Sailing with Lilly

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Lilly and Dad, 31 years ago, watching the schooners sail back into Key West at sunset

Flying Fish takes flight this week on the 2nd Leg of a three-year circumnavigation. For this passage I will have serious backup. Our daughter Lilly will join me across the Pacific to Tahiti .

This is no ordinary Key West kid on a sailboat. The family legend is that in Mom’s last month of pregnancy her labor was induced by a rough boat ride in a fishing skiff. Lilly soon followed us into the world. She tried a conventional lifestyle by earning a degree in Journalism at the University of Florida. The ocean’s siren was more persuasive. Lilly continued her education at sea and relocated to Maui where she now sails as a captain with USCG 100-Ton Master credentials.

I asked Lilly to note a few of the highlights from her work abroad in just the past 12 months. In her words:

Big Island, HI–Seeing lava dumping into ocean
Havana–Driving around in classic cars with my girlfriends
Bahamas–Swimming with sharks
Virgin islands–Seeing Tortola before the hurricane devastation a few months later
Sardinia and Corsica–Mooring within a fortress at the harbor of Bonifacio
Croatia–Picking and nibbling on raw figs and wild fennel sprouts on the island Komiza
Istanbul–Cruising between two continents
Greece–Sipping rosé at sunset on the sea walls of Hydra
Sicily–Sailing alongside the smoking volcano of Stromboli
Thailand–Swimming alone on a pristine reef near crowded Koh Phi Phi and exploring  the hongs of Phang Nga National Park
Maui–Coming home and hiking a steep mountain trail during the lunar eclipse while listening to whales breathing below

After all that, why Lilly would want to sail with her old man remains a mystery.

Maybe it has something to do with love.

Stay tuned… It’s gonna be a great ride to the South Seas!

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Master & Commander Lilly Cardenas        Photo: © Joanna Rentz

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Soft corals sway in the current at Islas San Jose, Gulf of Panama.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

The aviation acronym CAVU–Ceiling And Visibility Unrestricted has always been an expression that evokes endless possibility. Go as high as Icarus, just don’t let the sun melt the wax in your wings.

I don’t know if there is a maritime equivalent to CAVU for water clarity but when I am underwater here, drifting with the current, I feel in the slipstream of life just as surely as if I were flying. I float past green lobsters, yellow porcupine fish, and pearl oysters as large as the palm of my hand. When I remember the waters of Las Islas Perlas I will always think of them as CAVU.

The Secret Lives of Rocks

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The Super Moon brings extraordinarily low tides to the anchorage at Isla de Fuenche, Gulf of Panama.  Photos: © Jeffrey Cardenas

I have never been much of a rock guy. Rocks don’t give me that warm, fuzzy feeling I receive from softer elements like water when I am on a boat, or clouds when I am in the air. Unexpected rocks cause anxiety for both mariners and pilots. I have always felt that rocks are cold, inanimate, lifeless–they’re rocks.

Then I sailed to these islands in the Gulf of Panama where there are 15-foot tides. Twice each day the receding water exposes an undersea province of stone that speaks an archaic language revealing the origin of these islands millions of years ago.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAorange rock.meOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast night was the Super Moon and it brought extraordinarily low tides to my anchorage at Isla de Fuenche. Many of the exposed rocks are ancient coral reefs that have been pushed to the surface of the ocean by tectonic forces. Geologists call it “marine sedimentary limestone,” but what I see in these rocks is fossilized proof of life. I see an imprint in a boulder where brain coral was once attached. Individual coral polyps are etched into the surface. What is now static was once alive. Millions of life forms lived right here. There were communities. Some colonies thrived while others struggled and then simply died out. The life and death recorded in these ancient coral reefs parallels the life cycle of the human beings who settled on these islands.flying fish platanal.smPanama is a young landmass, relatively speaking. The rise of the isthmus three million years ago was the “last big episode of global change,” according to former Smithsonian Geologist Tony Coates, who has also written that the changing shape of Panama played a significant role in ocean circulation coinciding with the last Ice Age. Three million years ago was the Pleistocene Epoch when glaciers covered huge parts of the earth. One could argue now that the melting of the glaciers are an indication of the next “big episode of global change.”

There are no active volcanoes in Las Islas Perlas as there are in other parts of Central America, but as I look out beyond my anchorage I see volcanic history. The hilltops on some of the islands rise in sharp conical shapes. But, because of these rocks, erosion has not yet worn down the islands. The geological youth of these islands creates a spectacle at low tide. Mounds of basaltic lava have melted into layers of black obsidian separated by volcanic ash creating an unpredictable–and beautiful–patchwork of strata and uplifted angles.


On Isla San Jose, I talked with a local fisherman about a distinctive rock offshore called The Monkey. It is a round boulder weighing tons and it balances improbably atop a rocky base that rises over 100 feet out of the ocean. I struggle with my Spanish when I ask the fisherman for an explanation. I start to say, “How is it possible…” He cuts me off with a wave of his hand. “Como…? Digame.” — “How…,” he says? “You tell me.”


It would be good to be a student of rocks, but even a curious person can’t know everything. The acclaimed American writer Rick Bass (from whom I swiped part of the title to this essay) is a trained geologist who can look at a layer of strata and clearly describe its geological origin. My eyes just see pattern, shape, and color in rock formations that seem beyond possibility.

The secrets of rocks are withheld in antiquity. Three million years ago on this little island as the continents shifted the sky rained fire and molten rock and ash. I cannot imagine the mayhem here as the earth changed. But the rocks remember. And in their own way of communicating they are trying to explain it to us.

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Moving Slowly

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A blossom from the White Shaving Brush tree.  Photos: © Jeffrey Cardenas

I am moving slowly, focused today on the extraordinary detail and variance of nature that make up the land and sea—and people—of Las Perlas.

In every exhibition of natural beauty there is an incongruity that seems to accompany it. Example: The Panamic Cushion starfish is a carnivore with an arsenal of hydraulic tube feet, but its five arms are vulnerable. If one arm is attacked or damaged this sea star has remarkable regenerative powers to re-grow a new one. The White Shaving Brush tree has razor-sharp, inch-long thorns on its trunk and branches but it blossoms into a flower of fragrant and delicate white stamens. The flower bursts open with a popping sound at night but by noon the next day the flower is finished and it drops gently to the sand. Three million years ago colliding tectonic plates pushed up these islands and an ancient reef rose to the surface creating a land bridge between the Americas. The rocks of Las Perlas exhibit both an historic record of this cataclysmic event and a lasting vision of natural art.

This is a reality check of new sights, scents, and sounds. It reminds me that everything is changing and nothing is as simple as it seems.

Flying Fish is anchored near the remote Isla Espiritu Santo. This is a beautiful but foreboding coastline. A 15-foot tide hides jagged rock outcroppings that rise without warning out of great depths to the surface of the Pacific. Many of these rocks are uncharted. And, in areas near the big island of Isla Del Rey where streams drain into the ocean, the water is turbid. Visual navigation is essential here. I move slowly.

Also unsettling along this coastline are the geographic names given to the islands. Entire civilizations of indigenous people were wiped out here by Spanish conquistadors. The charts read Punta Matadero (Slaughterhouse Point), Punta Mala, and Isla Entierra Muerto (Island of the Buried Dead).

Author and cartographer Eric Bauhaus made a brief entry in a guidebook noting the remains of a whaling station lost in the jungle near Isla Espiritu Santo. The station was set up long after the Indians were gone and now it, too, has disappeared under the dense forest and wild tangled mass of vegetation on Isla Del Rey.

I take the dinghy ashore. Fragments of pre-Columbian pottery have been found on this beach. Steam rises from the wall of vegetation that borders the sandy beach. The jungle is impenetrable without a machete. There are plenty of tools aboard Flying Fish but who would have thought to bring a machete? A local mariner, that’s who. Every fisherman aboard the passing cayucos (dugout canoes) carries a machete.

By a small fresh water stream I see a familiar leaf in the wall of vegetation. There is an ancient mango tree growing here. I push my way forward through the tangle and when I reach the tree I see that all undergrowth below the mango tree has been cleared. Excitedly, I see a brick, and then a hand-hewn piece of wood. When I look closer, however, the brick is only a rock, and the wood is not timber–it is simply driftwood etched by the sea and pushed up into the jungle by a storm. I find no remains of a whaling station, or the indigenous people who once lived here. Just as well. I don’t need to see any bones on Isla Entierra Muerto.

Nearby, in the isolated fishing village of Cañas on Isla Del Rey all eyes stare at Flying Fish as I sail into the bay. Men lying in hammocks under the palms trees watch me silently and without welcome as I wade ashore. They offer no response to my greeting in Spanish. I can only imagine their thoughts. “What now? What does this odd looking stranger want with us?”

Then, around the corner of a house a little girl breaks the tension and hands me a stalk of bananas. Another little girl shyly offers me a basket of sour oranges. I realize the most beautiful detail in nature can be the simplicity of a child’s innocent smile.

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Las Perlas


Isla Bartolome in the Las Perlas Archipelago on the Pacific Coast of Panama is truly a rare gem.  Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Today I entered the Pacific Ocean, and for Flying Fish it is exciting new water.

Just 30 miles from the coastline everything has changed. The sea is clear and full of life. There are whales and tuna. More than 200 islands make up the 90 square miles of Las Perlas. The islands are built upon a living reef that is rich with tropical fish. I snorkeled today amid a school of several hundred snapper that were completely unconcerned by my presence. Along the shoreline, hardwood jungles come down to sugar sand beaches. Thousands of orchids cover the trees in this maritime habitat. There is a stunning tree in bloom now called guayacan that is a solid mass of electric pink flowers. Shells cover the beaches. The islands are named for a history of pearls that were once found here in abundance.

Of course, in this part of the world there is always a dark history that seems to cast a shadow on paradise. Spanish conquistadors Gaspar de Morales and Francisco Pizarro invaded these islands which were ruled then by King Toe (yes, King Toe). The pearl beds were looted and the indigenous people were extinct by 1518. One notable pearl survived, La Peregrina, the largest pearl ever discovered. An African slave found this perfectly symmetrical 56-carat teardrop pearl on the island of Santa Margarita and La Peregrina made its way through the various treasuries of European Royalty before ultimately ending up in the jewelry box of Elizabeth Taylor, a gift from her husband Richard Burton. (Historical note: Elizabeth Taylor once lost La Peregrina. After some anguished searching she looked down at her puppy who was happily chewing on the world most famous pearl.)

The modern history of Las Perlas is as bizarre as its past.

In 1979, The Shah of Iran went into exile on the island of Contradora in Las Perlas. Panamanian Dictator General Omar Torrijos had taken in Shah Mohammad Reza under heavy American pressure because the U.S. didn’t want him in New York. Panamanians rioted. Torrijos made no secret of his dislike of the Shah, calling him a chupon, a Spanish term meaning an orange that has had all the juice squeezed out of it. Torrijos taunted the Shah of Iran by telling him “It must be hard to fall off the Peacock Throne and into Contadora.”

Later, the Las Perlas slipped onto obscurity until the islands were discovered as a reality TV destination. More than a dozen shows were produced here including the American television show Survivor which filmed three episodes in Las Perlas. Most notable, however, was a Dutch reality TV show called Adam Seeks Eve. It was promoted as a “unique love experiment.” In the production of Adam Seeks Eve everybody is naked, of course, but the twist comes midway in each episode when a “second candidate” (also naked) is introduced to compete for the affection of main character. Deserted island drama ensues.

Flying Fish is anchored in the lee of Contradora today. The Shah of Iran gone, he died in 1980. There are a few naked people on the beach in front of me, just regular French nudists, fortunately no TV cameras. I may just stay right here until I get voted off the island.

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The Panama Canal

Panama Canal

A Panamax cargo ship containing 5,000 automobiles is maneuvered to within several feet of Flying Fish in the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

So much has been written about the Panama Canal and yet nothing can prepare a sailor for what he sees and he feels when making a first transit in his own vessel.

The Canal is an engineering endeavor that has been compared to the construction of the pyramids. It has been named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Author David McCullough called it, “one of the supreme human achievements of all time.”

It has also been called the “greatest liberty ever taken with nature.” The loss of biomass when this 48-mile swath was cut between two oceans is incalculable. Mountains were moved, the land bridge between the north and south American continents was severed, and more than 150 square miles of pristine jungle was submerged under a new man-made lake.

Finally, there is the loss of human life. Some 27,000 men and women died to make this canal. They died of malaria, and yellow fever, and the bubonic plague. Workers died in dynamite blasts, crushed under tons of rock by landslides, and poisoned by the venomous bites from the spiders and snakes that they were displacing.

I don’t pass lightly as I transit the Panama Canal in Flying Fish.

To put some of this in perspective here is an abbreviated historic timeline: The earliest mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama dates back to 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would ease the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru.

In 1788, U.S. interest was first expressed when Thomas Jefferson encouraged a canal as a less treacherous route than going around the southern tip of South America.

Beginning in 1826, U.S. officials began negotiations with New Grenada (present-day Colombia), hoping to gain a concession for the building of a canal. Fearing (correctly) that his country would be dominated by an American presence, president Simon Bolivar declined American offers.

In 1877, Lucien Napoléon Bonaparte Wyse surveyed the route for France and negotiations were completed with Colombia to build the Canal. The French, however, were unprepared for the rainy season during which the Chagres River became a raging torrent rising up to 35 feet over its banks. Black clouds of mosquitos emerged from the standing water and thousands of Canal workers died of yellow fever and malaria. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889, after spending $287 million, losing an estimated 22,000 lives to disease and accidents, and wiping out the savings of 800,000 investors.

Seeing an opportunity, the United States stepped into the void in 1903, and encouraged a coup d’état on the isthmus. U.S. warships blocked sea lanes preventing Colombian troops sent to put down the rebellion. The new country of Panama declared independence on November 3, 1903. President Theodore Roosevelt famously stated, “I took the Isthmus.” The New York Times called it an “act of sordid conquest.” The New York Evening Post said it was a “vulgar and mercenary venture.” It is often cited as the classic example of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Latin America.

The construction of the Canal was completed in 1914, some 401 years after Panama was first crossed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The United States spent almost $375 million to finish the project. It was by far the largest American engineering project to date. The Panama Canal joined the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, changing international trade forever. The 48 mile-long pathway through the Isthmus of Panama created a significant shortcut enabling ships to avoid the lengthy and hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Straits of Magellan.

After World War II, U.S. control of the canal and the Canal Zone surrounding it became contentious. Relations between Panama and the United States were increasingly tense. Many Panamanians felt that the Canal Zone belonged to Panama.

In 1974, negotiations toward a settlement began. On September 7, 1977, the treaty was signed by United States President Jimmy Carter and Panama’s de facto leader Omar Torrijos. After a period of joint American–Panamanian control the Canal was taken over in 1999 by the Panamanian government and is now managed and operated by the Panama Canal Authority.

Since the Torrijos-Carter treaty in 1977, the Canal has been officially and permanently neutral, providing service to ships of all nations. This means that if any nation were to attempt to seize the Canal, every other nation in the world would, presumably, defend it. Panama has no military, nor do they need one, to protect the Canal.

It was estimated in 1934 that the maximum capacity of the Canal would be around 80 million tons of shipping per year. Canal traffic in 2015 reached 340.8 million tons. An expanded Canal began commercial operation on June 26, 2016. New locks now allow transit of larger, Post-Panamax ships, capable of handling more cargo. The expansion has cost nearly $6 billion. All vessels crossing the Canal must pay a toll based on their weight and length. The largest ships now pay well over $1 million to transit. In 1928, American adventurer Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Panama Canal. His rate to transit was 36 cents.

This is the paradox of the Panama Canal. Modern engineering wonder. Environmental holocaust. Graveyard for tens of thousands of people. And yet, superlatives alone cannot accurately describe the feeling of transiting the Canal. To be upon these waters in Flying Fish was simply humbling.


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Río Chagres, Panama


The Río Chagres is the only river on earth that flows into two oceans–the Atlantic and the Pacific

At the mouth of the Río Chagres on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama all that remains of what was once a thriving indigenous community and critical point of defense are the crumbling walls of the fortress of San Lorenzo. Rainforest has overgrown the coral rock fortifications. The edges of the jungle echo with riotous flocks of green parrots and the unearthly guttural roar of howler monkeys.

Flying Fish is staged at the entrance to the Panama Canal, waiting for transit. We are not alone. Dozens of ships are queued offshore including massive Post-Panamax container ships, some of which are longer than 1,200 feet. The Canal operates 24/7, every day of the year. The Canal pilots and advisors, however, do not. Many have cancelled their transit assignments over the holidays. One Canal agent today said that it has caused “chaos” at the Canal Authority.

Chaos is not a good way to start a new year. Which is why I chose to spend my downtime in the Río Chagres rainforest.

The Río Chagres is one of the most important rivers in the world and yet it remains relatively unknown despite its history and current global significance. Some 80% of the water that is needed to operate the Panama Canal originates from the Río Chagres watershed. Each boat that crosses the locks needs about 52 million nonrecoverable gallons of fresh water and the Chagres provides it.

Despite its industrial use to the Canal, this watershed is rich in biodiversity. The Río Chagres National Park includes 320,000 acres. In a 1996 Audubon Society annual census there were 525 species of birds recorded here on just one day. There are said to be more species of plants here than in all of Europe. Jaguars, anteaters, coati, and troops of monkeys inhabit this dense, dark, and wet environment.

The river and its habitat have borne witness to an extraordinary history of human greed, agony, and ingenuity. The Río Chagres valley contained rich veins of gold until it was removed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513. When the Chagres gold was gone the Spaniards turned their attention to Peru and shipped that treasure back to the Old World along a trade route that included the Chagres. More gold fever came centuries later when a nugget was discovered in California and thousands of miners transited the Chagres as they crossed the isthmus to the Pacific.

Today water from the Río Chagres carries the bulk of the world’s trade goods–another form of gold–across the 50 miles between two great oceans.

Tomorrow the Río Chagres may carry Flying Fish from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

For this moment I am content to sit in the solitude of this jungle and listen to the song of a toucan.

Weird Stuff About the Ocean


Whale Eye / Credit: Roxanna Bikadoroff

Weird Stuff About the Ocean will be a random post, on the rare occasion that I have a wifi signal and there is nothing to repair aboard Flying Fish.

Today’s post even has a connection to the Holidays. From Nell Greenfieldboyce at NPR comes the story of a giant blue whale eyeball being gifted to the Animal Eyeball Lab at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

The eye, floating in a jar of preservative for 30 years, was part of a private collection that needed a new home. The Animal Eyeball Lab had some 50,000 specimens in their collection but nothing like this.

A beleaguered Postal Service carrier this week delivered a soggy white box wrapped in duct tape to the University. When the staff opened the package at the lab and beheld the dripping gray mass one scientist said, “It’s the best Christmas ever!”

NPR’s report is embedded here:

Piracy: Then and Now

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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.

A Wild Ride

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A sailing passage can be like a small-scale version of life. There is joy and hardship, wonder and despair. It was only eight days from Key West to Panamá aboard Flying Fish, but it seemed like forever–and that is a good thing. How many more times will two brothers sail together with a father who introduced them to this world?

Each of us knew that this passage south would be a test. None of us realized how close this test came to be the final exam. There was a sweeping low pressure system that dropped deeper into the Caribbean than was forecast and it brought with it gale force winds and huge disoriented seas. We could not outrun this storm. Torrential rain and breaking waves shut down our temperamental navigation system. An electrical fault in the ship’s generator filled the cabin of Flying Fish with smoke from burning wires. Our landfall at Bocas del Toro, Panamá, at 1AM in a shrieking squall with zero visibility through an unmarked channel, was nothing but by the grace of God.

Selective memory usually means bad things that happen are forgotten and good things are retained. On this passage we took such a beating that those moments of wonder and joy are returning more slowly. The takeaway is (after two days of solid sleep), that despite this first passage nearly terminating in a catastrophic end, I have never felt more alive.

I remember a short period of time off the northwestern coast of Cuba when the winds moderated at sunset and we were able to tune in the radio to a baseball game between the Havana Industriales and the Vegueros of Pinar del Río. Our stomachs even tolerated a Cuban Cerveza Cristal and some salted peanuts in the shell.  In the Yucatán Channel, the fishing rod bent double and brother Bob pulled in a bull dolphin (mahi) which he then cooked into one of the best meals of the passage. And on one evening watch off Nicaragua’s Miskito Coast, during the intense black of night that precedes a moonrise, we sailed through a massive school of our namesake flying fish. Illuminated by the green glow of the starboard running light and their own bioluminescence, the flying fish exploded away from the hull of the boat like a fuselage of fireworks. Watching this with Dad at my side I asked, “Is this a dream?” The question was immediately answered with a thud to the back of my head. A flying fish had miscalculated its airspace.

These are the memories we keep. To be able to share them with family is an extraordinary privilege. I am stronger today because of these eight days together on Flying Fish. In life, and on this sailing passage to Panamá, my brother and my father have always had my back.