Panama Greets Liz with Lightning

Into the Wilds of Panama

In the company of a dear friend, Captain Liz and Swell get some much need supplies delivered from home and then, on their way into Panama, get up close and personal with a vicious static lighting storm. And in case you didn’t know, blasting bolts of electricity while floating in a tiny boat on a big ocean is about as far from pleasure-cruising as you can possibly imagine.

Jack arrived early, weary from the travel but otherwise beaming. I offered him a coconut that Herrardo had bestowed upon me on my morning walk to the airstrip. He was a waterfall of stories, with two days of travel that took him through Tijuana with my sister and into San Jose’s darker part of town. I was excited to see him and we couldn’t get the words out fast enough as we loaded his bags and boards aboard.

He immediately unzipped the monster bag and began extracting gift after precious gift from home. Aloe vera, chocolate, a letter from my mom, a 2GB CF card for my camera, more chocolate, brownie mix, CDs my sister had burned me “so that I don’t lose touch,” hair products, more chocolate. I almost collapsed with delight.

After he finally handed over all the offerings, the bag had totally deflated. It seems that after packing all of my wish list, he had no space left for his own things and realized he had only one pair of shorts. He’d forgotten the other pair at one of the hotels. We found him a nice pair of nylon baggies in the “Ropa Americana” store in Puerto Jimenez later that day. They were too short and he looked like an aspiring soccer star, so immediately he was renamed “Pele.” Luckily for him, we found a place that sold trunks a few days later. The next day, I needed some time to write. I shooed Jack off the boat with his cameras and told him not to come back for a while so I could get some work done. Six hours later I walked off the pier heading for town and there was Jack, coming my way. His face was red and his clothes were rumpled and dirty. He grinned his almost devilish grin. Plants were sprouting out the side pockets of his backpack. His words came out in a heap, “You won’t believe it. Right after you dropped me off I met this guy named Herrardo. He took me on a hike through the forest and taught me all about natural medicines…and Lizzy…then he took me to his house…it was just a tarp in the forest and he cooked me the most kine grinds and made coffee and he only had one mug and he let me use it and we hiked for miles and miles…he worked me actually…and then I came back in a canoe and there were crocodiles in the river…”

I thought he might spontaneously combust from the excitement. It was Herrardo (pictured) from the pier. It couldn’t have worked out any better…buena manifestacion…I was starting to understand. Herrardo had been the first person he ran into that morning. I wished I had been there too, but I was happy that Jack had experienced his first day in Central America on his own. The swell forecast looked dismal and my ears still buzzed with infections, but I swallowed more antibiotics and Jack and I made a plan to head for Panama. I wanted to him to experience how I lived aboard Swell, even in the short time he had. Our first passage would be the longest. Once we made it to the northernmost island in the Gulf of Chiriqui, there were loads of places to go in a quick day-hop. The rain had been constant, but we had no choice but to go overnight to make the passage around Punta Burica to show up to the coral-fringed islands in daylight.

A following wind shoved Swell in the perfect spot on her starboard stern quarter so that I didn’t have to adjust the sail all day. The strong wind from the north seemed odd but I wasn’t about to complain after not turning on the engine once in 12 hours. “Something about this just seems too easy”, I repeated under my breath. I laid down around 8 p.m. to rest and left Jack to his first night watch. The rain began to spatter on the decks above but I was too tired to move. Then the sails began to smack, indicating the end of our “perfect” wind. I reluctantly pushed up off the settee and went up to have a look around. One look at the radar and my eyes bulged in horror. The rainstorm nearly blacked-out the eight-mile screen.

I turned the engine on and we powered through the torrential rain. My greatest fear materialized around us: a static lightning storm. It wasn’t moving anywhere quickly and we were smack in the middle. The bolts streamed down all around us. I did my best to steer the boat towards where there seemed to be fewer strikes, but it was hopeless. The axes of light grew more frequent and thunder followed closer. They were all around us, not even seconds between them.

Inside I started to panic. I knew this was bad. Really bad. Minutes lingered by into an hour and I was riddled with fear. I couldn’t reef the main because I was too afraid to get near my aluminum mast. My stomach was trying to crawl up my throat and I fought the bleak feeling of helplessness. My body stiffened more with each bolt. My hands shook as I unplugged the radios and other electronics. Finally the moment I had been dreading came. “Crrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaagggggaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack.” And then again. And again. The third was so close we could see the color spectrum where it exploded the water just a boat-length away. The radar went black and the chartplotter flashed a question mark and then went blank. I shrieked with terror and clutched Jack, tears streaming down my face.

I had never felt so absolutely at the mercy of nature. It was a power so raw and unbridled — so unpredictable and unavoidable. It was a harsh reminder of how small, insignificant, and puny I really am out on this big ocean. Gradually the bolts sliced the sky behind us. The radar flashed back to life. The GPS seemed to work intermittedly, but I’d lost all my waypoints and the track of my course down the Pacific Coast. Still, I felt lucky that was all that had happened.

I sustained the worst of the damage. Each time the thunder rumbled I’d shudder and cringe and my stomach would try to crawl out again. I had pushed myself and Swell into bad weather again in an attempt to make it a good time for my guest. I knew it was still dangerous to travel at night this time of year. All the smarter captains had tucked their boats away for rainy season, but I insisted upon traveling, weather or not. I told myself there would be absolutely no more compromises.

Return to next week for the next installment of Girl Surfs World, when Captain Liz gets deeper into the waters of Panama.

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