The Barefoot Boat Thief

Meet Colton Harris-Moore, the most famous boat thief of all.

In the fall of 2009, the world learned of the latest in a long line of audacious American outlaws, an 18-year-old with the dime-novel name Colt. He reared up from a far corner of the West to tweak a series of sheriffs, burglarize a bunch of homes and stake his claim to infamy by rustling boats and airplanes, despite not knowing how to navigate or fly.

The plane heists, naturally, got a ton of attention. Ultimately Colt stole five of them, wrecking three in off-field crash landings. But before Colt taught himself to steal and fly Cessnas, he’d been pirating boats. What started as a few joy rides in Washington state ended in a blast of machine-gun fire in the Bahamas, where, aboard a boat, his outlaw days finally came to an end.

Colton Harris-Moore grew up on Camano Island, Washington state, one of the evergreen isles that sprout from the Salish Sea. He was raised rural in a wretched trailer by a mom who, Colt says, spent each month’s welfare in two weeks, mostly on cigarettes and beer. Some of Colt’s first crimes were break-ins to steal food.

An outcast in his small community, diagnosed with ADHD and, later, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and medicated on Prozac at age 10, Colt was, nonetheless, an island boy living in a boater’s paradise. What to do, though, if you’re a poor island kid with no boat? If you’re not afraid of a little larceny, the coastline serves as one big boat show.

By the summer of 2004, 13-year-old Colt had been hauled before a judge for multiple boat thefts. He was sentenced to 50 days in juvenile court plus 48 hours of community service and six months of probation. Still, he was just warming up.

At 17, Colt escaped from a halfway house where he was finishing out a three-year sentence for several burglaries. He hit the San Juan Islands.

In the summer of 2008, Orcas Island’s tight-knit community of 4,500 full-timers realized that they were in the middle of a crime wave, something almost inconceivable on this sleepy isle. There was a string of burglaries and identity thefts, including one in which a flight training course had been ordered with stolen credit cards. Then, in November, a Cessna disappeared from the airport and crash-landed on an Indian reservation across the Cascade Mountains.

The next summer, residents woke to a bizarre and ominous sight: a shiny blue 25-foot Regal sitting high and dry on the pebbly shore. The ignition had been busted out with a screwdriver and the boat hot-wired. The sheriff quickly discovered it had been stolen from the funky little harbor town of La Conner, about 30 miles south of Orcas.

Soon, another rash of break-ins — a marina, a hardware store, an inn, several restaurants, the supermarket, even a bank — took place and stopped only when another boat went missing. The bandit had slipped aboard a 30-foot Maxweld catamaran used by a whale-watch operation. Starting the diesel proved trickier than he thought, so Colt jumped off and boarded the next boat in line, a 26-foot Harbercraft. The keys were in the boat. He pulled out of the short waterway known as “The Ditch” and into open water on a moonless, snotty night.

Like most of today’s teens, Colt was more than adept at computers, and he liked video games like Grand Theft Auto. Operating a GPS chart plotter was no problem. But the San Juans are no millpond. A painstaking count of all the islands, islets, seal haul-outs and godforsaken rocks in San Juan County comes to 743. At high tide, though, only 428 of them are visible. And then there are the deadheads, the innumerable ex-trees that have escaped logging booms and tugs and roam free in the waters like wooden icebergs.

Colt, though, figured out how to run a boat at night, or else he was extremely lucky. The GPS recorded his track as he rounded the sheer cliffs of Point Doughty and headed down President Channel. He skirted the treacherously beautiful Wasp Islands and steered southeast for Friday Harbor. At the dock, he jumped off and let the $100,000 boat float away.

Back on Orcas, deputies had nicknamed the daring thief the “Barefoot Bandit” because they kept finding bare footprints at crime scenes, and saw him creeping around shoeless in two surveillance videos. A still frame of his face sent to regional law enforcement finally came back with a positive hit from Island County. They told the San Juan County sheriff, “We’re afraid you have a Colton Harris-Moore problem.”

Colt spent a few days on San Juan Island and then stole an airplane to get back to Orcas. He returned to The Ditch and rummaged around the cockpit of a Cruisers Yacht 2870 Express until he found the keys hidden inside a storage hatch. Colt ran this boat at night too, grounding it off Point Roberts, a U.S. exclave that dangles into Boundary Bay.

Orcas residents let out a collective sigh when Colt took his rapidly growing outlaw fame (Facebook pages dedicated to him eventually attracted 100,000 fans) on a law-breaking tour of British Columbia. The relief, however, proved short-lived.

In early 2010, Colt stole an airplane on the mainland and flew it, once again, at night and landed on the Orcas runway. By now Colt had become a worldwide phenomenon and a serious embarrassment to law enforcement.

Colt told friends that he was fine, even relaxed, during all this. He enjoyed the chase and staying one step ahead of the cops, SWAT teams, FBI and even Homeland Security, which chased him around Orcas all winter using Black Hawk helicopters. Finally, when a 24-foot Sea Sport was stolen from San Juan Island and grounded on Shark Reef, Lopez Island, Washington, residents hoped he’d moved on for good.

Surveillance cameras at a 110-slip marina at the top of Lopez Island recorded Colt calmly walking up and down the docks, boat shopping for nearly seven hours. He boarded at least six boats before settling on a Coastal Craft 300 Cruiser, a $400,000 pocket yacht, which he returned for the following night. He jumped aboard the Stella Maris and, with a Seattle couple sitting topside just one slip away reading books, he spent half an hour getting the front hatch open by spinning the dogs from the outside. Once aboard, he found the ignition keys hidden in a silverware drawer. The last image on the surveillance tape was the boat, with fenders still dangling, idling out of its slip.

The Stella Maris was found abandoned off the southern tip of Camano Island. The next boat bread crumb was a 27-foot Maxum, hot-wired for the short trip to Kitsap Peninsula.

On Memorial Day 2010, Colt arrived at Cape Disappointment and the infamous Columbia River Bar, the most crowded crypt in a stretch of the coast called the Graveyard of the Pacific.

While it's no place for faint-of-heart boaters, there's great fishing on both sides of the bar. Larry Johnson docks his 34-foot twin-diesel Ocean Sport Roamer, named Fat Cat, here at the Port of Ilwaco. He keeps watch on his baby via the marina's webcam, logging on at least once a day. Johnson had fished Fat Cat that afternoon and put her safely to bed in her slip, right next to a full-time live-aboard. The only weak link in his boat's security? Johnson kept an emergency key hidden in a cockpit locker.

At 12:45 the following morning, Colt found that key and cruised down the snaky channel past the Coast Guard dock and out into the Columbia. Authorities found the boat later that day in Warrenton, Oregon, but Colt was just getting started.

From Oregon, Colt struck out east, stealing a series of cars, pickups and SUVs. He took one more boat while still in the United States, a canoe, to cross the Mississippi River.

In Burlington, Indiana, on July 4th, he broke into a hangar and stole a Cessna 400, flying it more than 1,000 miles to Great Abaco in the Bahamas.

With Colt wanted in nine states and three countries, and with a new FBI reward on his head, the Bahamian police and military hit the streets of Marsh Harbour sporting assault rifles and machine guns. Colt slipped into a marina and aboard a Sea Ray 450 Sundancer.

In totally unfamiliar waters in the middle of the night, the kid navigated down the coast of Great Abaco and out into the Atlantic. He pounded across 56 miles of open water with big storm swells rolling into his port beam the entire way.

Colt’s luck and skill ran out atop the Devil’s Backbone, a coral reef off Eleuthera that has been claiming hulls forever.

On Eleuthera on the evening of July 10 — Bahamian Independence Day — Colt pulled up to a dock in a 13-foot Boston Whaler Super Sport he’d found on a trailer behind a home. He had an amiable conversation with a couple of Bahamians. Things only got testy when Colt demanded to know where the local police were because, he said, “I want to get chased!”

He then buzzed off across the dark bay to tony Harbour Island, where he left the Whaler idling at Romora Bay Resort marina’s dinghy dock and ran off into the woods carrying a Walther PPK, James Bond’s favorite gun.

Local police surrounded the area. Remarkably, Colt sneaked back to the marina. He climbed into a 32-foot Intrepid powered by twin 275 Mercury engines and blasted into the night.

Minutes later, heavily armed Bahamian police officers jumped aboard a tourist’s 27-foot Boston Whaler Outrage. With its professional captain, its owner and another American boater among those on board, the Whaler was weighed down with seven men. There was no chance it’d catch the Intrepid carrying just Colt. But keep running boats blindly through unfamiliar waters at night, and luck will run out.

Colt raced toward Whale Cut, the closest route to open water. Only one thing stood in his way. Easily visible during the day, a sandbar forces boats heading toward Whale Point to first steer away from Harbour Island and hug the North Eleuthera shoreline. Unaware, Colt headed straight across. At 3 a.m., just 40 minutes after dead low tide, Colt suddenly felt the boat bog down.

The Whaler motored close and the cops popped on their spotlights. They saw the Intrepid churning bottom, but not stuck fast. Colt tried getting the Whaler to back off by firing a shot in the air and then threatening to shoot himself. When that didn’t work, he throttled up. He was clearly going to be able to chew his way into deeper water. Once the Intrepid got clear, they’d never catch it.

The Bahamian police flipped their weapons’ safeties off and opened fire. At least 20 rounds from Uzis, a 12-gauge shotgun and a 9 mm pistol ripped through the Intrepid.

Nearly all of the gunfire hit the Intrepid’s outboards, destroying both. At least two rounds, though, struck the center console, piercing the stainless tubing of the rocket launcher behind the seat where Colt had been standing. One bullet tore through the seat cushion and cracked into the windshield. When the firing finally stopped, Colt jumped up off the deck, waved his arms and screamed, “Stop shooting! I can’t hear! I can’t hear!”

The Barefoot Bandit’s 27-month-long, headline-hogging run was over.

Colton Harris-Moore pleaded guilty to a Bahamian immigration violation and was sent back to the States. He currently resides in the Washington Correction Center. His longest sentence is seven years, three months. With time off for good behavior, he will be out on parole at the age of 25.

Bob Friel lives on Orcas Island, Washington, with his wife and 1982 Uniflite Sport Sedan, which Colt never tried to steal. His book The Barefoot Bandit is in stores now.

Protect Your Boat
Here's a rundown of a few products to keep your boat safe. But if Colt's escapades teach us one thing, it's to never leave your keys on board. — Pete McDonald

GOST Xtreme Mini Dome stainless-steel camera ($1,399, gostglobal.com) is the size of a golf ball. This rugged cam can be surface- or flush-mounted to keep an eye on your boat.

IZon remote room monitor ($129.95, steminnovation.com) installs in the cabin of your boat, either on a horizontal surface or the ceiling, and is controlled via an app on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.

Columbia Boat Alarms (prices vary, columbiaboatalarms.com) has a variety of products for boats, from canvas snap alarms to hatch and door sensors that protect your boat.

Boat Nanny ($1,255, boatnanny.com) sets up a wireless alarm system that texts or e-mails you when the alarm sounds. Needs cell coverage.

Trimax UMax 50 trailer lock ($39.99, cabelas.com) fastens onto a trailer coupler to prevent others from driving away with your boat in tow.