The Crazy Frenchman of Portobelo

March 8th, 2007 by: cheyenne

anchorage at portobelo panama

“You see that boat with the sails up? Don’t anchor near him; he’s crazy!” This was shouted at us from a small power yacht as we tacked up into the diminutive Portobelo bay, weaving in and out among the anchored boats while we selected a good place to settle.

We had noticed the boat with the sails up; it stood out with both the main and mizzen fully hoisted and we had already discussed ourselves dry of all possible explanations as to why this might be since he was clearly at anchor. We weren’t actually in any danger of anchoring near him anyway since we had chosen the quieter, northern side of the bay near the ruined fort but I guess the excitement spawned by recent events had everyone in the bay anxious and excitable. We wrote off Mr. Warning Man as just another cruiser zealot stricken with that annoying habit of needing to disperse advice to whoever is within earshot.

crazy french dudes boat. Amel 53. Portobelo, Panama

There were around 40 boats anchored in the Portobelo bay, which is to say, big city time after the deserted bend of the Rio Chagres we enjoyed the past few days. Smack in the middle of the bay was a 150-foot private power yacht, “Triton,” complete with fleet of matching white kayaks, a pair of lime-green jet skis, a red helicopter seated on a small landing pad aft of the bridge, and a handful of pert uniformed crew. After we ate dinner, we sat in the cockpit finishing a bottle of wine and enjoying the quiet night and full moon.

Around 7:30pm or so, someone’s voice came on the VHF cruiser hailing channel, “Attention the fleet, attention the fleet: The Frenchman is on the move!” Well, this was certainly an odd announcement. Frenchman? It didn’t take long for a chorus of clarification to ring out over the VHF, echoed around the bay from as the boats turned their radio volumes way up so they could go out on deck to watch. “Attention the fleet! Attention the fleet!” (A phrase that always amuses me although I have to admit, with 40 boats in one anchorage, ‘fleet’ is somewhat apt.) “The crazy man with the sails up has weighed anchor and is sailing through the anchorage!” (Now we figure out what’s going on—this is the guy the power boat was warning us about.) “Everyone, I suggest standing watch to see what he does because he already set two boats on fire.” (He what?!) Panache, one of the boats evidently set on fire seizes this opportunity to pipe up, “Yes, he is, um, mentally unstable and set my boat on fire yesterday.” (Whoa.) “Twice!”

By now we are passing the binoculars around and have the hand-held VHF turned on as well so we can eavesdrop on conversations taken off-channel. We can see that the boat with the sails up is moving through the anchorage at a speed of maybe one knot, sometimes less than that—there is very little wind this evening. Behind his sailboat by about two boat-lengths trail a couple of dinghies from very long painters. There is a blizzard of VHF static and chatter and as we scan the anchorage, everyone on a boat is standing out on deck watching the Frenchman with their binoculars. It’s all very exciting.

The Frenchman emerges from the southern cluster of boats and points his sailboat slowly for the north side, towards Triton. A clear voice rings out from the hand-held, “Large Power Yacht Anchored in Portobelo, Large Power Yacht Anchored in Portobelo, please be advised that there is a mentally unstable man headed in your direction!” A flurry of clarification follows: “I think they are called Triton.” “I think they monitor 16.” Then an audible click as every single boat in the anchorage changes their VHF channel to 16 to eavesdrop. Triton is successfully hailed. “Thank you very much Captain, we are on top of the situation,” comes the crisp reply. It now looks like the Frenchman is going to ram the big yacht. At a full 1 knot of speed. We can hear him shouting obscenities in French and sometimes English: “Ahss-hull!” We can see uniformed crewmembers running up and down stairs on Triton.

A minute or so later, he actually does ram the yacht. We hear intensified shouting and two flare-gun or small pistol shots. We see the boat pushed off the yacht and it slowly moves away from Triton as the yelling continues. There is more VHF activity and Panache is back on to commiserate, “Power Yacht Triton, Power Yacht Triton, this is the Good Sailing Ship Panache!” the tight British accent with a palpable note of hurt and indignation continues, “I’ll have you know I too was attacked by this vessel; that man aboard is totally out of his head—I mean to say he is unstable and can act unpredictably. He set my own vessel afire with gasoline not two days ago. I suggest keeping someone on watch at all times with him around!” Again the cool voice, “Thank you Captain, we’ve, uh, come to the same conclusion and I believe we have the situation under control.” Panache continues, “Well, I thank you for the words of encouragement and keep me posted as to that boat’s whereabouts, will you.” (As if Panache of all people wasn’t out on deck with the rest of us planted behind a pair of binoculars.)

Five minutes later, Triton pulled anchor and steamed out of the harbor and out of sight. The Frenchman weaved unsteadily off and finally ran aground on the south side of the harbor, where he stayed for the next half hour. “I believe the Crazy Man is aground!” “Good riddance!” Then people felt the need to fill in with gory details. “Is that black guy still on the boat with him?” (We found it very weird and somewhat disturbing that the Frenchman’s local friend is always referred to as “that black guy,” as nearly everyone here is black except for the gringo tourists.) “Well, they may have had a falling out after the black guy pushed him overboard.” (What the hell?! This was just getting weirder.)

At last, the Frenchman towed himself off the rocks with his own dinghy, pulled the sailboat back to where he started, and dropped his anchor. The VHF fell quiet with only a few peeps now and again from those unable to get their word in earlier: “Someone should cut his dinghy loose and then maybe he would be less of a problem.” “We ought to set HIM alight!” “No, what he needs, is someone with a gun to just take him out. It’s the only answer as far as I’m concerned.” I’m actually a little surprised at the viciousness of the radio chatter, but I guess I’m new to these parts.

The next morning we woke at dawn to find a solitary dinghy floating free in the bay; someone from one of the other boats went over to retrieve it and discovered it did in fact belong to the Frenchman. Not wanting to attract unwanted attention but unwilling to let a dinghy just drift off to sea, he tied it to a nearby wreck and split. Later that day, “the black guy” fetched the dinghy and brought it back. The Frenchman’s boat is now silent and I never see anyone out on deck ever, I just notice that sometimes the dinghy is gone or that it is back, or that his mainsail has come down—although never the mizzen. The boat hasn’t moved since.

crazy french dudes boat. Amel 53. Portobelo, Panama

The Crazy Frenchman of Portobelo. Note that he is actually out on deck this time—a first—putting his mainsail back up. In addition to his national and Panamanian courtesy flags, he is also flying the flags for ‘Q’ (or the Quarantine flag), ‘N,’ and ‘C,’ which is probably code for “En garde! For tonight I strike!” At any rate, we’ll keep our radios on.


totally burned boat. Portobelo, Panama

And strike he did. Around 4am this morning when the roosters and birds were just starting to make noise, I woke up to a radio blip thinking I heard the word ‘fire,’ so we popped out of the cabin to check things out. Across the anchorage, the nearest boat to the Frenchman was in flames. Major flames. A police car sat on shore with the lights flashing but as far as we could see, no other action was being taken. The Frenchman’s boat loomed nearby in the darkness, main and mizzen fluttering but otherwise silent. The victim was an uninhabited boat and so a nearby boater dinghied over with a bucket to put the flames out. Once the fire was out, the police left and no action was taken, as no action against the Frenchman has ever been taken thus far. Panama’s jurisdiction happily ends at the shoreline where crazy Frenchmen are concerned and the French embassy has also expressed little interest in rectifying the matter. As with Panache and Triton, there was no provocation whatsoever for the attacks and unfortunately, this boat is a total loss with the entire cabin inside burned and the decks spongy.

FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS It turns out that the boat was owned by an Italian expat (the rumor mill turns…) and the severity of the attack finally forced a little action. The Navy came and removed the Frenchman (yelling and screaming) from his boat just about an hour ago.

19 Comments on “The Crazy Frenchman of Portobelo”

  1. RisingSlowly says:

    Found you at last!!!!
    No matter how many times I put ‘time machine’ and ‘catamaran’ into the google search engine, I came up with absolutely nothing.
    Success came via a link to my blog that links to your blog.
    Good to see you guys. I have a lot of catching up to do with where you’ve been this past year.


  2. RisingSlowly says:

    By the way, what a story!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. cheyenne says:

    Maria! Holy fucking shit. I thought you were dead. Is this a fish in Japan Maria? Where ARE you?

  4. RisingSlowly says:

    Yes, it’s me! Alive and kicking and moving to Mexico and the boat in just under a week.
    Am so glad I found you guys.
    Will make a pot of tea and settle down to catch up with your adventure from start to finish. I was so disappointed to have lost your link, especially as I was unable to ‘be there’ for your Big Off.

    Quick ketch up re: me.
    I left Japan in March 2005 and hopped on a boat for two months on the Eastern Med Rally, then went to SA and Turkey for a few months fully intending to wind up in Mexico and at boat by September. Upon popping back to Japan to pick up a case and get flight out to LA, my company asked me to take a job in Kyoto for six months; I smelled the money and accepted and it’s been a long, boring six months but I’m nearly at the end of the stint and soon it will be only about the boat,

    The ex’s mother bought him/her a boat down in NZ, another ferro, and he stupidly decided to sail out of season in the South Pacific and got whacked by a cyclone and lost his jib, amongst other things. He’s currently lying low after telling all the naysayers to fancula for thinking him mad for sailing towards the main breeding ground for tropical depressions at that time of year. Tee hee. Revenge has been sweet. I’ll tell you the full story one day when we wind up in an anchorage together. It’s been quite a larf.

  5. RisingSlowly says:

    March 2006….not 2005. doh.

  6. tupo says:

    1 comment, 1 question

    The “crazy french dude” has a 53′ Amel (that’s a premium boat). He might be nuts, but he’s not poor.

    Silly question perhaps,but I was wondering. How many times during your canal passage did one of the pick- up-crew misstep and trip in/amoung the A-frames/crossarms/trampolines of your boat?

  7. cheyenne says:

    Re: the Frenchman’s boat. We noticed that it was certainly a large, well-looked after boat and thought it odd that someone who was such a wingnut would have such a not-nonsense boat. I don’t know the story behind this. He was arrested that morning I posted and yesterday, they came and removed his boat from Portobelo (to I don’t know where); someone said that he was deported back to France. All rumor…

    Actually, we had a sure-footed crew and nobody tripped and fell overboard (or cracked their heads open on something pointy); a miracle, if you ask me. Not only did we have a very unfamiliar boat for those mono-hull/non-sailoring types, but we had 6 additional lines per side running across the amas where we tied on fenders for the passage. (The A-frames are difficult in themselves to trip over since they span an area that is not a natural walkway.)

  8. BIKA says:

    The story you’ve written about the famous frenchman made us laugh out loud, very lively, we could really imagine the whole scene from your story (allthough we were anchored next to him, and then next to you during the whole weeklong action).
    Hope to see you in Providencia, we’ll try our luck with the gass bottles in San Andres, then come to P.
    Safe sailing, Nina & Henrik in BIKA.

  9. Roger says:

    The story is good, but did any one saw him actually putting fire to the boat?

    Why was his painter being cut every night? Sounds like he may have been framed to me!

    Sorry to know that people just go around the world criticising like school kids, I would have thought that you would have got this out of your system at kindergarten.

  10. cheyenne says:

    Yes, the guy off the next nearest boat watched him set fire to it before dinghying over to put it out. He had tried to set fire to the blue boat a few days before but ran out of gasoline. He also had set fire to two other boats during the daytime (with owners aboard so that they were put out before the fire could spread to gas cans or propane tanks, etc.).

    His painter was cut twice while we were there in futile attempts to curb his burning habits (he burned the other two boats via dinghy with gasoline and a flare gun to light it) and never left his boat for any other reason. I think you should contact the Frenchman because he might be looking for a sympathetic lawyer. He also feels he was framed (not for burning boats though, but for the many kilos of drugs that were supposedly planted on the keel of his boat with “invisible nylon strings”).

    If I were you, I wouldn’t waste my time feeling personally sorry for all the criticism going on in the world. I think most people learn it in kindergarten.

  11. RisingSlowly says:

    That Roger’s a right dick.

    Tee hee. Still love this story, as do some of me mates.

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  13. cheyenne says:

    The Crazy Frenchman of Portobelo posting generated a lot of traffic, especially after Latitude 38 linked to the story from their site. Here’s a little more information about the guy and his boat, generously peppered with plenty of boater rumor, of course.

    The boat is a 53-foot Amel (model “Super Maramu”) named “Filao II.” The Crazy Frenchman himself has a name and it is Lucas (Luc) Herbert. Triton, who was rumored in Portobelo to be Mel Gibson’s yacht (the story was that he was researching locations for a new movie about Balboa), is not actually Mel Gibson’s yacht; rather, some other famous Hollywood type’s yacht. The folks from Triton said that night, the Frenchman threw a bottle of gasoline on the hull, then tried to light it with flares. We also hear that the Frenchman did not actually end up being sent back to France after he was arrested (although I do not know where he has been kept) and that his family wants to pay for his fines.

  14. schooner says:

    Be sure that every french man possessing a Amel yacht (I’m one of these) is not as fool as this one !

  15. sean says:

    1. Great story!!

    2. I finally found your blog. Not sure if you remember me, but I had dinner on your boat in Turtle Bay, Baja. I was one of the crew aboard the Bogtrodder. Anyway. We ended getting off the boat in Cabo ‘cuz that guy Tim was, well, a real prick. We couldn’t stand him after about a month. So… we parted ways a few days after you guys came through for a moment and waved goodbye.

    3. I’ve been back in So. California for a year or so and I’m working on buying my Dad’s Catalina 36 and sailing it around the world. That won’t be for another couple years.

    4. Awesome to know you guys are still out there!!!

  16. Derek says:

    yeehaa, cool story as usual from yee. When celticdancer arrived a bit before that I sailed by the frenchman and he was shouting about how crazy he was then I shouted back about me being crazy Irish so then he smiled yeehaa
    Its great though that he is out of the picture but hope he is not just gone to San Blas
    Hi to you two
    Derek in Kazakhstan and Zory in mexico

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  19. Charlie says:

    This is by far one of the most outrageous thing I`ve heard all year, at first I couldn’t stop laughing assuming it wasn’t true..

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Cheyenne Weil, Joshua Coxwell