Shipwrecked and stranded off the coast of Panama
The Darien gap between Columbia and Panama is renowned for drug traffickers and kidnappings. So, surely, a licensed, rather pricey boat trip with an international company is a better option, right?
Pete and emma, shipwrecked and stranded off the coast of Panama
The elegant catamaran, by the name of Nacar 1, designed for 13 people set sail from the colonial city of Cartagena on a calm Sunday night. We were assured that boats would not be over crowded and that our company only worked with the most professional of captains. It did start off well. On the first day we enjoyed the freshest sashimi possible, relaxed on deck and settled into a good nights sleep. Shipwrecked and stranded off the coast of Panama
03.00, I awoke to a thick thud and water hurtling through the overhead hatch. I was sure it was only high waves and wiped the unwanted seawater from my face. The ship was shuddering quite violently as I sat up. It looked as though the door in our claustrophobic box cabin had fallen to the floor. Startled and confused, I took a closer look. My stomach sank as I realised that it was actually the floor breaking away and rising.
Then came the most fear inducing words, ‘Life Jackets, grab your life jackets.’
Grabbing my life jacket from the inbuilt shelf to the left of our tiny bed, I threw it over my head, grabbed my small bag and ran up to the top deck. Optimistic that the life jacket must just be a precaution, it was surreal to find the boat was tipping drastically to the left and fully flooded on one side. 18 people and 4 cats were darting around in a panic as waves crashed in dragging the back left section further down.
Nothing seemed real and I couldn’t fight the flood of disaster movie images as I tried to steady myself amongst waves, avoid broken furnishings and assess the situation.
My parents brought me up to be someone who doesn’t panic. The thought of them boosted my motivation to kick into survival mode. No family deserves the news that could come from this disaster. I was trying to think through all the Bear Grylls survival tips I had enjoyed watching but thought I would never have actually use.
The boat was sinking rapidly and we knew we had moments to gather people, life jackets, anything that floats and drinking water. A sobering moment for Pete was when he threw his laptop from his bag in exchange for a half full water bottle. Value as we knew it changing beyond recognition.
The lights flickered and went out, I could hear the captain shouting that they had lost the life raft. The waves were dragging and thrashing everyone around, it felt as though everything had gone into slow motion as I looked around at people’s faces, now lit only by sparse torch light.
Then came the sentence, ‘we have less than 10 minutes before the boat will completely sink; when it goes down, it will go fast and can drag you with it.’
Pete prayed out loud with the group, encouraging everyone to pray from the heart and asked that God would somehow get all of us through this.
Within minutes, I heard someone shout ‘we’re on reef… we’re on ROCK’
Not quite comprehending just how good this news could be and still clambering around the thrashing boat for a better vantage point, it became clear we were no longer going down. Though too dark to fully work out what was happening it became clear we were somehow more secure and no longer rapidly sinking.
Knowing we had more time, we started to scavenge for more survival things. We salvaged and shared snorkeling gear, better fresh water supplies and clothing to insulate as many as possible.
We found places to sit on the very top of the boat, poised for if it suddenly shifted. Incase we had to suddenly orientate ourselves in the water and somehow swim to shore. Pete and I dug the compass out of his bag and shot a bearing to where we could see a few small lights on the shore. We knew the swim could be anything up to 5 miles, so this was of course a last resort.
Waiting for Rescue
Focusing on terror achieves nothing, it only drains, blinds and divides you.
After you have ran out of flairs and gone past the initial estimate of 1 to 2 hours for rescue, you resided to the fact that you may be on the wreck for a long time. The three hour wait for sunrise felt like a timeless eternity. You find the strangest of things to do to keep spirits up and pass time. As surreal and morbid as it may sound, there were moments when some were singing songs from Titanic. We had a delightful break from the tension when the Baileys turned up. Pete even filmed a science lesson on how the emergency GPS emitter worked and would bring safety to us. You can hear laughter in the background of this.
Nothing makes sense, but you know you have to do everything you can, to keep panic low and spirits high.
I was desperate for it to get light, believing it would be better as we could see and better assess our situation. Alas, this was my lowest point. As it became light, you could better see the colossal height of the waves that were crashing down on to rock only meters away from where we were. Seeing the force of these 15 foot waves draw back powerfully and crash down of the edges the offshore table reef made me feel dizzy for a moment. I had to choose not to fixate on how it would simply smash you to pieces if you got caught up in it.
The daylight made yet another impending danger ever more vivid. The mast was badly damaged and twisting at such an angle it was clear that it could snap and hurt people at any moment.
In the distance we started to see the vague shape of hope. Initially it was so vague I found myself doing everything I could to not let my emotions run wild. BUT as the fishermen came firmly into view, we went ballistic, an ecstatic blur of waving orange and whistles.
The reef was so dangerous; they had to circumnavigate it for some time before working out how to get across. They owed us nothing, yet, the Kuna fishermen swam into the raging waves on the reef edge, using harpoons to steady themselves as they neared our wreck.
The first four bravely joined them and ventured back to the fishing boat.
Then, the wait continued.
Although we knew we were found and rescue must be returning, when it takes hours, it feels like days. With the impending reality of the boat being swept out to sink at any moment, doubt creeps back in.
Eventually, a military boat came into view, but it stayed at the edge and they showed no signs of coming out to us.
We had to swim through the raging reef to get to the boat. Had we not seen the brave fishermen pick out a route with the first four, we may not have picked out the best route ourselves. We teamed stronger and weaker swimmers together. Naturally I swam with my hero, Pete, no matter what happened we were never going to let go of each other. As we swam with all our might and eventually neared the boat they dragged us up. We knew the worst of it was over. Eventually the last few made it aboard, complete with 4 soggy but safe cats.
It was 16:00 before we reached the military base on the first island.
13 long hours. Barefoot, with nothing but a handful of soggy belongings. Though our lives were no longer in immediate danger, the ordeal was far from over and it took days to get to civilisation and work our way home. We later found out that the captain had gone to sleep, leaving the boat on auto, with much confusion about who should be on watch.
We will share more over time, but for now, want to leave you with a few little thoughts
What we learned
You never think you will be the one to live through many peoples’ worst nightmare. But, humanity is found in the darkest of places and bleakest of moments. Not a single passenger was selfish, at one point an apple floated by and we just picked it up and shared it. You can choose to survive; you can choose to be selfless and you can choose to pull together.
Everyone can choose faith, don’t leave it too long to reach out to God.
If this is your first time of reading about this, please know it was a very raw and ready write up straight after everything that happened. More recently I took time to go into a bit more depth about what it took to get back to safety and how it has began to impact us over time.