Published: September 6th 2012September 6th 2012
Panama Tocumen International Airport
–I’ve never been able to adequately describe the feeling I get on airplanes– especially during take offs and landings. Aside from the euphoric sentiment associated with heading somewhere exotic or coming “home,” It’s as if years of introspective thinking were all meant to culminate with some sort of high altitude epiphanies. I’ve tried, through several hours of in-flight boredom, made somewhat tolerable by the entertainment offerings (depending on the airline) and the obligatory gin and tonic, to analyze just what makes these fleeing moments of appreciation so meaningful. This time around, sitting on the tarmac of Panama’s international airport, after five days of maritime over-indulgence, my quixotic outlook on life can be summed up in one simple yet trenchant realization: “what a fine life we are living!”
It’s a simple, uncontrived and perhaps cliché reflection, but one that continues to perplex and humble me.
Though we had all agreed that we were due for a guys’ trip before the end of the summer, it wasn’t before months of intensive debate, that a group of 7 of my closest friends and I finally agreed on the destination and the set up. We were all going to
Panama! The last time I was there, I had met Lukas, an affable Austrian who had sold his advertising business back in Europe after inheriting it from his Dad and profitably running it for a few years. He was done with it and the thought of sailing the warm seas of the tropics was far more appealing than working 80 hours/week in a cold corporate setting in Vienna. Fair enough. So what does a self-respecting, hard working man with visions of paradise to do? He bought a 72-foot Turkish wooden vessel and started a surfing and fishing charter in Panama! I met Lukas through a common friend, Drew, a few months back and while sharing warm tropical waves in Bocas del toro, we devised a plan for me to come back, this time with friends, to spend some time aboard his beautiful boat, searching for bigger and better waves.
We had considered just about every option possible, taking a responsive look at all the relevant variables: price, time, distance, wind, waves and weather conditions. Thanks to Lukas’ subtle yet powerful marketing abilities (I can see how he ran a successful advertising agency), we were sold on a surf charter
trip through the pacific coast of Panama. All the elements fell into place and the trip was set within weeks!
With half of us coming from the NYC and the rest from California, we met up in Panama City late on Tuesday night and the plan was to drive straight through the night to get to the boat by sunrise so that we could set sail later that morning… We weren’t gonna waste ANY time! Despite a few minor setbacks and delays, we were eventually greeted by our jovial driver, Joel, regrouped in the city, somehow managed to tie the boards on the roof of the van and got on the road by 3 am. The hardest part, however, was getting the other half of the group out of the nearby bar, where they had spent the past five hours befriending the local population and the tasty “Abuelo” – the smooth local Panamanian rum. With varying degrees of soberness and a collective sense of wanderlust and palpable excitement, we zig zagged our way through the Pan-American Highway and eventually reached our destination by 8 am.
As we boarded Patron,
our home for the next five days, we were
all greeted by Lukas with the same genuine smile that I had encountered a few months back on the other side of the country. I couldn’t believe the day had finally arrived and we were all aboard, ready to set sail in search of waves and tropical bliss. However, despite the mounting level of enthusiasm, we were grounded (literally) back to reality with a mechanical issue – we couldn’t get the anchor up! Several attempts and hours later, Lukas decided to cut the anchor loose and get a new one before we would finally set sail for our first destination. Though I don’t often credit Jeff for his wisdom, I think his reflection was spot on: “When it comes to sailing, there are always minor fixable problems that pop up.” It’s all part of the experience!
With barely a few miles behind us, we traversed a sizable squall, next, which rocked us for a couple of hours. Not sure if it was the tumultuous waters or just plain luck, but we managed to catch 4 or 5 fish on the way – Bonitas and Spanish Mackerels. (Catching a fish in the deep sea: bucket list: CHECK!) We reached our
first anchorage point by sunset, with just enough day light left to have a few perennial Abuelo toasts to the beginning of a great trip! Oh, and I didn’t mention that while we were trying to hang on and not vomit on the deck (I may have failed at the latter), our Peruvian chef, Alicia
was cranking out the first of many delectable homemade feasts in the cabin below. This woman can cook… WOW!!!!! Her menus got progressively better every day and the quality of each dish was only surpassed by the fact that she was creating such culinary gems under very limited resources. I can’t even imagine what she’s capable of coming up with in a fully-equipped, non-moving kitchen!
We gorged on freshly-caught tuna for days -- intricate recipes ranging from the traditional Peruvian ceviche to various Japanese preparations involving different cuts, spices and degrees of heat. And with the gastronomic decadence, came the waves! With a building swell coinciding nicely with our time in the area, the surf got gradually bigger and better over the week, culminating in a HUGE last day where our proverbial “manhood” was most definitely put to the test on several “drop in”
occasions! So after milking the last morning to the very end, we finally had to big goodbye to this perfect reef break and head back to the boat to lift the anchor and make our way back.
When asked how the trip went, it’s hard to not get carried away with a rambling ecstatic (yet genuine) hyperbolic description. EPIC is how I would sum it up… And with just the right dose of mechanical problems to add excitement to the mix! The following is a testament to it… On the way back to shore, both engines died in the middle of a heavy squall which turned what should have been a 4 hour trip back into a 8 hour journey! Imagine 8 weary, sun burnt dudes rocking away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, both engines out, a failed GPS and a Captain, drenched in sweat trying to stay calm and to get us back to shore safely. Just as the excitement was about to turn to pure trepidation, Lukas emerged from the engine room victorious as the comforting sound of a revived engine and the storm’s weakening restored the team’s morale! With all visible signs of apprehension
vanished, the unsettling realization that there would be nothing left to slow down our inevitable return sank in. The trip was coming to an end. So here’s how it went: in between surfing huge empty tropical waves and indulging in some of the freshest and tastiest fish ever, I spent a week aboard a 72 foot sailboat with 7 of my best friends... What a fine life we are living!
There are more photos below