RITE OF PASSAGE
Every culture has its rites of passage.
Native American adolescents journeyed into the wilderness for days on
end in vision quests aimed at gaining life direction from an animal
spirit, or totem, through a fast-induced dream. For Australian
aborigines it was the walkabout, young males trekking the outback for as
long as six months to trace the ceremonial paths, or dreaming tracks,
taken by their ancestors. Mormon boys ages nineteen to twenty-five are
sent around the world for two years to do full-time mission work.
For me, it was shorter and simpler. My rite of passage came when I was
thrown off a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by my dad, a few
weeks past my sixteenth birthday. I had to find my own path home from
that oceanic wilderness, and it turned out to be a path that ultimately
led to the most elite sniper corps in the world.
I don’t know if you’d call that a dreaming track, exactly, but you
could say it was a path taken by my ancestors, at least in one sense: My
father was thrown out of the house at age sixteen by his father, too.
And I suppose the only way to make sense out of my story is to start
* * *
Jack Webb grew up in Toronto, short, strong, and stocky. A talented
hockey player and avid drummer, he was always a bit of a wild man. A
true child of the sixties, Jack grew out his full black beard as soon as
his hormones would cooperate. His father hewed to old-fashioned values
and threatened to kick Jack out if he didn’t cut his beard and long
hair. When my father refused, out he went.
My grandfather may have thrown his son out, but he didn’t succeed in
changing his mind. To this day my dad still sports a full beard, though
its black is now flecked with gray.
Now on his own, Jack made his way from Toronto to Malibu, where he
picked up landscaping jobs and soon had his own company. Driving home
from a job one day, he picked up three young hippie girls hitchhiking.
One of them, a free spirit named Lynn, became his wife.
After they married, my parents moved up to British Columbia to the
little ski town of Kimberley, just north of Vancouver, where he took a
job as a guide at a hunting lodge, despite the fact that he knew
absolutely nothing about hunting. The guy who hired him said, “Look,
don’t worry about it. Stay on the trail, and you’ll be fine.” He
was. His first time out, he took a small group into the Canadian
Rockies, pointing out all sorts of wildlife along the way. When they got
back, the group told my dad’s boss he’d hired the greatest guide in
the world. They didn’t know he was flat-out winging it.
Soon Jack was working construction, and on the job he taught himself
everything there was to know about building houses. In those days, if
you were a builder you did it all—pouring the foundation, framing,
wiring, drywall, plumbing, roofing, everything from A to Z. Jack had
never graduated high school, but he was a resourceful man with a big
appetite for learning, and he soon became an accomplished builder with
his own company, High Country Construction.
It was about this time that I came into the picture, followed a few
years later by my sister, Rhiannon, and once I arrived on the scene my
mother’s life became considerably more complicated.
Free spirit though she may be, my mother has always been fiercely loyal
to me and my sister, and to my dad, too, as far as that was possible. I
always felt completely loved and supported by her, even through the
difficulties to come.
My mother has also always been very entrepreneurial. She opened up a
restaurant with my dad’s sister, and later, when we lived in
Washington for a while, she had her own boat maintenance business,
sanding and varnishing the boats and keeping the woodwork in good
condition. She wrote and published her own cookbook for boaters, The
Galley Companion. Later still, when I worked on a California dive boat
in my teens, she held a job there as head cook.
One more thing about my mom: She has always had a great sense of humor.
She would have had to, to cope with me.
* * *
I was born on June 12, 1974, screaming at the top of my tiny lungs, and
I screamed for weeks. For the next ten months I stayed awake every night
from ten till seven the next morning, yelling my head off, at which
point I would sleep blissfully through the day while my mom recovered
from the night’s battle fatigue. My parents did everything they could
to keep me awake during the day so they would have a shot at getting me
to sleep at night. Didn’t matter. It wasn’t going to happen.
According to my mom, I was as wild as the Canadian landscape. I started
crawling at six months and crawled everywhere. My mom talks about a
study she heard about, where they put babies on a glass counter to see
how far they would crawl. Nearly all the babies would stop when they got
close to the edge—but the last 1 percent went crawling off into thin
air every time.
“That 1 percent?” she says. “That was Brandon.”
I started walking at nine months, and there was not a gate or door that
could hold me. My mom bought every childproof lock she could find, but
evidently “childproof” did not mean “Brandon-proof.” She had
doorknobs that even she couldn’t open, but I always managed to get
through them. She would lock me into my high chair, but if she stepped
into the bathroom for even a moment, I’d be gone when she returned.
By eighteen months I discovered the joys of climbing and found I could
climb up, over, and into pretty much anything. This ability, combined
with my easy friendship with locks and predilection for drinking
anything I could get my hands on, added up to quite a few visits to the
emergency room to have my little toddler-sized stomach pumped. Among the
beverages I sampled during those early years were kerosene, bleach, and
Avon honeysuckle after-bath splash. I’m not saying this is a method I
would endorse or recommend, but I am convinced that this is why I have
always been able to hold my liquor and have never had a problem with
addiction. By the time I was three, the hospital emergency room staff
and my mom knew each other on a first-name basis.
When my mom was pregnant with my sister, my dad built an enclosure with
a swing and what he thought was a Brandon-proof gate. (There’s that
term again: “Brandon-proof.” Hadn’t they learned?) My mom still
doesn’t know how I got out, since she was sitting right there reading
a book—but she looked up and I was gone: I had crawled under a
barbed-wire fence, scooted down a steep hill, and was out of sight.
My mother was wild with fear. Seven months pregnant, she knew there was
no way she could get under that barbed-wire fence, and she didn’t have
any wire cutters. The night before, she and my father had seen a pack of
coyotes ranging around, and now all she could think of was how her tiny
son would make a tasty little coyote meal. The only reason she spotted
me was that I was wearing a red sweatshirt. Somehow she managed to coax
me back up the hill and under the fence so she could grab me, crying
hysterically and at the same time wanting to beat me.
From my earliest years, I always had a penchant for danger and physical
extremes, and it made my poor mother’s life a living hell. She likes
to say that when I was little, she was the victim of parent abuse. She
once called Social Services on herself when I had driven her to the edge
with my behavior. She explained to the poor lady on the phone that her
two-year-old son was driving her so crazy, she was about to hurt him.
The social worker spent a week at our house observing, but I behaved
like an angel for those seven days, and she left thinking my mom must be
It didn’t take long for my parents to figure out that while they
couldn’t control my wild energy, they could channel it. Once they saw
how madly in love I was with skiing, they knew they’d stumbled on the
parenting strategy that would serve us all well for years to come: If
they could get me involved in every sports activity possible, maybe it
would keep me out of trouble. It did, too—at least for a while.
By age five I was on a ski team, and by age seven I had piled wrestling,
football, baseball, swim, and track teams onto my athletic schedule.
Later, as an adult, I found I have a love of extreme sports. The steeper
the ski slope, the larger the wave, the higher the cliff, the more
difficult the jump from the plane or helicopter—the more danger and
adrenaline involved, the more I want to try to conquer it. In my
thirties, I would channel that same impulse into a drive to conquer huge
goals in the entrepreneurial world. At the age of five, my Mount Everest
was a 2,500-foot hill called North Star Mountain.
My earliest memories are of the crisp cold in my face and the sibilant
schusss of the snow under my skis as I flew down the face of North Star.
Every day, during the long months of ski season, my mom would pick me up
from kindergarten and drive us straight out to the slopes. We had a
season pass, and we used up every penny of it.
Less than half the height of its more famous neighbors, Whistler and
Blackcomb, North Star is not really much of a mountain, but I didn’t
know that. To me, it seemed vast and inexhaustible. When I think back on
my early childhood, what I remember most are the countless afternoons on
my bright yellow Mickey Mouse K2 skis, exploring every trail and
out-of-the-way patch of what seemed to me an endless world of snow and
My best friend at the time was a kid named Justin, who was as devoted to
skiing as I was. We would spend every afternoon we could exploring North
Star together. Justin and I got into ski racing and joined a team. By
the time we were in first grade, our team was competing in tournaments
at Whistler, and I was winning those races. My mom still has some
first-place ribbons I took at Whistler at the age of six.
I don’t think my mom was joking when she called Social Services, but
the truth is, she would never have hurt me, no matter how bad I got.
With my father, it was a different story.
I was not exactly scared of my dad, but I knew he was in charge and not
afraid to whip out his belt and get after me when he thought I needed
it. Over the years, my backside and my dad’s leather belt really got
to know each other. Today, now that I’m a parent myself, I believe in
discipline just as much as my dad did—although instead of a spanking,
my kids’ punishment is push-ups. My ten-year-old son can knock out
more push-ups than most adults I know.
Although my dad was very strict, he was also not afraid to hug me and
tell me he loved me. He was a good father, and I have a lot of happy
memories of him from those early years.
When my dad went out on construction job site visits, he often took me
with him, and I loved it. It always felt like an adventure, just me and
my dad going on trips to these serious grown-up work sites—and they
were great places to pick up colorful new ways of using the English
language. I also went along when he played gigs with his country rock
band, Jack the Bear, of which he was the drummer and principal sponsor.
Jack the Bear played to a pretty rough-and-tumble crowd in the rural
backcountry taverns of the Canadian Rockies. By the age of five I had
the mouth of a sailor. Typically I would stay in the bar for the first
set, and then Dad would tuck me in for the night in our VW Westphalia
van outside with the family dog, Shy, where I would lie awake listening
to the music and voices until finally fading off into sleep.
Best of all, there was hockey.
My dad has always been an outstanding hockey player. During those early
years he was captain of his hockey team, and I would go with him when
they would play their games, which were typically pretty late at night.
It was a working league and the players all had their full-time jobs, so
that was the only time they could play.
I was only five, but no matter how late it was, I never got tired at my
dad’s hockey practice. I would go through the place looking for lost
pucks or fish for quarters and play the big, brand-new Atari Asteroids
video game console they had there. Crawling around, exploring every inch
of the place, it felt a lot like being up on the mountain, only in a way
this was even better, because I was there with my dad. After practice we
would go hang out in the locker room, surrounded by sweaty hockey
players who were cursing and laughing and cracking beers. I thought it
was the coolest thing ever. It was just us, just the guys.
I could tell my dad really enjoyed having me there. I looked up to him,
and in many ways, he was my hero.
Then, about the time I turned six, our lives changed.
* * *
My father had always been into sailing. My parents had a dream of
sailing around the world, and business was now doing so well they
decided it was time to take a few years off and hit the water, just the
four of us, to make that dream into a reality. We owned a beautiful
60-foot Sparkman & Stephens ketch, which he kept moored on the
California coast; why not let that become our new home as we circled the
Just as we were getting ready to leave, my dad decided to do one more
big project. My mother objected, but my dad prevailed: One last gig, he
said, and that would really set us up. A group of investors was going to
put up the money, so he took out a large construction loan and built the
place. Then the recession of 1980 hit—and the project collapsed. My
dad was left with the bill and no investors. He tried to negotiate with
the bank. He kept trying for two years. They came and took our house. My
dad declared bankruptcy and we lost everything.
Being so young at the time, I didn’t quite grasp what was happening,
and nobody ever sat me down and said, “Brandon, we’re ruined, wiped
out.” Even so, there was an ominous undercurrent that I couldn’t
I remember going into the bank one day with my dad to close our
accounts—the same bank he’d been wrestling with for the past
year—because we were about to move away from Kimberley. One of these
was a savings account he had opened for me some two years earlier.
This had been quite a big deal for both of us when we opened it.
“Look, Brandon,” I remember him telling me, “this is your first
savings account. We’re opening it in your name—this is going to be
your money.” He showed me the passbook and the first line, where he
had entered the initial deposit. “Now you get to watch it grow.” I
was so excited about it, and I could tell he was, too.
Now, when we asked where it stood, my dad was informed it had a zero
“What?” he practically shouted at the teller. He was livid. “How
is that possible?”
I don’t remember how much he had put in there in the first place, but
it wasn’t much, and whatever it was had been wiped out by monthly
fees, without my dad realizing it. He had wanted to teach me a life
lesson about how you can invest and save—but the only lesson I learned
that day was about how you can get wiped out without even realizing it.
When I was seven we left Canada for good, moving to a little town called
Blaine, jammed right up into the northwest corner of Washington state,
where we began the painful process of starting over.
As huge a change as this financial collapse was for my parents, it crept
up on Rhiannon and me only gradually. It was only now, when we picked up
and moved to Washington, that I began to realize that something pretty
serious was going on here. No more Jack the Bear gigs or late-night
hockey practices, and no more skiing the North Star face with my friend
Justin. All of a sudden I was yanked out of the life I loved and we were
living in a strange place in a smaller house. Now, when my mom took me
shopping for new school clothes, we were hitting the thrift shops
instead of going to the big department stores. It wasn’t just that we
were living in a different place. Our lives were different. I never saw
My dad was different, too. He became moodier and angrier, and tougher on
me. The whole thing had devastated him. Today, thirty years later, he is
still getting over it, and I can’t say I blame him. As a
seven-year-old, though, I didn’t understand any of that. All I knew
was that before, I would go with him everywhere—and now I didn’t see
him all that much. I always loved my dad, but I think it was during
these years that a wedge started quietly building between us, one that
would have life-changing consequences in later years.
It was in Blaine that I started getting into trouble, getting into
fights with other kids and raising hell. Fortunately, my parents already
had a formula for dealing with that, and they got me as involved in
athletics as they could. Soon I was doing sports again year-round.
What I remember most about Blaine is baseball and wrestling. I was crazy
about wrestling, and it was also one of the few places where I would
still regularly connect with my dad. My mom was at all the baseball
games, but at the wrestling matches it was always my dad cheering our
team on. I could tell he was proud of me. I especially loved going on
trips with our wrestling team to compete in matches. In fourth grade I
placed second in the regionals and made it to the state championships.
Another thing that made life in Blaine better was that making new
friends, even in tough circumstances, has always come pretty easy to me.
I had three especially good buddies there, Chris Bysh, Gaytor Rasmussen,
and Scott Dodd; we all stay in touch to this day. Chris became my best
friend, and as with Justin back in Vancouver, we got into lots of
athletics together—especially baseball.
On our Little League team, Chris played catcher and I was the pitcher.
We did pretty well and made All-Stars. We even got invited to attend a
special baseball camp being hosted by the Orioles. I was so excited
about going. This was going to be a blast!
It never happened. Instead my parents shipped Rhiannon and me off to
Toronto to stay with relatives for that whole summer. I was absolutely
furious at my dad. What was wrong with him? I could not believe he was
going to take away this incredible opportunity and ruin my summer, and
for no good reason whatsoever!
He actually had a very good reason; it was just one he couldn’t tell
us. At the time, my parents’ marriage was on rocky ground. I don’t
know the details of what happened, but I’m sure that whatever it was,
the financial stress didn’t help. They were making a serious effort to
reconcile and put things back on an even keel and thought they would
have a better shot at it if they didn’t have to tiptoe around Rhiannon
and me for a few months.
But of course, I didn’t know any of this until many years later, and
it wasn’t easy to find anyplace in me that could forgive him for
taking this prize away from me.
While we were living in Blaine, my father started picking up the pieces
of his career. He found a job as foreman for a large construction
company and was soon building houses again. He and my mom had never
given up on their dream of sailing around the world, and by the time I
entered fifth grade we were able to purchase a 50-foot ketch.
Soon we were leaving Blaine behind and moving 100 miles or so south to
Seattle, where we began living on our new boat, which we christened
Agio, Italian for “ease.” There were times when life on the Agio
lived up to its name—and there would be times when it most definitely
My parents were excited about the move and hopeful about the future. Me,
I was pissed. This was the sixth time we had moved since I was a baby,
and I was starting to seriously resent it. It seemed like as soon as I
would make some new friends and start to settle into a social group,
we’d be up and moving yet one more time, and I’d have to go through
the whole process all over again. Even though I was pretty good at
easing my way into new situations and making new friends, this was
getting old. I was tired of being uprooted, tired of being picked on as
the new kid. It probably served to build character and develop in both
Rhiannon and me the ability to adapt to new circumstances, but at the
time, it just felt hard. I was jealous of the kids who got to stay in
one town and have friends they’d known since preschool. We never had
No matter how much we moved around and how difficult things sometimes
got, one thing Rhiannon and I always did have was each other. Like any
typical brother and sister, we’d fight sometimes and get on each
other’s nerves, but we were close all through these years. Sometimes
we’d talk together about how we felt about it all. Typically, I would
be angry, and she would cry.
After a few years in Seattle, we pulled up stakes and moved yet again,
sailing down the coast to head for Ventura, California. The trip was not
an easy one. To me, it felt like the weather pretty accurately reflected
my mood: 100 miles off the coast of Oregon, we hit the tail end of a
hurricane. For more than twenty-four hours we struggled with the full
force of nature, beating into the gale-force winds, until my father
finally dropped our sails and put out a sea anchor. We hove to and
waited for the storm to pass.
The next few dozen hours left a deep impression. I remember my mother
gripping Rhiannon and me close to her, life jackets donned and survival
raft at the ready, wondering which would turn out to have more staying
power—us or the hurricane. In the end, after nearly two days, the
storm must have decided we were not worth it: It finally released its
grip and moved on. We found we had been pushed almost 200 miles in the
When we finally pulled into Coos Bay, Oregon, a crowd of locals had
gathered on the docks to hear about the family that had been out there
on the ocean’s angry face and survived the storm. Everyone loves a
good sea story.
* * *
I was ten when we arrived in Ventura, and California has been my home
ever since. My father’s great passion in life was sailing, and the
next few years involved plenty of it. We continued to live on the Agio
for the better part of the next six years, and while we each had our own
stateroom, it was still tight quarters and I looked for every
opportunity to escape. A few times I tried to run away from home.
Life in California revolved around the water. All my new friends surfed,
and I soon joined them. I also started getting into trouble again. My
mom, who went to work for a few years on California’s offshore oil
platforms, never knew what to expect when she would come home. Once she
found me and a few friends hunting down squirrels with homemade
blowguns. Another time she saw the boat’s mast swaying as she
approached. She broke into a run, and when she reached the boat she saw
that my friends and I were taking turns pushing off and swinging around
the mast high above the deck on a harness I’d rigged.
During most of this time, my father and I might as well have been living
on separate planets. He was working his tail off. He would leave early
in the morning and come back at five o’clock—briefly—for dinner.
My mom was pretty good about corralling us inside for family dinner
together, but as soon as we pushed back our plates we would all head off
to do our own thing.
There was a period there, in eighth grade, when my dad made an extra
effort to get me into ice hockey. The closest rink was in Thousand Oaks,
nearly an hour’s drive away. During hockey season he would get up
every Saturday at 5:30 A.M. to drive me out to Thousand Oaks for
practice. He even helped coach our team. Throughout that hockey season
the two of us had an opportunity to bond again, just as we had when we
were back in Kimberley. That soon came abruptly to an end, and my sports
career with it.
I’d noticed that my knees were starting to ache, and toward the end of
that hockey season it got pretty severe. I could play through it, but
after practice I would have two swollen bumps on my knees, and if you
tapped it in just the right spot, it felt like someone was jamming an
ice pick into my knee.
My folks took me to the doctor, and he knew what it was right away.
“Your boy has Osgood-Schlatter syndrome. He’s been so involved in
sports, so constantly and for so long, his knees haven’t had the
chance to develop properly.”
In rare cases, he told us, surgery was indicated. He didn’t think that
would be necessary for me, but I would have to wear a brace for a while.
“Of course,” he added, “he’ll have to cut out the sports.”
My mom nearly gasped. “What do you mean, cut out the sports?” She
was terrified: Without sports, she knew it would be no time at all
before I was getting into worse and worse trouble.
They tried putting my legs in braces, but as soon as the braces were on
I was off skateboarding around the harbor. Finally they realized they
had no choice but to put me in casts. As much as I hated them, those
casts probably saved my life, or at least my knees. Confined to plaster
casts, my joints were finally able to grow properly, and I’ve never
had any knee problems since.
At the time, it was also a catastrophe of sorts. I was a freshman in
high school, and I desperately wanted to wrestle and play baseball. No
dice. I spent my ninth-grade year with casts on my legs. As soon as they
were off, so was I—off getting into trouble again.
Without athletics to absorb my time and energy, my mother hit on a new
tack: getting me a job. Soon before my thirteenth birthday, she
introduced me to a man named Bill Magee, who owned a charter dive boat
in Ventura Harbor, the Peace. Bill offered to let me work on his boat.
I worked on the Peace all summer, every summer, for the next few years.
Everything about being on that dive boat, with the tantalizing
possibility of adventure outside the harbor and west to the Channel
Islands, completely captivated me. It’s no exaggeration to say that
going to work on the Peace changed the course of my life.
Bill Magee was one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. He and the
boat’s captain, Michael Roach, were like second fathers to me. They
watched out for me and entrusted me with a lot of responsibility. I had
not really had that experience before. They showed me a whole new side
to the concept of respect and instilled in me the belief that I could be
somebody and do something special with my life.
Bill had made some money in construction and eventually sold a
successful roofing company up in the Bay Area, which had allowed him to
fulfill a dream I expect he’d held on to for some time. Sport diving
was his hobby, and he had put a chunk of the proceeds from his sale into
the Peace—cashed in his chips and taken to the sea.
Captain Roach was the perfect complement to Bill, the classic salty
Irish sea captain. He taught me how to give a firm handshake and look a
man straight in the eye when you are talking to him.
Bill Magee was also pretty wild—the Hugh Hefner of the high seas. Bill
had a new girlfriend every week, usually about half his age, and he was
always throwing hot tub parties (I believe the Peace was the first boat
to feature a hot tub) with lots of women, alcohol, and God knew what
else. Strictly speaking, the Peace was a dive boat, which meant that
people were paying to be taken out scuba diving. Unofficially, it was
also a hell of a party boat. We’d take our passengers on tours of the
Channel Islands off Ventura, taking out groups of divers four at a
time—and in between dives, when we were anchored up for the night, we
would party. Bill would front me a few hundred dollars so I could sit
down and join the interminable poker games. Here I was, at thirteen,
drinking Scotch and playing poker with the guys.
At the same time, the diving was no joke. When you weren’t on an
anchor watch, it was fine to whoop it up and party, but when you were
on, you had to be on. You had to know your limits and capacities. I
didn’t know it at the time, but it was great preparation for the Navy
As low man on the totem pole, I often got the chores on the Peace nobody
else wanted to do. One of these was diving down whenever the anchor got
stuck to get in there and free it. This often happened in the middle of
the night. Many were the times I was rousted out of a deep sleep to
hear, “Wake up, Brandon! We have to move and the anchor is stuck. Get
your wet suit on—you’re going in.”
I’d dive down there with a flashlight, scared shitless. It was a hell
of a way to get over one’s fear of sharks, let alone fear of the dark.
Sometimes I would get to depth to find the anchor wedged under a 1-ton
ledge that was being rocked off the ocean floor by the weight of the
boat it was attached to and the pull of sea swell on the surface. With a
blast of air, I would signal the guy pulling the anchor to let out some
slack in the chain, and then go to work untangling the mess. A second
blast of air to the surface signaled that my work was done, and the crew
would haul the anchor up while I stayed below, watching to make sure it
had come fully clear of the bottom. Often it would stick again, and
I’d have to repeat the entire routine. When it was finally clear, I
would blast a final jet of air to signal where I was and alert them to
my position and ascent. Once back on board, I would run through a fast
hot shower and try to get in some hurried shut-eye before the break of
the new day. It was terrifying, and I loved it.
I learned how to scuba dive without any pool sessions; it was all
open-water Pacific Ocean dives from the start. Pretty soon I found I
preferred diving without a buoyancy compensator, a kind of inflatable
vest with an air hose plugged into it that most divers wear. I thought
it was a crutch. To me, it was like the difference between swimming in a
full suit of clothes and swimming in a Speedo. So I never used one. I
also found I liked going down with two tanks, instead of the single tank
most sport divers prefer. A second tank adds significant weight, so you
have to be fit enough to handle it, but you get more bottom time and can
swim serious distances. Sport divers typically just drop straight down
and goof around for a while. Serious hunters mean business and wear two
By my second summer on the Peace I had logged over two hundred dives and
was equipped with twin steel 72s (72-cubic-foot-capacity scuba tanks),
no buoyancy compensator—just a single- and second-stage scuba
regulator and a large speargun.
It was Captain Mike and James Hrabak, the alternate second captain, who
taught me how to stalk and hunt in the reefs and open water—skills
that would prove enormously useful later on. Soon I was an accomplished
hunter on tanks or free diving (just holding my breath). It didn’t
matter if it was yellowtail, calico bass, halibut, abalone, or
lobster—I was all over it, and nothing was safe.
Usually when we took paying customers out on a dive it would be a pretty
mellow thing. There was one group of hard-core divers, though, guys I
thought of as the Animals, who would come out with us a few times a
year. With the usual passengers, we might dive three times a day. With
the Animals, we would do six serious dives every day, hunting for
lobster in the winter, halibut or some other fish in the summer. These
guys got the biggest kick out of seeing me surface with no buoyancy
compensator, two steel tanks, and a 40-pound halibut in my bag.
Eventually I became a rescue diver and an accomplished deckhand. I was
often trusted at the helm of the boat from midnight to 2:00 A.M. on a
night transit to the islands. As a teenager, manning the helm of a
70-foot dive boat with thirty-two sleeping passengers while transiting
through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, I knew this was
a huge responsibility. I took it very seriously and never had an
incident. By the time I approached my sixteenth birthday, I had made
more than a thousand dives and had enough hours and knowledge to take
the Coast Guard 100-ton Master Captain license.
As wild a lifestyle as Bill Magee lived, with his hot tub and
girlfriends and poker parties, I believe it was Bill and Captain Mike
who set my ethical rudder toward true north. The phrase “they ran a
tight ship” was never more apt: Bill and Captain Mike set a standard
of excellence that I would often be reminded of during my time with the
Navy SEALs. The guys I worked with on that boat were really good at what
they did and took their jobs seriously.
I wish that had been true of everyone we encountered; unfortunately, it
There was one guy we especially hated because of his slipshod ways and
sloppy attitude. George Borden owned a dive shop in the area. You could
tell the dive shop owners and instructors who were genuinely
professional, like my friend Mike Dahan, who ran a good class and really
taught the fundamentals. Not George. To him, it was all a numbers game:
Doesn’t matter if these people really know how to dive or not, just
push ’em through. Every time George chartered the Peace, it would be a
mess and create more work for us.
One time he brought a group out to do an advanced certification class.
One of the students was an Iranian girl named Mahvash, which means
“beauty of the moon”—and she was indeed absolutely beautiful. I
was completely smitten with her.
Mahvash was just eighteen and had done only six dives, which was the
bare minimum to be certified. We couldn’t believe George was allowing
her in this advanced class, which included making a few deep dives, deep
enough to require decompression stops on the way up. When they boarded
the boat, her mother was clearly against it. “I don’t know if
you’re ready for this,” she argued, but Mahvash joined the class
We took the boat out to Catalina Island, a fantastic place with its own
little resort town on the southern end. We left at night and anchored at
Catalina, then dove all the next day. The following day we went out to a
deep diving spot off the back side of Catalina. This area is a preserve;
the reefs start at 100 feet out, and the visibility goes on forever. I
was not on duty that morning, so I made a dive on my own, just for fun.
It was amazing, as it always is.
As I came back up, pausing to do a decompression stop on the anchor
chain, I looked down and noticed a whole cluster of George’s students
down there on a deep dive. Oh, man, I thought, what a mess. I went all
the way up, got on the boat, and took off my gear, then started helping
other people with theirs.
A few minutes later, George surfaced with his students and his
“assistant.” (By regulation, he was required to have a certified
dive master with him, but this guy was only a dive master-in-training.
As I said, George always cut corners.)
As they helped the students up onto the boat one by one, someone
suddenly said, “Hey, where’s Mahvash?”
George was only a few feet away from me, and when I saw the look in his
eyes I said, “Oh, shit.” Mahvash wasn’t with them. None of them
had a clue where she was. They panicked—but there was nothing they
could do. None of them could go back down for her, because when you dive
that deep, you can’t go back down again for at least twelve hours.
I had just come up from my own dive, so I couldn’t go either.
Our dive master, Ivan Fuentes, whipped on his tanks, jumped over the
side of the boat, and went down. We waited. A very long five minutes
later he surfaced, a couple hundred yards from the boat, and waved for
me. I swam a rescue line out to him. When I got close, I saw that he had
Mahvash with him. She wasn’t moving. As I got even closer, I saw that
the girl with the beauty of the moon was dead.
For a moment, my own heart stopped. It was the first time I had ever
seen death up close. I wanted to cry and scream at the same time. I
wanted to swim back and choke the life out of that idiot George. By his
carelessness and disregard for safety, as far as I was concerned, he had
caused this girl’s death.
Ivan told me he had found Mahvash about 100 feet down, hovering 10 feet
off the ocean floor. Apparently she had gotten separated from the group,
panicked, spit her regulator out, and drowned. We tried doing rescue
breathing with her, but it was too late. She had embolized coming up:
That is, her lungs had burst.
That night I tried to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come—they were
choked off by fury. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten: how precious
life is, and at the same time, how fragile.
The family wanted to press charges, and I gave a deposition for them,
but nothing came of it, and George was never prosecuted. It wasn’t the
last time I would see innocence and beauty crushed with impunity by what
I considered to be arrogance and crass thoughtlessness.
* * *
At the close of my freshman year at Ventura High, my parents decided the
time was finally right for us to embark on our world-encircling sailing
trip on the Agio. They had saved enough money, and they knew that the
longer they put it off, the older Rhiannon and I would be. They figured,
better do it while we were still young enough to go along with the
Whenever they would talk about this voyage, I would ignore it and hope
the whole idea would go away. I was having a great time working on the
Peace and enjoying the incredible freedom of my harbor lifestyle.
Because of my position as deckhand, most of the shop owners assumed I
was much older than I really was, and I was never carded for drinks when
the boys and I went out for dinner. I was quite content in my own little
world at the harbor. Sailing off to faraway places didn’t sound
thrilling to me. I had more important things to do—like diving,
surfing, chasing girls, and getting my driver’s license.
Unknown to me at the time, Captain Bill talked to my parents and offered
to let me stay with him on the Peace if they wanted to leave me behind.
They appreciated the offer, but no, they decided, the time had come, and
we were going to make this trip all together as a family. They put
Rhiannon and me on independent studies for a year, and we started
packing up the boat to leave. The plan was to sail to New Zealand and
see how things shook out. If things went well that far, we’d make the
rest of the trip around the world, and if things weren’t going as well
as we hoped, well, we could always turn back at that point.
Just as we were getting ready to leave, we had an unexpected visit from
friends we’d known back in Kimberley: Ken and Gail, parents of my
childhood pal Justin. I was shocked when I saw them; we all were. They
were both a complete mess, especially Gail, and we soon learned why.
In addition to being total ski animals, Justin and I had also been rabid
hockey buffs even at the tender age of five. While my knee problems had
later benched me, Justin had kept playing competitively right up through
high school. Earlier that year, Ken told us, Justin had been in a freak
hockey accident. He got body-checked by another player, went down, and
hit his head on the ice pretty hard, hard enough to give him a
concussion. They took him home, put him to bed.
He never woke up.
When I heard what happened, the bottom fell out of my stomach. I
couldn’t believe Justin was gone. It had been nearly ten years since
I’d seen him, but I’d always known he was there, somewhere, probably
doing a lot of the same things I was doing. Only now he wasn’t.
Justin had been an only child; now his parents were alone in the world,
and I felt awful for both of them, as well as heartbroken and freaked
out that my friend was gone. I also felt something else I couldn’t
quite put my finger on. The words “lost innocence” didn’t occur to
me at the time, and it was only later on, at the climax of our ocean
voyage, that I began to identify that sinking feeling: It was as if
Justin’s passing had marked the end of an era, a childhood I would
never come back to.
* * *
Our first stop was San Diego Harbor to stock up on supplies, after which
we headed down to Guadalupe Island and Cabo San Lucas. After a few
weeks’ stay in Cabo, we sailed around the tip of Baja into La Paz,
then spent a few weeks in and around the surrounding islands before
heading over to mainland Mexico. We hit Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta,
Manzanillo, and finally Acapulco, our last point to resupply before
leaving the continent behind. Soon we headed southwest, traversing
thousands of miles of open water into the heart of the South Pacific,
bound for the sparsely populated Marquesas Islands, not far from Tahiti.
It would take us a month to reach our destination.
Thirty days doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re out on the
open sea with nothing but water stretching to every horizon, it is an
eternity. My sister and I had some good times on that voyage. We would
sit up on the bow watching the dolphins jumping and playing in our
boat’s bow wake. We always had a line out and caught quite a few fish.
A long stretch at sea is an excellent time to get to know yourself. My
dad and I split the night watch between us. I would take over from my
mom and sister at midnight, watch from then till 4:00 A.M., and then
hand it off to my father, who took it till sunrise. The night sky over
the South Pacific was amazing. There were times when the sky was so
clear and filled with stars it felt like we were floating in space.
Every ten minutes or so I would see a shooting star.
These interludes of solitude, with the heavens opened up like the pages
of a book before me, began working on my mind. During those long hours I
started reflecting on my life, on all the experiences I’d had, and
could not help but think about the future and where it might be going.
I think this is something most kids never have the chance to experience,
this kind of break in the day when there is nothing to think about but
the expanse of time and the possibilities it holds. While my family and
I were crossing the South Pacific, all my friends back home were back at
school, running around, going to class, chasing girls, going to bed, and
then waking up and doing it all over again the next day. Distractions
and commotion, and little time for genuine introspection. As an adult, I
have met people who grew up on ranches and found they had experiences
similar to my ocean transit at sixteen.
I can’t say I came to any startling new self-knowledge during that
time, but in some way I couldn’t have articulated, it felt like my
thinking sank a little deeper, and maybe grew bigger. I began getting a
sense that I wanted to do something different, something special, with
my life. I didn’t know exactly what that might be, but I knew that as
much as I loved the life of a dive boat captain, which is what Bill
Magee and Captain Mike had been grooming me for during the last few
years, I would never be content with the harbor. Despite the incredible
tranquility of the ocean, there was an impatience growing inside me, an
urge that was starting to whisper, Wherever my life is heading, let’s
get on with it!
Those thirty days at sea also provided the time to accomplish a lot. I
finished my entire school year (months ahead of schedule), taught myself
how to juggle, and read a ton of books. I went through the entire Lord
of the Rings series and a carton full of classic novels. Steinbeck was
one of my favorites. I liked his direct, in-your-face style, and I
identified with his strong connection to California.
I also practiced celestial navigation with my dad. This was in the days
before GPS. We had a sat nav (satellite navigation) unit, a precursor to
today’s GPS devices, but it would take a wait of twelve hours for a
satellite to get overhead for us to fix our position that way. So we did
a lot of our navigation the old-fashioned way: celestial observation and
After thirty days at sea we made landfall at Hiva Oa, one of the larger
(that is, least tiny) of the remote Marquesas Islands. Shrouded in a
nearly constant cloud cover, the Marquesas rise majestically out of the
Pacific, with an appearance similar to the north shore of the Hawaiian
chain. The local harbor was a thing of beauty with its gorgeous black
sand beaches and, high up on the distant cliffs, a panorama of
waterfalls. Gauguin spent his last years here, as did the Belgian
singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. Both Herman Melville and Robert Louis
Stevenson wrote books inspired by visits to Hiva Oa.
We anchored the Agio in a cove and took a small boat ashore. The
lifestyle of the people we encountered was both amazing and hilarious to
me: They lived in fairly primitive, thatched-roof huts—and drove
brand-new Toyota four-wheel drives, subsidized by the French government.
On Hiva Oa I met a girl I will never forget. I never knew her name;
there was a complete language barrier between us. Somehow, though, we
just clicked. We took long walks through the most stunning tropical
scenery, past the most amazing waterfalls, and as beautiful as our
surroundings were, she was even more so. She was something out of a
dream. I never tried anything with her, never even kissed her, but after
we left, I missed her badly. Of course, I knew we couldn’t stay there
and that it wasn’t my dad’s fault we had to leave, but still, I
hated it, and this added fuel to the coals of resentment that were
Up to this point in our trip, my dad and I had been having a steadily
escalating series of disagreements on points of seamanship. So far these
had been fairly minor—but things were about to change.
On the open ocean it wasn’t that bad. When you’re sailing straight
in one direction, all you’re really doing is taking fixes and
monitoring your course. Every time we’d get closer in to land, though,
and especially when it came to navigating the coastal waterways, the two
of us would start to butt heads. I wanted more of a say in how we
managed the boat. I felt like I should be consulted. By this time I’d
had a lot of experience in coastal waterway navigation. “Look,”
I’d say, “I’m no slouch, I know what I’m doing here.”
In the South Pacific, because of the nature of the deepwater reefs,
it’s common to set two anchors. First you set a bow (front) hook, and
then you throw a stern anchor off the back and snug the boat up tight.
For both anchors, my father was using a type of anchor called a CQR
he’d used for most of his cruising life in Seattle, California, and
Mexico. A CQR is a plow type of anchor that does an excellent job of
holding in sand, clay, or mud bottoms, but it’s not the best choice to
hold in rocks or coral reef.
We also had on board a multipurpose Bruce anchor I had salvaged from my
time on the dive boat, and this was the anchor I favored. The Bruce is
designed to function in a wide range of seafloor compositions. Because
of its fierce reliability, it is the choice of most commercial boats.
The Bruce and I knew each other well, going back to my early days
working on the dive boat; in fact, it was the reason for many of those
2:00 A.M. wake-up calls. That frigging Bruce anchor would hold fast in
“Look,” I said, “we’re in a coral reef. I get what the
underwater topography looks like here, Dad, I’m a diver. Do you have
any idea how many stuck anchors I’ve dealt with? Trust me, we need the
Bruce on the bow.”
My father didn’t see it that way. “There’s only one captain on
this boat,” was all he’d say, “and you know who that is.”
I was so frustrated. At the same time, I was being a cocky smart-ass
about the whole thing. I was well aware that my own attitude was not
going a long way toward selling the idea, but my heels were dug in. My
parents couldn’t stop me from screaming my head off when I was two
weeks old, and at sixteen I guess I hadn’t gotten much easier to
That first night in port we set our bow and rear anchors, again both
CQRs. Of the two, the bow is the more important—and when we awoke the
next morning I was delighted to see that we had dragged the bow anchor
right along the ocean floor and nearly grounded our boat. I couldn’t
wait to give my dad an earful about what a useless piece of crap that
damn CQR was. Equally well spelled out was this ancillary point: what an
obnoxious prick I was being.
Every time we argued, my sister would go to her room to get away from
the tension, while my mom would try to be the peacemaker. Of course, she
would side with my dad, but then later on she would come to my stateroom
privately, sit down with me, and say, “Brandon, you have to chill out.
I know you have a lot of experience, but this is your dad’s boat.” I
would vent my frustration to her, and she would be understanding and try
to keep the situation from spiraling out of control. For a while, she
Our trip continued on through the rest of the island chain to the
Marquesas’ main northern island, Nuka Hiva, and then on to the Tuamotu
Archipelago, a series of coral atolls that comprise the largest atoll
chain in the world. All the while, my father and I continued arguing. By
the time we pulled into Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, the situation
had badly deteriorated.
I don’t remember what I said that finally set him off, but whatever it
was, it brought to an end not only my trip with my family but also my
life with my family. Suddenly my dad had me by the scruff of the neck,
his fist curled and ready to lash out, both of us screaming at each
other. My God, my mother thought, he’s going to kick the crap out of
Brandon. He didn’t hit me, but we both knew we were going to a place
that neither of us wanted to. We’d reached a point of no return. One
of us had to go—and it wasn’t going to be him. With my mom and
sister wailing in grief and disbelief, my father threw me off the boat.
He didn’t actually hurl me off physically. He just told me that I
should take a pack with me and find passage aboard another boat to my
destination of choice. He said it like he meant it.
Before I knew it I was off the Agio for good—and on my own in the
middle of the South Pacific.
* * *
In a way, I was relieved. The tension between us had grown unbearable,
and I knew that if we hadn’t parted ways, something really bad would
have happened, and it would have caused irreparable harm to both of us,
and for sure to our relationship.
Still, I was somewhat in shock at what had happened. I was also scared.
In later years we would reconnect and rebuild our friendship, but for
now my father wanted nothing to do with me. My mom knew there was no
reconciling us at that point, but she did what she could to make sure I
would be okay. She knew that if I could make my way home, Bill Magee
would take me in and look after me, and before I left Tahiti she helped
me get a radio call patched through to Ventura so we could fill him in
on my situation. She also helped me secure passage on the Shilo, a
40-foot catamaran headed north for Hilo, Hawaii, a journey of nearly
3,000 miles. My boatmates were a family of three: a couple and their
three-year-old boy. The mom’s hands were pretty full taking care of
their infant son, and they had been looking for crew. I stood the
midnight shift, which left me plenty of time to think about the future.
In a way, I didn’t blame my father for throwing me off the family
boat. It felt like the only possible thing to do. My mom was completely
torn up and had pleaded and pleaded with him to relent, and yet I think
that she also realized that there was no going back.
During the day on the Shilo, I was either asleep or occupied with the
practical matters of the boat. During the nights, I was alone with my
thoughts. Those nights were rough. Rhiannon and I had been a lot less
close since we’d both become California teenagers with our own sets of
friends—but she was my sister and had been a part of my life since as
early as I could remember. Now she was gone. My whole family was gone. I
was alone. Those first few nights on that 40-foot cat, I cried myself to
As I said, I was scared, too, but I told myself I had to get past being
scared, and when I did I found there was also a part of me that was
excited about whatever lay ahead. I knew my life had hit a major turning
point. I’d had experiences most other sixteen-year-olds had not.
Still, I was far from an adult. I didn’t even have my driver’s
Often, during those lonely nights, I thought about what had happened
with my dad and me back in the harbor off Papeete. On the one hand, it
was a hard lesson in the demands of authority. My dad was right:
There’s only one captain on a ship, just like there’s only one
person in charge of a mission, or a department, or any venture. At the
same time, he was making the wrong decision. I had learned how to take
orders during my time on the Peace, and that sense of respect for the
chain of command would become a crucial trait later on during my service
in the military. Still, as we shall see, there would be quite a few
other occasions when I would feel it was my duty to challenge authority,
despite my training, when my gut told me the guy in charge was leading
us down the wrong path.
That catamaran was fast—way faster than any single-hull boat I’d
ever sailed. It took us less than two weeks to make Hilo.
A day before we reached our destination, I came up on deck from my
stateroom on the port side of the boat. It was a gorgeous morning. As I
stood on deck, something in the hull caught my eye. I bent down to look.
Just above the waterline, a swordfish had rammed our boat during the
night, spearing himself straight through the hull and breaking off the
tip of his snout. That damn fish must have leapt clear out of the water
to spear us. I grabbed my camera to take a picture of it. I still have
that snapshot. The next day we breezed into the harbor at Hilo with a
short length of swordfish beak jammed through our hull.
The image of that swordfish stuck in my mind as firmly as its beak stuck
in the Shilo’s flank. What the hell was going on for that fish? What
made it leap up out of the water to attack this strange, unknown vessel?
Did it know it was going up against something more than ten times larger
and heavier than itself?
What future was I leaping out of the water to go up against?
Years later I would learn this odd factoid of biology: Although like all
fish it is cold-blooded, the swordfish has special organs in its head
that heat the eyes and brain as much as 60°F above ambient temperature,
greatly enhancing the animal’s vision and therefore its ability to
nail its prey. The falcon or eagle would probably be most people’s
choice, but if you were looking for a totem to represent the idea of a
sniper—especially a sniper who works in water—the swordfish would
not be a bad pick.
Perhaps this had been a vision quest, after all.
* * *
Once we reached Hilo I made my way back to the mainland by plane and met
up with my old boss, Bill Magee. As my mom had known would be the case,
Bill was happy to see me and said I could go back to work for him and
live on board. “Hey,” he said, “you’ve already got your
schoolwork out of the way for the rest of the year. Why don’t you just
settle into boat life?”
I can’t even imagine how my life might have turned out if he hadn’t
made this kind offer.
Soon after I rejoined Captain Bill and the Peace, the Animals showed up
for a few days of diving. This time one of them, a younger guy, brought
a few friends with him. These guys were rugged. I didn’t know what
they did, but you could see that whatever it was, they knew it inside
and out. They weren’t muscle-bound showoffs or tough guys with
attitude; it was more subtle than that. Being around them, you could
just sense that there was something special about the way these guys
carried themselves. It felt like they could take on a shark on a bad day
and come out smiling.
On our first dive, when these guys saw me, a sixteen-year-old kid diving
with no buoyancy compensator and my twin steel 72s, they noticed.
“Holy shit,” said one of them, “who is this kid?”
The two of us got to talking. He wanted to know how I’d come to be a
deckhand, and I told him a little bit about my background.
“You know,” he said, “you should check out the seals.”
At least that’s what I thought he said. I had no idea what he was
talking about. Seals? Was this guy seriously into seals, like whale
watching and shit? Was he making a joke?
“No,” he said, “not seals—SEALs.”
I still didn’t get it.
“Navy maritime Special Operations Forces,” he explained. “SEALs.
It stands for Sea, Air, and Land. SEALs.”
I’d never heard of them before.
“To become a SEAL,” he added, “you go through the toughest
military training in the world.”
Now, that got my attention. I didn’t know much about the military, but
I had always been fascinated with aviation and wanted to be a pilot when
I grew up, maybe even an astronaut. What he was describing intrigued me.
I love the water, I thought, and I’m a pretty good diver. That sounds
like a hell of a challenge.
The truth was, I knew I needed a plan, somewhere to go and something to
aim at. At the time, when I wasn’t on the dive boat, I would surf and
hang out with some guys around the harbor. They were starting to get
into crystal meth. I had no interest in it—I would drink beer and that
was the extent of it—but seeing them and where they were heading
scared me. I knew that I had to get the hell out of there sooner or
later, if I wanted to make anything better out of my life.
From that point on, my goal was fixed: I was going to become a Navy
I had no idea how hard it would be.
Copyright © 2012 by Brandon Webb
Excerpted from "The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America's Deadliest Marksmen" by Brandon Webb. Copyright © 0 by Brandon Webb. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.