INTO THE LIGHT(NING)It wasn’t long after my afternoon’s celestial navigation lesson from Captain Frankie Westgate, that Mckenzie and I finally packed away our boards and pulled the dinghy on deck. I was sticking with my decision to go west to the Galapagos via a return to Panama’s wild western islands with a pit-stop at Isla del Coco — a remote Costa Rican national park. So after goodbyes with our new Panamanian pancake buddies, we pointed Swell’s bow to sea. Mckenzie was as eager to see Swell in action and learn her inner workings, as I was to get to our next exciting landfalls. Not three hours into the passage, we found ourselves amongst darkness and headwinds. A layer of clouds began to blot out the stars and shortly after rain pummeled down on the new rain curtains that Mckenzie and I had just spent a ridiculous time putting together in Panama City. At that instant, “dry season” hit the road.
I had cringed at whispers of the coming rain, knowing that once again, I was lingering on the border of a season from which I had planned to be long departed. So there we were, not even ten miles out, and the sky flashed and growled with thunderstorm indigestion. “Already? Couldn’t we just ease into this?” I begged the sky. As the bolts drew closer I poured over the chart. “We could just duck into this open bay for the night?” I bounced the idea off of Mckenzie. So although we were both eager to make some distance, I cautiously navigated Swell into the lee of a small island nearby and dropped anchor in the blackness. We woke at dawn spent a drizzly morning making our way further down the island chain and into an irresistibly gorgeous bay.
We hit the beach spinning after a Mckenzie-super-brew afternoon jolt and no sooner than we’d stashed our surfboard transportation above the high tide line, were we dashing about the white sand, climbing rocks, and examining odd bits of flotsam that had drifted ashore. The bay arced into a series of deep, nooked white coves, perforated by clusters of stacked and jagged lava rocks backed by a scene of greenness. Seeing that my new company always had equal amounts of energy, fearlessness, and a similar notion to just do things without too much thought for consequences, we set to scaling the rocks and making our way to the beaches on the other side. The farthest beach must have been the end of a current, as it was thickly littered with part and parcel of perfectly preserved plastic. Bottles and containers and cups and lids and chairs and pipes-you name it. The rusted ribs of a shipwreck added to the abandoned feeling of the bay. It was a beachcomber’s paradise–but as I looked around at all that plastic, I couldn’t help but wonder about the future of plastic in our environment? Unlike driftwood, the plastic would forever refuse to integrate with its new home. Hermit crabs found little interest in its indigestible nature, and heaved their shells over or between the colorful array of debris. I climbed trees while Mckenzie went about snapping photos “hither and thither.” After managing to lose each other in our beachcombing daydreams, we reunited and agreed that we should get going as the 15-foot tide was coming up quickly. I slung my newly scavenged bucket, full of coconuts, shells, and other oddities that I insisted upon hauling back to Swell atop my shoulder and we started back across the rocks.
The tide had nearly covered the route we’d arrived by, so we were forced to seek higher ground, scaling, climbing, or leaping from rock to jagged rock. We came to rocks too steep to pass so instead sought to round the half-submerged ones in between the surges of tide. In my caffeine haste, I followed too closely behind Mac. As most surfers have experienced at least once — the person in front will time the wave while the one following behind gets smashed. And I did. I would have beat the incoming surge, but my foot slipped into a deep hole launching my new bucket from my shoulder and spilling its contents into the soup of rocks and whitewater. I shrieked and heaved the remainder of its contents plus the five gallons of water that had surged in. I shoved my other arm into the froth and pulled out my rigging knife.
“My camera!” My little camera in its water housing had disappeared. Mckenzie had to get to higher ground as her camera equipment was perilously close to the next rush of the water. “There it is!” she shouted. I hurled the bucket up on the rocks as we watched the little camera emerge from a rock crevice in a tidal stream and swirl toward the next foamy surge. Instead of watch it get splattered, I flung myself from the rocks and rescued the little runaway, leaving the rest of my floating collection of coconuts, seeds, and driftwood to be sacrificed to the tide. After another hour of tedious and often frightening rock hops and ledge shimmies, we made it back to Swell. We were both scraped, bruised, exhausted, and beaming with joy.
PUNTA MALA — NOT SO MALA THIS TIMEWe uprooted ourselves that same night, as I was determined NOT to cross the shipping lane at Punta Mala in the dark again. Leaving at 2am put us in a window to do the thickest patch of the lane in the daylight, so off we went with Swell’s new bucket strapped to the side. By the middle of the next day we had only crossed paths with a few tankers and found ourselves on a conveyor belt of following wind and current. When I peered under the headsail in hopes of seeing a tanker-free horizon, something gray under the water’s surface caught my eye. Through the polarized lenses of my LX sunnies, I watched a ten-foot hammerhead shark zig-zag toward Swell, turn sharply to her stern, check out the lure we were dragging, and then dive for deep water. It was the first shark I’d ever seen from Swell and, little did I know at the time, it was a small taste of what lay in store for us a few hundred miles to the west.
RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINGAfter a peaceful overnight passage we secured Swell and both spent the day fighting off a nasty head cold. A rigourous regime of garlic cloves, vitamin C, and lemon and ginger tea ensued. The next morning we felt better. Mckenzie paddled ashore to snap photos while I set to changing out the propeller zinc. With my last twist of the allen key that secured the new corrosion fighter into place, I felt a strange pop in my left ear, swam out from below Swell’s belly and floated to the surface. As I hauled myself aboard, a sharp, high-pitched ringing commenced in the ear. Diving with a cold — bad idea.
By that evening the ear buzzing had blossomed to an orchestra of irritation. We’d been invited to help cook dinner aboard the “Cebaco City” when we’d stopped at the fishing barge/outpost earlier to buy some fuel. As Mckenzie vigorously stirred her reduction sauce, I marinated in my internal ear squeal. Lee and Jose’s enthusiasm energized the evening. Lee had even baked a cake while we were off surfing and little did he know I was only two days away from turning twenty-seven. So we kicked off my birthday a few days early aboard the “Cebaco City” (chivalrous ship #1).