PERSONAL ESSAY

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

"Our safe departure for the canal depends on each of you," the captain told our group of high schoolers in 1972

By Elizabeth W. Garber

Published October 16, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

Elizabeth Garber on deck of the Sea Cloud. (Photo provided by Elizabeth Garber)
Elizabeth Garber on deck of the Sea Cloud. (Photo provided by Elizabeth Garber)

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 masts. I'd been such a chicken-shit nerdy girl when I came aboard. The first time I climbed the rigging to the second platform, a hundred feet above deck, I'd grabbed on the metal stays and frozen up there, whimpering that I couldn't get down. But over the months I'd grown brave and strong. As we'd sailed here, I'd been up there, out on the yardarm hauling up a sail. It was the coolest thing imaginable to sail this ship, to stand at the wheel and steer our course, to watch the stars as I fell asleep on deck every night. We had to keep sailing.

A few soldiers came up on deck with a prescription bottle and asked whose locker was number 34. Rick, a shy and really good kid, stepped forward, gulping. "The pills are antibiotics the ship's doctor prescribed for a bad cold."

"We'll see," the officer said, pocketing the pills. 

I glanced at the officers, owners, and lawyers as they talked with the captain and Stephanie, moving papers in and out of briefcases, while we wondered what was going on. We learned later that the owners had demanded and taken the ship's papers from the captain. 

But then a strange thing happened. The drug search ended abruptly. The soldiers returned, shrugging their shoulders. They started to smile at us, and suddenly it all felt like a joke the Panamanian soldiers had just played on the American owners, who had really seemed to want to kick the student crew off the ship. By the time the angry owners and lawyers moved down the gangway, the Panamanian officials were laughing with the captain and offering cigarettes to our crew. As they gunned the engine of the launch, the soldiers waved the peace sign to us long-haired kids as we gathered along the railing, staring down at them. The other two boats followed the launch, machine guns no longer pointing our way.

Our scuba teacher Karl was retired Air Force, and he nodded toward the military boats. "PT boats from World War II."

"They were guarding us with World War II boats?" one kid joked. "Oh, gee, I'm scared."

Karl flashed him a look. "Those boats are no joke."

We looked at each other and at our captain and Stephanie.

"Did we pass the drug search?"


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"Were they really looking as hard as they could've?"

A shiver of relief spread through the students, a strange elation. We were going to be OK. Then we started laughing, goofing around — even the more serious students like me, all of us releasing our pent-up fear. There was a strange sense of disorientation. What do we do now? Someone yelled out, 'We've got to check out our quarters!"

We girls ran to the stern, dashed down the ladder into our quarters. It wasn't terrible. Clothes and sleeping bags were scattered on the floor. The weirdest thing was that all the tubes of toothpaste were squeezed out.

One girl repeated what Stephanie had said to the captain, '"Thank god they didn't plant drugs on the ship and get us for that.'" This brought a new wave of fear through my body. What could have happened now scared me more than what actually happened. We'd dodged a bullet I hadn't even considered.

A kid shouted down into our quarters. "Stephanie says we're going to have a party!" All our faces lit up. By the time we raced up on deck, the crew had lowered our small launch. 

Stephanie, still in her red dress, gathered a team of kids. "Who speaks Spanish?" Kim rushed down the gangway, crowding in next to Stephanie to go to town. 

I joined students and teachers to haul folding tables to the fantail, spread out white tablecloths, cake plates, and silverware. The shore team was back faster than we expected, waving like returning heroes. We set up a chain of students to haul coolers filled with boxes of ice cream, soft drinks, and ice up the gangway. At the fantail, we opened the lid of a box that held an enormous cake decorated with flowers and butterflies. 

 

From all over the ship — the bridge, engine room, kitchen, and all quarters — everyone came. Over 75 people crowded around the curving stern of the ship: the captain, the oiler man, students and teachers and crew, the radio officer in his sarong, the new doctor and his wife, all stood around the jigger mast in the golden late afternoon while massive cargo ships moved by in their steady march toward and away from the canal.

I cut the cake into enough pieces to feed everyone. Kim liberated boxes of melting ice cream from the coolers and passed them out along with handfuls of spoons. Kim scooped out a big bite of strawberry ice cream and offered the spoonful to one of the younger boys. "This is what I do with my little sisters at home," she explained.

All around the deck, people scooped a spoonful and fed the bite to someone else. It became a game everyone played. I grabbed a box of ice cream and spoons and went up to kids I didn't know, an officer I'd never talked to, an engineer in a blue jumpsuit, and fed them bites of ice cream. I'd never laughed so hard. Had I ever looked this many people directly in the face before?

I went up to the captain, and he accepted my spoon of ice cream. I remembered him standing on deck surrounded by soldiers. I started to tear up. "Thank you, Captain." 

He looked at me kindly, and patted my back. "We're safe now."

I stepped back to watch the crowd. Stephanie, still fresh and unwrinkled in her red dress, black hair smooth, sunglasses pushed up on her head, chatted in the midst of all of us, the weight of the day lifting. She could finally enjoy this crazy school she'd created.

It dawned on me that we were all sober. No one was zoned out. We were high on feeding each other. Over the months of working together, we hadn't had a moment of unified connection like this. Finally, after all the long meetings about community spirit, feeding each other became a kind of communion, a salve to our spirits. We were sure this was the beginning of everything. The canal and the Pacific were ahead of us. We had no idea that it was the last happy time we'd have on the ship.

Two days later, when Stephanie went ashore to demand answers at the American Embassy, she was arrested and put in jail in Colon. Two Panamanian Navy PT boats pulled up alongside our ship, uncovered their machine guns, and made sure we didn't try to escape.


Elizabeth W. Garber

Elizabeth Garber is the author of "Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter." This is an episode from her memoir-in-progress, "Sailing at the Edge of Disaster: A Memoir of a Young Woman’s Daring Year," about her perilous year at sea on a square rigger that ended with being held hostage in Panama in 1972. You can follow Elizabeth on Instagram @elizabethgarberwriter.

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