Drug search in the Panama Canal: How my high school adventure at sea almost ended

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Sweat slid down my neck in the tropical sun as I stood at attention with 50 other students on the foredeck of our square-rigged sailing ship, en route to study biology in the Galapagos Islands. All we wanted to do was pass through the Panama Canal. When we heard the boats approach, kids near the railing peered down and shouted up to us: “Machine guns and a shitload of armed soldiers!” Our captain, in full uniform, waved them back and gestured to us to be silent.

My belly clenched as I heard the rumbling engines idle on both sides of our ship. Officials streamed up the gangway: a pack of dark-suited lawyers and the ship’s secretive owners, 15 uniformed Panamanian soldiers with rifles, a military commander. But no dogs. Thank god. So this was a drug search at sea. I tried to take a full breath but couldn’t. I glanced at my best friend Kim. As usual, I was scared and she glowered furiously, her dirty blond curls held down with a red bandana. 

The Oceanics School offered a journey of a lifetime that spring of 1972 on the Sea Cloud, a historic windjammer designed by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and hailed as the greatest sailing yacht ever built. We were an international group of high school students, ranging in age from 14 to 19 — 45 boys and six girls. Some had been kicked out of the best prep academies while others struggled at their local high schools; sons of famous TV and theater actresses mixed with wealthy corporate kids, naïve Midwestern kids, stoners, rural Native Americans and suburbanites. Our 10 teachers were young, mostly in their 20s. At 18, I was the school librarian.

Stephanie, our fast-talking, constantly fundraising, charismatic school director was nearly as clueless about ships as we were when we started. None of us knew she was only 25. But no matter how hot and dirty the rest of us were, she was always fresh and styled in her collection of matching dresses and flats, cool sunglasses, her long black hair brushed and glossy and pulled back. I adored her.

The ship, with all its glorious history, turned out to be in disastrous shape when our motley group of kids boarded in October of 1971. Rotten rigging, no engines working, barnacles on the bottom a foot thick. The list of what was wrong was endless and it seemed we’d never sail. But after five months, both the ship and its crew of kids were transformed. Twenty-two canvas sails were lashed into place on the yardarms above us. The masts were rigged with miles of lines we’d replaced. The hull of the ship glowed white from dry dock. The wooden decks were scrubbed clean, the mahogany cabins and trim freshly varnished. Our fucking hard work. After the ship got out of dry dock in Veracruz, finally ready to sail, we heard the owners of the ship bragged they were going to do whatever it took to kick us off the ship. After all the work we’d done? This drug search looked like a pretty nasty way to do it.

We’d sailed into the harbor that night before, anchored near the city of Cristobal, where we would be cleared for proceeding through the canal. After dinner our Swedish captain called an evening muster and we stood in formation. The ship’s whistle had to be blown several times before everyone settled down. Stephanie looked somber as she stood next to the captain, who spoke to us sternly.

“We have been informed by the Panamanian government that our ship will be searched tomorrow. This is most likely a drug search.”

He paused when some students giggled. “I must impress upon you this is very serious. There must be nothing found.”

Scanning our faces, he chose his next words carefully.

“If anyone knows of any drugs that are on board, it is essential that they are disposed of tonight,” the captain said. “Tomorrow, dress in your cleanest work clothes and stand at attention at 0745 to receive our guests.”

I could see how sad and worried he was. I glared at the kids who were smirking.

“Our safe departure for the canal depends on each of you,” he said. “If you can’t take this seriously, you must know that if they find any drugs, they could remove my captain’s license. They could impound the ship. They could put you in jail. Our ship and the school’s fate is in your hands.” 

He turned abruptly and walked off to his cabin.

My legs felt wobbly. I felt stunned, my throat dry. But some kids clustered around Stephanie, like it was all a big joke.

 “So hey, Steph, is this for real?”

“He sure was uptight!”

Stephanie’s face pinched with worry, her voice tremulous.

“Please throw anything you have overboard,” she begged the students. “We could lose the ship.”


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“We better see if there’s any drugs on board,” kids joked, their voices dripping with sarcasm. Soon, pot smoke drifted up from the boys’ bunkroom.

I wasn’t laughing. I was shocked and hurt by their cavalier attitude. Months ago we’d been told about the dangers of sailing with drugs aboard. I was always so naïve, so stupid. I didn’t know kids were still getting stoned.

It was a strange night on board. The deck lights stayed off, as if we were hiding on this ship that was longer than a football field. Kim and I paced down the deck to the stern and then back toward the bow. We couldn’t settle, not knowing what would come in the morning. We leaned on the rail to watch the city lights across the water. A shadowy parade of container ships headed for the canal, while other ships emerged in a steady stream from the canal heading out to the gulf. 

We cast frustrated glances at the stoned kids. Our safety depended on their following orders. Could we trust them to take this seriously? Would they get rid of their stash or try to hide it? A heavy miserable pall came over us. Our journey was at risk — and not from a storm, but from what felt like a betrayal by some of our own students.

Finally, I told Kim we needed to get some sleep, and we went below to our cabin to grab our sleeping bags and pillows for sleeping on deck as we had all year. All over the decks and below, kids were settling down for the night. We all had our regular spots. But lying there, looking up into the masts and rigging above us, I didn’t feel cozy and at home as I had for months. Moored in this active harbor, I felt exposed. 

The bosun’s whistle came early, jolting us into fear. Without saying a word, everyone rushed to pick up their bedding and store it on their bunks. Kim and I got dressed and made our gear look shipshape. In the crew mess, we shoveled down a quick breakfast of stale cold cereal and lumpy dried milk. Food was running low. Stephanie had promised we’ll take on fresh food and milk and water soon.

We stood at attention as well as 50 teenagers could, in jeans and blue shirts with our long hair held back in ponytails. We watched the officials play out a kind of theater, as our captain in his white uniform and Stephanie in her red dress greeted the men who boarded the ship. We scanned their faces as conversations grew more heated. What we students didn’t know then is that the Panamanian officials informed the Captain the drug search would include what they called “the cavities” of the women students and teachers on his ship. Our 60-year-old captain, a father of five girls, with Stephanie at his side, furiously refused to comply. We had no idea he was fighting for our safety. The ship’s owners and their lawyers, on the other hand, stood by making no protest. The Panamanians conferred, gestured with their arms, and eventually dropped that plan.

“Students and teachers, you are to remain on board in my sight,” the captain ordered, and the soldiers descended into the ship.

Boots stomped down the metal ladders into the crew quarters. Kim and I grasped each other’s hands, moving our heads like antennae to search for sounds from belowdecks. Were they ransacking our things? Where were they? I imagined them in the galley, mess halls, companionways, sail locker, engine room. We heard metal doors slam, the vibration of muffled steps through the ship. Then a mate led a group of soldiers toward the stern to the girls’ quarters.

We girls clustered, silent and waiting. I swallowed; my mouth parched. Sweat streaking down our faces in the sweltering heat, we met each other’s eyes, caught fingers, and leaned shoulder to shoulder. I leaned back and looked up at the rope ladders of ratlines climbing the…

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