THE ODYSSEY JOURNAL: ALL PRO INVITATIONAL, PANAMA – JANUARY

We’ve been planning this event for so long I can’t believe it’s actually happening. Ten of the top wave riders in the world. On our boat, in the middle of nowhere, in a place that as far as we know has never been ridden. I’ve had some serious jitters for weeks. |

 


By Gavin McClurg 

January 12th, Day 1

The plane arrives

We’ve been planning this event for so long I can’t believe it’s actually happening. Ten of the top wave riders in the world. On our boat, in the middle of nowhere, in a place that as far as we know has never been ridden. I’ve had some serious jitters for weeks. Will there be wind? Will there be waves? Could we pull this off? Would everyone have fun? We arrived a week ago Saturday in torrents of rain. The rain continued for three days, then cleared up beautifully but of course the wind and swell cleared out as well. Two days ago I got an email from our writer for one of the main magazines running a feature (I’m not allowed to say until it’s published) that he thought the magazine might pull the plug. The forecast was looking dismal and without wind there would be no “kiteboarding expedition”, and thus no reason to come. Without the writer our lead photographer (Erik Aeder) from Maui would have no main publication to sell the pictures to. Without Erik the pros get no press, and don’t have much of a reason to come. I felt like the domino was about to fall. 

A tiny bit of the gear!

My immediate response was to send out an urgent email to everyone coming down that we should consider moving the dates back a few days, in hopes the forecast would improve. In the span of two hours my world went from upside down to nearly as relaxed and perfect as my world can get. Our film crew, carrying nearly a quarter of a million dollars worth of gear were already enroute (Dan Connely, Mike Jones, Erin Harvey, and Ryan Gaw). All the athletes were within 24 hours of departing. Erik, one of our owners Scott Wisenbaker and the writer and his wife were packed and ready to go. But in those two hours our forecast suddenly went from bleak to very hopeful (winds coming from the NW, swell coming from the NE) and the response from everyone was the same. “Do it”. They made me realize that what we get is what we’ll get and with the group we have, we’re going to have a blast regardless.

Unloading, Careening Cay Lodge

The head of Red Bull in Panama, Hayes Wheeler put me in touch with a well known local surfer, Scott Balogh who’s developing a piece of property in Balinese style at a remote spot called Red Frog Beach. Our lead on production, Dan Connelly arrived first on Thursday and we all decided to have a look around with Scott to recon the area before everyone arrived. On Friday we were joined by Mike Jones and Erin Harvey, two more of our cinematographers. I took one look at the gear these guys have and realized they are way, way, way overqualified to be here on our budget. To be around people with the kind of experience, passion and enthusiasm these guys have is contagious. I was beginning to feel a whole lot better about running this event, and with the forecast continuing to improve, I couldn’t wait to meet all the pros. 

Mauricio and Amit begin the filming onboard

My hope is to write a daily update on the event for the next 9 days. Even if I pull this off, I’ll never be able to describe the quality of men who are now here. With each flight yesterday from Panama City a few more guys arrived, each one bringing their own amazing and unique energy. Amit Anbar from Israel came in first. Amit had no bags at all- his board bag lost in New York, his clothing bag lost in Panama, but after 40 hours of straight travel he was still keen to get in the water and get some waves. He and Scott (also looking pretty bleary eyed) headed out with the film crew to see what they could find. Then came Chris Wyman, Moehau Gould, Joao Pedro Simonsen, and Mauricio Abreu, coming in from Los Angeles, Maui, Brazil, and Tahiti. The boys (all but Joao) were pretty shattered from a rough night in Panama City, which I probably shouldn’t elaborate on. Needless to say, having this kind of talent all together in one room was fairly over the top. I don’t think “starstruck” really describes how I was feeling, but it’s not far from it. Raphael Salles, Mika Fernandez, Fernando Peraud, and Rami Beracha will all be joining us tomorrow and Monday. 

Mauricio Abreu (Morris) checks out Discovery

By the time we had everyone rounded up we headed out to Scott’s bungalows for our opening party, a big bonfire and dinner under a moonless, cloudless sky. It’s such a remarkable place. To get there you have to take a 15 minute ride in a motorized “kayuko” through thick mangroves which grow in pristine clear water. Then you take a sand trail through a jungle (sloths, caymans, and of course- red frogs!) to the other side of the island, which opens onto a beach that thankfully few tourists will ever see. At one point in the party I walked out alone on the beach to do a bit of stargazing and realized I felt incredible. Sure, the food was great, the beers were cold, the bonfire was raging, the beauty of the night was mesmerizing; all these things certainly helped my lofty mood but I realized it was the company. When you are among greatness, you simply feel great. This is going to be an extraordinary week. 

Chris Wyman, at home on Discovery

January 13th, Day 2

Getting ready on Discovery

With the addition of Raphael Salles, Mika Fernandez, Erik Aeder and Ryan Gaw today our crew is almost complete. The weather remains clear and sunny, but our swell is still minimal and the winds non-existent. The forecast however remains excellent- by tomorrow we should have some wind, by Tuesday the swell and wind, peaking by Friday. We’re planning an offshore expedition out to Escudo Veraguas. If we go, we’d have 24 people on Discovery- should make for some entertainment to say the least!

Loading her down

Mika Fernandez

For our first day of exploration we headed out to circumnavigate Bastimentos island, about 25 miles in total. We stopped at Playa Larga for a few hours so everyone could have a swim and quite a few of the boys got some decent waves. As we haven’t had any rain in a week the waters offshore have cleared nicely and visibility is excellent. When Will James shows up (we’re not sure where he is) we’ll have to give a go at some spearfishing, as fishing is how Will spends his time whenever he’s not chasing massive waves.

Raphael Salles

The plan was to head around to the south end of Bastimentos to have lunch, but by the time we got there we realized lunch would be served about the same time as dinner (the place was reputed to be very slow), so we just trucked on. For the next hour and a half we traversed through the strangest salt water area I’ve ever seen. Certainly an odd place for boats of our size to venture. Hundreds of tiny islands dotted the horizon, covered with a solid forest of mangroves and our route went right through them. The chart had little more than “uncharted”, but I’d heard there was a way through and somehow we found it. Some of the channels we navigated couldn’t have been more than 3 boat widths wide. Mauricio, Moehau, Joao, Chris, Michael and Ryan all had a go at jumping off the trampoline and riding through under the nacelle (bridge) of Discovery but unlike when we normally do it, with these guys I didn’t slow down. Good old fashioned horsing around. Maurico even got in another “surf”.

Mauricio Abreu tows behind the cat

By the time we got back to the Careening Cay lodge everyone was starving and ready for a big meal and a few drinks. A great band was playing at the bar, the forecast continues to look positive. So far everyone’s spirits are high and we’re all anticipating another fantastic day tomorrow- let the wind come! 

Moehau, prepping for a surf session

January 14th, Day 3

Rami and Amit

This was our first day of real kiting, though it was a bit short and not a whole lot of sweet. But it was a pretty amazing day. The morning began early for me with yet another trip to the airport, this time to pick up Amit’s board bag, Erik’s camera bag and Rami Beracha, an Israeli kiter and friend/student of Amit’s who owns a school called Kiteaway in Israel. Rami lost one leg and one arm and suffered a serious injury to his other arm in a landmine accident in Lebanon while serving mandatory service in the Israeli army. Rami has climbed Kilimanjaro, and Amit insured us we’d be impressed by his kiting, but I was already impressed by just how he got around. He can handle a board bag better than I can!

Searching for wind

We got a bit of a late start as getting 20 bodies moving in the same direction takes a delicate balance between a concerted attempt to stick to a schedule and the reality of…getting 20 bodies moving in the same direction. It isn’t easy, but one thing I’m learning to love about this group is they are all positive and all motivated. The video crew shoots everything they can, the pros watch the weather more attentively than I do, and everyone works diligently towards our common goal- which is to make a killer movie, but have a blast in the process. Part of that process is covering every inch of ground in Bocas so when the wind and swell hits we’ll know where to be. This would be our mission on day 3.

Mauricio Abreu and Raphael Salles

Discovery’s waterline at the bow is now well underwater. I can’t guesstimate the weight of all the gear on the trampoline, but we must be near her maximum payload. We pulled out of the Careening Cay marina (aka Sand Fly bay) after breakfast and headed out to the Zapatillos, hoping to find wind and some wave potential. We had plenty of blue sky and sun, and a bit more swell, but the forecast still looked bleak until tomorrow (Tuesday). Nico served up one of his wonders for lunch- sushi rolls, homemade sandwiches (yes, bread and all- for 20!), and pear tart. The guy is incredible. No matter what I throw at him he can handle it. He’s got this tiny kitchen to turn out world class meals and somehow he pulls it off in style. His job was going to be getting a hell of a lot harder, but that’s a bit down the road.

Rami

When we reached the Zapatillos the wind surprisingly came up to that annoying level where you know you shouldn’t bother, but you still have to give it a shot. Everyone took to the beach, a gem of a spot on the NW side of one of the main two islands. Several made attempts at having a go, most of those weren’t able to stay upwind. And then there’s Mika Fernandez with F.One

Mika Fernandez

The guy is a like a buck 10 (110 pounds), ripped like a navy seal, gorgeous (yes, I can say that- everyone else does too) and loves the camera. He was hopping around on his board in light airs like it was blowing a gale; pulling a whole array of tricks and giving us all quite a show. 

Zapatillo Beach

It wasn’t a fantastic session, but it was great to get at least some kites finally in the air and the spot was stunning- this area has so much potential. It definitely gets world class waves. We just need the wind. 

Mika Kiting

From the Zapatillos we departed for home. We had two choices- go the safe route around the outside, where there would no doubt be some sea sickness suffering (we’ve got a few people who seem to be prone to the “greens”), or go the inside route, which was a bit shorter in distance and totally calm, but in the moon less dark through a maze of mangroves and reef. 

Scott and Moehau, checking out the break potential

As we’d done the inside route the day before and I had it on the GPS, I opted for the calm route knowing it would be more comfortable. This ended up being an idiotic choice, but luckily we ran the gauntlet and prevailed. There were more than a few times when we got so close to the mangroves I could hear the secadas scratching their wings, not to mention the gasps and groans of those on board who ventured to take a look around from time to time. It was two hours of incredibly stressful navigating. Me, crouched over the lap top pushing the auto pilot controls trying to follow a track line from the day before exactly, shouting commands to Wyman for more or less throttle, with rarely a moment to even look out the windows in the main salon. I never once looked at the depth sounder, as the stress was enough as it was.

Mauricio getting ready

We made it back to port in due time. It had been a long day, and a particularly stressful one for me due to my poor decision of navigational choices, but all in all an encouraging one. Bocas is stunning, the swell is coming, the wind we can only hope for. In the meantime, while Discovery is a big cat, with 20+ on board I imagined it would be more chaotic than it is. Everyone is having a blast and the energy is contagious. We all have different agendas and somehow they all feel like one.

Raphael Salles

January 15th, Day 4

Moises, landing a fish

Day 4 will probably go down as the best surf day of the trip. With Scott on the Red Bull ski and the swell finally pumping, we pulled out early to head down to Cusapin, where we heard very few people ever reach. Cusapin is 4 hours south of Bocas, across a long channel, through a myriad of mangrove lined islands, across another open water channel and into a long, fully protected bay called Laguna de Bluefield. 

The Locals

From there we shuttled everyone ashore using our new dinghy which just arrived from California via Miami via freighter to Panama city via truck to Almirante via me getting a water taxi to the mainland to assemble the boat, motor and various accoutrements to get her going back to Bocas.

Hiking to the surf

This was a day that this trip really started to shine. We haven’t gotten more than a trifle of wind, but hiking across the bight through virgin rain forest, slipping and sliding on the thick clay mud and passing the local smiling indian faces on the way to surf that we knew we’d have all to ourselves seemed to unify the group and stoke our common cause, which was to have a wild adventure and have it with amazing people. On the way to Cusapin Will put out a few lures and we promptly hooked into two sweet Spanish Mackerel and a very nice Sierra Mackerel which Nico would no doubt do something amazing with in the days to come.

Local girl greets us

The scenery at Cusapin is stunning. Verdant green jungle rises above a long pearly soft sand beach which contrasts against deep green waves that thunder in from offshore. By the time the film and cameras were rolling every guy on board was out in the water. We were the only ones there and the energy on the water was remarkable. I knew these guys were known for their wave kiting skills, but I had no idea they were such skilled surfers. Amit, Mauricio, Moehau, Chris, Scott Wisenbaker, Scott Balogh, Raphael, Mika, Joao, Will- each of them caught wave after wave after wave. Everyone was hooting and hollering and encouraging and laughing and it was all just perfect. After three days of little to no wind, a lot of searching, a lot of hoping, this was just the thing that was needed to boost everyone’s spirits. 

The Beach

Setting up

Everyone surfed until the sun disappeared beyond the horizon, then we each trudged across the mud path again, back to our home on Discovery. Nico greeted us with another spectacular meal, this time for 25 souls on board. My poor chef is going to be one buggered dude after this trip- I can’t believe he can pull off the quality of meals we are having in the space he has. He received a standing ovation this night for his efforts as he’s been working 20 hour days since the beginning. Every morning he rises at 4 am to begin the days’ meals, proofing loaves of fresh bread (which he makes in large tubs), chopping salads, marinating fish and meats. He blows me, and everyone else away.

Moehau

We got underway after dinner, this time just two hours back north to another lodge called the Maccavite. The tunes were cranking, the beers were flowing, everyone animated and laughing and having fun and as the organizer of this event I couldn’t have been happier. Sure, with wind we’d actually be doing what we are all here to do, but it’s so rare to have such an amazing group of people together in one spot just here to have fun. These guys represent a host of different teams and sponsors, many are married, many have kids; all of them lead different lives all over the world, but today we all came together- the pros, the video crew, the writer (Michael), the photographers, the guests, the crew and just had a blast.

Mauricio catches another one

We reached the Maccavite hotel at 2200 hours, a beautiful new place on the south end of Bastimentos island which sat in the mangroves over a deep water channel. Nothing but trees and jungle for company in all directions. Each of us were worn out from the great day and crashed immediately. Tomorrow we’re planning on heading south and offshore to Escudo Veraguas, where we hope to find even better swell and wind. We’re going to overnight at the island with 25 people on Discovery, which has cabin space for 11 comfortably. Should be tightly interesting…. 

January 16th, Day 5

Today we went into serious expedition mode. An early start from the Maccavite hotel, then south to Escudo Veraguas 34 miles with 25 people on board. Escudo has zero population, rarely has a visitor and as it’s offshore some 10 miles we hoped would have more wind. Discovery comfortably sleeps 11. We have 25- 8 pro riders, Rami, 4 film crew, 3 boat crew, one photographer, one owner and his girlfriend, one writer and his wife, Scott (our local guide, guru and surf wave god), and two Panamanian chica friends of Scott to keep the morale high. One of them seems to keep Will’s morale higher than the rest of us, which doesn’t seem fair considering we’ve been catching plenty of fish… We planned to either sleep everyone on board or set up some tents onshore as there’s no way we can go all that way and get home in one day. 

Scott would have to drive the jet ski 34 miles, half of them offshore. He and Mauricio went ahead to get some early waves at Cusapin to break up the trip with us on their tail. By the time we arrived we’d already been through several serious downpours, one of them providing more than enough water for a full deck shower for yours truly, and some strong winds. 

The Red Bull Ski

We pulled into Cusapin and knew right away the swell was way up from the day before. Mauricio jumped on board and our own Scott joined Scott Balogh to surf. I programmed Escudo into a hand held GPS so they would have a guide if they lost sight of us, and we headed south. The weather was wet and visibility went from poor to nearly zero. For 17 miles we ran south while I just stared north hoping for a site of the ski and the two Scott’s. They would have no land reference at all and have no backup- if the GPS ran out of batteries, or if the ski had a mechanical failure, or any number of other failures, they would be totally on their own, drifting alone. 

Mauricio, aka Morris

But just as we pulled into Escudo the sky lifted a bit and finally the ski came into view. After crossing some 17 miles of open water, the boys were pretty wiped. I was incredibly relieved to see them. I’ve got 25 people in my charge and the thought of losing someone either to injury or other nightmare is just that- a nightmare. 

Beautiful

Escudo is a stunning island, with a series of offshore islets which dot its small coast. All are covered in thick jungle with a mix on the shoreline of steep clay walls and then long beaches. The wind was up just a bit as we pulled in and we were escorted by a small pod of dolphins, to everyone’s delight. We anchored at the south end, behind a series of tiny motus which made for a spectacular backdrop. Joao launched off the boat, but then the wind was replaced by a windless rain squall and the “kiting” was quickly finished.

Joao wears his “tie”

We never imagined or planned to be running things with everyone on board overnight. Nico will have to prepare three meals a day for two and half days for 25 people in a galley that’s challenging for 6. Not only has he ridiculously trumped anything we’ve had locally he blows everyone away. On a trip where we’ve had very little wind, it’s a damn good thing we’re eating first class fare. Will took the ski in for some fly fishing, others went for a snorkel, others just stayed on board for a rest, while a few of us went for a stroll up the coast to recon for waves. Rain squalls were coming in rapid fire succession by this point and I kept thinking the wet weather and lack of wind would wear thin on everyone, but this group continues to amaze me. They take whatever the weather throws at them and we continue on, seemingly undaunted by the poor conditions and lack of kiting.

Late in the day some wind finally did arrive and just about everyone got in a short semi-wave session. I managed to bury the dinghy a couple times shuttling people in through the shore break, but otherwise there were no major catastrophes. The winds were hardly strong or consistent enough to be called good, but I think those who got a chance were glad to at least have a go. If nothing else, the scenery was incredible. I can practically guarantee no one has ever kited here. 

Mika Fernandez

Early that evening we found ourselves in a major debate. The options were numerous, with no clear favorite: 1) Stay in Escudo and sleep on the boat, with those on deck suffering through the inevitable rain (although the skies where clearing rapidly); 2) head back to the Hotel Maccavite (4 hours) to be more central to waves; 3) head all the way back to Bocas (6 hours) where I could take on fuel as both Discovery and the ski were getting very low; or 4) head back up to Cusapin (3 hours), sleep on the way and at least have the option of good surf in the morning, though we’d be one crowded boat for the night.

Mika, later in the day

The debate raged for a good hour and option 4 won. By the time we pulled out of Escudo at 2200 the skies were completely clear and the moon was brilliantly waxing to nearly full. Scott B took the first leg on the ski, we raised all the sails to take advantage of a light apparent headwind and headed out. We’d come a long way to leave such a beautiful place so soon, but this expedition is all about wave kiting and Escudo was currently lacking both wind and waves. 

Even with the help of the wind and the motors cranking, a counter-current kept our progress slower than normal and the trip ended up taking over 4 hours. But it was a stunning night. I was wide awake for the duration and had several others stay up to keep me company. Mauricio, Mike Jones and I brought Discovery in around the point at Cusapin under a brilliant sea of stars, the Milky Way in all its glory. By the time we dropped anchor we were nestled into a perfectly calm anchorage and bodies were strewn sound asleep everywhere. I gingerly made my way to our cabin and passed out immediately. Sleep has been in as short of supply as kiting, but we’ve certainly had no shortage of adventure!

January 17th, Day 6

With 25 people on board an early start is pretty much a given. Erin had the camera out early videoing the people chaos- there were bodies strewn about the galley floor, across the main salon, under and on the cockpit table. We’d had some rain after anchoring, sending everyone off the decks for cover wherever it could be found.

But this morning the skies were filled with blue. And while sleep had been in short supply our crew remained as positive as ever. We pulled anchor and navigated further down into Laguna de Bluefield so those inclined could traverse back over to Cusapin for an early surf. After ferrying everyone to the dock I returned to Discovery to try to make her a little more organized and comfortable. Restock the coolers, hang up all the wet cloths, swab the decks, sweep the cockpit. I looked up at one point and saw Mauricio paddling back to Discovery with two little kids in their canoe. He’d broken his board on his second wave and needed another. Apparently the waves were really heavy, as not long after Wyman came back with another one snapped. 

Chris shows off his work

Nico’s been pulling 20 hour days. He gets up at 4 am each day to start baking bread, prepping lunch and dinner. We’re catching a ton of fish (mostly Spanish and King Mackerel) which he’s turning into ceviche, sashimi, indonesian peanut sauced kebabs…I’ve never seen hands move so fast, never thought it was possible to actually feed this many people out of our galley. This was never the plan, we were supposed to be back in port every night but as usual, he rolls with the punches. Everyone came back over per our set time limit at 10:30 am. The waves at Cusapin were killer for surf, but we’re running out of time to get kiting footage and we had to press on. 

Mika Fernandez is amazing to watch

We headed northwest to CayoAguas where Scott thought we had a chance of a good right with more exposure, and the winds were slowly starting to build. On the way up the winds kept building and I found myself conservatively ecstatic. Would we finally get wind? Alas no. By the time we pulled in the winds had backed back off and there was little to admire but the stunning scenery. We anchored near shore, with 4 hysterical indians waving like crazy to get as close as we could. Morris went to see what the commotion was all about and it turns out they were just a group of dudes in the forest excited to see some company. And they wanted beer, which they correctly figured we had.&nbs


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