Normally, Florida boys hop the short plane ride to the Caribbean Sea to catch some tried-and-true surf, but with new intel of breaks further south and the fuel capacity to go 500-plus miles… well, there are so many islands, and so many landing strips. Just look at the abandoned aircraft that is a testimonial to the island nation’s isolation. With all the drugs that were around in the 1970s, there’s a good chance it flew on one of these planes before its final parking on one of these landing strips.
In addition to planes corroding back to a base metal, nature is doing a great job of turning back the hands of time on this island. There’s nothing here that's going to make it easy. Feral, sorta — five-star, not even close. Like the show “Life After People,” nature is taking over the island. In an exponential way, roads, houses, and efforts to maintain previous attempts at settling the land fall flat to plants, salt, and saltwater’s grand plan to reclaim. Anywhere in Panama was easier than this.
A long flight on a short plane is how this trip starts. Not one for small spaces, I was a little sweaty-palmed when I pulled up to the airport eyeing the planes on the tarmac. Hoping for one of the larger planes was wishful thinking, because the security fence pulled back, allowing me to drive onto the ramp area right up to the twin engine six-seater. Sizing up the plane, my Land Cruiser looks a little bigger. Maybe it's an optical illusion thing, or not...
Nathan Behl, Keto Burns, Chris Tucker, and Scott McCranels join Nathan’s dad Greg, our pilot in command. This was to be a short trip, a little surgical/ strategic, get-in-get-out as the basic plan. The forecast was for a pressure gradient squeeze between the Atlantic high and a weakening tropical storm. A couple of backpacks, live in your boardshorts, and maybe one or two clean T-shirts was the call — any more than that and you'd be a heavy packer. Then there were the weight limits — remember the small plane theory. Fuel is more important than stylin’. There isn’t a drop of aviation fuel to be found where we are going, so we fill up for a round trip. Besides, once you’re there, where ya gonna go? There are no restaurants, no bars, no soda stops, no street food vendors selling pollo papusas. No hand carts with local tchotchkes being sold by Methuselah's grandmother.
Greg sits on the boarding stairs, a pre-occupied stare off to the far wall of the hangar, half talking to himself, a little mumbling like there isn't enough room in his head for the weight and balance computation. “Want to use the calculator on my iPhone?” Scott asks. “No, no, I’ve got it,” Greg replies. “I did the numbers last night, I’m just doing a checklist review in my head.” I look at Scott with a question mark on my face while I’m fumbling in my pocket for my own iPhone, just in case Greg changes his mind about doing the math. Scott reassures me that Greg is so thorough and conservative with the numbers he underplays his estimates... Sometimes it’s not important to know everything.
Heavy stuff goes in the cabin, back of the plane. Boards go in the wings behind the engines. This plane is designed with the traveling surfer in mind. If it’s 6’8” and under, there’s room for three to four per wing. Short taxi to Runway 32, an engine run-up/ final checklist while two planes, one single, one twin-engine, come in for a landing. Cleared to take the runway, we lift off softly, which in a small plane means you be heavy, with fuel and lots of it. We clear 3,000 feet turning out over the coast. Surf is as smooth as a baby’s bottom. So is the flight.
Deep blue sea as far as the eye can see. Slivers of sandbars where you never would consider them to be, divided by cobalt-blue deepwater ribbons. Reefs bubble up like mushrooms. Pointy and soft, curving and long, straight lines with circles — every type of coastline available, we fly over it.
If you were to come here, who would know? We landed very quietly, just birds and wind. The reclamation has started. The 1800s were very good to this island. Cattle, cotton, pineapples, and salt supported a population of over 2,000. Now with a population of around 80, the plants have the upper hand on returning the land to its starting point. Most of the decadence has moved to bigger, more modern, more populated islands where the jobs are now.
Many roads you will never see. Not from the air and certainly not from the ground. Most are coral rock with sand between, and many are watered. Most are grown over. If you want it, earn it — this island doesn't give without getting. Most of the folks who come here to surf have paid their dues. Early on, available front-end movers were used to make the initial roads. Decades later, a sharp machete thins back the relentless growth. I know — I did a week’s worth of “yardwork” in about an hour just clearing a path for the Nissan four-wheeler to get us to a break. And that was with Nate, Scott, and Keto helping. As karma would have it, if you screw up in this life, pray you do not come back as a tire on a four-wheeler here, just sayin’.
I recall in the ‘60s and ‘70s when the plastics companies assured everyone that plastics break down and become part of the Earth again… BS. There is garbage of the plastic variety everywhere on the beach. Large hunks, small pieces, chips, slabs. There has to be a way to collect and send it back.
Driving on a coral path through branches whipping the paint off the truck, it opens up to shallow salt marsh. We continue along the edge, in water about two feet deep. Up and over a hill to a wide spot on the path. Parking for one… Everyone packs up with water, loaves of bread, peanut butter ‘n’ jam, granola, energy bars. Once you get to the break you are there for the day. Down a hill path past termite mounds, saplings with spikes grabbing at any exposed legs and arms. Are we there yet? No. Next is another salt marsh to slosh through… Are we there yet? No. Twenty yards of muck sucking your flip-flops off. Are we there yet? No. Fifty more yards of coral rocks strewn along one more dune. Your reward is an empty beach with three- to five-foot right-handers wrapping around a coral reef. Plenty of driftwood and rope on the beach for a quickie palapa shelter from the sun.
Keto, Nate, and Tucker do the “short stick” lottery on who surfs first and who videos first. Keto wins… or loses rather, as he’s on deck for the first round of shooting. Nate and Chris paddle out. The winds have relaxed a lot, and stay light for the rest of the day. Scott heads back to the trail with a machete for a little maintenance hacking. Tucker is hacking away himself on the rare left backing into the reef, while Nate works on a little coaching from his Uncle Scott. “No more patty-cake half turns off the top, do rail turns on the lip.” Arcing bottom turns with an off-the-top snap where the wave doubles up are starting to become commonplace with Nate’s choice of waves. Like clockwork, he comes in to relieve Keto from videoing. He's had an hour and a half to scope out where he wants to be out in the water. Being a goofyfoot, he thinks he’s got the sneaker left dialed in. I tell him don’t get stuck riding the left, because there are more rights. He manages to split it up pretty evenly. Tucker is staying high on the lineup. The day before he was chasing the left only to get pulled way down into the penalty box. With a waterproof cast for a broken wrist, paddling was not his strong suite. He ekes out a couple of tailslide snaps on the left out in front of the rocks.
After clearing the path and stepping on a cut sapling, driving it into his foot, Scott comes back for a surf and a cool-down. His foot is already swelling and will probably get infected. Regardless, he goes out to catch a couple of righthanders. Greg searches the beach for more crap to give the palapa a little more sun cover. Later he grabs a machete to do his own battle with the overgrowth. An hour later he comes back with a cut over his eye and a black-and-blue lump forming under. Score: Trail one, Greg, shiner...
All day, never more than three guys in the water. Bobbing on the horizon, there’s an inflatable making slow progress towards us from the west. Surf pirates perhaps? What the…? It's all good. David, Dane, and Karina Petroni had flown in the day before and stopped by the house that night. Victor, a wandering South African, came here on a whim some years ago, and hasn't left.
Earlier that morning David took us up for an aerial surf check. Ten minutes around the island in a Cessna and the best breaks are picked. We went back to where we’d surfed the previous days. They went to another, a favorite some three to four miles away. But in the afternoon they made the run up to where we were. More in the water to shoot worked for me. Dane made the best of a borrowed board. A little larger than he’s used to, but I couldn’t tell. David liked the chance to do some cutbacks. Karina showed why she has the position and status in women’s pro surfing that she has. She butters the waves. Victor was just happy to be surfing. Nate starts boosting huge punts at the end of each wave. The lighting, the background, everything started to play into a great end to a great trip.
Watching the weather patterns had the isobars in the area relaxing, returning a surfing reef back into a diving reef where the best action was under the water, not the water itself. Lifting off the runway, looking out the window it’s clear, while the rests of the world continues to spin seemly out of control, the Jagged Little Island won’t be looking over its shoulder as it continues to spin down in complete control of its future.
I’d like to thank Greg Behl, Scott McCranels, Nathan Behl, Keto Burns, and Chris Tucker for making a great trip even better. Thanks for opportunity for me to go and the “want for nothing” hospitality. You guys are the best.