It was a bright, sunny and lazy day in the Pacific Intertropical Convergence Zone, some 800 miles from the South American coast. Our Beneteau 423, Shapeshifter, was ambling along in a light, pleasant breeze, and I was contemplating a nap when the radio crackled to life down in the nav station, and a voice called out our boat’s name. Our skipper, Colin, went below to listen.
“Shapeshifter, Shapeshifter, Illimite.” It was the sailboat we’d seen on our radar 12 miles ahead of us. Colin answered while I listened from the cockpit.
“Illimite, this is Shapeshifter.”
“Hey, just wanted to let you guys know that we were just visited by three guys in a panga. They didn’t seem to be threatening. They just asked for a bit of water and food, and then left.”
Colin chatted with Illimite’s captain for a few minutes, gathering up additional details on what happened. Apparently, the panga had appeared out of nowhere. Its deck was full of diesel containers. The yachtie seemed calm and unaffected by the event. He told us several times that he didn’t think it was anything to worry about.
Colin thanked him for the information, and the two boats signed off. “What’s a panga?” I asked.
“It’s a small boat, similar to the water taxis on Santa Cruz.”
I looked on the chartplotter and mapped out our distance from the closest land, the Galapagos—over 300 miles away. What the hell was a boat as small as a panga doing this far out at sea?
My girlfriend, Emily, Colin and I held a quick conference during which we agreed to change our course a bit farther west to avoid the area where Illimite and the panga had met. Sitting there in the cockpit, mulling over the conversation with the other yacht, our minds boiled over with possibilities, scenarios, questions. Was it a lost fishing boat? Why was the crew asking for food and water? Did they need help? Surely they would have asked Illimite to call the authorities had they been in serious danger. Maybe they were just asking for provisions to scope out the boat to do some pirating—although we’d never heard of pirates in this part of Pacific.
Although we laughed at how we were working ourselves up, when someone suggested we turn off our AIS and turn on the radar, Colin immediately went down and did both.
Meanwhile, our minds continued to search for understanding. These pangas are coastal boats, not oceangoing vessels. Perhaps they just got separated from a larger fishing vessel and ran out of food. Most likely, they do this just to mess with the relatively rich yachties passing through and see what kind of free swag they can get.
Though we felt safe enough after our course change, with passage boredom setting in, the thought of pirates was bound to captivate our collective imagination with its many delicious if deadly, morsels of daydreaming. That is until the dream became reality.
“There’s something coming up quick on the radar,” Colin said.
“There,” Colin said, pointing forward and to the left—toward where Illimite and the panga had met.
Ripping the binoculars off the helm station I shuffled as fast as I could to the bow, bracing myself again the shrouds and bits of rigging along the way. Once there I started scanning forward and off to port. Suddenly, there it was. I could just make out a dark speck on the horizon.
“There’s definitely something there,” I yelled back to Colin. I waited till we reached the peak of the next swell when I could make it out again. By now the speck had gained shape.
“It’s a boat, heading our way, fast!” I yelled, hobble-running back to the cockpit, as Colin started the motor and threw it into gear.
“If all they want is a little food and water, I’m going to make up a bag so we can just throw it to them and they can leave as soon as possible.”
“Good idea,” Colin said as he started to furl in the twin headsails, and I slid down the companionway toward the galley.
Grabbing a plastic bag, I threw in a 2-liter water bottle, some granola bars and a couple of bananas—the same bananas Colin had told us needed to be eaten that day as they were starting to go off. I half smiled thinking that Emily and I had been saved from eating the brown and soft bananas through an act of God. Feeling a little guilty about pushing off our almost bad food on these fishermen/potential pirates, I also threw in a couple of our prized apples. Weeks later, when we ran out of fresh fruit, I still felt a strange, sense of loss over these two morsels. Regardless, they went in the bag. Your mind does strange things when panicked.
In no time I was jumping back up into the cockpit, just in time to see the last of the headsail roll away as Colin changed course and begin taking evasive maneuvers at full speed.
“I don’t think they’ll expect us to be able to go this fast,” Colin muttered, referencing Shapeshifter’s upgraded 75hp engine. But still, the panga approached, rooster tail flying astern. A cruising monohull rarely wins in a race against a motorboat.
Determined to make it as unpleasant for the panga as he could, Colin then turned us into the swells. However, it didn’t seem to make any difference, despite the fact that Shapeshifter could take the buffets of the sea much better than the smaller boat. “They just aren’t giving up,” Colin said, and it was true, the panga appeared determined to run us down.
As they approached, one of the men started yelling and waving a large aluminum pot. My heart pounding fast and hard, I quickly scanned the boat as they pulled up alongside our starboard quarter. There was only one other man, sitting at the tiller, his head wrapped in what appeared to be a T-shirt. No obvious fuel containers. No fishing equipment. This must be a different boat from the one described by Ilimite.
Moments later, the pot-waving-man, who was wearing a tank top and had close-up hair, made his way up to the bow and crouched as if preparing to jump. Before he could say another word, though, I chucked the bag of food and water across the small gap between our two boats. At the same time, Colin stood ready to cut the wheel hard over in the event the-pot-waving-man should decide to try to come aboard. Although I had hoped they would leave immediately upon receiving the food, the-pot-waving-man merely ran back into a small cabin toward the front of the panga while the man at the tiller kept the boat in the same relative position.
Worse yet, moments later, the-pot-waving-man reappeared, apparently dissatisfied with out offering, and commenced to rapidly speaking a language I could not understand. Finally, I was able to make out the word pescado, or fish. Ah, this I understood! They were asking if we had caught any fish around here.
“No pescado aqui,” I said, pointing to the empty lures behind our boat. By way of a reply, the man went below again and then reemerged holding up a tin can. In response, Emily went down below to excavate some of the canned tuna buried deep down in our hold.
As she was doing so, I continued staring at the man before me. It struck me how strange it was to see another human being like this. You prepare yourself to see no one but your fellow crewmembers for weeks on end, and then suddenly new faces appear in the middle of the ocean no more than a few feet away.
All of those questions I had earlier, and more, also continued running through my head. If there was a bigger boat nearby, wouldn’t it have supplies for the fishermen? Why the hell would a couple of fishermen ask for canned fish? Could I call it begging if the begging included running down a boat and then practically demanding food and water? Maybe I should call them “provision pirates.” Mixed in with my apprehension, I also felt silly and embarrassed that my first reaction was to be so fearful. We were playing the part of the overly cautious western yachtsmen to the T.
While Emily was still below, I noticed the other boat’s home port was Punto Manta, written on the boat with a small Ecuadorian flag painted beside it. I tried asking in Spanish if they were coming from the Galapagos, but they just kept saying “Ecuador! Ecuador! Ecuador!” For reference, Punto Manta is part of mainland Ecuador, over 800 miles away from where we were at that moment.
Eventually, Emily came back up on deck with a couple of cans of tuna and tossed them across to the-pot-waving-man. Finally, their provision pirating satiated, the man at the tiller pulled the panga away and headed off at full speed while the-pot-waving-man grinned a big grin, waved a small wave, and said, “Bye bye, bye bye!”
As we turned back onto our original course and I watched the boat motor off into the distance through my binoculars, I made a chilling discovery. Sitting in a rough circle a few miles away was a group of four or five other pangas going in and out of vision at the very limit of binocular range. It seemed as if they knew just how far away they needed to position their small boats to be out of view. Colin pushed the stick down as we decided to put some distance between ourselves and the group. Our paranoia growing every minute, we decided to pass the night in stealth mode—without lights or AIS.
My watch was the first one that evening, and I spent most of the time wide-eyed, scanning the horizon and listening for the sound of an approaching engine. None of us, however, saw or heard anything, and in the morning it was as if nothing had ever happened. All I can say is I sure hope those guys enjoyed scaring the hell out of us...and eating our apples.
Jake Pitts first experienced sailing on small Ozark lakes before crossing the Pacific. He is currently studying in the UK.