My heart skipped a beat, then my pulse quickened. My mind played devil’s advocate. The voyage I had worked so hard to bring about, that I had dreamed into existence since I was a young boy, that I had served a three-year apprenticeship at the feet of great seamen to bring to fruition had come to a screeching halt. All was lost. Now I’d have to find a way to get back to San Diego, tail between my legs having failed on my great quest for the South Pacific. Time stood still. I felt like I was trapped in a B-movie where the great climactic moment developed in slow motion. Looking back I realize it all happened in a blink of an eye; but in that blink I saw my dreams come crashing down.
As soon as Avventura hit the reef I put the engine back in neutral, then into forward gear. Three distinct grinding sounds and three jolts could be felt. Then silence and a return to fluid motion. The reef fell away astern to port and we glided out into clear waters. I cursed for Ryan to get out of the cabin and stand on the bow. John followed him forward, and I ordered them to make sure clear waters lay ahead. Ryan mumbled something incoherent. He’s just not the type of person who performs under pressure. His mind simply isn’t built that way. Frustrated, I cursed at nobody in particular. My cousins got the point the John said, “Just keep going straight. You’re okay.”
“Thank you!” The depth gauge began a steep ascent as the sea floor fell away once more. In five minutes we were heading back the way we’d come in water over a hundred feet deep. It was time to survey the damage. The bilge pump had yet to come on, so I knew my initial fears were unfounded. The voyage would go on. I would reach the South Pacific. But did we need to sail straight for Panama City to make repairs? Could I effect a temporary patch? Or by some miracle (and I’m not sure this thought even crossed my mind before entering the water) was the damage merely superficial and nothing to worry about till I hauled the boat out in Ecuador a couple months down the line?
With the engine idling in neutral I donned my mask and snorkel and slipped into the deep blue of the open ocean. Fingers of light penetrated into the depths and disappeared out of sight. The red of Avventura’s hull was a sharp, spectacular contrast to the blue of the sea. I took a big gulp of air and dove. A quick scan of the base of the hull. Could it be true? No gaping hole? No long seam cut into the fiberglass? No way; I must have missed it. I dove again. A ten inch section at the base of the hull just forward of the rudder was missing its bottom paint. That reef may have gotten me; but Avventura fought back and killed a good portion of it with her bottom paint. I ran my fingers along the section. Scratches in the fiberglass, but very shallow cuts. Nothing requiring my immediate attention. I surfaced, yanked off my mask, and a shallow hoot escaped my lips. My cousins could sense my relief. The show would go on.
Before you have run aground or hit a reef you are never as vigilant as you should be when sailing close to land. No matter how often and vigorously you are warned, it seems impossible to truly heed the warnings. Only firsthand experience teaches you once-and-for-all this lesson. Never let your guard down at sea. Complacency kills. It kills dreams; it kills boats; and in extreme circumstances it can kill you. I learned my lesson well, and by erring on the side of caution in all future endeavors managed to pass the rest of the voyage keeping Avventura in waters deep enough to keep her floating. But mentally I wouldn’t be the same, as I’d soon find out.
Giving Isla Rancheria an unnecessarily wide berth, we circled around the south side of the island and approached Punta Machete with an abundance of caution. We dinghied ashore, checked in with the Park Rangers, paid to be in the park for a handful of days, returned to Avventura, picked up anchor, and moved to the cove on the south side of Isla Rancheria. Here my mind began playing tricks on me. In the low afternoon light I thought I saw the shape of the reef lurking beneath the surface and was unwilling to penetrate further into the bay. Thus we set the hook in unnecessarily deep water, and an often pleasant anchorage became quite rolly and uncomfortable.
With the hook set a great weight was lifted off my shoulders and I cracked open a beer and sought to forget about the entire days. With my first long sip I felt my body begin to relax. My heart was still beating hard and my mind replayed the incident over and over, but my body began to relax a bit more with each sip of beer, and before I knew it night was upon us and I was slipping into bed. Sleep was hard to come by. Every unusual sound my mind saw as us dragging anchor and running aground; every change in motion was the effect of the reef on Avventura’s hull. When my eyes finally did shut it was a measly two hours before the first nightmare came. I was at the helm guiding Avventura into the beautiful cove we were currently anchored in when a reef started extending out from every direction and squeezing in around us. We were being forced into it from every direction, and I awoke right as we ran aground.
The remainder of the night I was too scared to shut my eyes. I sat for a time on the foredeck beneath a star-filled sky rehashing the day’s events, thinking of the lessons I had learned, and cursing the men aboard the Mar Viva boat for telling me to go directly to the Ranger Station. Avventura kissing the reef was far from their fault; but then again, if not for them I had planned on going straight from Isla de Canal de Afuera to the anchorage at Isla Rancheria and not visiting the Ranger Station till the following day. Had the boat not spotted us who knows what would have happened and how the trip might have played out differently. But alas, what’s done was done, I said, and it was time to get on with the voyage at hand. There were still a lot of anchorages between now and Panama City, and many a hidden reef lying in wait to claim her next victim. Prudence would be the order of the trip was here on out, and when in doubt I’d stay out of the area.
With the dawn of the new day I pondered a new course for Avventura. My night of nightmares and little sleep brought me to realize I needed to find a good, safe anchorage where my crew and I would be happy to remain for a few days. The coral studded coast encircling Isla Coiba had lost its appeal, and despite the great natural beauty I knew the island possessed, I asked my cousins if they’d have a problem with heading straight for Santa Catalina. Their responses came without hesitation: we understand why you don’t want to hang around Isla Coiba; lets go surfing.
Santa Catalina was the one place in Panama I knew I would find good waves. Crazy Ray had told us so back in Bahia Herradura, and Cameron off Velella had been told so by another Panama-experienced cruiser. The prospect of finding waves made leaving behind the gorgeous white sand beaches and crystal clear waters of Coiba bearable, and as the sun claimed her dominance over the sky Avventura slid out of the cove on Isla Rancheria and set a course for Isla Santa Catalina some twenty-five miles away.
Isla Santa Catalina sits less than a mile off Panama’s mainland, a small chunk of land providing just enough protection from the south and west to make for a comfortable anchorage in its lee. A current sweeps through the anchorage at the change of the tides and you often lie nose into the current, so at times the anchorage becomes rolly as windchop hits you beam on. Nevertheless the anchorage is quite secure off the small beach on the north side of the island. On the mainland opposite sits the town of Santa Catalina, a surfer’s paradise tucked along the cliffs of the coast. The main wave in the area is a long righthander breaking just around Punta de Manzanillo, a short dinghy ride northeast of the anchorage. The wave is often likened to Hawaii’s Sunset Beach, and having surfed both places I can see the resemblance.
As we settled in at the anchorage a thunderstorm started to rumble inland. The big black mass of clouds overtook the sun as they approached the island and pummeled us with rain and wind. Bolts of lightning pierced the sky. The way things were going, it’d be a perfect time to be struck. I cracked open a beer earlier than usual and sat in the cockpit. The rain poured down and rolled off my exposed upper body. A slight shiver shot through me, but I threw my head back, opened my mouth, and drank in the elements. To hell with custom and comfort and decorum! Let Mother Nature purge my soul and clear my mind. She alone could put me back on the right track to a fruitful and fun voyage. My cousins sat in the cabin, out of the rain and protected from the elements. A look of disbelief etched across Ryan’s face. Five months with me and he still hadn’t learned how to be at one with what is. Some people just don’t get it, I said to myself as I stood and walked up to the foredeck. Solitude surrounded me and I exulted in the cold rain and bolts of frightening lightning.
The squall passed in due time and left behind a stable gray sky that blanketed the region in dreary misery. All nature’s colors appeared dull and forlorn. Rolling green hillsides looked ominous and unapproachable; beaches looked brown, cold and forlorn; even the ocean appeared menacing and unfriendly. My cousins joined me in the cockpit and I threw down another beer. I could feel the weight of stress release from my shoulders as the alcohol worked its magic. After a couple beers my surroundings started to match my mental state. The skies began to clear and a few stars graced the skies. Specks of phosphorescence ignited the sea around us. A light breeze ruffled through the coco palms of the island nearby. All was well with my world again.
Six days of rest and recuperation for my scarred sailing soul lay in store at Santa Catalina. Six days without a thought of reefs or anchorages or boat work or repairs. Six days of surfing and swimming, immersing myself in nature and allowing her to cleanse my mind and carry me back to the joys I’d experienced before running aground. And for a surfer there’s no better place to spend six days in Panama than at Santa Catalina.
On our first full day at Santa Catalina I determined to get the full lay of the land. We started off the day with a quick trip by dinghy over to the main break, anchoring in the channel beside the righthander and paddling out to join the dozen other surfers. The waves were fun as can be: steep drops followed by long walls leading in towards a shallow inside tube section before you had to kick out to avoid the exposed reef on the inside. The wave was best on a high tide, and at low tide became all but unsurfable due to the shallow reef and indeed a few exposed sections; but when the tide was right the rides were beautiful. When the tide began dropping the crowd dispersed leaving my cousins and I out alone for a handful of waves before it became too shallow to be safe.
From the main wave we zipped north around Punta de Manzanillo, anchored the dinghy off a long stretch of sand beside a couple pangas, and paddled ashore. We walked inland up the main road (which leads inland for miles all the way to and past the town of Sona) till we reached a dirt road paralleling the shoreline a few hundred yards inland. This we followed through town (or rather behind the bulk of the town), winding our way through clear pastureland with dirt roads cutting the scene and leading back towards the coast. Just as the heat of the day was beginning to wear me down we arrived atop a bluff overlooking Playa Esterillos, a long swath of powdery sand with gentle waves rolling ashore. The beach serves as the beginner’s surf spot, and my cousins and I passed another couple hours surfing and bodysurfing the small closeouts, laughing and having a good time.
When we emerged from the water we walked the length of the beautiful beach and continued along the rocky stretch of coast to the southeast a bit before realizing there were no other surfbreaks in reach and turning back towards town. A local lunch of Panamanian cuisine left us far from impressed, and I was all too glad to return to Avventura in the late afternoon for a night of relaxation.
Day two at Santa Catalina saw the swell increase. We started the day with a long surf session at the main break. As I later recorded in my journal: “Me second wave found me in the perfect spot for one of the best set waves of the day. I dropped in, made a big bottom turn, and then pulled in under the lip, got a little cover-up, and had a fast, fun ride from there.” The crowd was an unusual blend of dark-skinned Panamanian locals and pale white tourists from all over the world. A couple of the Panamanians really knew how to ride the wave, and most were friendly and welcoming provided you stayed out of there way and off of the waves they were riding. The foreign crowd consisted of two young kids from Maui who made the pilgrimage every summer, a handful of Brazilians, and a boogie-boarder turned surfer from the coast of Wales who was thrilled by the warm waters and perfect waves without any wind.
When the tide forced everyone from the water Avventura’s crew returned to the boat, dropped off their surfboards, grabbed T-shirts and a couple empty fuel jerry cans, and made for the beach. I unloaded my cousins on the sand, anchored the dinghy offshore once more, and swam in to join them. We caught the 2:30 P.M. bus to Sona and off we went through the Panamanian interior.
I expected the bus ride to be a thirty minute jaunt to the nearby city where we could provision and return in just a couple hours. Boy was I ever wrong! For ninety minutes we followed the winding road through endless expanses of cleared fields where cows roamed free grazing at will and being fattened for the slaughter (the main source of income for this region of Panama). Few houses and less people were seen, and the bus didn’t stop for the first hour. Then a few pockets of homes began lining the road and their inhabitants boarded and disembarked from the bus as we continued on towards the big city. When we finally arrived in town I learned Sona was far from the big city I was somehow expecting to find. A single strip of drab businesses was the bulk of downtown; but the bus stop was right beside a nice supermarket, a gas station was right down the street, and a small produce stand was just up the street in the opposite direction. Everything we needed was within a few hundred yards of each other.
Halfway through our travels in Panama’s Western Isles our food stores had dwindled dangerously low, so restocking was a major endeavor. We loaded a shopping cart to the brim with all the necessities ranging from chips and salsa to tuna and canned beans to beer and juice. As we began the checkout process the loud pitter-patter of rain on the corrugated iron roof began. By the time we emerged outside it was coming down in torrents. I left my cousins beneath the dry awning of the supermercado, and dashed down the street with the pair of jerry cans. Once they were filled I returned them to the supermarket, and struck off in the opposite direction to restock our supply of fresh produce. I returned to the bus stop thoroughly soaked with fifteen minutes to spare before the last bus left for Santa Catalina.
The only other people waiting at the bus stop were a Panamanian mother and her ten-year-old daughter. The daughter wore a long skirt and a pink shirt with a ballet slipper on the front. Her hair hung long and straight and she had the cutest smile permanently etched on her face. When we decided to get an ice cream while we waited I asked her mother if it was okay if we bought her one and the little girl begged her mother till she said yes. The girl entered the supermarket and approached the ice cream counter and I immediately saw what was meant by the expression, “like a kid in a candy store.” Her smile was so big it threatened to rip her face apart and she couldn’t suppress her excitement. She looked at me as if to ask what she should get, and I told her as best I could to get whatever she wanted. She ordered two scoops with a wry smile, as if she had gotten away with breaking a lamp in the living room, and waited anxiously for it to be delivered.
Ice creams in hand, we emerged outside where the rain continued to pour down in hilarious torrents. It seemed impossible for the sky to hold so much water. All I could do was laugh at the sight of the river forming in the street and wonder how we’d make it back to the boat safely.
The little girl wasted no time in devouring her ice cream. As only a kid can, she wound up with it all over her face—there was even a dot on the tip of her nose—and spots on her clothes. As her mother called her over and wiped off her face I apologized, but she was quick to thank me in return.
Boarding the bus, my cousins and I took seats near the back and mixed up a drink to pass the time a bit faster. The little girl’s mother sat a few rows in front of us beside a couple other Panamanian women, and as the girl took her seat she pointed at us and waved. As we pulled away from the supermarket the wheels of the bus sprayed water off in all directions. With the windows closed it soon turned into the world’s worst smelling sauna, and the long ride home began. Before five minutes had elapsed the little girl was standing on her seat, her eyes just peeking over the back of it and looking at me. I turned as if to hide my face and she giggled. When I turned my head back and looked at her she pulled her head down quickly and disappeared. A minute later she was back and looking at me again. I stuck my tongue out ad made a weird face. She erupted in laughter and her mother turned first to her, then to me. I returned my face to normal and waved innocently at the mother. All of a sudden I was ten again, goofing off in the back of a van on the ride home from Disneyland. After five minutes of exchanging weird faces my cousins, myself, and the little girl were laughing hysterically. The bus driver looked up at us in the rearview mirror from time to time and a smile crept over his face. The Panamanian women in the front of the bus stole inconspicuous glances back at us and their stern faces broke out in smiles. All was childish fun and games.
Fifteen minutes into the ride the mother had grown tired of her daughter’s laughter and let her move back a couple seats to the aisle across from me. The bizarre faces had worn out their welcome and it was time to move on to other kid games. She motioned for me to put my hands up and started playing some typical little girl game, slapping hands in turn and making different gestures. I couldn’t understand the words she sang, and every time I messed up the motions her sweet laugh returned. Before I knew it an hour had passed and her mother called her up as the bus came to a stop and they disembarked at a small shack beside the desolate road. The rain continued to fall outside, but the little girl stood at her mother’s side, waving as we drove away. I returned the wave and smiled. I knew I would never again see that little girl, and here we were two complete strangers who had brightened up each other’s day. Throughout my travels I’ve found that I get along much better with young people than with grown-ups. Fun is easier to come by with them and they are content to laugh and love life. It seems the grown-ups lose something in the journey through life which makes them forget the fun and joys they experienced in youth and grow calloused to the world. Throughout the world it is the same—the grown-ups are weighed down with the cares of the modern world and the desire to get ahead; while the kids are about living life and loving life. I for one find myself far more at home with the children than the cold-hearted realists of the grown-ups.
By the time we disembarked beside the beach at Santa Catalina night had fallen and all was dark. The rain had ceased, but a thick cloudcover kept the night sky black overhead and visibility next to nothing. Standing on the beach, I strained my eyes into the black, but couldn’t make out the form of the dinghy anywhere. Lining up with where I thought it should be, I swam out a hundred yards, but still saw nothing. I moved a hundred yards down the beach and swam out again. Nothing! Frustrated, hungry, and tired, I returned to the beach, moved our groceries beneath the corrugated iron roof of a covered patio, and my cousins and I struck off in search of the local pizzeria. By the time we found our way along the pitch black roads the pizzeria was closed. We found a lone open restaurant and had some delicious chicken tacos washed down by a pair of beers. Then came the long walk back to the beach and the horrible prospect of having to spend the night on the beach.
Back at the beach, John and I waded into the water as far apart as we could be to still see each other clearly. We swam out together, scanning the black expanse between and beside us calling out to each other from time to time. When I could no longer see the beach I was sure we should have spotted the dinghy by now and was ready to turn back when John exclaimed, “There! I think there’s something out there further. Let’s just keep going.” I reluctantly swam on, and sure enough the dinghy rose up on a swell and came into sight. Relieved, we let out loud hoots as we climbed aboard and laid on the pontoons, exhausted from a long day.
It took two trips to get the groceries, fuel and people out to Avventura, and each time I looked in awe at the luminous green wake of phosphorescence we churned up. It was midnight by the time we were all back on Avventura. The skies had cleared and the stars shone in all their glory. The moon was not to be seen, and flecks of green ignited the waters around us. Curious, I dove over the side and opened my eyes to see streaks of green shooting away from me. I surfaced and watched the sea come to life as I circled my arms and legs. I felt like a magician turning the lifeless black depths into a brilliant array of life, or a painter transforming a blank canvas with strokes of bright green into a lively picture. John joined me and we circled Avventura, thrilling in the rare phenomena. It was well after one o’clock before my head hit a pillow.
Daylight saw the swell pick up at Santa Catalina, and by the time I reached the lineup a little after ten o’clock the sets were over ten feet. It was the biggest it had been since June according to the locals. On my first wave I went to stand up and my leash was caught under my front foot. I tried to lift my foot and fell as the lip crashed down on my head. From then on I surfed better, and fit right into the rotation of the locals, catching wave after long wave, riding it through to the channel where a couple pangas sat watching. In one panga a little local boy surveyed the scene, and every time he thought he saw a set coming he’d yell out “Afuera!” Only problem was he was right about half the time. Before long the locals that knew him were yelling for him to quit; but the boy wasn’t what you’d call a quick study.
By paddling out so late in the morning we had missed the peak high tide and the best waves of the day, but the advantage was the crowd was thinning out all the time. After a couple hours it was just my cousins and a local transplant originally from the Basque region of Spain. We traded fun drops, but the tide prevented us from riding the waves very far in. When the reef inside looked too ominous John and I decided to try and get a wave in. I watched him paddle for a set wave, and noticed it begin to double-up and steepen. In a moment right out of the movie North Shore I was transformed from yelling for him to go to saying, “No! No!” But alas it was too late. He was locked in and I watched him stand up and miraculously make the drop before turning to position myself for the next wave. When I caught it I saw John on the inside, holding up the back half of my board and pointing for the rocks. My heart sank. The dreaded moment I knew was a long time coming had come, and the three men of Avventura were now down to just two surfboards.
I retrieved the front half of my favorite board from the rocks, and as we loaded in the dinghy asked John what had happened. “I saw you make the drop, and was amazed.”
“I know. It was one of the best drops of my life.”
“So what happened?”
“The wave just caught up with me. Lip came right down on top of me. I got worked.” I immediately realized the wave must have crashed down right on the weakest point in the board, where two dings had allowed water to seep in and weaken the foam and stringer for months. The worst part was we were now one board shy and John would be at Ryan’s mercy for when he could surf with me again.
After an afternoon spent basking in the sun and reading aboard Avventura (and yes, there were a few boat chores accomplished as well) we headed ashore as the sun sank behind the island. To prevent a repeat of the previous night’s dinghy search we landed up a small river towards the north end of the beach. Despite having to drag the dinghy over the shallow bar it was well worth the hassle to know we could find it come nightfall.
A big beer at a run-down bar near the beach where we landed the dinghy started the night off, and after John and I ordered another for the road we struck off in the direction of the pizzeria. The Pizzeria Jamming is the local hotspot at Santa Catalina, and everybody who was in the water in the morning had gathered for a beer, a bite to eat, and to watch the video and pictures captured of the morning’s surf. A local photographer and videographer hooked their computers up to a television screen and the crowd ogled the images, oohing and ahhing and pointing at the surfer captured. The pizza was tasty as well. It was a perfect way to end a nice day of surfing, and after sharing a beer with everyone in town it was much easier to get along with them in the water the next day.
Determined to catch all of what was left of the swell, I was back in the water before eight the next morning. The tide was still filling in, and the sets were still in the eight foot range. The two pangas remained in the channel and the photographers were back once more to capture the scene. I caught a dozen beautiful rights, picking off the rare set wave that would swing wide of the peak and staying out of the way of the locals. Meanwhile Ryan sat on his board in the channel, never even attempting to catch a wave but refusing to let John. John thus treaded water in the channel with a small waterproof camera taking a few pictures and still by all appearances having a good time.
Fleeing the surf, I dropped Ryan off ashore and returned to the boat with John. Within minutes a light rain began to fall and the clouds forming over the land were dark and menacing. I took shelter beneath the spray dodger and watched as the slow drizzle gathered steam until it was all-out pouring. After a couple minutes admiring nature’s fury I realized this was the perfect opportunity to shower, so I retrieved my shampoo and soap, headed for the foredeck, and lathered up. Within minutes I felt fresh and clean, and the rain continued to pour down. Finally at 4:30 the rain began to abate and John and I headed for shore. We landed the dinghy up the river and headed for the internet café where Ryan had spent the entire afternoon. John headed in to join him while I sat outside reading.
From the internet café we set about a repeat of the previous night’s activities. A return to the bar, followed by the long walk over the slick, muddy roads to Pizzeria Jamming where I was thrilled to see the photographer had snapped a couple good shots of me. I inquired about how much he was selling them for, selected the ones I wanted, and said I’d return the following night with the money.
One last day at Santa Catalina saw us back in the water early in the morning. The surf had dropped dramatically and was the smallest it had been since we arrived. What’s more, the crowd was out in full force and was as aggressive as they had ever been. Ryan again refused to let John ride his board, though he again never paddled for a wave, and I cursed his chintziness and for the umpteenth time realized there was no way I could sail through the South Pacific with him. It was a good thing I had decided to pull Avventura out of the water in Ecuador because this would allow me to return to San Diego for the holidays and find a new crew. On my final wave of the day I pulled into a tube on the inside, and the wave shut down on me, knocking me off my board and tumbling me underwater. In the process my knee hit the solid lava reef, and when I came up seeing blood I knew it was time to call it quits.
Our morning surf session was followed by a brief pit stop on the boat before we headed ashore. We walked through town, headed for Playa Esterillos, but halfway there Ryan dropped off, saying he was too tired and wanted to get something to eat. Toe ach his own; the beach was calling. John and I bodysurfed the beachbreak, enjoying the small surf and hot sunshine. Afterwards we stood by one of the many surf resorts and chatted with a guy who was from Cleveland. Turns out he had driven all the way down here, and was in the process of moving to Panama City. We exchanged tales of our adventures, shook hands, and parted ways—never to see each other again.
The remainder of the day was spent like all others in Santa Catalina: swims at the beach, brief stop at the internet café, trip to the store for some produce, drinks at the bar, and dinner at the pizzeria. I purchased my pictures, said good-bye to the locals and foreigners alike I’d met over the past few days, and returned to Avventura. The phosphorescence was back in full force, so one final midnight swim was in order. Floating on my back in the warm Panamanian water, I looked over at John and started to chuckle. Perhaps running aground was just nature’s way of ensuring we caught the swell at Santa Catalina. Our stay had been almost too perfect (broken board notwithstanding), and all we could do was laugh at our good fortune. Here we were with no surf forecasting materials on board and we just happened to stumble upon Panama’s best wave for the best swell in three months. Sometimes the elements flow together and life serves up a grandiose string of days. The laughter was contagious, and before I knew it I was laughing so hard I could barely stay afloat. Ryan emerged from Avventura’s cabin to see what was going on, only to see we were safe and return below. The adventurous spirit didn’t reside in his belly; his soul never caught fire from the elements; he never thrilled at the simple things in life. My laughter reached another level as he disappeared. I splashed John full in the face, and his competitive spirit cut the laughter short and an all-out waterfight began. Life was good. Santa Catalina was great.
When first I laid eyes on Isla Cébaco I knew I would someday return. Her beauty and isolation captivated my soul, and the vast stretch of empty beach in Ensenada Naranjo called to me like the Sirens called to Odysseus. The star-filled nights and tradewind swept anchorage of my first visit only heightened Ensenada del Naranjo’s allure in my eyes, and upon leaving Santa Catalina there was no doubt about our destination.
(Is all of what follows in the paragraph needed? Likely NOT.???)xxx???) Awake before my cousins yet again, I penned a journal entry in the cockpit before getting ready to head ashore one final time at Santa Catalina. Ryan began to stir below so I told him I wanted to leave the anchorage soon, but first had to head ashore for a few last minute provisions. Once I’d procured the eggs, butter and milk I returned to Avventura where Ryan was below watching a DVD. Nothing aboard was ready for our departure. I put the groceries away and went about readying the ship. Sailcover off, swim ladder raised and secured, dinghy motor off, dinghy secured astern ready to be towed, and everything loose on deck secured or placed below. Ryan continued watching his DVD. John slept. I fired up the engine, weighed anchor, and motored back around the north end of Isla Santa Catalina the way we’d come. Ryan watched his DVD; John began to stir below. I set the autopilot and started the watermaker. Ryan, realizing he was in my way, moved from his berth to the quarterberth, his eyes never leaving his precious DVD. John was up and in the cockpit—somebody had to keep an eye out. I cursed the laziness of my cousins beneath my breath, and wished they cared a bit more about my boat and my voyage and took more initiative to lend a hand.
With the watermaker purring like a kitten a gentle breeze bid us nice sailing for the short leg out to the island. The gentle broad reach urged us across the deep blue water channel in two hours and by one thirty we were entering the lee of Isla Cébaco and the sails had to come down. The drone of the engine returned as we motored around the island’s rocky west end and the beautiful deep gouge of Ensenada del Naranjo came into view. Rounding Punta Tintorera, I thrilled to the sight of the empty bay and was quick to realize time had done little to change the place I recalled so fondly.
Upon closer examination much has changed, beginning with the cluster of mooring buoys (actually old car tires on the surface) installed by the Balboa Yacht Club for the use of cruisers. Seeing the bay was empty, we selected a buoy at random from the mass and tied off to it. Then, using the dinghy, we tied our stern to a second buoy to act as a stern anchor. All was calm and quiet. Blue skies were the order of the day and the waters of the bay matched the blue of the sky. The dark sand beach reached across the base of the bay, closely guarded by dense rainforest. The hills were filled with green vegetation and not a sign of dry grass was to be seen. Ah, the splendor of the rainy season. All was lush and vital as a rainforest should be. Waves rolling up the gentle slope of the beach broke the silence. Birds called ashore. Nature reigned supreme.
Three days were devoted to relaxation and exploration at Isla Cébaco. Thoughts of surfing receded in my mind amidst the beautiful snorkeling and lush forest. We swam in the calm waters of the bay, bodysurfed miniscule waves at the beach, threw a football around in the surfline, and hiked a long ways up a small stream which bisected the beach. The last time I had visited the bay the stream was nothing but a dry riverbed infested with insects. The insects remained, but water filled much of the riverbed. After hiking in the water for a time we spotted a trail off to the side and paralleled the stream under the cover of thick vegetation. Big termite nests clung to the braches of trees adorned with nasty thorns, butterflies and birds zipped through the air, lizards dashed across the path; little was said.
A half hour into the walk Ryan was ready to turn back. Our trail appeared to lead to nowhere, and Ryan couldn’t grasp the idea that this might just be the whole point. Sometimes the glory and beauty is found in the path, not the destination. For me this was what the “cruising” life meant. Sure the South Pacific was the destination; but the real voyage encompassed everything along the way from long passages at sea to surfing big waves at famous breaks to meeting new people and becoming acquainted with different cultures. The words of Sterling Hayden coursed through my head, though I couldn’t reconcile them to the situation: “To the hunted; not to the hunter. To the passage; not to the path.” I was trudging onward regardless, after all it was still early in the day and the path was leading us deeper into the rainforest.
Fifteen minutes later the gentle trickle of water in the stream grew more intense and my heartbeat quickened. The air became damp and cool and, coming to the end of the trail we entered the stream once more. Turning round one final bend, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was revealed in a roaring cascade of a waterfall (or at least a miniature version thereof).The heat of the day was quenched by wading in the small pool at the base of the falls, and for a long time I leaned back into the falling waters and let them massage my shoulders. The cold waters felt wonderfully out of place in the tropics; and after fifteen minutes in the falls my body was covered in goosebumps and I was shivering uncontrollably. I found a dry rock on the edge of the stream and sat down staring at the cascade. I could feel my eyes recede deep into my head and became lost in thought and dreams. Nature had me in her grips and I thrilled at the roar of the waterfall, the chill of the damp air, and the heat of the rock beneath me. A light breeze rustled through the trees, the hum of insects faint in the background; a pair of birds chased each other through the sky chirping as they went.
Back at the beach, we chopped down a pair of tiny coco palms and extracted the heart of palm. Captain Klutz had taught me how on my previous visit to the bay, and I saved the ritual for this island alone. Its seclusion and ample supply of small palms made for the perfect spot for a sumptuous meal many never know the likes of. The heart of palm secured, we opened coconuts to quench our thirst, bodysurfed to wash ourselves clean, and laid prone in the dry sand to warm up and refill our stores with the energy of the tropic sun. Days were filled with sunshine, afternoons with rainshowers, even with flashes of lightning, and nights were filled with stars. Nature showed all her colors, and made sure Isla Cébaco retained a special place in my heart.
It was with a hint of sadness that we left behind the comforts of Isla Cébaco’s Ensenada del Naranjo and headed for her mainland counterpart of the same name. But alas, the voyage must go on, and I knew there were many more beautiful anchorages to be explored and countless waterfalls to be discovered. Surely the best still lay ahead.
The short hop from Isla Cébaco back to the mainland and Ensenada Naranjo was easy and dull. We caught no fish and saw no other boats. A sloppy, choppy sea was running, and knocked us all over the place. Traces of seasickness crept over me as I began the process of making water in Avventura’s cabin. Luckily the crossing was a short one, and by noon we were anchored in the open bay of Ensenad Naranjo. The hillsides rolling inland had been cleared and cattle dotted the scene, munching on the expanse of grass at will. Clumps of forest trees broke the monotony and spiced up the landscape. The shores of the cove were lined by three separate beaches divided by stubby rock outcroppings. We anchored in the southeast corner of the cove and were soon ready to flee Avventura.
I led the way as we leaped into the water and made the short swim for the cove’s biggest beach, to east of us. I bodysurfed a wave ashore and stepped off onto the nearly black sand beach. The feel of the sand underfoot was perfect—coarse but not rocky, the sort of sand that sticks to your skin in big clumps but wipes off with the gentle brush of the hand. We walked north over the hot sand and collapsed towards the end of the beach. Lying flat on my back, I was too tired to move and simply drank in the tropic sun. Nothing was said. The only sound was the roar of the shorebreak rushing ashore.
For an hour I remained motionless, recovering my strength and enjoying the feel of the hot sand on my bare back and the intense sun beating down on my face. Ryan became restless and swam back to the boat. Re-energized, I leapt into the sea and bodysurfed a few small waves. Then, emerging from the water, I followed an inlet back to a small lagoon, and walked along its placid shores a while. The farmhouse for the cattle was tucked back in a cluster of trees and a few locals milled around outside. I waved and they returned the gesture, big smiles etched across their faces. Returning to the beach, John and I slowly walked the length of it, seeming to savor each and every step. When the rocky point halted our tracks we took to the sea and made the long swim back home.
I passed the afternoon shaving off a month’s worth of facial hair and emerged feeling like a new and better man. I read a bit from David McCulough’s The Path Between the Seas (a fantastic biography, if you will, of the Panama Canal), took a short nap (my nights had been filled with tortured sleep and vivid nightmares ever since kissing the reef off Coiba), and prepared a chili dinner as the sun dipped low in the sky. We ate in the cockpit in silence as the sun disappeared in her usual tropical splendor and a light rain began to fall. I finished my dinner, washed the dishes, and was quick to slip into bed. Sleep was impossible for me, and as I lay in bed thoughts raced through my head a mile a minute. I thought of my life, what lay in the immediate future, what work needed to be accomplished in Panama City, and what I would do with myself in the long-term. No matter how often I pondered this last point my mind drew a blank. I had no idea what I wished to do with my life; only that I wished to live it in such a way as to be remembered and to simultaneously ensure the lasting memory of my late brother and best friend, Lance. What the path was that would lead me there I hadn’t a clue. When my eyes did finally slam shut it was for but a brief while. I slept off and on for a handful of hours, passing more time awake than asleep, and finally resolved to stay awake as the clock struck five.
September 20 held a full day of motoring for us. With little to be seen or done in Ensenada Naranjo the time had come to press on towards the canal, and as the first traces of daylight formed in the east beneath a sliver of crescent moon I weighed anchor and directed Avventura out of the cove, cautiously passing between the mainland and the off-lying rocks of Islote Roncador. Rounding Punta Naranjas, open seas lay ahead, and the day was spend slowly rounding the big peninsula of southwest Panama. By eight o’clock the inconspicuous point of Punta Mariato slipped past and all on board reached their furthest point south in their lives. From here the land fell away northeast. John slept below, a pair of headphones drowning out the hum of the motor. Ryan was lying on the bunk opposite, portable DVD player in hands, oblivious to the scene. I marked the milestone in the logbook and returned to the cockpit to begin turning northeast.
A faint seabreeze shut down the engine in the early afternoon, but as we rounded Punta Moler and our anchorage at Punta Guanico came into sight the wind began to fade and the motor resumed her drone. We rounded Punta Guanico, and dropped anchor in the open roadstead to the north in twenty-five feet of water. A small town tucked into the corner at the base of the point on its south side, terminating at the mouth of a river a couple hundred yards to the north.
Before I could enjoy my new surroundings a pressing boat chore had to be performed. My single-aside-band radio antenna tuner had stopped working during the passage, and I needed to figure out why. This meant emptying out the quarterberth which served as a sort of garage for me and was filled with spare parts and assorted junk. That done, climbed into the sauna better known as the lazarette and unscrewed the cover to the tuner. Thankfully the fuse inside had blown, and after replacing it all was well again. I screwed the cover back on, took advantage of the empty quarterberth to tighten the packing gland a bit, re-filled my garage, and sent out a position report letting the world (and my family) know I had arrived safely once more. By the time my work was finished it was after six and my cousins were hovering around me waiting for dinner to be cooked. I took my sweet time, but prepared an easy meal which we enjoyed under the darkening night sky in the cockpit. Stars filled the sky, and the beautiful clear night foreshadowed a sunny and hot tropical morning.
Sure enough, dawn revealed clear blue skies and I passed the morning writing in my journal and reading till my cousins awoke. Then came time to explore our new surroundings. First order of business—finding somewhere to surf. On approach it appeared there was a series of beachbreaks lining a long stretch of beach stretching west behind on the south side of Punta Guanico opposite the anchorage, so John and I loaded in the dinghy with the two remaining surfboards and zipped around the point (Ryan said he didn’t want to come). Hovering offshore, there were but few waves coming through and it was clear there wasn’t much swell in the water. Thus we zipped back around the point, past the small town to the rivermouth where a small wave broke offshore. The water was shallow a good distance out, and the wave broke knee high a couple hundred yards offshore. The right had perfect form, and we spent a couple hours trading off tiny waves in the clear blue water. We had fun, true honest fun, despite the small waves. We hooted and laughed, quoted lines from North Shore, and reveled in the sunshine and tropical setting.
There was only so much small surf I could take, however, so after a couple hours we returned to the dinghy, dropped the boards off aboard Avventura, and asked Ryan if he wanted to come check out the river with us. Ryan declined. John and I zipped back past the town, through the line of surf, and entered the rivermouth over the shallow bar. Just inside the entrance a solid line showed where the ocean ended and the river water began. The water turned from blue to a murky dark greenish-brown color that made it look like you’d expect from a tropical river. As the water color changed we began fighting s slow current upstream and the wide rivermouth closed in on us in mangrove-lined banks. The cry of birds and hum of insects grew loud and all signs of human life disappeared as we snaked our way up the 75 yard wide river for a couple miles, enjoying the scenery and wondering where it might lead. I found myself looking down at the murky waters, wondering what god-awful forms of life lurked beneath, but none were to be seen. After a couple miles the mangroves parted and a vast tract of open land took their place with a small empty dock and a sign ashore. I read what I could, but we were going too fast for me to get further than “Private Property.” A couple hundred yards later a second sign came into view. The setting had the clandestine look you’d expect from a drug dealers compound and farm. A couple jokes were made about the insanity of the idea when I stopped to read the second sign. My literal translation came to: “Private Property Secured by a Private Navy.” The phrase private Armada hung over the scene like the sword of Damocles, and John and I turned to each other. What the hell had we stumbled upon? Nothing but cleared fields could be seen; but why the threat of a private navy to protect empty grazing land? More worried than curious, we turned the dinghy about and zipped away downstream, letting the engine run full throttle and skipping across the surface, scaring small fish out of our path.
An afternoon of relaxation and reading ensued as we enjoyed the second straight rainless day of the rainy season. The drought ended shortly after six the following morning with the arrival of a squall. The wind piped up and the rumble of thunder broke the morning silence. The squall lingered till half past nine, leaving a light north breeze in its wake. I decided to take advantage of the wind, so we weighed anchor without the engine and sailed away from Punta Guanico. Not an hour later the wind disappeared and the familiar drone of the motor pierced the quiet. In the early afternoon we entered the wide mouth of Ensenada Benao, slipped in close to the islet protecting its east end, and anchored in thirty feet of water just a stone’s throw from where I had anchored in the Atair a few years previous.
Nowhere else is the dramatic difference between the wet and dry seasons more evident than at Ensenada Benao. In the dry season the wind constantly blows hard offshore, sweeping massive rooster tails off the backs of the waves crashing ashore and sending ripples of whitecaps out through the anchorage. The hillsides surrounding the anchorage are brown and bring to mind the wheat fields of America’s heartland, at least to my un-knowing imagination. The cattle travel in clusters, forced to eat the dry grass, which helps explain why they all look so emaciated. In the wet season the winds are light and variable and frequent squalls roll off the land, sweeping the anchorage with rain and lightning. The hillsides are dark green and the grass grows tall. The cattle happily munch wherever they please and are spread out across the scene.
The only thing that remains the same at Ensenada Benao is the surf. Year-round it pounds ashore, among the most consistent places in the world I’d imagine. With the hook firmly set we paddled ashore, walked along the beach to the center of the cove, and launched off into the surf. The waves were only chest high, and as the tide filled in they began backing off, but there were still some fun sets coming through. A handful of people were out, all staying at the small campground ashore, and all friendly and welcoming. Ryan returned to the boat first, taking his boogie-board with him and only after he left did I realize I’d forgotten to put down the swim ladder. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I watched his numerous attempts to climb over the rail. Finally the right set of circumstances came together and he got a firm hold on a stanchion and with the help of a roll of the ship he climbed aboard.
After surfing I sat silent on the beach. Drained of all energy from three straight lousy nights of sleep, I stared out past the surf into oblivion. Out in the bay I saw the outline of Avventura three years previous and recalled my thoughts of abandoning ship right here, if only to be able to bodysurf the six foot waves that rolled through that day. In hindsight abandoning ship here would have saved me much derision from Klaus, but I doubt I’d have encountered this same bay again had I know remained steadfast and lasted till Germany, gaining an ocean’s worth of experience in the meantime. John stepped in front of me and broke me from my trance. He laid in the sand beside me and we cherished the warmth of the beach, and the tropical look and feel to the place. Nothing was said for a long while; then, at the same time, we rose to return to Avventura with a hint of sadness and regret. Our days exploring western Panama were drawing to a close. In a couple days we’d be in the islands surrounding the Canal Zone, packed with people and boats and the dregs of civilization. Between now and then lay what forecasts predicted would be a long, calm motorboat ride, with the possibility of some southwest winds to help us along. With a good forecast and dropping swell, there was no time like the present to take our departure.