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O.C. boat found off Hawaii

New owner Darrin Bunker is missing. He said he'd always wanted to live aboard but had no sailing experience.

January 12, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

The life of Darrin Bunker, described by family members as an enigmatic loner, has taken a perplexing twist after his sailboat was found bobbing off Hawaii last weekend with no sign of him.

He had left Dana Point Harbor three months earlier, bound for San Diego.

The 30-foot vessel, damaged by fire and its mast broken, was found drifting off the Kauai coast on Sunday by fishermen. It was still stocked with provisions and Bunker's laptop computer was still aboard.

Bunker, whose only known addresses were post office boxes in Dana Point and Aliso Viejo, had virtually no sailing experience, said Narik McArthur, who sold him the boat, the Bug Trap.

McArthur, a contractor from San Juan Capistrano, said he last saw Bunker on Oct. 3 when Bunker left Dana Point Harbor for San Diego, where he said he had rented a boat slip. It was Bunker's maiden voyage.

"I asked him if he'd sailed, and he said not really," McArthur said. "But he said it had been his dream to live on a boat."

By the time the boat was spotted in Hawaii, there was no sign of its captain. Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Kai Christensen, chief of station in Kauai, said there was evidence of an accidental fire in the cabin.

Inside, officials found Bunker's laptop, canned food, cases of Corona beer and soda, and cartons of cigarettes, along with snuffed-out butts in an ashtray.

Christensen said it appeared that the Bug Trap drifted down the coast to Baja California, where it was swept out to sea by trade winds and currents that eventually pushed it to Hawaiian waters -- a journey of more than 2,500 miles.

Kauai Police Capt. Scott Yagihara said detectives have not determined if a crime was committed.

Orange County sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said local investigators were trying to find out where Bunker lived to determine whether a missing-person's investigation would be within the county's jurisdiction.

Bunker, 42, has two brothers and a sister. His parents are divorced. Nobody reported Bunker missing.

Until officials called him about the boat, which is still registered in his name, McArthur said he believed Bunker had "stiffed" him. Bunker gave him a $9,000 deposit, about half the price of the boat, but never paid the balance. Phone calls and e-mails to Bunker after Oct. 3, the day he set out for San Diego, were never returned, he said. The men met in September, when Bunker offered to buy the craft that McArthur had rebuilt.

"I was baffled and upset. Then when I heard about the boat, I began thinking. Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went, and nobody reported him missing," he said. "That's very sad."

Bunker's father, Donald, a retired electrical engineer living in the Tucson area, described him as "standoffish, and a loner involved in computers."

He had little contact with his family. A spokesman at the 11th Coast Guard District in Alameda said Bunker's mother and sister, who live in Michigan, told investigators they had not spoken to him in 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years, respectively. Bunker grew up in Michigan.

Donald Bunker said he saw his son once in the past three years, last summer when he stopped unexpectedly at his house while on a driving trip to Florida. He stayed long enough to have dinner and then moved on. He was driving a blue Mazda Miata with Michigan plates.

"He said he was living in California, which surprised me, and had a deal going in Florida," Donald Bunker said.

Donald Bunker said he was surprised to learn that his son had purchased a boat because he had never showed an interest in boats or sailing.

Bunker, who never married, worked as a computer technician for an automotive supply company in Brighton, Mich., out of high school and went on to head the department. Donald Bunker said his son worked for the company for 10 years, quit and lived for another 10 years from investments he made.

At one point after that, he said, Bunker "went completely cold" with some of the family but stayed in periodic contact with his brothers. The family knew very little about him or where he was. When Bunker visited his father last summer he mentioned he had started a company called Posse Entertainment, designing computer games.

Bunker's MySpace page says he was working on a video game called Dragons & Legends, which McArthur said was a "weird, futuristic, far-flung character game." On his web page, Bunker named Thomas Edison and Sen. John Glenn as his heroes. He listed himself as a nonsmoker.

But McArthur, who knew Bunker for about a month, described him as a chain smoker who always had "a cigarette, bottle of Corona and his laptop."

Christensen, the Coast Guard petty officer, said the fire in the boat might have started when Bunker fell asleep on the couch with a burning cigarette. Bedding was burned, as were other items in the cabin. The nozzle on a can of gasoline in the cabin was loose, and perhaps the fumes were ignited and set Bunker on fire, Christensen speculated.

"We can draw all kinds of conclusions. He could've gotten himself on fire and jumped in the water, or he could've fallen overboard. We just don't know," Christensen said.

If Bunker jumped in the water to douse the flames or fell overboard, it would be difficult for him to climb back on board.

McArthur said it is more than four feet from the deck to the waterline. Reaching for the rail from the water is difficult, he said, even for a 6-footer like Bunker. "If you can reach it, it's like doing a pull-up. You're using all upper-body strength. There's no place for you to put your feet to brace and help pull yourself up. You have one, maybe two pulls," he said.

"If you can't pull yourself up by then," he added, "you probably aren't going to make it."

hgreza@latimes.com

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