“I have been so anxious. I have bouts of depression and days I can’t get out of bed."
A Sydney surfer had a horror experience recently in Bocas del Toro, a little archipelago off the Carribean coast of Panama there.
You know the spot?
I’ve had a couple of trips there myself. Bocas is one of those wonderful fusions of Latina and Carribean culture. Plantains and gallo pinto. Fried chicken and fried fish. Steel drums, rum, weed on every corner. Explosions of primary colours in the architecture. Boats your primary mode of transport. A modern day swashbuckler’s paradise.
In Panama, if you invite a friend over for a beer, they’ll bring along a jar of jalapenos as a snack. No potato chips. No nuts. Just delicious jalapenos to munch on in the deep humidity. I’ve seen it happen.
There’s plenty of fun to be had in Bocas. Waves, too. Fabulous short interval swells that pop up off the back of Atlantic depressions, with year-round light winds. Sometimes a lil crumbly. Sometimes whistle clean.
You’d recognise Bocas for its most famous wave, Silverbacks. A lurching right hand slab that’s as quick as it is nasty. But it’s not the only spot.
There’s plenty of nooks and crannies. All marked by their shallowness. Joint seems like it’s on permanent low tide. The main break, Caranero, is a poor man’s Macaronis, bending down the inside of an island pass over an urchin-infested shelf that grows ever closer to your fins.
Other spots like the Paunch, the Curve. The Curve’s one of those surf spots that almost isn’t. A wedge that sits about six feet off the edge of a rock platform. One turn on a primo section before an immediate starfish dismount.
Easy place to break your neck.
The best session I ever had there was at a break called Red Frog. Most pristine beachy you could imagine. Landscape like something out of Avatar. Water that was blue on blue. You got there taking a jungle trek across the island if you couldn’t afford a boat, which on this trip we could not. We found a right bank doing a good impersonation of four-foot Soup Bowls. Not another soul in sight, save for my travelling party of three. Memory-making sessions.
There’s an underbelly in Bocas, too.
That same trek a few weeks after we were there an American tourist was raped and killed. Body left out for whoever to find it. Assailants never caught.
Many Americans go there to escape the law. On my second trip I spent a bit of time surfing with one guy who owned a joint there, a Texan (Texans, in my humble opinion, matched only by Italians for their unexpected competency in the water). He was friendly, if not quiet. An excellent surfer with a Chris Ward-esque glint in his eye.
He’d take my mate and I out in his boat looking for waves every day. Would ask for nothing more than to split the petrol money. He had this fabulous trick of rubbing his hands together and patting the water’s surface to summon sets. It didn’t work but was entertaining none the less.
On the surface a super nice guy. We later googled his name and found he was a convicted felon back home in the States, still wanted for a string of charges longer than Manut Bol.
He was one of the nice ones. As you can imagine, it’s not the sort of place you want to find yourself in need of First World medical care.
Which takes us back to our original story.
An Aussie tradie was surfing on an island in Panama when he got smashed by a wave so hard, he broke his neck.
Steve Bewley, from the Northern beaches in Sydney, was visiting his brother in Bocas del Toro, off the Caribbean coast in July last year when things took an unexpected turn.
The 40-year-old carpenter, who has been surfing his entire life, decided to cap off his trip by enjoying one last surf on a reef break up the road from where he was staying.
But to his horror, he ended up in hospital where scans would later reveal Steve broke his neck so bad he ruptured the disc between C6 and C7 resulting in a 12-hour operation to insert rods.
“The lip of the wave hit me in the back and I fell forward. I must have been going really fast and on the wrong angle as my neck went back, then to the side,” Steve, who has since returned home told news.com.au.
“I instantly couldn’t feel my right arm.
“I was like ‘sh*t, I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder, this is super uncomfortable’.”
The story doesn’t end there, however.
The things we do.
What’s the shittiest surf situation you’ve found yourself in, far from home?
I’ve generally been pretty lucky in my travels, however last Ments trip one of our guys fell on a coral head at two-foot Thunders. Came in complaining of something funny feeling up his arse.
One spread of his cheek and a river of blood ran down his leg. A near perforated bowel.
Luckily, a boatload of Brazillians next to us included a trauma surgeon from Sao Paulo. She stitched him up. We chugged overnight to Siberut to get him on the high speed ferry. An uncomfortable eighteen-hour trip home sitting on a cushion followed by emergency ass surgery once he was back in Oz.
The things we do.