Shipwreck 911

When a vessel runs aground or sinks in a storm, it’s Mike Parker to the rescue
Story by Hunter Haskins. Photos by Hugh E. Gentry.

Michael Parker and his crew are loading up for a rescue mission. They haul scuba tanks, plenty of rope and heavy fabric bags across the dock to a fifty-foot vessel that looks half crane and half battleship.

I step aboard as Mike fires up two big diesel engines, and we motor out of Kewalo Basin just west of Waikīkī. Ho‘oponopono is big and comfy for a work boat, with a small galley, a potty and six bunks. Captain Mike steers with one finger in a pilothouse the size of my living room while I contemplate turning on the flat-screen TV to watch an episode or two from Mike’s complete collection of Gilligan’s Island on DVD.

Shipwreck salvage expert Mike Parker severs
 a shroud line on a wrecked sailboat in Kāhala.

“I’m halfway through the box set,” he says, reading my mind. “We got snacks in the fridge, and I can turn on the air conditioner if you want but … that takes a little engineering on my part.”

Mike Parker is good at putting his clients at ease. As the owner of Parker Marine, which contracts for TowBoatUS, one of two maritime salvage/recovery outfits in Hawai‘i, Mike is the guy you call when your motor quits after watching Friday night fireworks off of Waikīkī or when you run your yacht aground at high tide. I’m tempted to call him a cross between a maritime tow-truck driver and a pirate, but he has earned major karma after thirteen years of saving boats as well as the reefs they crash upon.

He’s an easygoing guy in his early forties, very tall but not lanky. He will talk one or both of your ears off with stories of his adventures and those of his ancestors. His great-grandfather was a sailor and shipwright in the Pacific Northwest, when ships were all steel and steam. The same for his grandfather, father and stepfather as well. He wasn’t expected to follow in the family trade, but he did anyway. “When I was 16 I worked at Bremerton Shipyard near Seattle. I delivered the anchors for an aircraft carrier,” he says with one eye on the horizon and one on the compass. “Then I got into riding dirt bikes, and yeah, maybe I should have focused on working on ships instead.”

Mike got his start buying, repairing and selling salvaged yachts. It’s a little like flipping houses, with more risk and a lot more work. In the early 2000s, tired of scrimping and scraping (and sanding), he dropped $2,900 on a secondhand towboat at Kewalo Basin and started salvaging on his own. “I took any job,” he says. “Any-thing.” Since then his salvage fleet has grown to a half-dozen boats, including the plush Ho‘oponopono (which means “to make right again”) and a sailboat “for when I need to relax.”

Parker will save damaged boats whenever possible. His six-vessel fleet includes the fifty-foot catamaran pictured here during a salvage operation in Kāne‘ohe, O‘ahu.

He needs to relax. Mike Parker runs dozens of salvages per year, and most are not much different from the task at hand, but when storms or fits of bad luck blow through the Islands, he might be working two or three jobs at once. “A half-million-dollar fishing yacht ran aground on the north side of Lāna‘i,” he recalls. “We spent the night on the Ho‘oponopono [monitoring the stranded yacht], and the whole time I was calling and texting my crew on the other islands. We had one sunk boat in Hilo, and one sunk at the dock in the Ala Wai harbor to salvage as soon as we were done on Lāna‘i. Yeah, some nights I get no sleep.”

The seas and winds are calm as we motor to Mokumanu, a pair of towering rock islands inhabited only by seabirds and scurrying crabs. This place is a fishing and diving spot in the lee of the Kane‘ohe Marine Corps Base’s rifle range. The Marines seem to have the day off, though, and Mike backs Ho‘oponopono closer and closer to the rocky, algae-covered shore. The deceptively small swells mix and peak, sending whitewater over the rocks and our target: a small blue pleasure boat that slipped anchor and ran ashore a day or two before.

Divers Brad York and Paul Magallones have prepped three lift bags, each five feet across; when full, they look like gigantic throw pillows. Mike mans the steering station on the aft deck, nothing more than throttles, a wheel and a set of levers to control the hydraulic winches. He directs his crew with a steady cadence of instructions that seem to match the rhythm of the idling engines. With a thick rope in hand, Brad splashes into the sea and swims to the rocky island.

Paul Magallones and Brad York attach lift bags to a boat run aground at Mokumanu. Parker, waiting nearby aboard Ho‘oponopono, will tow the disabled vessel off the rocks, protecting its engine in the process.

Mike is watching the depth finder more than he is Brad, who times the swells just right and flops ashore with the grace of a monk seal. “Brad is a commercial diver. He spends forty or fifty hours a week underwater,” Mike says, occasionally spinning the wheel or putting a motor in reverse. “I’m more worried about the boat. See that gash in the hull?” We are about two hundred yards from shore, but we can plainly see the little boat has washed up the hard way. Brad collects spilled cushions and coolers and seems triumphant when he finds the intact fuel tank floating in a tidepool. “That’s good.” Mike says. “All the agencies are concerned about fuel spills.” Later, Mike calls the Coast Guard to report that no fuel has been spilled in this sensitive ecosystem.

Mike’s caution and concern for the environment have guided his recovery business. “I try to get to the scene and save the boat as fast as possible,” Mike says. “If it breaks apart and sinks, yeah, it’s more money for me. But I hate to see the reef damaged, and I hate to see boats all tore up like that.” Though based in Honolulu, Mike responds to calls all over Hawai‘i, so he really racks up the frequent-flier miles. He’s also a licensed pilot and often rents a plane to get to a neighbor island ASAP, with the added bonus of a quick flyover of the stranded boat.

Paul splashes in and tows three lift bags ashore. The two salvagers attach one bag to the bow and two to the stern. “The engine is the heaviest and most expensive part of that boat,” Mike says. “If we keep it from being submerged, it’s pretty likely that engine can be running again after some repairs.” Half an hour later, Paul is back aboard, and we watch Brad climb into the stranded boat and give the OK.

When a boat can’t be saved, like this one beached near the Kahala Hotel & Resort, the solution is sometimes decidedly low-tech: A reciprocating saw and a truck can be the best tools for discreet and speedy removal.

Mike eases both engines into gear, the line grows taut and slowly the little boat clatters across the rocks. With no more than a shrug from Brad, Mike pushes the throttles a bit, and the boat slides into the sea. “Another one off the rocks,” Mike shouts happily, sounding like some kind of reverse alcoholic. After a bit of checking, Brad signals that the lift bags are holding the craft afloat, and we slowly tow the boat to the owner waiting at the boat ramp.

Not all of Mike’s salvages are so straightforward. Bad weather would have turned our little Mokumanu mission into a potentially deadly affair. In the early days of Parker Marine, Mike agreed to move a recently salvaged powerboat from O‘ahu to Maui. Maybe too recent: The boat had “questionable engines and steering,” he recalls, two things you really, really don’t want to be questionable on a channel crossing. The wind grew to a gale, and he turned to race for the leeward side of Lāna‘i. Suddenly a large wave crashed over the back of the boat. He white-knuckled the wheel and turned back into the wind so waves would at least crash over the bow and not flood the engines. He made it to Kauna-kakai, on Moloka‘i’s south shore, just in time to run out of gas. Turns out the fuel gauge was also questionable. “After that,” Mike says, “I take no chances. That cured me of my youthful idiocy.”

Even when the weather is kind, scavengers might pick a stranded craft clean of all valuables, including the engine. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that happen,” Mike says. He says it’s because folks think “finders keepers” as soon as the boat is vacated. About seven years ago a boater wrecked his craft in heavy surf off of Hale‘iwa. The owner was picked up by the Coast Guard, and before he was even dry, a stream of scavengers paddled out on surfboards and swiped all of his ex-pensive fishing gear. “Hey, this is another reason why I try to get out there as fast as possible,” says Mike.

Parker’s caution and concern for the environment guides his recovery business. He always tries to get to the scene and save or remove the boat a fast as possible. “If it breaks apart and sinks, yeah, it’s more money for me, but I hate to see the reef damaged,” he says.

Boats that sink dockside are especially bothersome. Grumpy harbormasters and throngs of onlookers have contributed a few gray hairs to Mike’s beard. Mike is a hands-on dude and isn’t afraid to dive in during a salvage. Unfortunately, that ex-poses him to leaked fuel, oil and whatever nastiness might already be in the water.“I hate coming out of the water covered in slime, and some gawker starts telling me how I should do my job.”

Mike often wins contracts with state or private harbors to cart away abandoned and derelict boats. Most of the time it’s simply “chop, crane and a trip to the Nānākuli dump,” he says, a little too nonchalant about destroying what was maybe a salvageable vessel. “Hey, I know how much work a boat requires. If I’m not on a job, I’m working on my boats. Some folks just can’t handle the commitment and expense.”

After a mildly nasty storm blows across Hawai‘i, Mike texts me a picture that looks like something out of Robinson Crusoe: a twenty-five-foot sailboat washed ashore between Waialae Country Club golf course and the Kahala Hotel & Resort. It looks intact enough for me to make an offer and start my new career flipping boats. But when I catch up with him, the laid-back Mike is sweating bullets over what looks like the easiest salvage job ever. “I can’t just drive across the golf course with a crane on a Sunday. That would ruin the green and a bunch of expensive golf games.” Waialae is one of the priciest golf courses in Hawai‘i.

The sailboat is small but heavy. Mike mulls over the situation, then comes up with a plan. “I’m going to cut it in half. I’ll use a flatbed tow truck with a winch to haul one piece at a time.” Mike spends a few hours making calls and talking to the golf course staff. It turns out that the karma he’s cultivated is paying off. “The course director is a boat owner. He is being supercool. I can bring the flatbeds in, no problem,” he says. “That’s great. He has every right to refuse me access. That would mean,” Mike looks out into the shallow, rocky bay and shakes his head. “Man … it would be tough to try and drag it out to sea.” Monday, right after the first tee time, Mike guides two flatbed trucks through the golf course. With a battery-powered reciprocating saw he unceremoniously severs the mast. It’s a little heartbreaking. Then Mike sets to work cutting the poor sailboat in half. It’s slow work. I mention I have a chain saw he can borrow. “No, no,” he says, “noise and fiberglass dust all over the place. No!”

In the end the stricken sailboat makes it to the dump in pieces as planned, a very different fate from the little blue boat on Mokumanu. I would like to have a ceremony for the dearly departed hulk, but Mike has to get going. “I’ve got to get back to my boats,” he says “get them ready for winter.” It’s late fall, and winter storm fronts with strong Kona winds are coming. “I’ll call you if I need that chain saw.” HH