How I Learned Not to Tie Down the Boom

Panama, 1959-1960

I only spent a year in Panama, but it provided a lot of excitement in addition to a great internship at Gorgas Hospital in the Canal Zone, a hospital run by the US Civil Service.

One afternoon, four of us (two fellow interns and one surgery resident) went out in a small, old, mahogany sloop we’d bought in shark-infested Panama Bay. We were almost out of sight of land and had seen only one other boat all afternoon. We didn’t realize that our boat, if capsized, would sink because of its’ lead keel. An unexpected squall flipped the boat on its’ side and, as it filled with water, it righted itself, very slowly starting to sink with the mast pointing skyward, the retained cabin life vests adding buoyancy and slowing the force and rate of the sinking.

Despite a desperate search, we could not retrieve our life jackets. In attempting to do so, I became tangled in ropes, running out of breath. Luckily, I freed one of the ropes, barely escaping the tangle, and lunged back to the surface with rope in hand. Only later did I realize the reason I couldn’t find the jackets was that they were pressed against the roof of the tiny water-filled cabin. Since the “stay with the ship” was futile, I thought “save the ship.” This meant diving down another ten feet to tie my rope to the top of the disappearing mast. The crew was in a state of chaos. Our missionary surgical resident was praying, one fellow intern was treading water, scratching his head in disbelief, and the last of my friends was starting to panic. I was holding on to a tightening rope, and none of us had life jackets.

Our situation was far from hopeful and looking bleaker by the second. Out of nowhere, a powerboat roared up. It was the one we’d seen about an hour earlier. They had gone to the island of Taboga for some refreshment. Just as they were leaving to head back to the Panama Yacht Club, one of them was glassing our boat. They found our boat just as a squall pitched it sideways into the water. One said to his partner, “I think that little boat just went down!” They rushed toward us, taking fifteen minutes to get to our slammed down boat, which, thanks to our lack of expertise in having the boom tied down, forced our dunking.

With sharks on their minds, my friends rapidly climbed aboard as I struggled on, trying to hold up the slowly sinking sloop on the end of my rope. When I explained that I was holding onto a sinking boat, they feared it might be too close under the surface and cause damage to theirs. With my increasing pleading, “throw me a rope, throw me a goddamn rope,” they finally tossed one I gratefully attached it to my rope with a successful underwater square knot. The sloop slowly rose with the forward power of the rescuers. Then the head scratcher bravely jumped back in the water with me to supply the needed help.

Together we secured a bow and stern line for a very slow, sideways two-mile tow to tiny Taboga Island, where the current was slowly pushing away toward Panama Bay. There, we righted our boat and bailed it out on the shallow, irregular island reefs, the four of us barely balancing the boat enough to get water out without it tilting and letting any more in.

Once the boat was sufficiently emptied, we could float it and tow the boat from the bow, with much greater ease and less drag on our long way back to the Panama Yacht Club. With no radio on board, all our wives and many others were gathered on the dock waiting for news, fearing we had drowned, as it had been pitch black for over three hours on a moonless night before we arrived. It was a newsworthy event for the small community, and a lifesaving spotting by our rescuers.

As we stepped ashore, our missionary-to-be said, “I prayed and prayed and it’s God’s will that we pulled through.” I looked around me at the menacing black night and sniffed the pungent sea air. “Just plain luck,” I offered, not knowing that it would be far from the last such offering from me.




This story exemplifies the notion that reckless often needs a little lucky support and the need to carry on. See more Reckless But Lucky stories in my upcoming book (2018). 

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