Waiting On The Perfect Panama Wave

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Written by Matt   
Sunday, 26 July 2009 12:21
Playa Venado, Bocas del Toro, Santa Catalina: Panama is home to a couple really good surfing hotspots. And having known this country for a number of years and never even attempted to ride a wave, I finally decided it unfair (or at least under-appreciative) not to at least try once and see what all the fuss was about. Plus, I liked the idea of hanging ten. It sounds rad. I visited Rio Mar Surf Camp, a really simple and rustic set of rooms about an hour outside of Panama City and a two-minute walk from the beach. The rooms were your bare essentials: beds (including a sheet), private bathrooms (excluding towels, soap), and (in our case) an air conditioning unit that hummed a welcoming sound of cold air. We also had a TV remote but no TV. There was a small kitchen area that served snacks and drinks, a pool that sat empty of water, and a vending machine whose door was accessible manually with a closely-guarded key. The lodging was an intermediate step up from camping, but in the spirit of learning to surf, I grimaced and accepted its rustic flare the way chubby dieters embrace the pull-up.

I don't know why I never realized this, but surfing relies almost entirely on good conditions. I guess I thought it was like basketball or dominoes: a sport where, if you have the necessary equipment, you can go and enjoy anytime. But upon arriving and hear that there were no waves in days, I got kinda depressed. The beach at Rio Mar is backed by cliffs and, true to its namesake, comprised of a river that feeds out into the sea. When the tide is out, there are lots of rocks to fall and/or trip on. When the tide is in and there's a swell, its surfable.

I had printed out earlier in my office a list of 360 Surf Terms from the internet. "Bitchin," I told my visiting friend Greg from San Francsico. "Ask me what bitchin means."

"No."

"Come on, ask."

"This is really stupid. What does bitchin mean?"

"It is old-school surf terminology for really good or enjoyable. It's what you say when you get a really good ride or hang ten." Greg was unimpressed and said nothing.

"Hang ten," I clarified, "that's when you walk all the way to the front of a longboard." Greg then asked if he could turn up the music.

After lying around all day, we finally decided to try our luck at Palmar, a neighboring beach where there were some small waves. I drove with three surfboards atop my car (my rented board ($20), Greg's rented board ($20), and the board of our instructor Santy) and upon arriving in front of some locals drinking beer, felt slightly surfer-ish. "You bring the wax?" I asked our instructor Santy. I didn't even know what the wax was used for really: to make the board more slippery?

I'm a bit of a detail freak, so when it came Santy's ($80) instruction session, I was left with many questions such as "could you explain a little further the part about, ‘just jumping up.'" He had drawn the outline of my surfboard in the sand and suggested I follow his movements from pushup position to upright. After the third attempt, he said I was ready for the ocean. It was nothing I hadn't seen on the Travel Channel but entering the Pacific, I felt like an underage guest at an insufficiently staffed shooting range.

In the ocean, I was able to get up a few times but nothing that felt truly thrilling. My knees were pretty sore and my chest was severely rashed thanks to me wearing no guard. Santy spent the two hours catching his own waves and telling me I was doing great. The only time I can remember having less personal instruction during a private lesson was when I was a teenager and the golf pro spent our scheduled 30 minutes hitting balls at the retrieval cart. "You see that one? Oh man. I think I knocked out that fucker's window."

The second day of surf camp, there were no waves. We toiled around, watched a surfing video, and spent time looking at the ocean as if, through the power of intense staring, a swell might arrive. But it didn't. We had to pay for the rental boards that day even though we never used them. On the third day, I woke up having dreamt about surfing and used that optimism to run down to the beach, but there were no waves. There were no waves all day. It was like one big lake. And we had to pay for the boards again that day. Before nightfall, I asked Greg if he minded returning to the City. We could surf the web, I suggested.


Last Updated on Sunday, 26 July 2009 12:25