Piracy: Then and Now

portobelo boats2sm

The public wharf at Portobelo, Panamá with two local boats, Benedicion por Dios (Blessed by God) and Pirates

In an outdoor bar on the historic waterfront of Portobelo, Panamá I watch as a sailor shuffles out of his dinghy and slumps into a seat at a table next to mine. A waiter is quick to bring him a steaming mug of coffee. As the sailor shovels his seventh spoonful of sugar into the cup I ask, “Tough passage?”

“You could say that,” he says, in a thick eastern European accent.

“A few weeks ago I was boarded by 20 guys in three go-fast boats 35 miles offshore between the Nicaraguan coast and the island of Providencia. They ransacked my sailboat, in the middle of the day, taking everything of value—money, computers, electronics. They wanted drugs, which of course I didn’t have. I’m just a guy from Poland sailing my boat in the Caribbean.”

He is Jarek Glistak, a singlehanded sailor aboard the 44-foot sloop Draga (Darling).

After a terrifying hour looting the boat the pirates gave him back a laptop and portable GPS so that he could navigate to land. He reported the incident to Colombian officials upon his arrival in Providencia.

Sailors’ stories are sometimes just that—tall tales. But there is an organization called The Caribbean Safety and Security Net (CSSN) that monitors incidents such as these and their reports confirmed the details of this event happening in the disputed waters off the Honduras/Nicaragua border about six weeks ago. In fact, CSSN reports that there were four other incidents of piracy this year alone in this remote area of the Caribbean.

Jarek has finally made his way to Portobelo as he tries to reorganize his life. He said he is “scarred” from the attack but thankful that he was left with his Darling, and his life.

Portobelo has a rich history of piracy that dates back to the 1500s when this port was the transshipment center for the gold, silver, and precious jewels looted by the Spaniards from the New World.

Sir Francis Drake was considered one of the most ruthless privateers to prey upon the treasure galleons in Portobelo’s harbor. He was slave trader who went on to be a famed circumnavigator and knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. To the Spaniards he was simply a cold-blooded pirate known as “The Dragon.”

He was 55 when he died. The official cause of death was dysentery. Drake was interred in a lead casket that was dumped into the bay at Portobelo. There is speculation that he may have still been breathing when the coffin went overboard.

No trace of the lead coffin has ever been found but it is likely somewhere in the vicinity of where Flying Fish lays at anchor tonight in Bahia de Portobelo.

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