Palmyra Atoll 368
My wife, Diana, and I have spent a good deal of our lives on the remote edges of Earth. Either individually or together, we’ve lived on deserted Pacific atolls, spent a year frozen in the Arctic wilderness, traveled the lawless deserts from Afghanistan to Africa, floated down deep jungle rivers, and anchored in many of the empty outposts of a rough and unforgiving world.
We well understand that we’re placing ourselves beyond the constraints and protections of civilization and that we have to intuitively sense pending dangers and deal with them ourselves. This has led to some unfortunately exciting encounters with tough or treacherous people, but we’re thankful that either exceptional luck or a guiding hand has always seen us safely through.
But not all our fellow sailors have fared so well. I know this isn’t a topic that sells magazines or glamorizes the free life afloat, but I feel that, on occasion, it warrants remembering.
A chill wind blew through my soul when I read And The Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi, a former prosecuting attorney for L.A. County, and the co-author of Helter Skelter regarding the Charles Manson murders. The book is a well-researched, well-written and compelling account of the mysterious disappearance of the yachting couple, Mac and Muff Graham on Palmyra Atoll in 1974.
To summarize the story-a very attractive, affable and competent couple sailed to deserted Palmyra Atoll, a thousand miles south of Hawaii, with plans to spend up to a year alone there. They were experienced sailors on a well-founded yacht who had meticulously prepared for this adventure of a lifetime.
What they were not prepared for was encountering a second couple there with much the same hopes of being the sole inhabitants of the atoll. The other couple, Buck Walker and his girlfriend Stephanie, were on the run from the law and had plans to grow a marijuana crop on Palmyra for eventual sale in Hawaii. They were on a dilapidated old boat, had little sailing experience, and did not have sufficient skills or provisions to sustain themselves for their proposed year on the island.
Less than a year later, the ragtag couple showed up in Hawaii, well dressed, well fed and on a boat that looked suspiciously similar to the Graham’s. The new name and paint job did not fool concerned friends of the Grahams, who alerted the police. Walker slipped away but was eventually captured. He claimed the Grahams had gone fishing in their dingy outside the atoll and had never returned.
Although his story had more holes in it than his old boat, as no trace of the missing couple could be found, the police could not act on their worst suspicions and fears. They could only charge them with the theft of the boat.
Seven years later a sailor passing through Palmyra spotted a metal box sticking out of the beach. To her horror the box contained the dismembered and charred remains of a woman, later identified as Muff Graham. Buck Walker was charged and convicted of her murder. His girlfriend was found not guilty.
From Hawaii, Diana and I could have sailed to either of the inhabited Line Islands, Christmas or Fanning Atolls. They were on our route to Samoa and would have been interesting cultural stops. But I was inexplicably drawn to Palmyra. This was not mere morbid curiosity. Something about the Grahams deaths had touched me deeply and outraged me completely. They were real sailors, outgoing and upright with the courage to pursue their wildest dreams. Then tragically, their island paradise was turned into a horrible hell.
Palmyra is now co-owned by The Nature Conservancy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It is an active, albeit small, marine research center with teams from several universities and marine institutes carrying out research on coral, fish parasites, hydrology, etc. Only two yachts are allowed to visit at a time, and for a maximum of one week. Prior permission is required. We received this permission and set off from Hawaii with strong trade winds. We dashed off the 1000 miles in less than seven days.
The resident Fish and Wildlife officer, Amanda Meyers, met us at the narrow pass to guide us into the inner lagoon safely. Once anchored in a designated non-coral area, she invited us to shore for an orientation meeting. While made to feel welcome we were given strict guidelines as to were we were allowed to wander, for there are many vulnerable sea and land birds nesting on the low lying atoll islands. Also, with twelve scientists on island for this particular rotation, there was a lot of science going on – preferably uninterrupted.
For as busy as Charlie the base manager was, he could not have been more welcoming. He took us on a quick tour of the facilities, the island trails, the airstrip, and finally to the scenic little swimming hole where the Grahams had settled in their beautiful yacht.
I could see immediately why they had selected this site. The little cul-du-sac offered protection from nearly every quarter. It was steep to enough to shore tie to the coconut trees and lay a boarding plank directly to shore. The colors were almost overwhelming-the green fronds of coconut trees leaning over the lagoon giving it shade, the verdant green under-foliage, flour white sand beach, and the shallow aquamarine water falling away to the cobalt blue of the deep lagoon. Terns, Frigates, Nodies, Tropicbirds and Boobies soared overhead on an infinite blue sky. This was an almost sacred place of pure peace shattered by a cold and calculating violence.
Several days later, Diana and I returned to the swimming hole for a quiet visit. I am sure the Grahams many family members and friends have prayed for them over the years, still unsettled by the missing details of their demise. But I thought I would add my own prayer and tribute to them.
There is no doubt that Buck Walker ended their lives in some horrific manner and then stole their beloved boat. But even had he gotten away with it, it would not have been a victory of any kind. However shortened the Grahams lives were, they were lives of dignity and honor. However prolonged was Walker’s life, for he lived another 25 years, it was a life of despicable shame and dishonor.
Hopefully time will help heal the family’s wounds and this terrible event eventually will be forgotten, at least in the public’s mind. Palmyra will no longer be known as the scene of a grizzly crime, and it is not my intention to prolong that reputation. It will be seen as the pristine, beautiful and unique environment that it is.
But I will always remember that little lagoon, the Grahams, their beautiful yacht and innocent dreams. And I will always be just a touch more grateful for the many fortunate outcomes of our own cruising adventures.