Passage into Darkness

by | Oct 7, 2022

For three months we island-hopped through French Polynesia, then sailed from the Marquesas to Mexico, tacking across the Pacific in a long passage that lasted five weeks. The owner and his wife joined the boat, and we had a leisurely cruise down the coast, stopping in Puerto Vallarta and Zihuatanejo, back then more sleepy fishing villages than tourist resorts. In Acapulco the owner and his wife flew back to the United States, telling Captain Dick they would next join the Astral in the Caribbean.

In Panama we anchored off the entrance to the Canal to wait our turn to transit. We were next to another yacht, a classic eighty-two-foot Alden schooner named Ululu. I borrowed our thirteen-foot Boston Whaler to motor over and say hello. The owner, in his late thirties, introduced himself as Bill and invited me aboard. The first mate, in his early thirties, was Charlie.

“We’ve already been through the Canal,” Bill explained, “and now we’re heading to Fiji. But my other crew has left, and this boat is a lot for just Charlie and me.”

Bill opened three beers, and we sat in the cockpit exchanging stories. Bill explained he had bought the Ululu in Maine. Charlie said he had been living in Colombia when he joined the Ululu in Cartagena.

I was about to head back to the Astral when Bill asked me if I wanted to join his crew.

“I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got a good position on Astral. We’re actually a professional crew—we all get paid.”

“How much? If it’s OK to ask?”

“Four hundred a month. There’s no place to spend it, either, except for a little at each stop.”

Bill looked at Charlie.

“You might be able to make some money if you joined the Ululu,” Bill said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Let me talk it over with Charlie. Can you wait a few minutes?”


Bill and Charlie went below, and I sat in the cockpit finishing my beer. In a few minutes they came back on deck.

“We can’t exactly pay you,” Bill said, “but we can cut you in on a deal that’s going to be worth a lot more than four hundred bucks a month.”

I assumed they were going to tell me they had a plan to smuggle marijuana or cocaine, and I was set to tell them thanks but no thanks, but then they described an idea that I hadn’t anticipated.

“When I was in Colombia,” Charlie said.“I lived in the highlands with a hunting-and-gathering tribe who earned extra cash mining for emeralds. They don’t need much from the outside world, except for .22 shells for their rifles. To hunt small game and birds.”

“We met a Panamanian who works at the rifle range in the Canal Zone,” Bill added. “We’ve arranged to buy .22 shells from him.”

“Once we get the ammo, we’re going to sail to Colombia,” Charlie continued, “and take it up to the mountains, where we can trade the shells for emeralds. No cash, just trade.”

“We can get a better deal trading,” Bill explained. “Then we’re going to sail to Fiji. Have you been there?”

“No. Not yet.”

“Half the population are Hindus, and many of them are gem merchants,” Charlie added. “It’s a trade they brought from India. So we’re going to sell the emeralds to them.”

“Between Charlie and me,” Bill said, “we’re putting in eight grand to buy the .22 shells. Most of that is mine. If you come in for two grand, we’ll buy more shells and give you twenty percent of whatever we make.”

They waited for my answer.

“I don’t know … it’s kind of… complicated.”

“But there’s nothing illegal,” Bill said. “It’s just .22 shells and we’re getting those inside the Canal Zone, which as you know is US territory. Buying emeralds isn’t against the law, and we’re not buying them anyway, we’re bartering them so there’s no money involved―at least until we get to Fiji. And then we can figure that part out, you know, paying taxes or whatever.”

“I have to think about it.”

* * *

I was twenty-two years old, and while I didn’t consider myself naïve, looking back on it I can see that I certainly didn’t own whatever skepticism I may have acquired in later decades. Was Bill right about it not being against the law to have .22 shells? Well, maybe, but even if it was illegal it probably wasn’t as illegal as smuggling cocaine. I would have to give up a secure job sailing from one beautiful place to another. And what if something went wrong, if the Indians didn’t really need the .22 shells or the emeralds weren’t worth that much or the boat broke down and we never got to Fiji and I lost my two grand? Well, it wasn’t that much money.

And there was one trade-off staying on Astral or going on Ululu that was easy: I’d never been to the Caribbean or to Fiji.

Next day I took the Boston Whaler back to the Ululu and told Bill and Charlie I was in. They said it would take about two weeks to get the ammo, as it had to be shipped from the States. Back on the Astral I told Captain Dick I was leaving the boat to join the Ululu. Dick was kind enough to let me steer the boat through the Panama Canal, with a canal pilot next to me giving directions.

Once on the Ululu we decided to sail the boat to Taboga Island, a resort twelve miles off the coast, to wait until the ammo arrived. We anchored off the hotel, rowed ashore, where met three American girls who said they were on an overland trip to South America.

“What if you changed plans and came with us to Fiji?”

They said they weren’t sure. We went on a day sail around the island. One of the girls, Candace Davenport seemed to take to sailing and asked me to show her how to steer and trim the sails. I showed her how to keep her eye on the leading edge of the sails to know if she was steering too much into the wind, and she sat there in her bathing suit with her dark brown skin and the wind blowing her brunette hair.

By the end of the day Candace had convinced the other two girls to change their plans from South America to the South Pacific, although they weren’t sure how far they would go: we planned to make stops in the Galápagos and probably Samoa before we reached Fiji. The next day we sailed to the Perlas Islands, a little further off the coast, where the fishing was better. Charlie speared a corvina that fed us for two days. He also had a few sample boxes of the .22 shells given to him by his contact at the rifle range inside the Canal Zone, and he traded them to a local he met for a couple of ounces of marijuana. That should have been a red flag, but I believed Charlie’s explanation that it was good to have a little weed to smoke, and it was more fun to barter than to buy it.

Back in Tabago, the ammo still hadn’t arrived. Charlie and Bill and two of the girls decided to take the ferry back to the Canal Zone. We had to buy groceries and supplies anyway, and Candace and I stayed on the boat to do some painting to get ready for the long sail to Fiji.

* * *

We were in the dinghy painting the topsides when I noticed a Panamanian Navy patrol boat pull into the anchorage. We were tied to the only can buoy in the roadstead harbor, and I assumed they were coming over to ask us to move.

“This is probably their buoy,” I told Candace. “That means we’ll have to move and anchor. You up for it?”

“Just tell me what to do.”

We climbed out of the dinghy and tied it off just as the patrol boat pulled alongside.

“Give me a minute to start the engine,” I said in Spanish, “and we’ll leave.”

As I said the word “leave,” three sailors lifted their semi-automatic rifles and pointed them at me.

“Uh-oh,” Candace said calmly as we both slowly raised our hands.

Two Navy sailors hopped aboard and rafted their boat to ours. Several more sailors with rifles then boarded the Ululu. Two stood next to Candace and me while the others went below. I could hear them rummaging through the galley and the staterooms.

“Where is the marijuana?”

“What marijuana?”

“The marijuana you are trading for the ammunition. The .22 shells.”

Had the guy on the Perlas Islands reported us? Did they know we had ordered 50,000 rounds of shells, and assumed we had bails of marijuana on board? Should I tell him we were going to trade the ammo for emeralds, not weed?

“No marijuana,” I repeated.

Then one of the sailors emerged with Charlie’s stash.

“We will take the boat back to the city and search it completely.”

We were potentially in serious trouble. Panama was run by General Omar Torrijos, who had popular support in part because the dirty work was done by his head of intelligence, Manuel Noriega, who was reputed to be tough and violent. In Panama City, we were driven to the city prison in the back of a police car and ordered to sit in a waiting room. There were twenty or so Panamanians on two rows of benches, presumably waiting for news about friends or family. In front of the door presumably leading into the prison, a guard sat at a wooden desk. He had sergeant stripes on a short-sleeved khaki shirt that was tight around his large arms. He was reading perfunctorily through a stack of papers, and he was not smiling.

Candace sat on one side of me, a middle-aged Panamanian man on the other.

“What are you here for?” the Panamanian asked in a low voice.

I gave him the condensed version.

“Where are your friends?”

“They’re probably still in the Canal Zone. They were planning on going back to Taboga. On the evening ferry.”

“They’ll be arrested as soon as they step out of the Canal Zone. Do you have any way of contacting them?”

“We have some friends at the yacht club,” I replied. “The one inside the Canal Zone. They live on their boat.”

“Do they have a phone?”

“No, but we usually get hold of them by calling the yacht club.”

“What’s their name?”

He left and came back about twenty minutes later.

“I talked to your friends in the yacht club,” he said. “They’re going to see if they can find your other friends before they leave the Canal Zone.”

I thanked him, saying I realized he was taking a risk for someone he had just met.

“We have to stay together,” he replied. “Against the police. The corruption.”

He told me he was waiting to pick up his brother, who had been in jail for several days for being drunk in public. Sure enough, an hour later a guard escorted his brother through the door, and as they left they stopped to shake hands and wish us good luck. An hour passed, then two.

“What do you think’s going on?” Candace asked.

“They’re probably still searching the boat.”

We comforted each other with the fact that other than Charlie’s two or three joints, there was no marijuana on board, and no .22 shells: I had thoroughly inspected the boat in preparation for the voyage. 

“Maybe I should try and joke with that guy,” I said, indicating the sergeant.

Candace wasn’t sure. It wasn’t that I didn’t think our situation was serious, but rather that if I got on the sergeant’s good side, he might let us go. He seemed to be dozing, so I slammed my fist on the desk and he jerked up.

“Give me a room for two!”

“What?” he scowled.

“It’s getting late. My friend and me, we need a room for two.”

The other Panamanians started laughing, and the sergeant, once he got my joke, grinned and shook his head and told me to sit down. An hour later another guard appeared, and the sergeant ordered me to go with him. I glanced at Candace. With a nod of her head, she told me without words to be brave.

* * *

I followed the guard through a corridor to a door that he opened with a key. I walked in and heard the barred door lock behind me. I was in a holding cell with maybe fifty others, most of them Afro-Panamanians and Creoles. There were no chairs or benches; everyone was either sitting on the concrete floor leaning against the walls or sleeping on scraps of cardboard.

“Over here, gringo,” one said, offering me a piece of cardboard. Another offered me a cigarette and lit it for me. It was now after midnight, and I knew I was in jail for the rest of the night, but would I get out tomorrow? The three guys I was talking to had been arrested for being drunk in public, and they said they had been in since the previous night but would likely be released in the morning.

An hour later, the cell door opened, and the guard shoved in a skinny mestizo kid, maybe twenty years old, who was drunk. After they left, the kid turned and grabbed the bars of the door and started shaking it and yelling to the guards to let him out.

“Sit down,” one of the prisoners told him.

“Don’t yell,” another added.

The kid ignored them, pacing the room and cursing the guards. “I will fuck your mother,” the kid yelled, not knowing that a passing guard had stopped to look at him through the high bars along one of the walls.

A black man of Antillean ancestry turned and said, “They is gonna come in here and jack his ass. You watch, gringo. They gonna jack his ass.”

The kid continued to pace and curse. I saw the guard stop again and watch the kid and my stomach tightened. Why didn’t the kid listen to the others and shut up?

Finally the kid fell asleep. I lay down on my cardboard and finally fell asleep myself. I dreamt I was sailing along a cliff of black rock rising from an azure sea. White birds glided by in graceful arcs, lit by the sun against the black rock. White birds, white birds….

The cell door slammed against the wall as two guards walked directly to the kid, asleep on the concrete floor. One pulled him up as the other drove his blackjack into the small of the kid’s back. There was a whoomph sound out of his mouth, and then he cried, “No!” but the guard drove the blackjack into his back again.

“I told him,” the Antillean man next to me said.

I looked down. The guards dragged the kid by his arms out the cell door, and I heard it lock.

* * *

I tried and failed to bring back the white birds. It was quiet. What were they doing to that kid? Would they do that to me? How long would I be in this place? What was happening to Candace? I thought of my mother. I had just mailed her a letter, so if I ended up being in here for several days at least she wouldn’t worry.

A half hour later the cell door opened, and the two guards dragged the kid in by his arms. He was unconscious. Two prisoners pulled him onto a portion of cardboard and arranged his limp body so that it appeared to be comfortable.

“He been beat pretty bad,” one of them reported.

A half hour later, one of them stood and bent down to check on him.

“How’s he doin’?” a prisoner asked.

“He dead,” the one who was checking said. “Des dumbfuck kid stone-fuckin’ dead.”