New Firsts, Harsh Headwinds, and a Terrifying Night
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.