The year was 1978, I was sixteen years old. I was a high school senior in Caracas, Venezuela. I was about to graduate in July. My father knew I wanted to study marine biology and one of his friends had been on a cruise aboard a sailboat. This friend told my father about the cruise and suggested I might be interested. My father figured that it was a good idea. I could find out if I liked marine biology before I started college. I was two years younger than most of my other classmates, I could afford to take a year off while I explored the possibilities.
The Regina Maris was in Panama getting ready for a cruise to the Galapagos Islands. The cruise was starting soon. I had very little time to prepare. I remember my father helping me pack. He suggested that I would not need a lot of warm clothes since I was going to be in the tropics near the equator (boy was he wrong!). The very day after my graduation from high school I took a flight to Panama.
Thinking back about my trip I am surprised how unprepared I was. To begin with, I was not sure where Regina was. I had some rough directions. I knew she was in Balboa and that she had some connections to the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute. When I landed in Panama, I took a half hour taxi ride to STRI. Once there, they told me that Regina had gone somewhere else, I forget the specific place. I got directions and got back into the same taxi. This time I got lucky and Regina was right where she was supposed to be. She was at anchor and there was no boat at the dock to take me aboard. I asked around and nobody knew how to contact anyone aboard Regina. I took my bag and sat at the end of the dock. I waved my hands to try to attract attention but everyone was too busy to look my way. I gave up and sat down on the dock. Sometime later someone got into the Zodiac and came towards the dock. They had no idea I was coming, someone needed to go ashore and I got lucky. I finally made it aboard. I was shown below to my bunk. Being the last one aboard there was only one bunk left, the one right next to the galley.
The crew from the Regina was used to groceries from the US so they had brought the crates aboard without a second thought. Unfortunately there were some hidden passengers hitching a ride within the crates. The boat had been infested by roaches on their arrival to Panama. These passengers liked to hang out by the galley where the food was. The top bunk next to the galley was their favorite through way. I didn’t know this yet, I would find out later that night as I lay on my back. Instead of counting sheep, I counted the small roaches as they made their way back and forth along the top of my bunk. I suppose I should have protested but I was a shy boy at sixteen and in a very new environment. Frankly I didn’t know whether I could complain. Besides the roaches seemed to stay on their side of the bunk, at least while I was awake.
I had made it aboard somehow. I was the youngest student aboard. I was the only non-native English speaker and I had no idea what I was in for. The adventure had just begun.
To be continued…