The wife of a man who disappeared in an apparent canoeing tragedy five years ago had moved to Panama and opened a new bank account only weeks before he walked into a police station to declare that he was still alive, it emerged last night.

Anne Darwin, 55, is understood to have emigrated to Panama City soon after the sale of two properties that she once jointly owned with her husband, John Darwin, who had formally been declared dead by a coroner.

Yesterday John Darwin, 57, a former teacher and prison officer, was preparing to be interviewed by detectives who want to know how he has survived in anonymity before he strolled into West End Central police station in Savile Row, Central London, last weekend.

Police officers said he had no memory of what had happened. The mystery of his wherabouts has baffled friends of the couple, who had belived that he had drowned off the Cleveland coast half a mile from his home in March 2002.

But it is his wife’s sudden departure from their seven-bedroom home that has puzzled neighbors in the coastal community of Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool.

Bill Rodriguez, a former neighbor, said that when he last saw Anne Darwin in August, she told him that she had just returned from a six-week vacation in Panama.

“She said she loved it out there and was going to move out full-time,” he said. A former neighbour said that Mrs Darwin’s departure six to eight weeks ago, had been extremely sudden. “She left the house full of furniture. She left everything. It took them 15 skips to get the rubbish out,” she said.

The London Times understands that Anne Darwin has “hundreds of thousands of pounds” in a Panamanian bank account, and had sent some of her furniture to the Central American state.

The bizarre story began on March 21 five years ago when John Darwin took his red canoe out to sea. The couple had moved to a seafront house two years earlier with their dogs.

Their sons, Mark and Anthony, had moved away and the couple told neighbors that they hoped to retire there. The North Sea was said to be unusually calm that spring day.

John Darwin was reported missing when he did not return home. Hours later his damaged boat was washed up on the sandy beach.

A member of the emergency services who launched a fruitless 14-hour seach for John Darwin after his disappearance said last night that sea conditions had been as “smooth as a millpond."

Tom Waller, 60, a member of Hartlepool Coastwatch, said that rescuers had been puzzled that the prison officer could have got into trouble in such conditions.

An extensive search operation was mounted along the coastline from Hartlepool to Staithes, North Yorkshire. No sign of John Darwin was ever found.

Six months after his disappearance, Anne Darwin, a doctor’s receptionist, told a local newspaper that she could not move on without seeing her husband’s body.

“People die, have a funeral, they have a headstone, there is something to mark the fact they existed on this Earth," she said. "But without a body, I don’t know how we can mark John’s life."

“All I want is to bury his body. It would enable me to move on. It’s difficult to grieve without bringing things to a close, but as it is I’m in limbo and there’s nothing I can do.”

An inquest was eventually held in April 2003, 13 months after his disappearance, and the Hartlepool Coroner recorded an open verdict.

This weekend, John Darwin reappeared at the Central London police station, looking tanned, refreshed and healthy.

“The guy can’t remember anything about what’s happened or why he’s come forward," said Inspector Helen Eustace, of Cleveland Police. "He has no memory at all. He has obviously been somewhere for the last five years and a lot of questions need answering.”

He is believed to be staying with relatives in the South of England.

This weekend some of his relatives expressed relief that he had reappeared.

“All the family is so relieved that John is alive," said his David, speaking from his home in Barnet, North London. John Darwin’s 90-year-old father, Ronald, of Blackhall Colliery, Co Durham, told a newspaper: “I always said to the police that there might be more to this than it appeared at first. When his canoe was found but he wasn’t, it didn’t seem right.”

Ronald Darwin said that when his son was 4 or 5 he was knocked down by a car and suffered a head injury, which could have caused amnesia later in his life.

“Now he’s got his memory back,” Ronald Darwin said. “When I speak to him, I will ask him where he has been these last few years and I’ll ask, ‘Why didn’t you make arrangements to see me before now?’.”

One relative was less supportive.

John Darwin’s aunt, Margaret Burns, said that her nephew had only once made contact with his father in the past 36 years, and that was on the day of his mother’s funeral 16 years ago.

She said that at the funeral he had boasted of owning 17 properties and predicted that he would be a millionaire by the age of 50.

Officers from Cleveland Police will meet John Darwin before Friday.