In honor of my first wife's 30th birthday, I decided to splurge on a nice trip for us to enjoy. I suggested Europe, but she thought it would be too cold. She suggested New York, but I said that would be about as cold as Europe.
She then asked me for more suggestions. I began to throw out surf destinations: El Salvador?, "No"; Costa Rica?, "No"; Panama?, -Pause-"OK" I couldn't believe she'd agreed to it and I was amped!
We first looked into the Pacific side. Santa Catalina was a definite first choice, but after doing research, I was over it. From what I was reading, the crowds were heavy and the vibe was aggro.
I'd heard whispers of Bocas, on the Carribbean side, and how good it could get there. I looked into it and found out the swell season starts in November. BOOK IT!
We booked a stay with Scott at Red Frog Bungalows, and we were all set.
We flew SD-LA, LA-Miami, Miami-Panama City, Panama City-Bocas del Toro. While in Panama City, we weren't sure where to take our local flight and we kept getting responses telling us it was the brand new commuter terminal. The two people at the terminal I tried to confirm with seemed apathetic and just told us to sit down as the flight left at three. When I told them the flight was scheduled to leave at four, they said, wait until four. I got suspicious and went to a second information desk where I had them call up the airline directly.
The airline told us it was at a different airport so we beat feet into a taxi driven by a guy named Deyvis. He let me in on some local knowledge, including the very poor areas with tin roofs and satellite dishes were people who worked with the narco-traffickers and the rest of the neighborhood received hush money. He claimed if they squealed, they were killed.
We also passed a very interesting screw-shaped building
as well as the sail-shaped Trump building.
The local flight from Panama City to Bocas was on an older prop plane that was a little rickety. I had a lot of fun teasing my wife with lines like "Wow, from this seat we'll have an unobstructed view of the wing breaking off the plane" and "Hmm, that really shouldn't be rattling like that"
We landed (quite roughly) and got our checked bag. We went up to the whitest guy we could find and asked him if he was Scott. He said he worked with Scott and we took off in a pick-up taxi. Our taxi ride was cut short because Bocas was celebrating its 108th anniversary that afternoon and they were having a big parade with young girls in fancy outfits and makeup as well as guys beating on drums. We literally walked (width-wise) through the parade towards our water taxi, got on and headed towards the bungalows.
Scott took us around, showed us our SWEET bungalow. The surf guide said we'd be up and at 'em early and I said not to worry, I would be awake.
We ate dinner, went to bed and I didn't wake up in time. The guide knocked on our door and I got up, ate a quick breakfast and waited for the boat. Scott, the guide (Jaime) and two other guests came along, along with the guy who manages the boat, Chato.
We stopped to drop Chato off and get some gas and we were on our way. I was told on the way that this was their first time surfing Playa Larga this season, as the waves and/or conditions hadn't been right up until that point. Jaime especially was frothing.
About an hour after boarding, we got to our destination and dropped anchor. This was only my second session surfing from a boat. It can boggle one's mind, as you're so used to starting on the beach, paddling out, surfing and going in. But here you can easily catch your first few waves with dry hair.
One of the guests had a camera, so she decided to swim to the beach with a dry-pack take some surf photos.
I was on a borrowed 6'1" Merrick that was wider and thicker than I am used to. The first two waves were lefts, and I was trying to surf them like I was on my glorious DHD back home. I couldn't get the initial pump to give me speed, so I turned to cruiser mode and did the best I could to generate speed.
The rights were barreling, so I turned my attention to them. The first right I caught was developing into a nice steep one. I stood up, did a proper pigdog pivot, but my line felt high for the size of the wave and I decided to abort.
When my head came up, I happened to catch the image of my board hurtling towards me and managed to dodge it. I noticed the leash string had burned through the patch job and told Scott. He very generously offered me his board and went to the beach to check on the photog. I didn't realize it at the time, but he was on a 5'8" quad fin with a swallow/thumb tail. This was the second smallest board I'd ever ridden.
Jaime was stone cold killing it out there and I smelled barrels and started to salivate. I got in a couple of quick ones, including one during which I paused before take-off, then swooped down into it with speed, but I wasn't making any.
I caught a nice left that let me in early. I did a squirrely turn (quad fin), recovered, and ALMOST pearled. The water was capping at the nose of the board, but I leaned back and salvaged it.
I also caught this left, which I remember hitting and falling back into the wash, somewhat close to recovering, but it was not to be:
A nugget came through, Scott cheered me on and I went right. I got into my kneeboard stance and blew through it. It let me out and I let out a hoot.
I also caught a right drainer super late. Jaime was in a perfect position to watch the carnage. I made the drop into the barrel and the wave ANNIHILATED me. It was a solid eight seconds before I came up, which is a lot considering I was in chest-deep water.
When I surfaced, Jaime looked at me with concern and said, "Are you OK?"
The conditions deteriorated and about forty minutes later, we paddled back to the boat.