Four Unforgettable Legal Voyages: Part III — Inter-island Racing in the Northern Marianas

Attorney Timothy MB Farrell leaves the Northwest for Saipan during typhoon season.

typhoonRead Part I: Hawaii to San Francisco and Part II: Broaching Bad in Puget Sound

With nearly a hundred cases on my docket, an ad in the Oregon State Bar Bulletin sounded pretty appealing: “Come and work on the tropical island of Saipan in the Western Pacific. Litigation associate needed.” I called a Notre Dame friend in Guam, who knew the attorney running the ad; my friend said the man was his mother’s attorney and seemed to be a pretty good guy. Along with a hundred other people from the dreary Northwest, I sent him an application in the winter of 1995. After six months, I was hired and took a week-long trip via Maui (for some wave sailing) and Korea (for some kimchi) before arriving in July, the middle of typhoon season.

Saipan is part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The Commonwealth has its own Covenant with the U.S. that serves as the foundation for its Constitution. At the time, the Covenant allowed the CNMI to enforce its own immigration laws. (3 CMC §4301.) The Commonwealth was also exempted from Fair Labor Standards Act U.S. minimum wage laws (4 CMC §9221), meaning the dozens of garment factories could recruit cheap ($3.05/hr.) Philippine, Thai and mainland Chinese workers to sew “Made in the USA” labels on clothing made there.

In addition to the garment industry, the other half of the economy was tourism — mostly catering to Japanese and Korean nationals. Although prostitution was illegal, there were dozens of bars, massage parlors, and strip clubs.  It was quite a mix on an island less than 10 miles long.

One of our clients owned a bar that catered to the tourists. The FBI had run a Man Act sting and arrested the owner and about 10 of her employees. Unlike federal mediators, mamasans are not as punctual, and I was late getting down to the dock to sail with Mr. Hiroshi from Saipan to Rota for the annual race to the San Francisco De Borja Parish Festival in October 1996. Rota is 75 miles south of Saipan, so it is a very doable night crossing on a boat like the Superfly, a 45-foot-long heavy cruising yawl. Mr. Hiroshi had already left, but the Superfly (named after the Curtis Mayfield song) was still at the dock, and the owner only had one crew for what was shaping up to be a stormy crossing.

Four boats left that night on the “race” to Rota, an informal cruise, in fact. Although it was near the end of typhoon season, a low-pressure system that would develop into Tropical Storm Abel was in the works, and as the winds picked up, we soon had all the reefs pulled in.

At about 10 p.m., the owner claimed he had finished all 24 beers in his case of Budweiser and handed the wheel to our very sick crew member. This is normally a good strategy to cure seasickness. Unfortunately, the rough weather had taken its toll and he curled up on the cockpit sole out of the wind and passed out.

With no stars to guide me, no crew to trim the sails, and a difficult-to-read compass, all I could do was keep the Superfly moving. The storm would eventually generate 50-foot waves and 60 mph winds. It was never that bad for me, but I could definitely feel the boat climb the waves. Near the top, the wind would push us over so far that the boom would drag in the water; as we got over the wave, the boom would release, and we would accelerate down the back of the wave. It was incredibly frightening.

At first light, the owner crawled out of the cabin and asked how we were doing. By this time, the wind was back to its 10–20 knot normal speed. I had gone five miles off course, forcing us to tack back to the island.

When we arrived in port, we were surprised to learn that two of the boats had returned to Saipan and one, Mr. Hiroshi’s, was not accounted for. Fortunately, he arrived in time for dinner, telling us about the hellish voyage he and his crew had endured the night before.  I mainly kept quiet and enjoyed the cute man’amko dancers. Superfly went to Guam on Sunday, and I flew back to Saipan. My client, unfortunately, was brutally murdered the following week after we got her passport returned and she flew back to Shanghai. The crime was never solved.

Next: Part IV — A Race in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor

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