Shipwrecked on a Panama Canal Transit

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A dark, windy night and a piloting error make for a bad combination

A dark, windy night and a piloting error make for a bad combination

Our Panama Canal transit from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean went smoothly until the second day. On board our Norseman 447, Third Wish, was my husband, Jeff, our two crew Tom and Nick—both good sailors—Omar, our Panamanian line handler, and me.

Omar told us he had been working in this position for seven years, doing around three trips per week. Line handlers are paid by the trip, not by the time spent transiting the canal, so they want to get into port as quickly as possible—which explains how we came to grief later.

On a canal transit, boats must engage a canal agent who supplies the line handler(s) and a compulsory canal advisor, or pilot, who unlike the line handlers, will not stay on the boat if a two-day transit is necessary. The advisor also doesn’t handle lines, but directs the skipper and shoreside line handlers, and communicates with the Canal Authority.

On the first day, we went through the two sets of locks just beyond Panama City and then stopped for the night in Lake Gatun near the Gatun locks, just before the end of the canal at Colon. We were met there by a pilot boat, which took our canal advisor back to shore, while Omar slept onboard.

The next morning we were told by our agent, via Omar’s cell phone, that our advisor would be delivered by pilot boat at 1030, so at 1025 we cast off our mooring lines and motored out into the lake to meet him. By 1330, though, he had still not arrived, so we called the Canal Authority on VHF and were told he would not be showing up until 1630. Omar was in contact with Roy Bravo, our canal agent, through all of this, keeping him informed of our progress.

Third Wish undergoes repairs following the grounding

Third Wish undergoes repairs following the grounding

Finally, at 1700 a pilot boat brought our new advisor, who told us to weigh anchor and tie up alongside the approach to the locks. Once there, though, we were told to cast off again and motor back out of the way to let a supertanker through. Only after that were we told to enter again. Finally, we went through the locks, although by now it was dark and the weather was blustery, with 25-30 knots of wind and a steep chop.

Yay! We had just traversed the Panama Canal! However, we do not like to make landfall at an unknown destination after dark, especially when it’s a marina with so many surrounding hazards. So we called Roy and expressed our concerns about entering Shelter Bay Marina on the western edge of Limon Bay given the conditions. Roy, though, told us not to worry, that entering the marina was easy, that Omar had done this entry, “hundreds of times” in the past and that he could easily guide us in. “If you follow Omar’s instructions you will be fine,” Roy said. “I will see you at the Shelter Bay Marina to collect the fenders and lines in a couple of hours.”

As we started to head in, Tom and Nick went up onto the bow to look for the entrance and watch for hazards—with white caps coming at us from out of the darkness and the lights from the busy commercial port glittering everywhere. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, rather than following the channel, Omar had now decided to direct us through the “flats” on the outside of the ship anchorage—a shortcut for dinghies—so that, among other things, by the time we finally were able to make out the red and green lights of the marina entrance, they were at a very oblique angle.

Omar kept telling Jeff to “head to port, head to port.” But as we're about to discover, heading to port takes you over a reef, one that’s not marked on any charts, but which the locals, including Omar, all know. Unfortunately, Omar wanted to get into port quickly, since the last shuttle from the marina to Colon was leaving at 1930. A shortcut over the reef would, in theory at least, save us half an hour.

I was down below when we hit the reef—hard. The grinding sound was horrific. We rocked with every wave hitting Third Wish’s starboard side, as she began heeling over 30 degrees, 40 degrees, then 50. The decision to abandon ship was made within the space of about three minutes, as we went from floating to listing at 60 degrees up against the reef.

Up on deck, Tom and Nick began trying to launch the dinghy so that it could serve as our lifeboat. As they were doing so, Jeff shouted down to me to give him the red lanyard that held the dinghy engine kill switch (which is also necessary to start the dinghy); deploy the EPIRB; send out a Mayday call; find Gilligan, our cat and get ready to leave the boat.

After that I spent maybe five minutes at the nav station, being tossed about every time the boat hit the reef and calling, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the sailing vessel Third Wish. We are a 44ft sailboat with five people on board. We are on the rocks in front of Shelter Bay. We are sinking. I repeat, Mayday. We have deployed our EPIRB. Does anyone hear me?”

As I was doing so, Nick, still topside, grabbed the knife at the binnacle and jumped into the dinghy to cut the straps securing it to the davits. As he cut the last strap, though, the wind and waves immediately picked it up—with the engine attached—and flipped it over. Thank goodness Nick jumped away in time, landing barefoot on the reef. Unfortunately, when Jeff and Tom threw him some life jackets, the one that landed closest to him inflated before Nick could put it on, and he almost drowned trying to get himself into it.

Meanwhile, Omar just sat there with his head in his hands, sobbing. We still wonder if he knew how to swim. At one point, while Tom and Jeff were helping Nick, Tom gave him the high-beam flashlight and told him, “Keep the light on the man in the water!”

Finally, I got an answer from shore. “Vessel in distress, how many people aboard? We will be there in 10 minutes.” Someone heard me! It transpired that the marina was hosting an Oyster round-the-world rally, and a number of these wonderful people were now bringing their dinghies out to save our butts.

Which meant it was time to get Gilligan.

Gilligan seems none the worse after his ordeal

Gilligan seems none the worse after his ordeal

Unfortunately, while we’d always had an evacuation plan for him, I had recently stowed his evacuation gear away because we had extra crew on board and needed to use the forepeak as a sleeping bunk. As a result of snatching him from his hiding place, I had no choice but to try and stuff him, tail first, into my backpack. Well, that wasn’t happening. Cats are much more powerful than they look. So, scratched and bleeding, I simply started marching my way up the companionway steps with Gilligan in my arms. As I was doing so, an especially large wave slammed the boat, knocking me off my feet, prompting Jeff to shout, “Carolyn, I am sturdier on the boat than you. GIVE ME THE CAT!”

After that Jeff duck-walked up to the bow and handed Gilligan down to the people in the rescue dinghies. Poor Gilligan! He definitely lost one of his nine lives that night! For my part, I think it was then that I started to go into shock. I remember Tom putting his arm around my waist and pulling me forward to the bow. I do not remember the dinghy ride to shore, other than holding the cat and talking to him to try and keep him calm.

As for Omar, although he was no help at all in the evacuation, he was the first person in the rescue dinghy and the first person off the boat when we reached shore. Not only that, but he immediately ran off into a jungle full of snakes, jaguars and poisonous bugs, never to be seen by us again, leaving his wallet, his phone and even his shoes all on the boat.

Although we had been shipwrecked and off-loaded with absolutely nothing, the boating community is amazing. In fact, as we would later learn, the Panamanian coast guard could neither rescue us nor offer any other kind of assistance, because all its boats were out on drug interdiction. Not only that, but it turned out no one apart from the boats in the Oyster rally had ever even heard our Mayday since the marina had closed at 1700. This lack of response is why we had activated our EPIRB. As soon as we got to shore we contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and canceled the alert.

Eventually, we were able to get a tugboat from an industrial dive operation to pull Third Wish off the rocks, only to discover she had suffered substantial hull and rudder damage, along with some popped floorboards and broken bulkhead tabbings. Currently, she is on the hard, propped up on stilts in the jungle. After being blown overboard, our dinghy spent 18 hours bashing against the reef, upside down. Hopefully, we can repair both it and our “little engine that could.”

Jeff and I are still processing this shipwreck. We are very lucky. Everything could have been so much worse. I daily thank the gods for sending us Tom, Nick and the folks from the Oyster rally. We will repair and set sail again, once my pretty little boat is ready. We are all stronger than we think. Even the cat. 

The boat sustained substantial hull and rudder damage

The boat sustained substantial hull and rudder damage

What we learned

• Listen to yourself! If you have never been to a particular marina before, don’t even think about entering it in the dark. No matter what the locals say, if it doesn’t feel safe, don’t do it.

• Keep your ditch bag handy: Ours was at my feet under the chart table as I was calling Mayday, but we did not take it with us. It should have been strapped outside, in the cockpit. It was also too heavy. I have now bought a dry bag backpack to use as our ditch bag.

• Life Vests: I need to insist that they be out on deck, for every person aboard, always, even when “just motoring.”

• Insurance: Yes, it’s expensive, but in our case, it was worth every penny. The costs of repairs to Third Wish were close to $80,000. Had we not had insurance, we would have lost our home.

Carolyn Lambert, a retired teacher, began cruising with her husband three years ago on their Norseman 447, after 25 years of sailing the California coast. Once repairs are finished, they plan to continue on, exploring from the San Blas Islands to Cartagena, Colombia

Photos by Carolyn Lambert

February 2018

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