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Sailing Out Of Willits (Part 5)

2-24 Wed. — Been on board the Constance one month today. We left another beautiful anchorage and not really sure where we’ll be tonight, but somewhere about half-way to Golfito, our last stop in Costa Rica.

There we will meet up with the other boats we have been communicating with on the HAM radio (Class of ’88 Net) to share the experience of going through the Panama Canal together.

We heard on the HAM that some yates got ripped off in Golfito. Bummer. One boat that broke a rudder going through the Gulf of Tehuantepec a few weeks back had its Avon cut loose, then further downstream the transom was cut out to free the outboard motor. The thieves didn’t want the inflatable life boat, just the outboard motor.

But the real news is that Panamanian strong man General Manuel Antonio Noriega ousted President Del Valle after Del Valle fired him from his position as Commander of the Panamanian Defense Force.

On February 25, 1988 Del Valle had a video taped announcement delivered to Channel 5 in Panama City for broadcast on the 4:00 o’clock news, but by then had already disappeared into “hiding.”

Within eight hours of the broadcast the Panamanian legislature, dominated by the PDF, voted President Del Valle out of office and installed Noriega as the new president. But the United States refused to recognize this new president and became the only nation in the world to continue to recognize Del Valle, even though he had fled the country.

Meanwhile, the United States froze the Republic of Panama’s funds in American banks—50 million dollars, no small sum for a country with less than two million people.

Where did the money come from? The simple answer is cocaine. The more complex answer has to do with strongman Noriega being one of the CIA’s most valuable intelligence sources throughout Central and South America. This was during and after George Bush Sr. was the CIA director.

According to one DEA agent, Noriega was “the highest-ranking cocaine conspirator ever, and the best friend the DEA had in all of Latin America.”

Noriega was also the primary conduit for illicit weapons, military equipment and cash destined for US-backed counter-insurgency forces throughout Central and South America.

But the U.S. government had already decided Noriega was becoming too powerful and damaging to Panamanian society. He was suspected of money laundering, gun trafficking, torture, murder, and selling US intelligence to Cuba and Eastern European governments.

Under Reagan’s administration the U.S. terminated all economic and military assistance and encouraged Panamanian bankers to cut support funding as well.

Back in Panama City the government workers were being paid with uncashable checks, forcing the nation’s banking industry to close its doors for want of currency. That’s when the people took to the streets.

The Civic Crusade, which opposed Noriega, was formed in ’87, but the peaceful rallies were brutally dispersed by Noriega’s army and paramilitary forces. Many people were beaten severely, incarcerated, and killed during the protests.

It wasn’t until Bush came to power in February of 1988, the month I happened to be on this sailing adventure to Panama, that the U.S. indicted Noriega on drug-trafficking (U.S. v Manuel Antonio Noriega), but few expected the U.S. to actually go get him. But that’s another story.

During this time the crew on the Constance went from being oblivious to any political unrest, to hearing more and more crime reports locally and in Panama. We heard some gringos were robbed in broad daylight, others assaulted, and one guy had his money belt cut off and was depantsed, so we were starting to get concerned.

A few days ago when we were coming into Bahia Leona I complained about the noise and Donna told me she’s tired of my complaints, to which I answered, they weren’t complaints, just observations.

Okay, maybe they sounded like complaints, as anyone who knows me has heard my negative narrative, but it wasn’t just me, we were all starting to feel the pressure.

When we were going through rough weather we were too busy to argue or complain. Chris helped Donna in every way to make her comfortable, and she in turn limited her obvious discomfort and made delicious meals, and worked her way to exhaustion every day.

But the winds died down and the cruising became easy. Life became a day to day search for the perfect anchorage, and then we started getting a little testy.

Most couples argue about the bills, the husband’s dirty socks on the floor or leaving the toilet seat up. C and D argue about where they are when sighting land, or where that submerged rock might be.

“I’m not going to tell you again,” she says in a huff, “there’s a submerged rock a half-mile off that point. The sailing direction says give it a wide berth.”

“The opening is only a half-mile long,” he tells her, “if you’re so concerned about it go check the chart again.”

She mutters something about it being a miracle if he ever makes it to Florida without her help, as she goes down below to check the chart.

He agrees and laughs, “That’s why I don’t want you to get off the boat.”

But she is frustrated because her swelling body tells her she can’t keep this up, she’s not eating right, too much strain and stress, both physically and mentally.

“I was dreaming about broccoli,” she said at one point while staring at the horizon. She feels she’s not getting enough vegetables. A Costa Rican salad is shredded cabbage with a few thin tomato slices, but that’s only the few days a week when we get to a restaurant. She longs for big green salads and a mix of other greens.

Chris and I are content with cold beer, fresh fish, and even canned meat.

I spend a lot of time day dreaming, staring at the horizon and thinking about my boys back in Willits, and the woman who seduced me just days before I left town. Would she still be waiting for me?

Donna had warned me about getting too much sun, and I had noticed small red blotches and more brown spots (freckles or age marks?) on my newly reddish-brown skin, recalling my dad’s aging skin that was eventually diagnosed with skin cancer. I rubbed more sunscreen on because there was little shade on deck, and I didn’t like being down below while underway.

The other personal problem I had was the ringing in my right ear. I definitely have lost some hearing and need to get it checked out.

The bottom line was I felt I had enough of paradise and really wanted to go home, but when? How long must we hang out in Golfito before it’s safe to go through the canal?

As for the canal, the U.S has promised to protect the 50,000 American citizens in Panama with the help of 10,000 U.S. troops now on alert to protect the Canal Zone, which is to be handed over to Panama in 1999.

Sounds like there’s nothing to worry about, but one of our boat buddies said, “I wouldn’t walk through the streets of Panama even if I had a body guard.”

2-25 Thursday — We pulled into Drakes Bay yesterday afternoon and saw the longest panga yet, at least 30 feet. The only other boat anchored in this little bay looked like it came from Gate 5 in Sausalito.

Then this morning we hear young people talking and laughing and see the panga filled with kids heading across the bay to Golfito, and we learn that it’s a “school bus.”

Tomorrow we will sail across Bahia Dulce (Sweet Bay) to Golfito, where both Donna and I decided would be our last port. From there we will bus or fly to San Jose, the capital, and fly back to the states.

2-27 Saturday 6:20 a.m. — I’m waiting for the aero plano out of Golfito to San Jose. I was told to be here at 6:00, but still nothing. An older man came over and started up a conversation. He said the plane should show up at 6:45 and didn’t think my chances of getting on were very good, since it only holds twenty people and I’m seventh on the waiting list.

He told me the main problem in Golfito is that the United Fruit Company relocated up north because “too many communists came down from San Jose and stirred up the people, so now they don’t have jobs. Only ten people work for every 100,” adding, “so what good did they do?”

Taxis are dropping off more people. I hope I make it out of here.

10:30 — I made it! I got the last seat on the plane at the last minute. Whew! But as we came over the mountains into San Jose the plane (a DC-3) hit some turbulence and bounced around, dropping suddenly, causing the passengers to make a loud “OOOOHH” sound, similar to the sound you hear on a scary amusement park ride.

But we weren’t that amused. I was wondering just how “lucky” I was to get the last seat at the last minute. Could this be my last plane ride? But when we finally touched down the whole cabin erupted in cheers and applause for the pilot’s safe landing.

Now I’m sitting at the San Jose Airport, having just missed the stand-by flight to L.A. on Mexicana, but my next chance is at 3:30 to Miami, almost five hours from now.

While waiting for my next chance to escape I met a guy in the bar named Jim, and we were talking about some of the places in Costa Rica. I told him about my experience swimming to shore at Manuel Antonio Park, and he said that people drowned there all the time. They just can’t fight the undertow. Even fit swimmers are known to lose it there, saying I must be in pretty good shape.

2-28 Sunday — The flight from San Jose to Miami was a trip. After failing to get on three stand-bys, I finally got to the counter to buy my ticket just as this guy gets wheeled up to the counter by a nurse calling it an emergency. Turns out he needs an operation “Pronto!”

I thought, oh shit, there goes my last seat, but again I was lucky and got the last seat right next to him. Then on the window side of me is a tall blonde from Minnesota who proceeds to drink and talk, and every time the flight attendant walks by he asks for another drink, gulps his present one down, wipes his chin, and holds out his plastic glass.

My ear was popping from the altitude, but I don’t think it was just my plugged up ear that made him seem louder with each drink.

The guy on the aisle side said nothing but had his share of drinks, too, and after each one he would literally drag his bad leg to the john.

Finally, he started talking to me. The doctor in Costa Rica told him he had a blood clot in his leg and needed an operation immediately, but his insurance was only good in the U.S. So they rushed him to the airport.

As I relay this information to the Minnesota gulper on my left, he says, way too loud, “Jesus Christ, we may end up sitting next to a corpse!”

* * *

POSTSCRIPT: This was my last entry in my old 1988 sailing log, but I do want to mention that Donna made it back to New York to have her baby, a healthy boy named Monty, and Chris was there for the June 4th coming out party.

It took Chris about two weeks after our departure to get a small crew and sail through the 50-mile long Panama Canal with ten other small yates and one freighter. He told me they didn’t stop until they reached San Blas on the other side, and it took about 24 hours.

I asked him how much they charged, and he explained it’s by how much water your hull displaces, the same with the freighters. The 55-ft Constance cost $200. From there they headed to Marathon, in the Key West of Florida, to drop off his two crewmates, an Austrian woman and her 18-year-old son.

As for me, nearly thirty years later, I never really regretted not continuing with the Constance to Florida until writing this piece over the past several weeks. I bailed. What a way to end the story.

The important thing is Chris and Donna and I have been friends for years, and talking to Chris recently about our trip, and my belated regret, made me feel better, as neither he nor Donna ever held it against me.

One last thing I will mention is that when I returned to Willits in early March, I got in touch with the young woman who infatuated me just before leaving town only to find out her boyfriend returned while I was away. Boo Hoo.

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