New Firsts, Harsh Headwinds, and a Terrifying Night Encounter
From an internet café somewhere along the north coast of Panama, where the effectivness of email “depends on the weather,” Liz Clark updates us on her wild ride since returning to the Swell late this summer and setting off on her final months in the northern hemisphere…..
A leak in the “new” unit of my refrigerator kept me in Puntarenas, Coast Rica yet another week. Thus, my window for solo voyaging closed, as an old friend was due to join me at the end of September.
Seth Bloom was just the person I needed to stoke the fire of this surf mission. Seth and I had been neighbors when my family lived on 24th Street in Del Mar in the ‘90s. He and his crew were the classic surf junkies. By observing them through my high school years, I learned how to ride waves. They were masters in the art of using the beach and the waves for fun on any day, at any time, and in all conditions. They had been quick to let me know when I was kook, but tolerated me tagging along almost whenever surfing or snowboarding was on the agenda.
My family loves the ocean, but none of them are surfers and no one had yet published a girls “How-to” on surfing. Desperate to learn the sport as quickly and thoroughly as possible, I was a sponge in the presence of Seth and company, silently soaking up the useful information and letting the rest float on by. Thus, Seth is quick to remind me that I am forever indebted to him for unlocking the world of the waves. He’s got more surf stoke in his late 20s than a 12-year-old grom that just guzzled a Mountain Dew.
As most surfers endeavor to accomplish, Seth is a master of taking on enough responsibility to live comfortably, but to drop out whenever the waves get good or the travel bug bites. He’s determined not to take life too seriously and finds humor in almost every situation. Whether he’s flying by me on a snowboard when I’m certain I’m going as fast as humanly possible, or heckling me for not pulling-in, he always pushes me to go bigger. All in all, the foundation of our friendship lies in one glaring similarity: we’ll both go to ridiculous lengths for waves and fun.
After shipping back the broken refrigerator, Swell felt the movement of the ocean again. We motored passed the fleets of Chinese junks lining Puntarenas’ inner shore and leisurely crossed the Gulf of Nicoya. We anchored on the northern side of Bahia Ballena and swam into the beach to have a look around.
A fancy yacht pulled into the empty bay and a couple descended into an inflatable and beached it nearby. Upon returning from a shoreline stroll we crossed paths, and naturally, I thought nothing of exchanging hellos. I offered a warm “hi” and asked where they were from, but they turned up their noses, shot me an awkward glare, and muttered an unfriendly, unintelligible salutation. A bit shocked, I recoiled and returned to rolling in the sand, looking at shells, or whatever I had been doing-only slightly miffed by their rudeness. I realized they were on a fancy yacht and I was on a small sailboat, but we were in the middle of an empty bay and both spoke the same language. Pura Vida, right?
The couple walked down to their dinghy and pulled it out to the water’s edge. Her fluorescent bathing suit was hiked over the high altitudes of her hips, exposing much more than necessary of the slack, white cheeks that flanked out on either side. He shuffled out in his aqua socks to hold the boat steady into the small waves.
When the water was at their waists he signaled for her to get in while frantically yanking at the little outboard. As she swung one leg up and in, a swell rolled under and lifted the boat. Her supporting leg came off the sand and she whirled sideways and clung like a barnacle to the underside of the pontoon. From there her struggle continued while the flouro material burrowed deeper between her cheeks. He finally managed to haul her upper body into the boat; however, she ended the performance with both legs stiffly pointed skyward.
It all happened so slowly. My chin just kept dropping and Seth’s laughter progressively got louder. We watched in disbelief. Once they were both aboard and safe, we cheered, whistled, clapped, and choked with laughter without qualms about their humility, due to their rude display on the beach.
The next day we decided that with rainy season still a factor, we’d head north back up the Nicoya Peninsula where it was generally a bit drier. As we rounded the tip of Cabo Blanco, Seth went below with grand breakfast plans. He’d been doing everything possible to show his appreciation for being aboard. Smells of butter floated out of the galley and I was impressed by his ability to cook in the heaving roll around the point.
Suddenly he launched out of the galley, frisbeeing me a plate of plain scrambled eggs and an untoasted bread slice. He sat with his head in his hands while sweat poured off him. His vision of omelets and apple slices with buttered toast and jelly had deteriorated into a desperate moment of sea sickness. We laughed together as he recovered and I thankfully ate my eggs.
Our first attempts to surf were plagued with small swell and bad tides. The two of us were frothing for waves, but the ocean wasn’t just going to hand it over. It threw us a bone when we pulled up to Playa Negra and surfed the right reef head high all alone.
But something wasn’t quite right. The right side of my head felt funny. The world was kind of muffled. But how could I worry about that? A new swell was on the way, Tamarindo was going to be full of action, and my most amped surf buddy was there to dig into it with me.
Tamarindo had exploded with growth since my prior visit. I was appalled to see that both Burger King and Pizza Hut had sprouted along the muddy roadside. We spent a few mornings surfing the nearby beaches, gathering provisions, and getting to know our neighbors: four young guys working and living aboard a large charter catamaran.
My ear went from feeling annoyingly clogged to a sensation more like I was being stabbed with a flat-blade screwdriver. Despite the good company of Daniel, Leo, Freddy and Jose aboard the Marlin del Rey, it was difficult to fully enjoy the fun with the pain pulsing through my head. Finally after a few sleepless nights of torture, Jean-Luc (the French sailor/fisherman whose car I had borrowed in Puntarenas) took me to see the doctor. I had been using antibiotic ear drops, but the doctor said my ear canal was so swollen that the drops weren’t making it inside my ear. Thus I reluctantly started on a course of heavy oral antibiotics.
The evening before we headed north in pursuit of less crowded surf, the boys hosted a dinner aboard Marlin del Rey. It was a proud display of Tico tastes: beans, rice, pasta, salad, meat, and banana flambé to top it all off. I even took advantage of the catamaran’s stability and spaciousness for a yoga session and some salsa lessons from Daniel.
At six the next morning, we picked up two additions to the crew: Jean Luc, the French Tico, and Dan Jenkins, a surf photographer and friend from Oceanside. The hustle and bustle of town faded quickly after dropping off the mooring. It was the first time since leaving California that Swell had an all-male crew aboard. I hadn’t even taken notice until Dan said, “I heard that only girls were allowed on this boat and now it’s all boys. What’s the deal?”
I found other people’s ideas of what this trip “was” amusing and set him straight at once. “It isn’t all girls or all boys, it’s just whoever I feel will make a positive addition to the experience at that moment. No gender or surfing or sea-knowlegde criteria standards,” I explained.
We were a bit early for the swell, so the next day we hung out in Potrero Grande while I nursed my ear infection. After a long, sweaty afternoon nap, I poked my head out of the hatch to find Dan in a wilted wad beneath the boom. The air was so still it was like someone had exhaled a big hot breath that wouldn’t go away. For a moment Dan didn’t notice me and I almost burst out laughing at the sight of him.
But the strain on his face made me think twice. I slinked back into my cabin, turned up the fans, and waited for the midday heat to pass. That night we laughed about Dan’s afternoon in the doldrums. This definitely wasn’t one of those air-conditioned, X-box playing, maximum-comfort surf charters.
Tune in next Monday to find out what happens when you mix all dude crew, Captain Liz, and some late season south swell action at a little place called Witch’s Rock.