INTO Lyemun Gap one blustery day in 1974 sailed an unlikely vessel. It was a small banca, the outrigger workhorse of the Philippines, and it scudded into the harbour under a ragged scrap of improvised sail. At the wooden helm was a gnarled stocky European, face and arms blistered from a week on the open sea. When Captain Ellis Davies came ashore, he laid low. A few days later, I managed to track down the mariner who had sailed across the South China Sea in a frail fishing boat. He had escaped from the Philippines in the 18-metre dugout because he feared being re-arrested. A few weeks earlier, charged with five murders and with being one of the co-conspirators in the plot to assassinate President Ferdinand Marcos, a court had acquitted him. He was forbidden to leave the country as enquiries continued. Manila was under martial law and the tough master mariner had spent 15 months in an army jail. He didn't want to go back to prison. He had been grabbed two days after the 1972 military crackdown began, accused of being one of the planners who plotted to blow up Marcos with a bomb in a golf course hole. As the Filipino strongman bent to reclaim his ball, plotters on the other side of the Pasig River were supposed to detonate the device. Ellis Davies used to scoff, after his release, at the outlandish details of the plot, much of which later proved to be true. If he wanted to kill Marcos, whom he had met many times, he would have done it efficiently. He certainly wouldn't have involved 30 other people, including the American mercenaries arrested for the conspiracy. ''Can you keep a secret among 28 Filipinos?'' he used to laugh. Ellis Davies died recently in Quezon City. He was back in Luzon on a salvage contract, still active at 70 when a massive heart attack laid him low. His wife, Shirle, survives him. Hongkong was his home port; although most of his career was spent at sea, or under it on salvage jobs or treasure quests, his anchor was stuck firmly in the mud of Fragrant Harbour. He was one of a disappearing breed, the British freelance merchant mariner. He used to boast over beers in the old China Fleet Club that he would sail anything, anywhere, anytime, if there was a dollar - preferably, but not necessarily, legal - in the voyage. His pals were Muslim warlords in Mindanao, Chinese merchants in Indochina, Arab sheikhs in the Gulf. When he went around the southern coast of Borneo, he had a couple of Sea Dyaks as bodyguards. He was at home in the dives of Zamboanga and sipping tea in a Middle East bazaar. Sometimes, Ellis Davies would disappear for months on end. He wouldn't be in his haunts. Then the telephone would ring and we would meet. At the height of the Afghan war, he asked me to accompany him running weapons to the rebels. Other times, he was loading an old tug for delivery at the height of the typhoon season to an oil rig far out in the South China Sea. Over the years, Ellis Davies made a lot of money. Many times. It all seemed to disappear with remarkable speed. Then he would up anchor, steam off on another adventure somewhere over a far horizon. Once I bumped into him, right up at the far and unfashionable end of the Macau waterfront, where the riverboats unload. I spotted him on the deck of an old junk under a canvas awning, haggling over the price of a rusty steamer. For years after the war, he owned tramps and would steam the tiny ports of Asia hunting cargoes. The 410 days spent in a Filipino military prison was just one of the many adventures packed into the life of a rambunctious, opinionated but engaging mariner. Ellis Davies was born in Yorkshire and had a generous amount of its bluntness. The day after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, the big-shouldered 17-year-old swaggered into a naval recruiting station, told the Chief Petty Officer he was 27, and signed up. In February 1942 as Singapore was falling, Chief Engineroom Artificer Davies was in a patrol launch off the coast of Java. Bullet-ridden after ambushes of Japanese craft, the boat tilted towards the docks of old Batavia; the city was in flames and the Dutch East Indies in its death throes. Nobody knew what to do with the sundry collection of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers wandering around Bandung. Gradually, they formed into a band. There were no officers. Most were young conscripts. Ellis Davies took charge. The group struck out for eastern Java, hoping to find Dutch or Royal Navy ships in Surabaya. When they got there, the port had fallen. Desperate to stay out of Japanese hands, they determined to do anything to avoid capture. They feared villagers would report them for the reward being offered for the heads of Allied soldiers. So when in doubt, they killed villagers who saw them. In some cases, they murdered all adults - ''anyone who was old enough to talk'' - when they werespotted. Eventually, they stole an old ship and made it to Australia. Davies reported the killings on Java to naval authorities in Australia and later in Calcutta. Nobody wanted to know. When the story became public in 1986, the British still did not want to talk about the atrocities committed by soldiers and sailors under the command of an English NCO. Davies was invited to Indonesia for an inquiry. He declined. ''I've seen enough jails,'' he said. A year ago, he swore me to secrecy - surely a vow now released - and told me he was after the mother lode, the legendary looted treasure known as Yamashita's gold. It was, he hinted, buried in an underwater cavern somewhere in the Philippines or Indonesia. He intended to steam there in a rejuvenated old tug, do the dive secretly, then sneak out. Little wonder, with such a buccaneering attitude, that Davies was a not infrequent guest of prison authorities. His burly figure was familiar in Hongkong bars where seafarers gather for a pint. It is a figure that will be missed by many who knew this complex, intriguing mariner who steered his own course.