“It doesn’t even feel like you’re on a boat.” Kahlil says, as we lay propped up on various cushions, and beanbag chairs. Relaxing in a wondrous lethargy, on our moist backs, staring upwards at the enveloping jungle overhead, in awe of the sheer stillness of the place, but enthralled by the cacophony of sounds emanating from its depths. Still, is what we are right now, but we are constantly moving, exploring, living, and growing. Living is how we got here a couple or is it many days ago, now.
The exploration of abandoned, defunct Fort Sherman is worth some creepy dreams. But, your living them, as you wander through bullet-ridden hallways, with slugs still embedded in the harder concrete. Scars that show through the years and the sights of the strategically placed shooting gallery tables that afforded cover and the best shot at your attacking, advancing enemy. The halls of the war batteries are death black, no light penetrates the thick, steel reinforced walls, except the flash of our camera, which is how we find our way. Flash, lit up for a second, just enough time to get your bearings and go deeper. Bats fly right by our heads, crossing two inches in front of my eyes. “Look” a staircase that goes down underground further. “What’s that?” Looks like a dead body in a sack. Our spines tingle and we get out, as fast as we friggin can in the creepy blackness. The batteries of Fort Sherman can only be explored so far by our unprepared selves and who knows what has been deposited in these hallways over the years.
But, its ok were safe, I forgot to mention we walk with our machetes strapped to our hips or palmed and hidden by our arm to strike if need be unexpectedly, always at a 45 degree angle, in a moments notice. This technique slays the hardiest vines and tender shoots, thrusting up for light from the jungle floor.
And besides slicing they make a great crab club. So, its rainy season in Panama everyone, and that means it friggin rains. Great big drops that make streets and the low lying canal jungle flood. Escaping to the higher, drier elevated roads are quite large population of blue/purple land crabs whose mud tunnels have flooded. Locals and us flock to these roads to pick up crabs if you’re prepared and have gloves and put in your bucket, or in our case. Tip the bucket and use the machete as a pitching wedge and chip shot your crab into the bucket. This works great until you get a couple too many crabs and tip the bucket too low for all the crabs to escape, as you franticly run around playing speed golf now. Whew, all the crabs are back in the bucket and the locals are laughing.
We even went crab hunting right outside the gate to the National Park and the San Lorenzo National Park Animal Patrol (actual name on truck, but translated into English) helped us by pointing out a big one we missed. Only in Panama!
So, heartless, uncaring Kahlil ripped the legs and claws off the little beasties and cast away the inedible body part and we boiled those little guys right up. They had the sweetest, and freshest tasting crab meet I have ever experienced. You didn’t need a single sauce our drop of lemon juice. Its light and flaky texture just melted in your mouth. What a treat, but we all agreed we would have to put crab hunting behind us as you just get so little meat for how many crabs you get. And its not fair, just think about it. It rains and your home is flooded, so you go to where its nice and dry and as a reward get plucked up and eaten in your time of crises. I guess the old saying is true. “When it rains it pours.”
All that crab meat must have fueled our passion for exploration. Because we stumbled upon a great little wave down here. Almost identical to Rights back home, or Velzy Land on the North Shore of Oahu. A perfect peak you backdoor, grab a little barrel, get shot out and rip a couple of turns before it peters out into a perfect channel. What a little treat to stumble on to or should I say, charge out and down to. Not easy access, a hell of a long paddle or wear booties and charge a couple miles over razor sharp reef. Stepping gingerly, hoping nothing pierces your bootie and that you don’t step on too many beautiful green and blue zoanthids, which are highly poisonous and toxic. The reef is awash in about a foot of water, where sting rays, and eels hide in the shallow pools and crevices. Octopi instantly change color to a brilliant white when you startle them, then blast a quirt or two of ink before they change back to reef brown and jet off. The setting is kind of surreal as the view towards land is uninhabited lush jungle and the view out to sea is a towering mass of hulking ships, with their millions of lights, twinkling like a floating metropolis.
We shared many fun surf sessions out there over the last few days with just ourselves and some locals only one Sunday morning. We had lost track of how many barrels we got in the Caribbean Sea, a reward I reckon, for plying the water that brought us those waves, waves we might have rode before, way out at sea.
The boat front in Panama was a success too, our troubled water heater (not that we need one at all down here, I don’t know who would want a hot shower) finally surrendered to our tinkering hands and was repaired, after struggling with the blasted thing for over a month. We got the right part, hit up a scary auto parts store in Colon where the Chinese people who ran it only spoke Spanish (left over from the construction of the Canal), got some JB Weld and patched up our customized 12 volt element that is powered by our wind generator to dissipate excess energy should that ever occur. After rewiring it, miraculously correctly, it heats up again and doesn’t leak….Wahooooooooo! But, the biggest joy isn’t that we have it fixed, its that I don’t have to take apart and remake my bed every day as the blasted thing is located underneath my bunk, what a pain in the ass!
With the water heater sorted and a mission into town to resupply we once again were on the move, this time to Bocas Del Toro. Located 150 NM away from Colon, on the far western part of the Caribbean side, a group of unspoiled islands and a marine reserve park with some of the best diving and snorkeling to be had. We decide to go there instead of the San Blas Islands, as there is a happening town, with several ecotourism resorts, fun nightlife supposedly and most importantly waves. We figure we could use the sight of some girls, since we probably will not be seeing too many on a long journey across the Pacific. But wait, just as we are pulling away from the dock our agent calls and tells us to stick around for another day or so. He just got 6 boats through today and maybe some more in a day or two. We might get through the canal soon.
Scrap the Bocas plan and let’s head for the closer cruising ground of the Rio Chagres. This navigable river was dammed up in 1910 to make Gatun Lake and supply the water for the locks of the Panama Canal. It twists and turns through virgin jungle, navigable for 6 miles up to the Gatun Dam, with depths of 25 to 50 feet right up to the river’s banks. Averaging maybe 100 yards wide the Jungle comes right to the shore and wild life abounds along its banks.
We set sail from Shelter bay with plenty of time to make the 11 NM trip before dark. The wind was right on our beam and fresh. We just unfurled our jib, no need to hoist the main, as we lazily sailed at 6 knots towards the unknown jungle river, past our coveted surf spot and the lush, rocky Panamanian shoreline. The river’s entrance is guarded by decaying Fort San Lorenzo and Lajas Reef which posed a much greater threat to our boat, then the abandoned cannon placements. We decided to take the inner passage between the rocky shore and the reef and within 100 yards of the reef, ZZZZZZZZZZ goes the fishing reel, paying out line at a furious pace. Kahlil grabs the rod and luckily we had just furled the jib and were under full power and maneuverable this time to land the creature from the deep. The fish is pulling hard, Kahlil is scared to take the rod out of the rod holder for fear it will be ripped out of his hands. I make a quick right turn with Natty M right in front of the reef and soon we are doubling back towards the fish and gaining on it. It dives deep, but Kahlil horses it back up to the surface, I run over and with one swipe of the gaff, the fish is hoisted out of the water and on to the transom. F Yea! A big ass fish in the 30+ pound range, some kind of Jack, maybe an Amber or Bar Jack, were going to be eating good tonight.
We make it through the shallow entrance of the river with the fish secured and glide past some other cruisers anchored close to the river’s mouth. They ask if everything is OK as they witnessed our erratic maneuvers in front of the reef and Kahlil proudly hoists up the trophy fish, and this informs them of what was happening. They all gasp and tell their significant others to come up for a gander at the beautiful fish.
Gliding up stream in the tranquil waters of the Rio Chagres we find a secluded spot that is a bit shallower then the rest of the river, drop the hook, set it, it holds and kill the engines. Such calm I have rarely experienced on a boat. The air is still and moist, butterflies and insects of all colors and shapes crisscross the brown waters, mostly leaving us alone and the jungle noises start to filter in.
Kahlil begins to fillet the fish and I start preparing the Red Rocket for a mission further up stream. We save the fish head and carcass to attract crocks later in the night and head out up river. We explore past a couple of other cruisers and up a narrow tributary until a giant fallen tree blocks our path. The jungle canopy completely envelops us, driving the Red Rocket under branches and through tangles of thorny vines, it is absolutely creepy and you feel like you’re about to reach Colonel Kurtz’s encampment in Apocalypse Now. Green tree snakes slither from the branches, off in the distance the blood curdling screams of Howler Monkeys bring tingles up your spine, as parrots squawk and fly clumsily in the few openings of the jungle canopy. The jungle floor is encrusted with fungus of all kinds, slowly eating away at the decaying plant matter.
Back at the boat and darkness falls. The bugs are not nearly as bad as we expect and the ultra glassy water, lit by the waxing moon beckons us to come have some fun. A bridal is tied, towrope hooked up and I do the first standing launch off the back of the Natty M right onto my surfboard to rip up the oily water behind the Red Rocket. Slashes and spray are sent flying as I tail slide to glory on the Rio Chagres, so much fun in a water texture rarely experienced. Then I fall on one tail slide that’s a little too laid back and for first time experience the hot water of the river. It must be close to 90 degrees and smells of decay, almost like fertilizer. No time was wasted in getting me back up to my feet, as the threat of cayman the Central American version of the crocodile is very real and the water kind of disgusting. Everyone took their turns ripping up the river by the moon light and soon we were all exhausted and ready for a great fish dinner.
As the after glow of the session faded and our stomachs betrayed our deep state of relaxation. I begain preparing the diner. Jacks are an oilier fish and great to BBQ. So, I created a basting sauce of clarified butter, olive oil, garlic, chili peppers, cilantro, lemon/ lime juice, passion fruit, ginger, salt and pepper to taste and fired up the grill. Bang, a tantalizing dinner of firm but flaky dark fish, with a fresh garden salad and baby steamed potatoes is produced and eagerly consumed by all. So good and fresh no extra sauce is needed, which is a remarkable thing for both Kahlil and myself, who are proclaimed sauce whores.
This meal put Ben over the edge as he drifted off to dreamland, tired out from the night before hanging out with his special, local friend. But, Diz, Kahlil and myself were charged up and ready to find some Cayman. We set off into the night armed with our torches and headlamps. A tributary upstream of us was our first focus and we stealthily plied our way up the narrow jungle infested stream. Way up into the heart of darkness we stealthy cruised and didn’t see even one Cayman, and only managed to scare ourselves thinking we might never find our way back out of the watery, jungley maze. So, we turned around and headed back to the main river and the feeling of relative safety. As we ventured back towards Natty M, with our torches still trained on the riverbanks, we saw our first set of red glowing eyes.
We approached slowly, and then the eyes silently slid into the water never to be seen again. Now, headed back again and more red eyes, this time I go past them a short distance and slowly turn the dink around approaching at a crawl. The eyes are still there and then we see it, a 6 foot long Cayman. Its black and tan stripped tail, with elongated plates slithering in the muddy riverbank. Kind of eerie looking and to think we were just freeboarding in the same water earlier in the night. More eyes and more Cayman spotted. We were getting good at it now and the majority we found were right next to our boat, right along the river banks we were just playing in. I don’t think I’ll be going for a relaxing swim any time soon.
I don’t know if I have ever slept better that night at anchor. Everything so still the boat doesn’t move an inch, she is just hanging on her chain that goes straight down to the muddy bottom. Morning comes and we’re up bright and early at a sweltering 10am. The Natty M doesn’t have AC, but boasts some great mini-hurricane fans to cool you off, letting you beat the morning heat and sleep in a little bit.
I was inspired to make my famous Jamaican Toast for breakfast, a Caribbean twist on French toast. With some dark rum, molasses and nutmeg to spice things up. This we filmed as the boys think I need to have a traveling cooking show aboard the Natural Mystic, as they have never eaten so well in their lives. This hardy meal gave us the energy we needed to go for a sweltering jungle hike latter in the day.
For the first time in many moons, long pants and a long sleeve shirt were donned. Mozzy spray liberally applied and machetes sharpened. We went up a little tributary until we could go no further and then set out on foot. We happened across a little trail in the jungle, marked only by fading machete blazes in the trees marking the way. We followed this, adding our own blazes to help us find our way back through the dense foliage, that looks very similar to everything around it. Past poisonous palms with ebony poisonous spines lining their trunks and fronds we trod, through giant strangling figs that had long ago squeezed the life out of what ever tree they chose for a victim, we went. Fungus of all colors, shapes and sizes grew out of the decaying wood on the jungle floor. Tiny red mushrooms, big ears of tree fungus, yellow and white mushrooms were everywhere. Multiple types of land crabs had dug burrows all over the jungle floor and we found multiple types of small frogs, one looked like its skin was made out of black velvet. Silvery freshwater fish swam in the small streams we crossed and all around us shrieked various kinds of birds and monkeys. One bird is particularly classic, the Fart Bird we call it. Its call just sounds like someone ripped a hard one and can last for up to a few seconds, makes me crack up every time, and goes to prove boys will be boys and fart jokes are always funny.
We then found a spent M-16 40 round magazine, got a tinge of the willies and decided it was starting to get late, as the dim, filtered light of the jungle floor started getting even dimmer and we instinctively knew it was time to head back for the boat. Following the machete blazes back worked and soon we were back in the Red Rocket pulling her over a couple of fallen logs to get back to the main river. What a fun and unique place to anchor your boat, in the middle of the jungle, crazy.
I’m writing this lying on our trampoline suspended over the water, as cayman leap out of the tepid water after fish, dusk slowly transforms into night and every now and then a big splash is heard near the boat and you wonder what the hell that was, and know that there are some big, mean things in this river. Far off gunshots are also heard and you just don’t know what exactly is hiding in this heart of darkness we chose live a couple days of or lives in. Cheers – Kyber