In Panama, a Surfer Is Born

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 13, 2005

The surfboard rocks, my arms wilt and my stomach scrapes on the epoxy as I paddle in the warm green Pacific off the south coast of Panama. A set of waves approaches, and I struggle for position. Veering off course, I attempt to correct by (of all things) pushing the nose of the board.

The waves roll smugly past.

I never expected to master surfing in one day, but I am nevertheless confounded by the slippery learning curve. Surfing, as observed from shore or a boogie board nearby, tends to look, if not easy, at least attainable. As in, "If I try hard enough, I could figure that out."

Armed with two-plus decades of body boarding and more than 10 years of windsurfing, I felt entitled: I expected, after a few obligatory false starts, to hop to my feet, glide down a wave and improve steadily from there.

No sucediendo, gringo.

For 25 years I've been a body boarder, riding a lie-on-your-stomach boogie board on waves from Cape Hatteras to Costa Rica, and South Africa to Bali. I've ridden hurricane swell and reef-top tubes, long point waves and nasty beach break. Not bad work if you can get it, but I was always a second-class citizen in the lineup -- a "sponge" rider who didn't merit the same respect and inner-circle camaraderie as the surfers.

I had come with three friends to a rough-hewn surf camp called Morro Negrito, on the Panamanian island of La Ensenada, to change that. You will not find this camp -- 100 miles south of the Costa Rica border -- accidentally: Getting there involves a four-hour bus ride from Panama City (which we initiated at midnight), a meet-up at an unmarked crossroads on the Pan-American Highway with a driver who spoke no English, a bouncy 40-minute ride down a potholed road through verdurous ranch land and a half-hour boat ride through mangrove swamp, across a glassy lagoon, around a hilly point and through a garden of moss-carpeted rock spires, jutting mystically from the ocean.

Morro Negrito, in the Gulf of Chiriqui, is a collection of small concrete buildings with corrugated roofs edged into the hillside above a shoreline of smooth stones. Rich tropical vegetation is abundant, yielding peppers, papayas, mangoes, ginger, pineapple, lemon grass and other homegrown produce. There is little else around -- a small schoolhouse and one hut within sight of the camp, evidence of the few dozen villagers who reside on the island.

Morro Negrito is run by Jeff Healion, 40, a thin, energetic American who landed here after stints in Australia, other Central American locales and the D.C. area, where he worked as a Latin American analyst for a travel risk management firm. His eight-month run at Morro Negrito is somewhat of a record: Most guides last only a few weeks in this isolated spot, which lacks TV reception and is a half-hour boat ride and an hour's drive from the nearest store.

The camp can house 20 people and during high surf season -- roughly June through October -- will occasionally be near capacity, but Healion says most weeks see about 10 guests. The vast majority are American men, but women sometimes participate, as do Europeans. In fact, the three other guests at Morro Negrito when we arrive are Tim from England and Roy and Mark from Scotland, all experienced surfers. Healion puts us newcomers in adjacent rooms -- dorm-style quarters with a couple of single beds, mosquito nets and a night table -- in a building he calls the White House for its broad balcony and jaw-dropping view of the huge bay in front of camp.

"Surfing is about being one with the ocean, about sharing this amazing resource," Healion tells us later as we sit around a table in the open-air dining area. "Every wave that makes it to shore started with a disturbance -- wind or something else -- hundreds or thousands of miles away" (a principle writ huge by the Dec. 26 tsunami). "When that wave is coming at you, getting ready to break, you have to appreciate what it took for it to get here and how incredible that is."

His talismanic surf sermons might seem hokey, except that he seems so enthusiastically to believe every word of them. And he's a damn good surfer.

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