Serpents in Paradise

31 Jul

Cruising boats in a beautiful Guna Yala anchorage. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Every so often you hear a piece of news that jolts you out of a preconception or two. For me, one such was the attack on a cruising family on the northeastern coast of Panama last May.

A trawler yacht was boarded at night and when the skipper, New Zealander Alan Culverwell, went to investigate, he was shot and killed. His wife, Derryn, was attacked with a machete before she and her two children managed to lock themselves inside the boat.

It was all the more upsetting that the attack took place in Guna Yala, better known to sailors as the San Blas islands, a remote, idyllic part of the world that’s on the bucket list for virtually all bluewater cruisers. The archipelago is known as a low-crime area and aside from isolated instances of petty theft, the news from cruisers who’ve spent time there has been overwhelmingly positive. The indigenous Guna, who make a decent living from tourism, are friendly and welcoming.

The three attackers were swiftly apprehended, probably before they had a chance to sell the dinghy and outboard for which they murdered a man, and it’s highly likely that this was just a tragically atypical crime—in every paradise, there is a serpent. Still, it will not be easily forgotten by the cruising fraternity. For a long time to come, it’ll be hard to relax in those beautiful anchorages.

The sort of cruising risks most of us worry about, or experience from time to time—running aground, lightning strike, dragging anchors, gales and storms—are known quantities that we actively or subliminally prepare for. A stealth attack is generally not one of these. 

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