Oh what a long strange trip its been. The crew of Discovery started this epic as tired and as low as we’ve ever been. We’ve been working non-stop days (and most nights) since the first of December and by Wednesday, our first day of this trip it was showing. Nico remained exhausted after his incredible efforts for the all-pro trip, I was just coming down with an infection in my knee that would get perfectly scary in the days to come, Jody was just simply burned out.
But I’ve been excited to see the Perlas islands for years, and we were all excited to get out of the city and get kiting. Our guests were Dan Schneider, Brian Jacobs and his girlfriend Debra; and Michael Bigger, who joined us a few days after the start of the trip. We picked up everyone at the Balboa Yacht Club dock and sailed straight away for Punta Chame, the local kiting spot. The winds had been cranking all week, and by the time we sailed clear of the Bridge of the Americas and got the main and jib up we were cranking as well. Two hours later we anchored just off the beach in Punta Chame, with solid winds kicking up an uncomfortable chop (for everyone not kiting). We launched Dan and Brian off the boat, then with the sun sliding into the sea we brought up the anchor and headed around to the leeward side of the peninsula hoping to find calmer water for the night. The water around Punta Chame has ripping currents, with tides in excess of 18 feet. Sand bars are everywhere, and the water is murky, making navigation tricky at best, even in good light.
We made it around the point, but even in the waning light we could make out breakers well over a mile offshore, which weren’t on the charts. We motored slowly around, trying to find a way through, but with nearly zero light and nothing usable but the depth sounder, which just showed us getting in less and less water, I decided to play it safe and return to the windward side. Dan and Brian had been chasing us on foot on the beach and must have covered a couple miles by the time we got all the way back and had the anchor down. Needless to say, it was an uncomfortable night. Debra and Jody passed on dinner with wobbly stomachs and I don’t think any of us got the greatest sleep. Not what the crew needed.
For the next few days we had a similar weather pattern. Calm and hot all day, then wind late in the afternoon, which would mostly stay up all night. Punta Chame is the most reliably windy spot in Panama, and this is the perfect time of year. Our second morning we took Discovery around to the backside in good light, which made me thankful we didn’t try it the night before- a sandbar did in fact go well over a mile off the point. The backside was more comfortable, but when the winds came up late (too late to kite unfortunately) a reverberating swell did as well, which made for another uncomfortable night. Small dinners again, another lackluster night of sleep. By day three I got smart. An island known locally as John Wayne island (there was a resort with the same name built just like a Hollywood John Wayne set, which we visited and all came away thinking…weird) lay across the bay at the foot of the mainland mountains. In front of it was a perfectly calm anchorage that we had all to ourselves. At low tide massive sand bars would “rise” out of the water like apparitions in the desert. With wind it would be one hell of a place to kite. Perfect flat water, all to ourselves.
And thankfully, though the days remained stubbornly calm, that’s exactly what we got in the afternoons. Michael arrived on Saturday and the wind came with him. We would launch off one of the sandbars, then if you liked butter flat water you would stay put, or if you were more inclined for a down winder, off you went across the bay to Punta Chame, about 3 1/2 miles. This wasn’t an ideal arrangement for the crew, as one of us would then have to cross the channel with the dinghy to bring them back, but the smiles on the clients were worth it. Brian got his first front rolls and riding blind down, Dan got comfortable with staying upwind (this was about his 20 th time kiting)- in very challenging conditions as the currents were viscous, and Michael pulled his always crazy moves with his new Nemesis HP kite.
By about this time my knee had gone totally seppo. My whole leg was about twice its normal size and hurt like hell. My knee cap was a red volcano, but hadn’t yet erupted. I could barely walk, and the toxic doses of painkillers and antibiotics were taking their toll on my sensibilities. In one afternoon I managed to launch Dan with his lines backwards, scream at Michael for making me wait in the chop (long story, and thankfully the only time I’ve truly lost it in 8 years of operating boats), and damn near sank the dinghy in the shore break. Luckily Jody made an intervention and while I won’t say forced, aggressively urged me to visit a hospital.
By mid day on Sunday I’d visited the doc, who subscribed injectable antibiotics and said it would soon explode and all would be well. As we were heading to the Perlas islands, our friend Moises Niddam, the local Best rep had to watch the doctor inject my ass so he could explain to Jody how to do it- as I had to take the shots for 5 days. I’m sorry Moises.
Monday goes down as the most incredible passage we’ve ever had, bar none. It was only 40 miles, and flat as a pancake with zero wind. But that’s not what made it great. As Carnival was happening in Panama all the fishermen were on land. Which left the ocean totally to ourselves. Make that us- and millions upon millions of fish. I’m not joking, there were bait balls and sea life everywhere. Pelicans and other birds in the thousands, diving on the fish like lunatics. Tuna and other game fish slamming the bait balls, dolphins jumping and diving and getting their share. Turtles, rays- you name it, everything was on the move. We saw whole schools of rays swim right under the boat. Not one or two- dozens upon dozens, again and again. For five hours everyone hopped around the deck going “look at that!”, “oh my god”, “holy shit”, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” I had no idea there was still life like that left in the world. What a reminder of how precious and precipitous life can be. A long liner fleet could wipe this area out in a season.
We then spent 5 days in the Perlas islands. Five days without a breath of wind, so the kiting was somewhat unspectacular, but that isn’t the case for the area. The Perlas are striking, and if we’d had wind we’d have been among the very, very few to ever kite them. We basically circumnavigated the group, covering over 100 miles. We visited a beached submarine; swam with large schools of fish of varying kinds (puffer, snapper, mackerel, jacks) and a bunch of rays; saw a traditional island village; and even saw a couple very large salt water crocodiles on a river trip on the island of San Jose. That was pretty amusing. 8 of us in the dinghy, making our way up a narrow black river, anticipating getting ripped over the edge at any moment. I would say the overall mood was one of…curious trepidation. We all wanted to see one, just not too close.
The anchorages were all spectacular, and by our last day in the Perlas my crew and I were finally recovering. My knee had erupted, which was fantastic and horrific in tandem. The swelling instantly subsided, my fever broke, my leg felt great but you can’t believe what came out of there. Better left unsaid.
We’d been joined by a local guide named Vincent, who’d spent a lot of time exploring the islands. By the fifth windless day I pulled Vincent aside and said that while the islands were incredible, we needed to find wind to end on a solid note. Vincent pointed us north to San Miguel, where we could get cell reception so I could call Moises. Moises knows the kiting areas better than anyone in Panama and he said there would be only one place with wind- Punta Chame.
So we headed back west, and arrived just in time for the afternoon winds to crank. And we did indeed end on a great note. We got three great days of kiting, and while at times very gusty, they were extraordinary sessions. As it was a spring tide, the sand bars on low tide were vast. One night with the winds gusting to 30 knots, even in our protected bay at John Wayne island the current was so strong that they held Discovery with her stern toward the wind. In all my years at sea I’ve never seen anything like it. For some hours of each day you could have walked over a mile from one side of a sand bar to the other. And at high tide you never knew they were there. The most incredible thing? Three miles away everyone who kites in Panama kited in onshore conditions in 4-5′ chop. It’s like a very scaled down Cabarete. And it’s a very cool place, and an incredible community. But we had perfect glass, and we had it all to ourselves, but you couldn’t get to where we were without a boat. Once again I realize the price we pay (in hours and work, not money) sometimes out here is dear, but it’s almost always worth it.