anywhere near the reef. The PBY Catalina, unlike a
Grumman Albatross or other smaller seaplanes, could carry a dozen people plus
a lot of equipment, including jet skis . Of course, that meant burning aviation fuel
no matter what the cost, and at eighty gallons an hour, the Catalina was not
cheap. But then again, he smirked, it wasn’t his money.
He looked down through the bottom pane of the Plexiglas dome. The ocean
speeding by seemed so close he could almost touch it. It reminded him of the
blur of data across the bottom of his computer screen. The stark contrast of the
two images had a powerful effect on him. He turned away and saw the empty
compartment, but he found no relief from his discomfort.
His smirk was replaced by a downcast stare when his first thought was of
the machine guns that once protruded from the Plexiglas blisters, of the Japanese
fighter planes zooming past, some on fire, others firing back, bullets ripping
through the thin aluminum cutting into young flyers, blood spurting everywhere.
He could almost hear their screams over the roar of the engines. He saw his
reflection in the opposite dome, his shades and his khakis and his GPS, and he
felt very out of place and then embarrassed. This was a place of honor - and not
for posers from Newport Beach who made fast money, thanks to golf and
gossip, along with promises that were never kept.
His mind went blank for a second. He looked at the hatch and gave a
thought to joining Owens and Mercante and how wonderful it would be to trust
some real friends for once in his life.
But he didn’t make a move – until he turned his downcast eyes back to
watching the South Pacific blur past him.
Mercante looked up as Owens came into the cargo compartment.
“I see yer doin’ yer homework, Mr. Mercante. Any questions?”
“Yeah, just one. How safe are we flying in a plane built in 1943?”
“Well, sir, we jes’ came back from the States to renew our FAA certificate
allowin’ us to carry passengers . She’s actually a better plane now than when she
was first built.”
“You know, I’ve only seen them in movies. I think there was one in a surf
movie, as I recall.”
“Yeah, ‘In God’s Hands’, when those guys escaped from jail an’ were
rescued by Shaun Tomson.”
“You know him?”
“Sure, flew ‘im out to one of Merrill’s special reefs cupla years ago. Nice
guy. Anyways, that was a PBY, but she was a 5A. The Skyhook is a 6A. The
Navy came up with a re-design called the Nomad PBN-1 back in ’43, but she
weighed too much an’ had less range, so they sold ‘em to the Ruskies an’ came
up with tha 6A. Her top speed was one eighty five, but that was only in a steep
dive. She had a ceiling ‘round - - -”
Owens could see that Mercante was glazing over.
“Say, how’d ya like something to eat? I’m gettin’ hungry. Follow me.”
Owens led him forward to the mechanic’s compartment between the
landing gear wheel wells . The noise of the engines was deafening in the
cramped space crowded with tools and smelling of lubricants. Mercante looked
up into a hollow superstructure ringed with cables, tubing and wires connecting
the controls and systems between the fuselage and the wing. Halfway up the
“tower” were windows on each side and a seat mo unted between them.
“Yeah, that used ta be the flight engineer’s station. Ya needed three people
to fly a PBY durin’ the war, but FAA regs changed in the early sixties and
required everythin’ to be controlled by no more than two people from the flight
deck. So I don’ go up there much anymore.”
“You mean this plane has been flying since the sixties?”
“She bin flyin’ since World War Two, remember?” said Owens impatiently,
“You know, Pearl Harbor, the Nazis, John Wayne fighting the Japs!” A thought
of “What-the-hell, the guy is a rich surfer, what does he know?” helped him
change his tone back to the friendly voice of a tour guide. “Mr. Mercante, the
Skyhook wuddn’t be in the air if I didn’t make shure she complied with every
safety reg known to man. Cum on in, please. Y’all be more comfortable.”
Owens stepped through the hatch into the galley. In contrast to the
‘sunroom’, the cargo bay and the mechanic’s station, the galley of the Skyhook
had wall-to-wall carpeting. Thick insulation cut the engine noise to a minimum.
Four cushioned captains’ chairs swiveled around a clean formica table. He
closed the door behind them and Mercante was surprised at how quiet it was.
“I guess yer used to flying first class, so have a seat, Mr. Mercante.”
“Well, actually I - -”
The intercom buzzed on.
“Everybody hold on for a sec, we’re going to hop an island coming up.”
“Better sit down an’ strap in,” said Mac Owens, pointing to the chair nearest
Not ten seconds after the seat belt clicked Mercante was pushed down in his
seat as the Skyhook suddenly went from eighty feet off the deck to two hundred
and fifty feet. She leveled off, and then dove back down, only to repeat the
process a second time almost immediately.
“Ok, that should do it for now. Hey Clark, you sure about that course?” said
Victor Sanchez, laughing. The intercom clicked off.
“Yeah, Mr. Mercante, do you know where we’re going?”
Mac Owens didn’t get an answer, but he did get a plastic bag out of a
drawer as fast as he could.
“Here ya go, pal, use this . Next time lemme know ‘fore we take off. We got
some fast-actin’ scopolamine, ‘though it won’t do y’all much good right now.”
He pushed the button on the intercom.
“Flight, we’ve got a passenger who don’t like roller coasters all that much.”
“Roger that, Mac, but orders were one-eleven at cruising speed, and oneeleven
it’s going to be until I’m told differently.”
“Of course, we can fly a bit higher, but that’s more fuel, with an appropriate
surcharge, of course,” said Tina Sanchez.
Mercante’s stomach emptied itself a second time into the bag. He looked at
Mac Owens with a green face and nodded.
“That’s a go, Flight, but I think a gradual climb would be in order,” laughed
“Climbing to one thousand. Say, when we level off why don’t you come up
to the cockpit? We’d like to say hello, Mr. Mercante.”
“I’m not feeling too, uh,” he dry heaved into the bag, “social right now,
thanks,” the words barely getting out of his mouth amidst a stream of breakfast
“Well, let’s hope y’all gonna enjoy the rest of yer flight,” said Owens,
almost feeling sorry for the vomiting millionaire sitting in front of him.
“Mac, could you go up in the tower and give me a visual on number two?
I’ve got a low oil pressure indicator up here.”
He handed Mercante a plastic sports bottle from the refrigerator and reached
into a metal cabinet with a red cross on it to remove a small bottle of pills.
“Roger that, Flight. Here, drink this an’ take three of these. It’ll settle yer
stomach. An’ stow that bag in the trash when yer done. An’ don’ fergit to close
it first. That smell really gits ta me.”
Mercante nodded, one hand holding the medicine and the bottles, the other
holding the bag. Owens headed aft to the mechanic’s compartment and opened
the hatch. The noise and smell of engines flooded the galley.
Mercante opened the container and washed down two pills with a long swig
from the sports bottle. He started to feel better almost instantly. The hatch to the
mechanic’s compartment was open, and he could see the flight engineer up
inside the superstructure, looking out through a small window, and then coming
back into the galley, closing the door and buzzing the intercom box.
“Flight, no apparent oil leaks on number two. Must be the gauge. I’ll run a
test on ‘er when we get back to Tahiti.”
“Roger that, Mac. How’s our passenger doing?”
Owens turned to Mercante.
“Uh, kinda, I think.”
“He’s ok, Flight. Ready fer some introductions?”
“Sure, come on up. And grab some juice bottles, will you please?”
“Say Mac, what is this stuff? Seems to work pretty fast.”
“Soda water and kava, plus summa those scopolamine pills . Settles yer
stomach an’ gets yer mind off yer nausea. Y’all might be getting’ a bit drowsy
pretty soon, so let’s go visit the cockpit.”
Mac Owens stood up and walked forward and opened the bulkhead hatch.
The doorway was filled with light.
“Go on in,” he gestured to Mercante.
Roberto stood up and suddenly didn’t feel all that well. But he knew he
couldn’t wuss out now, so he ducked through the hatch and found himself
standing between two seats mounted on platforms three feet high on either side
of him. The man on his left didn’t look at him, seemingly quite busy with flying the plane. But the person on his right was another story entirely. The first thing
he saw was her long black hair in a ponytail coming out the back of her baseball
cap. Then she turned and extended her hand to him, her nails done perfectly.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. Mercante. I am Tina Sanchez. Sorry about getting
you sick. Are you feeling better?” she smiled.
“Yes, thank you,” nodded Roberto, somewhat mesmerized by the smooth
feeling of her hand and her classic Polynesian beauty. He was barely able to
remember his manners and cover his mouth as he yawned. Then he fully
snapped out of it when she introduced the pilot now looking at him from not
more than two feet away.
“This is my husband Victor,” she said. The pilot had his hands on the
controls and nodded at Mercante, his firm jaw not allowing anything more than
a thin smile.
“Gangway there, mate!”
Mercante was startled by Mac Owens behind him. He walked forward a few
steps and found himself almost ducking under the instrument panel into a
Owens handed two plastic bottles to Tina Sanchez. She held one up so that
her husband could see it and he nodded. She gave him a bottle and he took a
long swig from it before giving it back to his wife . He took his headset off and
ran a large hand through his dark wavy hair. He looked down at Mercante from
his pilot’s perch.
“So you’re paying the bills at Ian Clark’s direction. You sure you know
what you are doing?” Sanchez wanted direct eye contact and took off his
sunglasses to get it. His bluntness caught Mercante off guard.
“Uh, yeah, hi, I’m Roberto Mercante. I own Wavelife International. Nice to
“Oh, I thought Wavelife was owned by the shareholders. We tried to raise
some money once from you guys and got the run-around.”
“Now, Victor, be nice. He’s not feeling that well.”
“Right dear,” Sanchez turned back and looked at Mercante.
“So, are we on company time, or is this just a junket for the hell of it?”
“Oh all right, but any friend of Ian Clark, is, uh, ah forget it. Where’s L.J.?”
“I don’t know. But I trust Ian Clark, as does my wife and she’s the CEO. He
pitched us an idea and we’re going to take him up on it.”
Mercante yawned and his eyelids drooped.
“He knows where there’s an unknown reef with the best waves I’ve ever
seen, and we want Wavelife surfers to be the first to ride the place.”
“Yeah, there was a lot of surf two weeks ago, but it is pretty flat right now.”
“Well, I just want to see the place with my own eyes,” said Mercante,
fighting to stay awake.
“Knowing Clark, that’s probably a good idea,” remarked Sanchez,
prompting a withering stare from his wife. He quickly put on his sunglasses and
headset and went back to giving the PBY his undivided attention.
“Yeah, that reminds me, Clark wanted ta double check our position against
his GPS gadget.” Mac Owens touched the button on an intercom box. “Hey
bigshot, ya wanna check yer GPS? Cum’on up here.”
There was no answer.
“Clark, y’all back there sleepin’ in the sun or sumthin’?”
Still no answer.
“Hey Ian, we’re almost there!”
“No, we’re not. We’re only at one four seven five two west, two one one
zero south,” said a very alert Ian Clark with a sharp tone to his voice.
Tina Sanchez looked at a display in front of her.
“That’s right Ian,” she said into her headset patched into the intercom.
“I’ll be up there in a minute. Thanks for remembering me, Mac.”
The box clicked off, and Owens shrugged.
Tina Sanchez knew that Owens’ attitude was entirely due to how her
husband felt about the owner of Geosurf Resorts. And she knew she had to do
something about it.
“Say, Roberto, why don’t you go forward there and lie down for a while.
We’ll wake you up when we get there.”
“Thanks, I think I’ll do that. Nice meeting you both,” said Mercante. He
yawned again, and ducked under the instrument panel into the forward
compartment where he curled up on some loose cushions and coiled ropes.
He was out like a light, but Tina Sanchez was taking no chances. She
motioned for Owens to put on an intercom headset hanging from the bulkhead.
Then she spoke in a low voice that could be not be heard over the engines.
“Ok, Mac, why the attitude?”
“He said he knows exactly where we’re going. Says he found it, but of
course that’s crap an’ I called him on it.”
“Well, I bet L.J. is out of the picture because Clark screwed him, one way
or another,” said the Captain.
“Now listen, and that means both of you. L.J. was a nice guy, but times
change, and we’ve got paying customers aboard, and don’t forget it.”
“Yeah, had sum fun with him, didn’t we? You’d think Clark would
remember all tha places - - - “Owens stopped in mid sentence when he saw the
look of a woman who didn’t want to hear another word about L.J. Merrill, “Oh,
right, the money. Here you go, Tina.”
Owens handed her the zip-lock plastic bag. She opened it and started to
count the bills.
“And there’s more where that came from, believe me.”
Ian Clark poked his head through the hatchway into the cockpit. Mac
Owens shouldered past him back into the galley so that Clark could step
forwards into the cramped cockpit.
He extended his hand to Victor Sanchez.
“Hi Victor, good to see you.”
Sanchez turned and barely nodded to him. Clark felt the vibe and tried again
with the Captain’s wife.
“Hello Tina, how are you? Sorry again about that problem we had.”
That was all her husband needed to hear, and he made no effort to rein in
his dislike for a man trying to sweet talk his wife after bouncing a check for over
twenty thousand dollars.
“We didn’t have a problem, Clark. You did, and that’s why you’re paying
cash now and forevermore. Is it all there, Tina? Better count it.”
“Yes, Victor, its ten thousand, as agreed, although you may have to cover
some extra charges, Ian. Our fuel consumption has gone up.”
“No problem. As long as we’re on course, I’m stoked.”
“One eleven dead on and steady as she goes. Where are we headed, Ian?”
Clark looked back into the galley at Owens.
“I wasn’t going to tell you until I had signed non-disclosures, but Mac tells
me they won’t be needed.”
“Actually I just tore them up when you tried to hand them to me,” said
Owens in a loud voice, standing back in the galley.
“Yeah, Clark, what makes you think I’d sign anything for you anyway?
First you bounce a check, then you show up with some story about a magic reef,
and by the way, where’s L.J.?”
Victor Sanchez’ tone was ominous. His wife could sense the tension, but
with ten thousand dollars in her hand, she was not going to lose an account just
because male egos were turning the men into growling dogs.
“Ian, why don’t you and I go sit down in the galley and discuss this? And
Victor, I think you should come with us. Mac, could you come up here and keep
an eye on things?”
“Uh, yeah, sure Tina,” he said with some hesitation. But Ian Clark was
ready to clear the air. He turned and ducked back through the hatch, bumping
into Mac Owens. Tina Sanchez got out of her seat and followed Clark through
“Let’s go, Victor!”
“All right, I’m coming. Mac, one eleven due east. And bring her up to top
speed. Let’s get this over with.”
“Aye-aye skipper, one eleven east. Full throttles.”
Victor Sanchez sat next to his wife and glared across the table at Ian Clark.
“You didn’t answer my question about L.J. And I want to know where
we’re going, Clark.”
“Ok, Sanchez. But first forget about L.J. Merrill. And as for where we are
going, I’ll show you in a minute.”
“You said we’re going to the best surfing reef on the planet, but there’s no
place to surf on this course for thousands of miles!”
“Keep your shirt on, skipper. We’re not going thousands of miles.”
Clark pulled a portable DVD player out of his pack, opened it up, touched
the “play” button, and pushed it across the table.
“Here’s the place we’re looking for.”
The husband-and-wife team watched the forty-five seconds of shaky video
shot from ten thousand feet.
“I know those waters like my own hand, but I’ve never seen this place.
Where is it on the chart?”
“Don’t bother, Victor. It’s not on any chart.”
Sanchez narrowed his eyes.
“Clark, I’ve just about had it with your - - - ”
His wife pinched him painfully on the knee and he stopped short of saying
“Maybe you’ve never seen this place before, but seeing is believing, and
you’ll see it in person soon enough.”
“Ian, are you sure about this?”
“I’d bet my life on it, Tina.”
“Seems like you already have,” she replied.
“I’ve bet Geosurf on it, that’s for sure. I’ve got a good deal with Wavelife
and all things being equal, you will, too. I - - -”
“What kind of deal, Clark? And what kind of deal did you give L.J.?”
Clark’s focus snapped into survival mode.
“Victor, just shut up about him and listen. I’m offering you a retainer of
fifty thousand dollars in cash for sixty days starting June nineteenth. Plus a
matching cash contribution to the Foundation. Plus all expenses, fuel, and two
fifty per diem each. Mac, too.”
“And where does L.J. fit into all this?”
“He doesn’t. You know as well as I do that he would never work with a
corporation like Wavelife. So I had to make some changes and - - -”
“That’s ok, Clark, I can imagine what happened with Wavelife in the
picture. He never trusted you all that much anyway.”
“Victor, enough is enough. He brought cash, and Ian, if you put fifty grand
in our hands and another fifty to the Foundation, we’ll be able to work with you.
And you did say all expenses, plus fuel and per diem?”
“Correct. There will be at least two flights in and out of the place, possibly
more . The Skyhook will be doing air-ferry with a lot of equipment and
“I think we can do the job, Ian. What do you think, Victor?”
“As long as its cash, we’ll be ready.”
“There will be two hundred and fifty thousand US dollars deposited in your
Fijian account as soon as I finalize the details with Wavelife. Fifty thousand will
be yours to keep no matter what. Satisfied, Captain Sanchez?”
“That will be just fine, Ian,” said Tina Sanchez before her husband had a
chance to respond to the obvious challenge in Clark’s tone of voice.
“Good. That’s what I was hoping you’d say. Only one more thing: I will
give you the coordinates, but they stay aboard the Skyhook . I’ve got to keep this
place under wraps or - - -”
“Or somebody might steal it from you the way you stole it from L.J? Well,
Clark, collecting on your karma is not my job. So exactly where do we set
“Come and get me when you’re within a ten mile radius of one three seven
west and twenty-one south. And I have your word?”
Victor Sanchez hesitated, but his wife did not.
She extended her hand to Clark and shook it firmly. Then she looked at her
husband, who was looking at the DVD display and watching the images play
again. She closed the lid of the player firmly and handed it to Clark.
“Uh, yeah, okay Clark.”
He extended his hand, but kept his eyes averted.
Clark left the galley and made his way back to the ‘sunroom’. Tina Sanchez
leaned back, looked at her husband, and sighed.
“Ok, dear, let me give it to you straight. Our job is to keep the Skyhook in
the air and the Skyrider Foundation solvent. We’re making good money on this
flight, so I want both Clark and Mercante to enjoy themselves and feel
“Yeah, but - - - ”
“No yeah-but, Victor. That’s the way it’s going to be, for one simple
reason: Wavelife grossed over a billion dollars last year. I will NOT have you
guys jeopardizing a relationship that could really help us. Are we understood?”
Victor Sanchez looked liked a cowed boy glad he wasn’t going to be
spanked. Tina Sanchez took that as an answer.
“Now I’m going up to relieve Mac. When he comes back here, I want you
to tell him exactly what I just told you. No tone. No sarcasm. Be nice. We’ve got
commitments that are way too important for you to screw things up because of
L.J. I feel for him too, Victor. Now is not the time to deal with it . Period.”
She got up out of her chair and opened the hatch to the cockpit.
Mac Owens was concentrating on the temperature gauges to make sure she
“Mac! Victor has some things to discuss with you.”
Roberto Mercante slowly opened his eyes, and he didn’t know where he
was. He sat up, looked around the small compartment and saw two anchors atop
piles of thick, neatly coiled rope. Slowly he remembered exactly where he was:
on a World War Two seaplane flying out over the South Pacific on its way to the
most perfect big wave reef he had ever seen. In his excitement, he stood up and
hit his head on the skylight. He turned and bent over to go through the hatch
leading aft. Ducking through it, he came up into the cockpit and was startled to
find Tina Sanchez alone in the co-pilot’s seat.
“Well, glad to see you’re up and around, Roberto,” she said with a smile as
she looked at her nails.
Mercante just stood there soaking in the image of a beautiful woman sitting
at the controls of a seaplane. Then he saw the control yokes moving slightly and
it took him a few seconds to figure it out. Autopilot.
“Uh, can I sit up there in the other seat, Tina? May I call you Tina?”
“Sure. Just don’t touch anything.”
He climbed up into the seat on the port side of the plane. He looked out the
window and saw an ocean of rich blue to the horizon with coral reefs
surrounding lagoons of turquoise.
“I’ve got to get me one of these!” he said in a voice audible over the full
sound of the twin engines.
He barely touched the steering controls and his imagination ran wild. There
he was, flying his own plane to undiscovered waves that only he would surf,
with a Polynesian beauty at his side.
“Roberto, I told you not to touch anything,” said Tina Sanchez, pretending
to scold him.
He quickly took his hands away from the controls, abashed at the reprimand.
“Well, go ahead, get a feel for her,” she said, relenting coyly, “Just don’t
grip her too tightly, ok? You need to feel how she moves on her own before you
try to control her.”
She got out of her seat and stood right next to Mercante.
“Here, let me explain what all these dials and displays are for. Oh, excuse
me for a second before we get started.”
She smiled at the speechless Mercante and hit the button on the intercom.
“Victor, why don’t you make us some lunch? And Mac, could you do a run
through of all the maintenance we’ve been deferring this year? We will be
giving the Skyhook a re-furb when we get back, thanks to Roberto.”
She looked at him, her smile bright against her dash of lipstick and rich
“Now, where were we? Oh, you want to learn how to fly her, do you? Well,
there are some important things you’ve got to learn.”
“Boy, I like this!”
“You like it now. You’ll learn to love it later.”
For almost half an hour the millionaire surfer was living a dream come true,
flying to the best waves in the world in a Catalina with a knockout dame
standing next to him in the cockpit. Though they were both married, the
Brazilian millionaire and the Polynesian beauty were not above some serious
flirting while winging above an idyllic ocean paradise.
But Tina Sanchez knew what she was doing, and when to do it at exactly
the right moment.
“You know, I think we’re getting a bit too hot, don’t you Roberto?”
“Uh, er - - -“
“The temperature gauges, remember? Gotta keep an eye on ‘em all time!”
she purred as she withdrew to the co-pilot’s seat.
She eased off the throttles slightly.
“There, that’s better. Mac! Come on up and fly for us, ok?” she said into the
intercom, “Roberto, let’s go get something to eat. I hope my husband has lunch
ready for us by now. After you!”
Tina Sanchez never took her eyes off him as she gestured to Mercante. He
followed her hand and almost fell out of the captain’s seat. His face reddened as
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s always a little awkward the first time.”
Mercante stumbled a step and caught his balance by holding on to the
bulkhead. The hatch opened and he stepped through it like a drunken sailor,
bumping into Mac Owens in the process.
“Oh, sorry, Mr. Mercante! Did you have a nice sleep? Everything ok?”
“Sure, Mac. Just great!”
Owens lifted up into the captain’s chair.
“Everything’s steady, Mac. Did you and Victor have your little chat?” The
tone in her voice was strictly no-nonsense.
“Yes, ma’am. Captain’s orders understood loud and clear.”
She swung gracefully out of her seat and went through the hatch all in one
motion, ready to share an excellent lunch and conversation at the captain’s table
with her husband and their new-found patron.
An hour later, Roberto Mercante was in excellent spirits. Tina Sanchez saw
her chance and excused herself.
“Victor, can I have a word with you? We’ll be right back, Roberto,” she
said, motioning her husband to follow her to the engineer’s compartment.
She closed the hatch behind her.
She gave her husband a long, luscious kiss, and then did it again.
“Are you okay, Victor? I know this is hard for you.”
“Yeah, I just can’t get L.J. out of my thoughts . I KNOW Clark ripped him
off for this place and then sold it to this guy. And now I’ve got to keep them
both happy? C’mon, Tina!”
Tina gave him another kiss and put her arms around his waist and pulled
him tightly to her.
“Victor, if we can land Wavelife as a donor, we’ll put that many more kids
on full scholarships. Do it for them, Victor. Wavelife can really help us.”
“Ok, now that you put it that way, I’ll be the nicest guy you’ve ever seen,”
said Victor, putting his arms around his wife and looking into her deep eyes.
She kissed him once more. “You already are the nicest guy I’ve ever seen.
Now, you go hang out with the boys up front and I’ll go get Ian.”
Tina Sanchez went aft until she reached the ‘sunroom’. She opened the
hatch, and found Ian Clark fast asleep. She looked at him and thought about just
what drove human beings to end up so far from heart and home. She knew
Clark’s story from endless hours of flying with L.J. Merrill, and all she could do
was hope that some good would come of Ian Clark’s plans. She stepped back
into the cargo bay, and slowly closed the hatch. Then she made some noise with
the winch before pretending to struggle with the hatch. Then she said in a loud
voice, “Hey, Ian, I think we’re almost there!”
She waited a few seconds before stepping into the ‘sunroom’. And just as
she’d anticipated, Ian Clark was waking up.
“We’re getting close, Ian. C’mon, let’s go up front and see what’s cookin’,”
she said with a smile almost angelic in its charm.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I fell asleep,” he said, looking up at the first friendly face
he’d seen in a long time. Then he looked at his GPS and his heart skipped a beat.
The air in the cockpit was charged with excitement. Mercante was in the
captain’s seat and loving it as Mac Owens was showing him all the dials and
going on and on about the mechanical aspects of flying a Catalina PBY. Victor
Sanchez was giving pointers to Mercante about how the Skyhook handled. Ian
Clark crouched in the forward compartment watching the numbers displayed on
his GPS and glancing from time to time through the observation porthole.
Finally he saw what he was waiting for on the GPS display.
“We’re here,” he said, almost to himself.
Nobody heard him, and that was just as well, because as he looked out the
window, he saw a dozen reefs scattered across the sea. Every one of them was
fringed with white on their east-facing shores from wind chop coming from the
trades. None of them showed any signs of swell from the south, but then he
realized that the swell was the least of his problems.
He looked at the coordinates from the airline and at his GPS. They were
almost identical, but the airlines had only given him degrees and minutes, but
not seconds. And with a second equal to about six nautical miles, the numbers
from the airline could be off by as much as three hundred and sixty miles. They
didn’t pinpoint the reef, and now there was no way to tell which of the reefs far
below, if any of them, was the one Merrill had discovered. He took a deep
breath to suppress a panic not unlike that of a drug dealer about to display
product to a cash customer when he discovers he’s been burned up the line and
his stuff is no good. But he caught himself as the instincts of a salesman kicked
in. The first thing he had to do was stall for time.
“Ok, steady as she goes,” he looked down at the GPS, “Victor, maybe you
better take the controls . We’ll be setting down soon. Roberto, why don’t we go
back into the sunroom? I’m sure the view will be great from there.”
“Yeah, good idea you guys,” said Mac Owens.
Mercante got out of the seat and Sanchez swung up and took the controls
after carefully turning off the autopilot. He followed Clark aft, passing Tina
Sanchez in the galley.
“We’re almost there, Roberto! You must be really exc ited!” she said.
Mercante smiled at her, tongue-tied at seeing such a gorgeous woman
tidying up the place. Clark didn’t even notice her. He was sweating bullets as he
led Mercante back to the ‘sunroom’, but he knew he was lucky they were flying
at a thousand feet. If the Skyhook had been close to the sea surface, he wouldn’t
have seen all the reefs arrayed across the ocean, nor would he have seen that
none had the perfect elliptical shape in the images captured by Merrill.
Mercante looked out the port dome like a kid staring through a window at a
toy store. Clark pretended to look out to starboard, but his mind was far away.
The intercom box came on.
“Ok, Ian, I’m going to take her down. Where do you want me to go?”
Clark looked up at the sky in resignation and closed his eyes . He wanted to
pray, but he knew God was not going to help a liar and a thief.
“Yeah, Ian, where is it? Can you see it?” said an excited Roberto Mercante.
Clark opened his eyes, and looked into the deep ocean. Then he saw the
handle at the bottom of the Plexiglas dome. Anxiety attacked from all sides.
Merrill, Geosurf, Wavelife, Victor and Tina Sanchez, Mac Owens, the lawyers,
the cops, the IRS, the surf stars, the Newport crowd: they were all flashing
across his mind and looking straight at him. He looked down at the handle. Then
his gaze went right through the window.
Off in the distance he saw a faint ring of white set against the blue of God’s
ocean. And then he thought he saw yet another ring of white just on the horizon.
He felt something powerful turn his heart around. He steadied himself. Now he
had to think fast. He waited for a few seconds, and yet a third ring appeared.
They were about eight to ten miles apart. The surf was flat, and there was no
way of telling which one was the reef in Merrill’s video. But any one of them
would do for now, and that was all that mattered.
“Right there, Roberto! There it is ! That’s the reef!”
He pushed the intercom button.
“Hey Victor, set her down next to the first reef just ahead of us. We’re right
where we want to be!”