Las Pearlas of Panama are a group of about two dozen small Pacific islands just off the western coast of Central America. Many are uninhabited. Navigation is dangerous: 18 foot tides make for strong currents. Fifty knot ‘white’ squalls in summer are not uncommon, and visibility within them is often zero. The charting of the area is wildly inaccurate, with whole islands missing and large ones misplaced. The entire area is littered with stray rocks, hidden ledges and shifting shoals.
We did not visit during our last circumnavigation and did not plan to visit during this one — but for none of the above reasons. We planned to avoid Las Pearlas because of a nightmarish experience some Finnish friends had there a dozen or so years ago.
Here’s what happened: they were at anchor off one of the deserted islands. Just before dusk, what appeared to be a local family… well, a middle-aged woman and her three teen-age sons, anyway… putt-putted into the harbor and set up a picnic on the beach. They didn’t think anything of it.
“…it was just after dark, and my wife thought she heard something,” said the husband, a spry 67 year old. “Suddenly, I saw a rifle barrel stick into the cockpit. It was pointed in the direction of my wife. Without a moment’s thought, I grabbed the barrel…”
“He is so strong and so quick,” said the wife in admiration of her husband’s bravery. “Suddenly he is wrestling with a man with a long gun in the cockpit! The gun fires… makes a terrible noise… a bright flash… but my husband has forced the barrel towards the sky. Luckily, I had not yet done the dishes… and the pirate slipped on a plate and down they went… rolling on the cockpit sole…”
“…I wasn’t even thinking,” said the husband. “We were rolling around… at one point he had me by the throat… and at another point I was on top… and then I managed to… amazingly… break the rifle in two! Suddenly I had the bent barrel in my hands… I hit him in the head with it repeatedly… and I thought we were going to be okay when another three pirates… there were four of them in the boarding party… leapt into the cockpit, too.”
It was the middle-aged woman with two more teen-aged boys.
The husband figured now was the time to be strong, to show strength. “Get off my boat,” he shouted. “I am calling the Coast Guard… you will all be thrown in jail!”
The woman wasn’t listening. She was berating the boy who the husband was holding down.
Then she looked up slyly at the Finnish skipper— and, without a blink, cut him from chest to groin with her machete.
“…he was bleeding, and it was horrible,” said the wife. “They tied up us — and they… they…”
We will close the curtain there, dear reader. Let’s just say they were both scarred forever.
Right then and there… as they told me this sad & gruesome story in the cockpit of Wild Card… I decided to avoid Las Pearlas.
But time passes. Things change. Bad people get caught, killed and punished. Their luck always eventually runs out. I like to think karma usually wins in the end. And it didn’t seem fair to hold an entire island group responsible for the sins of few… especially sins ten years in the past.
We asked around the Balboa Yacht Club bar, and got mostly positive responses. True, there had been a couple of armed robberies awhile back… but rumor was the people responsibly had been caught and punished by the mainland authorities. True, many vessels in the area ‘buddy-boated’ (traveled in packs, for security), but there were a number of solitary vessels currently cruising the area and no problems reported recently.
Carolyn and I decided, after careful consideration, to visit.
First, we put Wild Card in ‘danger’ mode — just as we’d done in parts of SE Asia, Madagascar and Africa.
This meant I dusted off both my alarms: my infrared warning device and my interior burglar alarm. Thus, if anyone approached the cockpit the infrared would give warning. If someone actually entered the vessel, a siren would go off which could wake the dead.
Next, our security bars. These are, basically, aluminum channels which prevent anyone from entering Wild Card while allowing for full ventilation.
Next I inventoried our… well, our little ‘surprises’ for anyone who attempts to board us with ill will.
I do not carry a gun. I personally believe that a gun aboard will often get you into more trouble than it will get you out of. And, further, I believe that Sir Peter Blake would be alive today if he’d rushed on deck with a flower in his hand rather than a pistol… but all that isn’t to say that we are defenseless.
There are many ways to defend yourself: guns are just one option. My buddy Bob Griffith ofAwhaneecarried sticks of dynamite which, he found, were ‘highly effective against Red Sea pirates.’
Actually, anyone who can ‘Google’ the internet knows that… well, no need to be more specific.
Let’s just say there are vessels which can truthfully answer ‘no’ to the ‘any guns aboard?’ question which are not completely defenseless. (The real experts on this controversial subject are the mega-yacht skippers who regularly ply the waters of the South China sea between Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Bali and Thailand).
…and, there is no reason to go hi-tech. I know vessels carrying cross-bows, slingshots and various other old-fashioned-but-highly-dependable weaponry.
Don’t forget 98% of piracy attacks are crimes of opportunity: they aren’t dedicated pirates roaming the oceans in search of prey, they are hard-bitten, morally-weak, poverty-stricken fisherman in search of a quick, easy score… lazy sea-muggers who figure ‘what the hell, nobody is looking!’ and thus attack defenseless yachts. Often, any resistance at all is enough to turn them away.
Where was I before I got off on that ‘surprise, your pirate vessel is afire!’ tangent? Ah, yes! Las Pearlas…
We had a wonderful couple of weeks in Las Pearlas. The local folks couldn’t have been friendlier, more welcoming or more peaceful.
It appeared to be the safest place on this planet as far as we could tell.
Contadora was our first stop, just forty miles and a million light years away from modern Panama City. It was hardly the crime-infested place we were worried about. It was more like a run-down Caneel Bay (STJ, USVI) with a Spanish accent… classy little mini-resorts tucked into peaceful, dozing corners of a quiet garden.
Helicopters flitted about. Commuter planes buzzed. There was even WiFi in the harbor… hardly stone-age, eh?
Later we visited some of the deserted out-islands. Although we kept our grates on, our guard up and our alarms alarmed… there was no need. All the local fishermen wore wide grins, happy smiles and give us cheery waves of welcome.
“There’s probably more chance of us beating up THEM, than of them beating up US,” Carolyn mused.
Why do I tell this story? Because we live in a strange times. There are, of course, true dangers lurking out there: bad people, criminals and terrorists. But the real danger is within, I believe. The danger of believing that, because something bad happened to somebody somewhere, it will happen to us. We world-cruisers have to guard against such a negative, limiting mind-set. It is easy to be swept up in the paranoia: the personal, regional, national, religious and ethnic paranoias which are so trendy, so news-worthy today. The ‘them-versus-us’ paranoias. It is sad but the fear-merchants are, for the moment, winning — you can measure their grim progress by our fast-disappearing personal freedoms.
But this, too, will pass. The nature of man is basically good — from Jakarta to Paris to… well, even Texas. Each of us has a choice: we can live our life with open arms and wide smiles or… not.
I’ve made mine. I’m a confirmed sea gypsy. I sail on.
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of “Chasing the Horizon” by American Paradise Publishing, “Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies” and “The Collected Fat.” For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com