Mr. Pilot O'Neal !

Panama - Jan thru Mar 2001

The story goes something like this ...

Matti, Stacy and I (Jo) where anchored in Porvenir, San Blas. A really nice sailing spot some 60 miles from Panama City. We had a few days before Stacy's mom came to visit so we were just hanging out cleaning the boat and not doing much of anything. A dug out canoe approached us, and we expected to buy our daily catch of fish from the Kuna fishermen. Instead there was this fellow in his sixties asking us if we did charters. We where quite content to talk to the fellow, but chartering is not our business. After the usual greetings and introductions Pat, Mr. Pilot Patrick O'Neal, told us that he was a canal pilot on vacation looking to sail for a couple days in the San Blas Islands.

Within five minutes our plans for the day had changed. We told Pat to get his bag and return as early as possible to go sailing! Matti and I started to get the boat ready for sailing, while Stacy went ashore to double check her mom's arrival date. Within an hour we where sailing towards three days of fun and exploration in the San Blas. Little did we know that our new friend Pat not only was a canal Pilot he was one of the senior canal pilots. You see, being a canal pilot is a really prestigious job and in Panama they are highly regarded. I suspect that is true in any major port town. The canal pilots are responsible for taking your boat across the canal and are required to be on board any vessel transiting the canal. We where on our way to the canal in a few weeks so we spent a lot of time picking his brain for information on transiting the canal. He knew the local culture fairly well and introduced us to the Kuna smoked fish and "pipas" (green coconut water.) The time went fast and it was now time to kick Pat out of the boat and pickup Stacey's mom. We exchanged addresses and said our good-byes.

It's now almost six weeks later. Matti has left back to the U.S. Stacy and I have been helping friends, as line handlers, to transit their boats through the canal. In fact this is the fourth time we where going through. This time we are helping Ken and Judith from Sunbow to get across. As the schedule normally goes, we wake up at 4:00 AM and are comfortably eating breakfast on Sunbow by 4:30 AM. The pilot arrives promptly at 5:10 and off we go. Three chambers in the Gatun Locks up into the Gatun Lake. A 20 or so mile sail to the Pedro Miguel Locks and finally the last two chambers in the Miraflores Locks into the Pacific Ocean. The whole process takes us about 9 hours and we are now in the Balboa Yacht Club docks heading towards the bar for a cocktail.

The time is about 2:00 PM on carnival Saturday, the earliest we have ever made it in from a transit. On our way to the bar Stacy comments: "Wouldn't it be nice if we met up with Pat at the bar?"

We know that he is a club member and that his boat is moored in the club. We also know that the club is his favorite hangout places. Sure enough there is our friend Pat O'Neal having a beer in the bar! We join him and his friend James for cocktails. As we start our conversation Pat tells us that James had to hijack him from the hospital. Hijack??? Hospital??? Poor Pat. He had been walking around in Boca Del Torros, a couple hundred miles west of Panama City, when he slipped, fell and broke his hips. Now this is a bad thing to happen to any one, but the story gets worse before it gets better. When he fell, Pat realized something was broken and did not want to be moved. The crowed gathering around him was insisting to put him in a taxi and send him back to the hotel. With the help of a young Canadian woman he was able to fend them off and put a makeshift brace to help support his hips before they attempted to get some help. Well Bocas del Torro is not exactly a large place and has no roads leading to it. So the next alternative is to transport Pat by boat to the mainland. So here he goes in a dugout canoe lying on top of a piece of plywood, getting splashed by the waves as he heads towards the mainland.

Arriving at the local hospital things did not get any better. Pat is now in excruciating pain. The hospital looks unsanitary and unfit to repair his hips. In Pat's words: "The place was filthy and I would not let them cut me open there. If any one came near me I was in so much pain that I would scream. I was there for five days without bathing, brushing my teeth or even a change of clothing. They fed me a bowl of rice in the morning, and I swear that for dinner I would get whatever I did not eat in the morning. Finally after five days they agreed to transport me to Panama City. They removed six seats from a small plain to fly me in and when I landed in Panama City I was taken immediately to the operating room. I have been in the hospital for the last 4 weeks and got a few pins holding my hip together. I'm not supposed to walk without crutches for the next three months. My first night after the operation I woke up when a phone rang. I though I was inside a ship and they needed me on deck. I got up but could not find my way out. By the time I figured out what was going on, half of the hospital was chasing me down the hallways... You know Jo, the saddest part of this is that I'm not sure if I still have the guts to climb the boarding ladder onto a big ship. When you jump for that ladder it is really a life and death moment in your life."

Needless to say that our friend Pat was not in the greatest of spirits. His buddy James was at the hospital visiting and realized that Pat really needed some R&R. After filling out extensive paper work and promising to return Pat back to the hospital before dark, he was able to bring him down to the club. What a fortunate coincidence to meet them here.

The Balboa Yacht Club overlooks the Pacific exit of the canal and has a beautiful scenery of ships going in and out of the canal. One can spend hours just looking at the ships going by. And so we did.

After a few beers the conversation switches to those couple days in San Blas and how he promised us to go sailing on his boat. His boat has just been bottom painted, and is sitting in a mooring buoy just in front of us ready for sailing. Wheels are spinning, but with crutches it would be too hard for Pat to board his boat. It is late in the afternoon and we quickly realize that Plan A is not going to work. Plan B though seemed to get momentum as the day goes by. The plan is very simple. In a few more days we cross the canal in our own boat. When we arrive we get James to kidnap Pat once again. We pull our boat to the dock, and we go sailing. Now we have a goal: to go sailing with Pat again before leaving Panama!

It is just amazing the mental transformation one can go through in just a matter of hours. Our friend Pat went from being pretty bummed out about life, to this amazing smile that one puts on when enjoying life. Mission accomplished. The sun has already set and it is dark out. James is in trouble, but he knows that Pat is now on his way to recovery. Stacy and I have a two-hour bus ride back to Colon ahead of us. We tried hard, but the bar still has some beer left. Tired but victorious we head home.

Note: Yes, a few week later we crossed the canal and we took Pat sailing. A no wind day unfortunately but a good time was had by all. Next day at the Balboa Yacht Club, I saw Pat again. This time he had abandoned the crutches and was sporting a walking cane.