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When It Was Clear Sailing on Zobie's Cat

Barely a year before he disappeared, life at sea was very good for Dele


Editor's note: Mark Beal is a commercial sea captain and professional fisherman from Perth, Australia. He sailed with Bison Dele on the former NBA player's catamaran from February until June 2001. Thirteen months later, Dele would disappear from the boat with a girlfriend, Serena Karlan, and the captain, Bertrand Saldo. They are presumed dead. Beal provided The Times with this account of life in the South Pacific with Dele.

We're in the Southern Ocean in the teeth of the Roaring Forties, 500 nautical miles from the nearest land mass, Australia.

It feels as if we're on a gentle roller-coaster ride, gliding along at eight knots down the face of 15-foot swells. The wind hums through the rigging, and I can hear the water slap our hull and then hiss and die, the way small waves do when you're standing on a beach.

The sun shines on the open stern end of this 60-foot boat. Half a dozen albatrosses bank and glide behind us. Occasionally, one will dive and then pivot 180 degrees on a wingtip, on the very surface of the water.

The guy who is paying for all this reaches into a bucket of fish guts and throws a handful over the water. "Hey birdie," he calls. "Come and get it."

With a growling squawk, the nearest albatross skims the water for the food. There's always more where that came from. Behind us trails a shutter cord with a hook and lure. Soon enough, another 30-pound blue tuna will be hauled in.

My passenger is a big black guy, wearing sunglasses and what we call a beanie, to keep his head warm. The smile on his face reminds me of a child's.

He wanted to be called Zobie--a name he took from a song--instead of Brian Williams, or Bison Dele. He liked Australia because the people didn't know he was a guy who'd turned his back on the NBA and more money than they'd make in three generations. They just took him for what he was, except in the sports section of a department store in Melbourne, where he went one day looking for size 17 shoes. He picked up a basketball and started dribbling. The staff was astonished. They were basketball fans and recognized him. They offered to contact his sponsor for more shoes. "It's OK, man," he told them. "I'm not sponsored anymore."

His tourist visa had been good for six months, but he'd been in Australia for at least a year and a half, getting two-week extensions on the visa, driving around the country in his F100 with a motorbike, a kayak and six skateboards, just camping anywhere.

Zobie had fallen in love with Fremantle, a port town just south of Perth. He rented an apartment there and wanted to buy a boat to take him across the Pacific. That was how I met him.

Somewhere in his future was a boat pen at a yacht club in L.A. for this catamaran, the Hakuna Matata. But for now, there was a voyage from Perth, my hometown, to New Zealand, with anybody he liked along for the ride. He just wanted to spend two years sailing the Pacific, ending up in California.

I've been a commercial sea captain and professional fisherman for 22 years, more than half my life. I've seen celebrities, taken them out to sea, and in the confined space of a boat, you really get to know someone.

Zobie really was a nice guy. I see that personality in a lot of people and it's got nothing to do with the sea. Some people are here for greed. Some people are here to smell the breeze and have a look around them. Some people have their head in a paper or a computer and are too busy to do anything else. The difference with Zobie was he had the money and the time to look around.

We talked a lot about the NBA, and those were the only times I saw him really stressed.

"Hey, dude," he'd say, "these guys push you and push you, you get injured, you're broken and strained and they push you out there."

He was disdainful and a bit cynical of the hype and the attention paid to something that was just a game. He felt like his soul hadn't been put in the right area. That's why he was into all the hippie stuff.

I met some friends of his from Israel who were backpacking around Australia. He'd always go for the hippie types, the feral ones. They were into the cosmic world and spirituality and soul searching. These people don't have anything else in their lives. He was just doing it for fun, and he'd never done anything like it before.

When we caught the tuna in the Southern Ocean, I got him to pull them in by hand. They're dark blue with flecks of yellow. He'd pat them and say, "What a beautiful fish." Then he'd thank the ocean for the fish, and the fish for providing us with food.

He got seasick only once, when we were running before a storm in the Southern Ocean, trying to reach the sheltered waters closer to Australia. We ended up in Melbourne, just as the Formula One Grand Prix came to town.

We arrived in Melbourne about 1 a.m. Later that morning, Zobie grabbed his skateboard and disappeared. He was gone the rest of that day and the following night.

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