Three people have been arrested over the death of Kiwi man Alan Culverwell, who was shot at close range with a shotgun when pirates boarded his family's boat in Panama.

Culverwell's wife Derryn Culverwell was also slashed with a machete in the attack, while the couple's daughter received a knock to her head.

The three arrested include a minor and are due to face court in the city of Colon tomorrow (NZ time).

It comes after Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela had earlier apologised to the Culverwell family on local television and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice.

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Derryn Culverwell has been asked to attend the court appearance, just hours after she left hospital in Panama City with her twin daughter and son.

Culverwell's sister, Derryn Hughes, told the Herald today her brother's wife and 11-year-old twins had earlier been together in a hospital and were doing well. Derryn Culverwell had a blow to the shoulder from the machete and received stitches.

Alan Culverwell and his wife Derryn and twins were attacked by pirates in Panama. Photos / Facebook
Alan Culverwell and his wife Derryn and twins were attacked by pirates in Panama. Photos / Facebook

The family later left the hospital and were staying at a hotel in a small town about an hour from Panama city.

"She is an amazing woman and I'm so proud of her," Hughes said.

Derryn Culverwell was "helping the authorities with the investigation", she said.

Culverwell's stepson and a close friend are rushing from New Zealand to be by the family's side.

They are understood to have landed in Panama but were delayed temporarily after being told it was too dangerous to travel the road from Panama City to Colon.

"But by the time Derryn goes to court tomorrow our people will be there with her," Hughes said.

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She said a female staff member from the New Zealand embassy in Mexico was also arriving in Panama this morning to provide assistance to the traumatised family members

Hughes praised the speedy response by Panamanian authorities, saying staff from New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had told her how President Varela had apologised on national television.

However, the capture of the three arrested men was not a comfort to Culverwell's family because it didn't "bring Alan back", she said.

"But for anybody else travelling the area – if they do have the right people - it does make it safer," she said.

The close friend of Culverwell, who was now rushing to Derryn and her children's side was "an amazing man", Hughes said.

He was the person Derryn first called for help in the moments after her husband had been shot and she retreated into the boat's cabin with her children.

"He kept Derryn on the phone and as calm as he could," Hughes said.

"The attackers had left the boat at that stage, but Derryn was very scared but trying to keep it together for the kids.

"It was very dark when all this happened, they were woken from a deep sleep."

The friend based in New Zealand then called authorities in Panama as well as New Zealand Police, while a traumatised Derryn called family back in New Zealand, including Hughes.

The security conscious couple had a tracker on their boat, which allowed local authorities to find it. However, it still took more than an hour for help to arrive.

Hughes said Culverwell's elderly parents were devastated and struggling, but were grateful Derryn and their grandchildren were alive. Culverwell was the eldest of four children.

Alan Culverwell and his wife had sold their Marlborough Sounds house and were on the trip of a lifetime. Photos / Facebook
Alan Culverwell and his wife had sold their Marlborough Sounds house and were on the trip of a lifetime. Photos / Facebook

It was supposed to be the journey of a lifetime for the adventurous Kiwi family.

They left home before the chill of winter, bought a boat for a bargain in the United States and let the warm trade winds start them on a journey home to New Zealand that was expected to take up to two years.

But they only made it as far as the Central American country of Panama before crossing paths with the pirates who would violently alter the course of their lives.

Around 2am local time on Thursday, Culverwell, who had worked frequently in the Chatham Islands, emerged from the sleeping area of his family's 65-foot launch while it was off the Guna Yala region, on the country's northern coastline.

The Culverwells were attacked by pirates on their boat in Panama. Photo / Facebook
The Culverwells were attacked by pirates on their boat in Panama. Photo / Facebook

He'd woken to a noise on the vessel's roof.

But when he went to investigate — in an incident that has similarities to that of Kiwi sailing legend Sir Peter Blake, who was shot by pirates on a vessel near the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil in 2001 — he paid with his life.

Hughes earlier told the Herald her brother had been shot at "very close range" with a shotgun.

His wife was then attacked with a machete, suffering a shoulder wound, and one of their children also suffered minor injuries. Derryn Culverwell later called for help to New Zealand.

Arrangements are being made to bring Culverwell's body back to New Zealand.

Alan Culverwell and his wife Derryn were attacked by pirates in Panama. Photos / Facebook
Alan Culverwell and his wife Derryn were attacked by pirates in Panama. Photos / Facebook

Hughes said her brother was a dedicated, loving husband, father, son, brother, uncle and friend to all.

"His family were his everything. Nothing could have prepared us for the attack that took place overnight and has tragically taken Alan's life.

"We want to assure you all that Derryn and the children are safe, while understandably traumatised.

"We are so grateful they survived ... and we will [support] them through the coming days, weeks, months and years."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade would only say it was responding to an incident involving a New Zealand family in Panama.

Three people are due to face court in Panama over the attack on Alan Culverwell. Photos / Facebook
Three people are due to face court in Panama over the attack on Alan Culverwell. Photos / Facebook

"Due to privacy considerations, no further information will be provided."

But a source in Panama told the Herald Culverwell was killed in an attack by pirates. She didn't have any further information.

A report by the Spanish-language media outlet Mi Diario said the incident took place on May 2 near the island of Dad Naggwe Dubbir, and the attackers wore hoods and stole a boat engine.

The Culverwells are used to the gentle sway of the water below their feet.

Their journey began when they sold their beautiful and isolated home in the Marlborough Sounds. The home near Picton could be accessed only by boat.

Paua Industry Council chief executive Jeremy Cooper said that having searched the world for a nice boat for years, they used the money from the sale of their property to buy a "big 65-footer" in Florida.

"It was a beautiful big boat that had been owned by someone with way too much money and [Culverwell] just timed it perfectly, he bought it in Florida for way less than had been spent on it," he said.

The family then flew to Florida and "decked out the boat and started driving it home".

Facebook posts showed the couple posting a glowing review in March on the page of a Florida marine service company that installed solar panels and other gear on their boat.

They also stopped off at the Panamanian island of Bocas del Toro where they played volleyball and became good friends with the owners of the Drunken Monkey Panama bar, which has room for boats to pull up alongside it.

The Pacific Puddle Jump website showed the family were due to leave shortly for French Polynesia as part of an annual and social sailing event.

Cooper told the Weekend Herald the paua community was rallying behind the family and trying to raise money to support them.

"A number of people have already rung me today to say 'how can we contribute'," Cooper said.

There would also be costs associated with bringing Culverwell's family home and working out what to do with their boat, Cooper said.

He said Culverwell was known as a "legend" in the Chatham Islands paua industry for being an early campaigner for catches to be managed sustainably.

"He certainly put his shoulder to the wheel ... [and did] the hard graft when other people were still talking about it," Cooper said.

Cooper had known Culverwell since the early 1990s. He had also known Culverwell's school-teacher wife Derryn for decades, since she taught his children when they were young.

A "brilliant teacher", Derryn had been home-schooling the couple's children on their boat as they made their two-year journey home.