July 26, 2006

Abandon Ship
Panama City, Panama

I listened in amazement as four backpackers recounted their recent brush with death.

Nearly every traveler at my hostel seems to be heading south into Colombia. Searching for a way to spice up their journey there (from an otherwise short one hour flight), many are here with the intention of paying for their passage on a yacht.

On average, the journey costs US$250 per person, and lasts five days (taking the passengers through the lovely San Blas island chain). At about the same price as a plane ticket from Panama City, travelers are quickly captured by the price tag and the description of passing through amazing Caribbean-blue waters, engulfing white, sandy islands.

I even contemplated this mode of transport for a while—but I know how unsexy boat travel can really be.

Not long after I arrived in the hostel, I met a young British lad who gave me a quick taste of a story I wanted to hear more about: He was one of ten people who survived a blunder at sea en route to Colombia that left the boat—and his gear—at the bottom of the ocean. Several hours later I got the entire story from four lucky backpackers.

The boat was small, only 10 meters long (about 33 feet), 20 years old, and was full to the brim with eight paying backpackers, a novice crew member, and the captain. Setting sail just after lunch, the passengers were torn out of sleep just after four o'clock in the morning (some 15 hours into their journey).

One girl thought it was thunder, but a frantic captain indicated otherwise. The ship had struck a rock. Screaming, followed by searching for signs of water—none was found.

Some 15 minutes later, the Caribbean sea was ankle deep in the compartments below deck. The rock had torn a mighty gash in the hull of the vessel, and it was taking water on at brisk rate. Repeated distress calls were made with no reply.

The captain began praying aloud.

Some passengers took buckets and began bailing water out of the boat in the dark, moonless night. The ship was adrift, a layer diesel floated on the water, and sparks from the battery and electrical outlets toyed with the notion of setting the vessel ablaze.

"Diesel fumes where everywhere," one traveler recalled, "and the captain lit a cigarette! I couldn't believe it!"

Amazingly, the boat had no dinghy, and only a carried a leaking, motor-less, four-person raft. Backpacks were thrown above deck. Life jackets were adorned. Below deck, the water was now chest high.

It had become more than obvious that the saving the ship was a lost cause. At 05:45, less than two hours after the incident began, the top of the mast slipped below the water.

One survivor shared with the group of travelers, now formed around us, "Have you ever seen the movie Titanic? It was just like that. I was sucked under the water by the boat nearly four meters before I struggled back to the surface. Everyone was searching around, looking to see if anyone was missing." Luckily, all were accounted for.

Ten pairs of eyes searched the horizon, straining to see in the early twilight hours. Backpacks and debris were bobbing in the water, much like six of the ten passengers who weren't aboard the tiny raft.

All took stock of the situation, and what they had saved. Many had their cash and credit cards on them, but the captain had incompetently forgotten to retrieve over US$2,000 in cash (that the passengers had paid), as well as all of their passports. He did, however, manage to grab a carton of cigarettes.

Miraculously, floating in a plastic bag in the diesel covered debris field, the passports were found. Land was spotted, paddles and legs were put to work, and the ten began making their way back to mainland Panama. Only one backpacker chose to drag his pack along with him.

The ten swam and paddled for over three kilometers before they made it to land, but not before they were cut up and scrapped crossing a shallow, coastal reef. …I wondered if the thought of sharks entered into their minds.

Shortly after collapsing on the beach, the group encountered a pair of uncompassionate locals. A series of smaller, stressful events finally found the group detained in a town jail, as they were now illegally in the country (they had been stamped out by immigration control before departing). Some hours later they were freed, and found refuge from their misery with caring yachties at a popular yacht club. They showered, were given clothing to replace their diesel-soaked garb, and dined on steak. One day later they were in Panama City, sharing their story with me.


Tom Heimburger

July 26th, 2006

I chuckled at the Google ad next to your amazing story. The captain should have taken it to heart before that trip: "Sell Your Boat Fast!"

Lizzie Davison

July 30th, 2006

I happened to be staying at the same hostel as you in Panama City and also heard some shaken travellers tell this tale. What a beautiful recount you made. Keep up the good work. You may remember me - we had some contact - you know, the Scottsih lassie.

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