November 1989, and Panama was not a safe place for Americans. We arrived in the canal zone just a little over a month before the December 20, 1989 Invasion of Panama ordered by President George H. W. Bush. Antagonistic diplomatic maneuvers were jockeying around, quickly escalating emotions and tensions to a point of no return.
The Panamanian leader at the time, strongman and dictator General Manuel Noriega,
had a long history with the United States as a former CIA informant and collaborator. The tables turned on him however in the 1980s when the New York Times exposed him for drug trafficking and it soon became inconvenient for the U.S. to maintain a cozy, cooperative relationship with him. Tensions grew when U.S. courts indicted Noriega on drug-related charges.
By October 1989, several attempted coups by members of the Panamanian Defense Forces (which we can safely guess were most likely backed by the U.S.) targeting the overthrow of Noriega had failed; it wouldn’t take much now to tip things over the edge. We unwittingly arrived in the midst of this scenario in late October, in a panic ourselves. Michel was deathly ill, overcome by an unrelenting fever, and he extremely weak: an infection gone very bad. He could barely stand.
We sailed into Colon, Panama, the Atlantic entry port for the Panama Canal, after abruptly leaving Panama’s San Blas Islands following our departure earlier in the month from Curaçao. It was early in the morning and we were guided to a slip on the wharf where canal-destined boats docked while pursuing the paper trail and administrative tasks necessary in order to accomplish the passage through the canal to the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t waste a minute. As soon as we were tied up, I tried urgently to find a doctor without success. I was quite alarmed because Michel was really looking bad. I took a desperate measure. He didn’t see himself and didn’t understand why after having been docked barely an hour, I hailed a taxi and whisked him off to the American Military Hospital, wherever that was. Since we were in the canal zone, there were American soldiers around, so there must be a base, headquarters, or something. I had no clue. I just told the taxi to go there.
I had no choice but to leave the boys alone on the boat and it scared me to do so. They were 7 and 10 years old. I impressed upon them the gravity of the situation—our own as well that of the area—and that they stay put, not leave the boat under any circumstances; I would be back as soon as possible. I was scared for them, not only because of the precarious military situation, but because of the notorious reputation for rampant crime and seedy characters in the Colon area, including the wharf where we were docked.
We arrived at the emergency room of the American Military Hospital. It was pretty obvious that Michel was very ill. I gave them a brief synopsis of his past history with sudden death, and that he was equipped with an implantable defibrillator, and that more recently while in Curaçao, we took advantage of the ideal anchorage and living conditions so that Michel could to return to France for a scheduled “battery-change” surgery for the defibrillator. It had been two years since the original device was implanted, and the charge was beginning to weaken, signaling that it was time for an update. In my opinion, Michel had returned to Curaçao from France too soon after the operation. He didn’t agree. He was anxious to return to the boat, not comfortable that I was by myself with the kids on the boat, so far away from him in the hospital. I wasn’t keen on him returning with stitches and a dressing that needed to be changed and tended to every day. I was not a nurse. Curaçao was a good, solid safe place for us to wait, and he was in good hands in the hospital in France. I wanted him to wait a week or two more, or even a month if need be, just in order to recuperate and be safe to travel. He felt his was place was with us, the family he loved and needed. So he returned earlier than I was comfortable with, and I played nurse. I obviously wasn’t successful. It would seem a bacteria contracted during the operation festered, and by the time we reached Panama, he was in a full blown advanced stage of septicemia.
Being 1989, cell phones did not exist, yet I was able to track Michel down the next day, thanks to a pay phone, after having left him in the emergency room. He had been transferred to another hospital in Panama City. The American Military Hospital had immediately plied Michel with antibiotics and determined that he would be better off with cardiac specialists in this other hospital, who were familiar with these new defibrillators. Indeed, because of the widespread nature of his infection, the doctors guessed that undoubtedly it had also spread along the lead wires to his heart. The only option would seem to be open heart surgery and take out the device entirely.
Luckily, we had always faithfully purchased an annual emergency medical travel insurance policy from France. Michel was able to contact the company from the hospital, as well as his original cardiac surgeon in France, and they immediately dispatched a medevac doctor to accompany Michel on a flight back to France for emergency care. He was in such worrisome shape, however, that upon landing at La Guardia in New York for his connecting flight, the crew requested a priority emergency landing status, insisting that Michel must be escorted to a hospital in New York, and may not continue on to Bordeaux. However, Michel and his doctor equally insisted the situation was under control and he refused to disembark the plane. They were finally able to convince the airline that he could continue the trip. Once his connection flight landed in Bordeaux, Michel was whisked off the plane via ambulance, directly to the hospital, where eventually they performed open heart surgery, definitively taking out the implantable defibrillator.
However, prior to that, the first priority was to stabilize him and rid him of the septicemia. It took several weeks of hospitalization to bring him back from the brink before the operation could even be attempted, and even then when it was finally performed, it was only thanks to Michel’s dogged insistence with the surgeon. Tired of bearing the risk of this device, Michel wanted to be rid of it. He literally spent over 10 hours camped out in front of the doctor’s office one day, demanding to see the doctor, and pleading that he perform the surgery. The doctor was quite hesitant and had been deliberately avoiding Michel. He felt there were too many unknowns and that it was still too much of a risk to perform surgery at that time.
Once I returned to the boat after leaving Michel at the American Military Hospital emergency room, I was extremely relieved that he was in the care of professionals who could undo this tangled mess, get to the source of the problem, and save his life. Now I had to turn to our current predicament: facing the imminent outbreak of war. I had to get the boys, me, and our boat out of this potential war zone ASAP, and to a safe place. Americans were now “persona non grata” in Panama, and the only option I saw was to get through the canal to the Pacific Ocean and sail up to Costa Rica, where we could safely leave the boat and travel to either France or California if necessary. I was adamant that we not leave the boat in Panama. My parents wanted me to get out of harm’s way and fly with the kids to California. But that was a “catch 22” situation. It might have been a safe thing to do, but then would we be able to come back to the boat in Panama? Would it be seized? By the same token, we couldn’t join Michel right away in France either. I couldn’t let our boat, our home, our livelihood, be endangered. It was all we had. Theoretically, however, in the canal zone per se, we should be fairly safe. It was a sort of “no man’s land,” kind of a “DMZ” or demilitarized zone. But there were still too many unknowns at this point in the game.
Sean and Brendan were patiently waiting on the boat when I returned from the hospital. Sean had dealt with a minor emergency, fishing the cat out of the water with the fish net, after she fell in jumping after a bird in flight. Not only that, he related that he had to wash her after her dunking since the water was pretty oily and dirty. I was so thankful that he had the presence of mind to act and solve the problem.
Getting Out of Panama
I couldn’t let on to the boys how desperate and dangerous our situation was, and how scared I was. I tried to maintain a very “matter-of-fact” attitude and take the hurdles one at a time. We would have to go through the Panama Canal without our captain, and I had no confidence in being the captain myself. We would have to hire someone. Thanks to our ham radio connections and contacts, I put the word out there and a cruiser who had recently passed through the canal and was now on the other side in Balboa, was willing to guide us through for the price I offered.
Our cash-on-hand funds were running low and we needed to draw from our savings account to pay for the canal passage as well as have some money for the near future. My dad usually handled transferring or wiring our money to us, but again, because of the current political upheaval, wiring money from the U.S. to Colon was proving very problematic. Being a “can-do” guy, I could count on my dad to come up with a solution and indeed he did. Thanks to his American Express card, he was able to have a courier dispatched to me right to the dock and personally hand me a simple white envelope with a good bundle of cash stashed in it. What a relief!
Then the 10-day preparation marathon for crossing the canal began. I started the process for the transit: umpteen papers of this and that in duplicates and triplicates, and paying the fees; the search for four obligatory line handlers; preparing four 100 ft. of dock lines; fuel, water, and food for a total of nine people (me, the boys, our captain, the line handlers, and the canal pilot) who would all be on board for 2 days, and one night (the handlers would spend the night on the boat at an anchorage halfway through the transit); organizing sleeping space on board for the overnight guests; sail repairs to be made; and finding a supply of kerosene for our stove. This last item proved a bit daunting.
For some reason, there was a very limited supply of kerosene available. It seemed the only way I could find any was through some sort of black market trade. I eventually made a connection and a couple of gallons were being held for me at a sketchy bar in Colon—a real dive. Walking around Colon with a wad of cash was not advisable, let alone a woman alone. I had no choice. In a cloak-and-dagger type scene, I found the establishment. It was dark inside and not only was I the only woman there, I was the only white person. Needless to say I was extremely nervous. On top of that I had about $100 hidden in my bra to pay for “the goods.” I asked for the person at the seedy bar whom I was instructed to inquire after, and with all eyes on me, I was led into the back room as I carried my two empty jerrycans to be filled. I was not comfortable. It did go well, however, and I hurried back on foot to the boat as fast as I could, considering I was laden with about two gallons of smelly-leaky kerosene. Another hurdle overcome.
During this prep period, the kids’ and my patience was wearing thin. It was hot, humid, and I often had to leave the kids alone while taking care of all these details. They were fighting and I was yelling. I was extremely grateful, however, that out of some divine foresight quite a few months earlier, Michel had shown Sean all that needed to be done in order to prepare the boat for a passage through the Panama Canal: where the four 100 ft. lines were stowed onboard; how and where to tie them up; the tools he may or may not need and how to use them; how to take the bike apart and other on-deck items and stow them; and many other details. While I was running around Colon and the Panama Canal offices tending to paperwork, grocery shopping, etc., Sean, only 10 years old, and with some help from his brother, practically prepared the boat single-handedly. I couldn’t have done it without him.
Meanwhile we would get daily updates on Michel’s condition through our ham radio network. Someone had established a regular contact at a specific time with a correspondent in France. This person spoke with either Michel in the hospital, or his parents just about daily to stay apprised of the situation. At an appointed radio time, my specific contact would relay this information that his contact in France had relayed to him.
At 8:30 a.m. on November 2, all systems were go as the line handlers and the canal pilot arrived onboard. A huge freighter was going through with us, just feet ahead. We were rafted up alongside a fishing trawler, which was rafted up to a tugboat. Two other sailboats were also added to the mix. The transit went flawlessly and by the next afternoon on November 3, we slid out of the last lock in Balboa and into the Pacific Ocean—a first for Cowabunga, having been “born and bred” in France and the Atlantic Ocean.
We island-hopped under the tutelage of our hired captain for the next 10 days or so, heading north to Golfito, Costa Rica, finally setting our anchor in the calm and protected bay on November 14.
I tried to put the hard memories of Panama behind me when suddenly, the situation resurged to the forefront shortly before Christmas on December 20 when the Americans made good on their threats and launched the invasion. We were glued to the ham radio as acquaintances on their boats in Colon and Balboa recounted scenes of Panamanian soldiers taking refuge and holding hostages on some of the sailboats, outbreak of gunfire, fires, grenade explosions, and rampant looting and chaos. Some of it was along the very wharf we had been tied up to and I felt vindicated and relieved that I had been so insistent we leave.
There were even a few tense days in Golfito, which was very close to the Panamanian border. It seemed the nearest border town of David was a Noriega stronghold, and Costa Rica posted guards in the streets and at the nearby airstrip just in case the dictator general would attempt to slip into Costa Rica. At least now we were out of danger, in a safe country, in a calm anchorage. I got back to the business of home schooling the kids, and we waited.