The Strange Saga of the Sage
From 1975 through 1999 I worked for the Panama Canal Commission as a technical writer for the Office of the Board of Local Inspectors (BLI). The main function of the BLI was not to inspect ships but rather to investigate ship accidents in the Canal. I was part of the team that sifted through the testimony of the witnesses at the BLI hearings, created a narrative summary of the incidents and formed an opinion as to what caused the accident and who was at fault. The proceedings were used to determine liability in the incidents.
One of the most unusual cases that our office investigated concerned the motor vessel SAGE. The SAGE was an old tuna boat that had been converted in a suction dredge. The owner, a barnacled tar by the name of Eddie Jones, intended to use his vessel to suck the silt at the deltas of river beds in Central and South America and sift out the gold, which he was positive existed in large quantities. The vessel's name, SAGE, was an acronym for South American Gold Expedition. The following narrative account was derived from the testimony given at the official BLI investigation
The SAGE was moored in a San Diego marina and Captain Jones, as he liked to be called, advertised in the local newspapers for investors in his scheme. Investors were to contribute $5,000 apiece and also serve as crew members on the voyage. Surprisingly, he got responses for more investors than he could use and was able to screen the applicants for their physical ability to serve as crew members.
The eight selected crew members had to sign contracts agreeing to a 10% share in the profits, the largest share going to the captain since it was his boat. They all agreed to the terms, not realizing that the captain was lord and master of the vessel at sea and had to be obeyed under all circumstances.
In late July of 1981, the SAGE departed the San Diego marina and set a course to Panama. At the time, Captain Jones was considering a transit of the Canal to give him access to the many rivers on the country's Atlantic side. As the crew settled into the routine of the cruise, they began to gripe among themselves at the poor quality and meager quantity of the food. There was a bar in the crew's small lounge, but the liquor cabinet was under lock and key and when the Captain agreed to open the cabinet, he charged the crew outrageous prices for the an ounce or two of cheap booze.
Working conditions were also becoming intolerable and Captain Jones expected the men to put in long exhausting hours cleaning and maintaining the ship's equipment. The crew began meeting out of earshot of the captain. They talked of mutiny to get out from under the thumb of the captain's tyranny.
Captain Jones had a 12-year old son who was along for the cruise. The boy's mother had departed long ago, unable to stand the abuse of her cruel husband. In doing so she had to leave her son, John Paul, behind. Somehow, Captain Jones raised the boy, mainly with the help of a succession of housekeepers. John Paul never experienced the tender love of a mother during his upbringing but nevertheless, he was developing into a decent young lad and had hopes of pursuing a life at sea like his father.
One warm evening, John Paul had decided to sleep topside in the vessel's dinghy and overheard the crew plotting a mutiny. First chance he had, John Paul told his father what he had heard. This did not surprise Captain Jones who had already detected a surly attitude among the crew. At the time, the SAGE was nearing Panama and Captain Jones radioed the Canal Zone authorities to tell them his ship was in danger of mutiny. The authorities advised him to proceed into the Pacific Outer Anchorage and a police patrol boat would rendezvous with his vessel.
Captain Jones did as he was instructed and maneuvered his vessel into the large anchorage. The patrol boat soon arrived with extra policeman on board. The boarded the SAGE, rounded up the crew loaded them into the patrol boat, and proceeded to their shore station. A Canal pilot and a police lieutenant remained on board and told the captain they wanted to take his vessel into the inner moorings at Balboa where it would be safer and nearly impossible for any of the disembarked crew to board. Captain Jones agreed and the vessel was soon secured to mooring buoys. The pilot and police lieutenant departed and Captain Jones and his son had a quick meal. The night was still young and Captain Jones decided to go ashore and see the sights. He and John Paul lowered the dinghy over the side and rowed to the Balboa Piers where they had to sign in at the immigration station. After showing their passports, they were allowed to enter the Canal Zone. Captain Jones hailed a taxi and they went off on a sight-seeing tour of the city. After an hour of touring, Captain Jones noticed a large cathedral and asked the taxi driver to let them off. He paid the driver and gave him a handsome tip. He and John Paul entered the cathedral and sat in one of the back pews. An hour passed and then another. John Paul fell asleep while Captain Jones knelt and mumbled prayers asking for God's help in overcoming their adversity.
It was dawn by the time Captain Jones was satisfied that his prayers had been heard, if not answered. He shook John Paul awake and they strolled for a few blocks until they found an open cafe where they could get some breakfast.
Meanwhile, around midnight, a Panama Canal Commission tug had just finished assisting a ship into a berth at the Balboa Piers and was proceeding towards its next assignment. As the tug passed through the Inner Moorings, the tug captain noticed smoke billowing from the stern of a fishing vessel, later identified as the SAGE. He maneuvered as close as he could and was able to see flames flaring up from the after cabin. The tug captain radioed the tug station and asked for all available tugs to converge on the scene to fight the fire. Tugs are equipped with powerful pumps that can direct streams of water from fire hoses onto shipboard fires. In a short time, four tugs had arrived and they all began pouring water onto the burning vessel. In a matter of minutes, the fire was distinguished, but so much water had been poured on the conflagration, that the SAGE sank to the bottom with only her radio antenna showing above the waterline.
The SAGE now came under the jurisdiction of the Panama Canal Commission and the BLI was directed to investigate the incident.
A floating crane was directed t the area and in a few hours, the SAGE was raised.
A cursory inspection of the engine room revealed that the engine water intakes had been severed, probably with an ax, which in itself would have allowed the vessel to sink without the help of the fire-fighting tugs. Also the spigot on a lube tank had been opened and its contents had spilled throughout the engine compartment. Several candles were set n the companionway ladder leading to the main cabin and they had undoubtedly ignited the lube oil, causing the fire.
The Chairman of the BLI was present at the inspection and he and the fire chief agreed that someone had deliberately sliced the water intakes and started the fire. That someone had tried to destroy the SAGE. The question was who did the deed and the BLI Chairman was determined to find out when he convened an investigation and questioned the captain and crew. He had heard from the Canal Zone police about the crew's near mutiny and how they had been forcibly disembarked after the SAGE had anchored. It seemed obvious to the Chairman and one or more of the crew members had performed the sabotage, but there was also the possibility that the captain had done it to collect insurance money. Either way, he was going to find out.
Two days later, the BLI convened in its board room located in the Port Captain's Building at the Balboa Piers.
Normally, the investigations were attended by Chairman who runs the investigation, a PCC lawyer who looks out for the interests of the Canal organization, a maritime lawyer who represent the outside parties, in this case the captain and crew of the SAGE, plus a court reporter who takes down verbatim testimony of the witnesses on a steno machine.
Over the next three days, Captain Jones and each of the crew members were questioned. The Chairman and the PCC lawyer tried to pin down the whereabouts of all concerned prior to the time the fire was discovered aboard the SAGE. Captain Jones testified that he had been in town and spent several hours praying in a cathedral. There were no witnesses he could produce to prove this claim, however, there were none available to disprove it. John Paul was questioned, but he had been asleep most of the time they were at church.
All of the crew members could account for their whereabouts on the night of the incident, in fact, they had been together at the Balboa Yacht Club and had witnesses to prove it.
Finally, out of frustration at the lack of concrete evidence, the Chairman called an end to the proceedings. For the next two days he mulled over the scant evidence and could only come to one conclusion. In his opinion, the fire and deliberate attempt to scuttle the SAGE had been caused by a person or persons unknown. The fault lay with the unknown person or persons.
The crew members were allowed to depart the Canal Zone and head back to the States, poorer but perhaps a little wiser with regard to get-rich quick schemes. The SAGE, now the property of the Panama Canal Commission since they had salvaged her, was sold to a Columbian fishing company. Captain Jones was hired as a caretaker for the SAGE until it could be renovated and made seaworthy.
Several weeks later, a PCC tug was passing by the SAGE, still stationed at the Balboa Inner Moorings. One of the tug's crew spotted a prone figure struggling on the fore deck of the vessel. He brought this to the attention of the tug captain who maneuvered alongside. They found Captain Eddie Jones tied up and after releasing his bonds, he told them he had been assaulted and tortured by several masked men. They had wanted information on which rivers where they could find gold deposits. Eddie had told them nothing, despite the efforts of the torturers to extract the information. He considered himself lucky to be alive.
Whether there is gold to be found at the mouths of remote rivers in Panama is anyone's guess. But Captain Eddie Jones will no longer be trying to find it. He is now managing a marina in San Diego, content with being near the sea and watching his son mature into a fine young adult. John Paul in turn has noticed that his father has become a better, kinder, more humane person, having been mellowed by the strange saga of the SAGE.