It’s 7:00 a.m. in Playa Venao
, and Leon Mach has been up for more than an hour. As we sit around the breakfast at Los Sombreros, the house restaurant in our sustainable surf hostel, he cracks a few jokes as his fingers tap the table impatiently. When it comes to surfing, it’s all about the tide. If the tide is out, the waves tend to be smaller, fewer, and farther between. Between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. is prime high tide. After a cup of coffee and a quick breakfast, we grab our boards and any bare necessities and make a b-line for the beach. As we walk, Leon gives me a few pointers on how to best time getting past the foamy breaker waves that discourage so many would-be surfers. “If you can see where [the waves] are coming in most, you need to keep an eye on which side they’re crashing.” He stops as the whitewash of warm water rolls over our ankles and points to the waves breaking thirty meters away. “Generally, you’ll have three to four swells lined up immediately whenever you enter the water. Your best bet is to be patient.
When you see the break, paddle hard mate.”
While we wade into the water, I consider once again that this is the second day of surfing in my entire life, and try to let his last words to me resonate as we charge into the surf.
The board is somewhat awkward in my hands, and I begin to feel as if I am incapable of taking more punishment. Break after break, tumbling down from above to completely crush me under it’s unstoppable water wall. I’m using every ounce of willpower I have not to gulp down seawater, and toss my board in the direction that might be the surface. “Paddle hard, paddle hard, paddle hard.”
As I make it out of the foamy warzone, the ocean seems to open up. The water becomes an intoxicating blue-green, and I find myself at a loss of words. I can see the whole beach. From out here, there is nothing but to head back, but I feel as if I’m glued in place. A wave breaks thirty feet ahead, and a surfer picks up the swell, riding it back towards the center of the bay. Another begins to stretch its shoulders, and Leon and I roll off it’s back, back into the tumbling ocean.
Surfing is a sport with singular appeal in modern media. It is, for many people around the world, a symbol of total harmony with the ocean, and, like other board sports, incredibly fulfilling. With traditions as old and noble as any Olympic scheduled form of exercise, the surf board has been a part of Hawaiian and Polynesian culture since long before any European contact. In Panama, there is a rich tradition of surf culture being introduced to world-class waves from two different oceans, all in one paradise. While not as rich in tradition as Hawaii, Panama hosts part of the both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, making it a unique location, well situated for growth in this incredible sport. Here in Playa Venao, on the Pacific side of the country, surf competitions have been held for more than a decade. The local communities have hosted and nurtured the sport’s newest talent, and see the benefits in incredible ways. Local beach towns and hostels have an increased emphasis on surf and water sport culture, and cater to surfers from all over the world. What’s more, surfers are very aware for how their sport is directly impacted by the health of the planet. If the oceans are filled with garbage and reefs are not allowed to live un-impacted by human residents, the surf will always suffer. For this and many other reasons, surfers tend to be very conscious of their personal impact on the planet. Here in Panama, there are entire communities centered on sustainable surfing and living in harmony with the ocean. In a nation as small and coastal as Panama, the surf is almost always up, and pros from around the world descend on places like Playa Venao and Bocas del Torro each year to wild waves.
As I size up wave after wave, I realize there’s a dance routine to their approach. As the invisible blade of the moon’s gravity pulls the light blue water up, foot after foot, there is a moment. A moment of silvery sheen, just as the wave develops a small, foamy head, when you can see the heart of the wave. It’s slightly more shiny than the rest of the wave, and when it’s ready to rumble, it catches whatever light is in the sky, and says, “Paddle hard, mate.”
When I get up, and feel the fins of my board catch the same rolling current that gave me so much anxiety as I began, I remember that this is a sport of kings. It deserves your respect, and the feeling of riding that wave humbles me.
As I ride the swell towards shore, I am reminded of my snowboard heritage, and kneel down to cast a hand out into the wall of water. It envelopes my arm in a wing of blue and white bubbles, and I feel like I just learned how to fly.
On the other side of the bay, Leon queues up to a massive 8-9 foot swell, his dart shaped board cuts through the water like a white knife. As he carves his signature line into the break, he makes a big toothy grin at me, and tosses a shaka in for good measure. I better get back out there before he takes all the good swells.