Passing the Torch in Panama

Photo: Jon Steele

The best part of traveling is experiencing interesting situations with the people around you. There is no better way to get to know someone than to embark upon a journey together. Usually within the first couple of days you see past the mask that most people wear on a daily basis and into the person they really are. You learn how they act when they’re tired or hungry, and how they handle things not going according to plan. I love getting to know new people, but since I spend nearly half of the year traveling it’s also nice to be around friends that I know I can count on to have a positive attitude no matter what happens. So, when planning an all girls trip to the completely new destination of Bocas Del Toro, Panama I immediately called upon two of my favorite traveling companions, Kyla Langen and Kim Mayer. These two seem to float around the world, bouncing from this continent to the next with a smile and a song. They epitomize the adjective, “cruisy” and can always be trusted to put a positive spin on every occasion.

Kim Mayer and Kyla Langen, jammin out!

Of course, “adventures” don’t earn their name until something goes wrong. Ours began as I led the parade of surfers dragging massive boardbags up to the Air Panama check-in counter at the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica. There were five of us, plus two cameramen with boards of their own as well as pelican cases filled with camera gear. The pile of our luggage stacked together was formidable. I watched the staff behind the counter watching us, and took in the disbelieving headshakes that the sight provoked in them. I had been afraid of this so I had called in advance to make sure the plane could accommodate our baggage and had been assured it would be fine, but still there was enough doubt to keep me a bit worried.

Airport drama. Photo: Jon Steele

After an all-night flight from Los Angeles it was no time for doubts, so I put on a big confident smile and mentally prepared our argument. Calmly launching into my best Spanish, I informed them that we were professional surfers making a television program for an American TV station that will promote tourism in their country and bring business to their airline, thus all of our equipment must get on the plane. By this time a handful of employees had gathered to frown upon our situation, or maybe the sight of 5 young girls with such big bags was just too much distraction to be dismissed. By the time I had finished my speech it seemed that every employee behind the counter was staring in our direction.

It was definitely worth all the hassle! Panama is beautiful. Photo: Jon Steele

“It’s a very small plane,” they reminded us, “there simply isn’t room for all this stuff.” At that point the bargaining began. I asked to speak to supervisors, we threatened to go to another airline, we insisted we were going to sit right there and block the aisles until the problem was solved. Eventually their attitude changed to one of accommodation and they began to offer up suggestions of their own. There seemed to be no perfect solution. After bringing one of the baggage handlers off the tarmac and allowing him to assess the situation, it was decided that only three boardbags could fit on the plane. The rest would have to be transported by some other means. Since that particular flight is only available every three days, our options were somewhat limited. Eagerly, Kyla, who isn’t fond of small planes to begin with, offered to take the bus. Kim immediately joined her, followed by our lone longboarder, Jenni Flanagan, whose nine-foot-long boardbag wasn’t making the task any easier. I had met Jenni a few times before the trip, but only briefly. Back in the planning stages, when looking for other girls to add to the crew, she had been highly recommended by Kim and Kyla. Watching her volunteer with a smile to head off on an unknown journey, especially since she was stuck with the biggest bag to drag, I knew we had made the right choice in inviting her.

We decided we would paddle there if we had to! Photo: Jon Steele

I certainly didn’t like the idea of splitting up the group, but fitting six boardbags together into any one mode of transportation probably wouldn’t be possible. With their fates decided, I looked to my wide-eyed and curly haired sister who was standing amongst the crew with her arms folded just taking it all in, shrugged my shoulders, and said, “Ok Helina, with three of them on the bus, I guess that means we get to fly.”

My sister, Helina. Photo: Jon Steele

At a few weeks past her sixteenth birthday, this was her very first real surf trip. I had spent the past two weeks making phone calls to our mom everyday trying to convince her to let Helina come along. Before she eventually agreed, I had promised repeatedly to look after her and make sure she was not subjected to anything that would compromise her health or safety, so I wasn’t about to separate myself from her this early into the trip. That left one spot on the plane to be claimed. The photographers literally flipped a coin and we said our goodbyes, hoping to be reunited sooner rather than later.

Helina and I

Stepping onto the plane, we wondered if maybe we should have volunteered to take the bus instead. There were cracks in every surface from the seat, to the window, to the wing of the plane! A previous flyer had felt the same anxiety and had written, “say your prayers” on the back of one of the tray tables. Good advice, I figured. We were as relieved to touch down safely as we were to hear our friends arrive only a few hours after we had, telling a harrowing tale of their own of a long taxi drive followed by a sketchy bridge crossing across the border while lugging all their gear, to a relatively pleasant boat ride out to the island of Bocas Del Toro. Stories of the journey seemed funny and worthwhile as we relaxed on a comfortable deck overlooking the water with a refreshing breeze blowing the travel stress away. The cold drinks and gourmet appetizers, the first hint of what would be a week of incredible food, did their part to ease the pain and help us shift to an attitude of relaxation.

Bocas is a great place to just relax on the beach with friends. Photo: Jon Steele

Mike and Jessica Zoob met a few years back in Maui, where Mike captained a boat and Jessica ran a surf camp. Looking for a change of scenery they fantasized about the world’s most interesting locations and eventually decided to move to Panama. After spending two years exploring the islands of Bocas Del Toro, they opened a high-end women’s surf retreat called Azucar Surf. Luckily for us the place seemed just that, a retreat from the hustle and stress of our normal lives. As pro surfers competing on the world tour, we are accustomed to sharing tiny hotel rooms, having to worry about piling all our baggage into rental cars, and practicing at the contest break. For us as well as Jenni who recently took a job as a legal assistant, and Helina, slogging away at High School, Azucar provided a much-needed break from the real world. The open and airy house filled with beautiful teak wood and simple but comfortable furnishings opened up onto a deck adorned with a hot tub and steps leading down to a private dock. We took a look around and let out a collective sigh of relaxation.

Helina, enjoying one of the gourmet meals at Azucar Surf Camp

Me, getting right into lunch!

The first morning set the routine for the rest of the week. After an excellent cup of strong coffee and a delicious breakfast, we hopped into the boat and were taken to one of several surf spots. Mike took extra care to make sure we surfed alone as often as possible, and the first few days we had the lineups completely to ourselves. That first morning, with only a small swell running, we motored along a wide strip of beach towards what was known to be the most consistent peak. Unfortunately it was already being enjoyed by a handful of surfers, so we did the respectful thing and continued on ‘til we found a peak to call our own.

Kyla Langen rips! Photo: Jon Steele

After an hour or so, another boat showed up, full of surfers sniffing around our location. Surfers too often show the characteristics of lemmings, following others rather than thinking for themselves. With a wide-open beach and plenty of peaks, there was no reason they needed to swarm ours. Mike rode out to the invading boat on the jet-ski and strongly suggested they go someplace else. When they ruffled their tail feathers in defense, Mike made a circle on the ski, charged towards the boat at high speed and then cut away just before hitting it, sending a rooster tail of seawater over the side of the boat and showing that he was serious. We watched this altercation from the lineup with a mixture of support and disappointment. We definitely didn’t want that boatload of other surfers to takeover, but then again, we weren’t sure about supporting such aggressive tactics. Still it was nice to be defended. It wouldn’t be the first time our guard dog would have to bark at would-be surf pirates.

Me, cutting back. Photo: Jon Steele

Having only ever surfed the crowded and low quality beach breaks of our home-town in Southern California, Helina was particularly impressed with the surf. I am the oldest of 5 girls, which makes Helina my second youngest sister. When I was first trying to learn to surf, my very old-fashioned mom was anything but supportive, so I made it a point to make sure my sisters didn’t meet the same resistance. As soon as I could, I got them each surfboards and wetsuits and drove them to the beach. None of them picked it up quite as fast as I had hoped and the dream of all five of us paddling out together is still very important to me. Of all of them, Helina has shown the most aptitude, carrying on my legacy by joining the high school surf team. She still has a long way to improve, but she loves the sport, and I love that. She has grown up hearing stories of my adventures all over the world, so she was very eager to taste the lifestyle herself. I was just as eager to share it with her, and hopeful that she would appreciate it.

Helina, appreciating the moment! Photo: Jon Steele

Of course considering the promise I made to my mom and the fact that Helina had never really surfed over reef before, the first morning we woke up to see actual lines of whitewash on the reef in the distance and realized that the swell had finally picked up, the excitement I felt was tempered by nervousness for Helina. As we pulled up to the long left pointbreak and eagerly jumped out of the boat, I slowed down to give some older sisterly advice. “Just sit a little wide and watch a few of the sets until you feel comfortable,” I told her. The sun was still low, the air cool, and the lineup empty, so the rest of us paddled around in excited circles, chasing down set waves and trying to figure out how best to position ourselves in the new lineup. Helina did as I suggested and timidly started paddling for a few of the smaller waves, without much success.

The views in Bocas are pretty good! Photo: Jon Steele

After about an hour I heard the dreaded sound of another boat motor. I paddled over to Helina and said, “ok, it’s about to get crowded. Now is your best chance to get a good wave. All the girls will back off for you. Just pick a wave and go!” She gave me a nervous nod, and turned to paddle for the next wave. It lifted her up and she teetered at the top for a moment. Then clumsily got to her feet, sliding down the face and out of sight. “Good, at least she got one,” I thought to myself, and then re-focused on getting as many as I could before the inevitable crowd arrived.

Jenni Flanagan is the most stylish female longboarder i’ve ever seen. Photo: Jon Steele

It wasn’t long before the boat came into view, a silhouette in the warming sunrise with no fewer than ten bodies and surfboards, that immediately fell overboard and loudly swarmed the lineup. We looked around with disappointment and decided to paddle towards the inside section rather than be caught amongst the overly eager newcomers. Helina on the other hand was just making her way back to the takeoff zone after her first wave with wide eyes and a very determined look on her face. She had just caught and successfully ridden one of the biggest and longest waves of her life and was not about to let a pack of guys stop her from getting another one. I sat with her at the top of the peak long enough to realize that the invading crew were very friendly but very unskilled surfers from Israel. They had no concept of the etiquette of surfing and rather than take turns and allow the surfer that had been sitting the deepest or waiting the longest to have priority, they would catch a wave, ride it or fall as the case may be, and then paddle directly back to the top of the point to try again. This frustrated me completely, and after a few instances of having to pull back from a wave that should have been mine because an Israeli who had just had one and had fallen had paddled around to my inside, I told Helina I was over it, and paddled down to join my friends. She gave me a “suit yourself” shrug and held her ground.

Kim Mayer, doing some crossover surfing and crossing up to the nose. Photo: Jon Steele

While the inside section looked smaller from behind, once the waves passed the first section of reef, they would actually re-form and almost double up on the shallower rocks. There were a few little tube sections on offer and tuning into the warm green peeling lips, I temporarily forgot all about Helina and the madness I’d paddled away from. (Sorry Mom!) Sooner or later the thought returned and I paddled back up to see how she was doing. To my complete surprise I immediately saw her on a wave! She was cruising along in her trademark style with one of the Israelis flapping around behind her. I watched her kick out, paddle back into position, let a few waves go by, then paddle for another, drop in on the guy already riding it and cruise along in front of him all the way until the wave died out a few feet away from me. I sat up on my board and tried to comprehend the situation. I didn’t like the idea of my sister burning a bunch of guys, even if they were overly aggressive. But the smile on his face was just as big as the one on hers, and as she paddled over to me for a chat, he gave us both a “thumbs up” sign.

Kim (climbing) and Kyla (spotting) are two of my favorite people in the world! Photo: Jon Steele

“They are telling me to go,” she informed me excitedly. Not wanting to waste any more time chatting with me while waves peeled past, she hurriedly paddled back towards the lineup for another go. I lingered there in the warm water with the sun pouring down, and watched as my little sister did what none of the rest of us pro surfers could do. She held her own amongst a packed crowd and caught the best waves thus far in her short surfing life. I was so proud.

Me, checking out the local wildlife. Photo: Jon Steele

At the end of every trip there is always a moment that stands out as being the most memorable, a certain memory that encapsulates the mood and feeling of the whole experience. For the most part our week in Panama was filled with plenty of sun-baked hours of fun surfing and breeze-cooled afternoons digesting delicious home-cooked food while gazing out over the water. Kim, Kyla, and Jenni created the soundtrack for the evenings with iPod challenges and acoustic guitar performances. I caught my share of long warm rip-able lefts. Still, as I think back on the trip the most enduring image was one of Helina, pushing fear aside to catch the best waves of her life.

An awesome group of girls! Photo: Jon Steele

These housings don’t work! R.I.P. camera! Photo: Jon Steele

If you’d like to visit Bocas Del Toro, check out for more information.

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1 Response to Passing the Torch in Panama

  1. Fidel Ponce says:

    Hey Holly! Hope you are well. Seems like you enjoyed your trip here in Panama! Ive been reviewing all the surf stuff there is on Panama and seems like your blog is pretty much the only blog that includes my native surf country as a surf blog…jeje…In any case after injuring my spinal chord at Bocas del Toro on one of the big days after 3 years of hopping to get better I decided to create my own blog on personal surf picture of Panama. If you ever choose to come back I am more than willing to direct you to the unusual surf areas. You can see some of them on my page. The future intentions for this page is to sell the picst to tourist when ever I get the chance and what every money I make from it get surboards for some of the local kids at some surf breaks like Catalina and Bocas. I have some spotted that could be the future pros! I would really want to see them out in Hawaii representing my little country… jajaja…you have a good one and hope you have a chance to stop by and look at some of our non commercial surf areas.Best,Fidel (Castro) Ponce New Panamanian Surf Photographer

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