Following The Leader

File—On Tour—”The Search” In Central America

Following the Leader

“The Search” for waves leads a crew of surfers into Central America’s heart of darkness.

By Aaron Checkwood

The Rip Curl team manager was taking care of everything—all we knew was we were going to an isolated camp on an island somewhere off the coast of Central America. Hodei Collazo, Clint Kimmins, Travis Lynch, Brian Toth, Mike Klein, Mike Losness, and I, along with videographers Jon Frank and Chris Bauman, simply had to be at LAX for a 1:00 a.m. flight in early August. None of us had been to the camp before, but because it was a Rip Curl “The Search” trip and the team guy was taking care of it, we weren’t worried.

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Then the company’s team manager was laid off. I found myself put in charge—only four days before our departure. “Okay, Aaron, if an overall decision needs to be made, you can make it—right?” These words from Rip Curl management scared me—not knowing a thing about the trip scared me more. In travel, the slightest problem can turn a good trip bad—losing our leader was about as bad as it gets. We were headed down a dark path with no idea of what lay ahead.

In third-world countries, things move slowly. The amount of red tape you have to endure to get anything accomplished can be discouraging. Having a ticket agent at the airline tell you only one of your two bags might make it to your destination is a perfect example. After our red-eye flight and some funky customs problems, we found all our luggage and were met by our camp host. We finally found out where we were going—an island approximately six hours away by bus.

Being a U.S. citizen in Central America, however, means being constantly hit on for money. Everywhere we went, people assumed we were rich. It seems like every country hates Americans for some reason, and this was no exception. The sentiment became painfully visible by the way people stared as we took a “shortcut” through the ghetto. Seeing “Yankee go home” scrawled on a wall reminded us we weren’t in Los Angeles anymore.

Due to huge tidal differences (measuring eighteen feet at times), it’s impossible to take a boat to camp at the lower tides. As a result, we stayed the night in a higher-end hotel located at the entrance of the Panama Canal. As Mike Losness and I sat on the balcony of our comfortably air-conditioned room watching freighters transport their cargoes from ocean to ocean, we thought, “Wow, the camp can’t be that bad—this is nice.”

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Early the next day, we all piled on a bus and headed north for the boat. If there was one thing that worked like clockwork on our trip, it was the bus system. Whether it’s down the street or across the country, there’s always a bus heading somewhere. Our bus was nice and cozy with freezing-cold air-conditioning and a VCR. As the bus weaved through the countryside, and more and more nationals filed in, the bus driver plopped the movie Noriega: God’s Favorite in the VCR. General Noriega was a Panamanian dictator whose behavior, governmental practices, and alleged drug-trade connections resulted in a U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 and his incarceration in a Miami federal prison.

As we hogged the seats with our piles of stuff, phrases such as “American pigs” echoed down the aisle from the TV—making us feel like even bigger pigs. The roads weren’t great, either. The farther away from civilization we crept, the more ways I envisioned my head being cut off.

The bus stopped hours later. “We’re here,” said our host. After piling our stuff into another two vehicles, we drove a half hour, then waited for a boat, which took another half hour to get to the camp. A quick lunch and camp orientation later, we jumped in the boat for our first session. As I sat next to Losness in the one-foot slop, his optimistic impression of Central America had drastically cnged. He looked at me despondently and said, “If I have to endure two weeks of this, I’ll get weird.”

The days moved along like everything else—slowly. The afternoons brought wind, clouds, and rain. Evenings meant an abundance of mosquitos and overbearing heat. The solar power reserves emptied within hours, rendering the fans in the hut completely useless. Unknowingly unprepared, we found ourselves deep on a jungle island with no mosquito nets or bug repellant, and only one flashlight. Although we were able to borrow some nets, Clint Kimmins left his arm out the first night and found it tattooed with red bumps by morning.

The food was good even though it consisted of a lot of fish. But with only three medium-sized meals a day and no snacks, some of the guys were starting to become unhappy. Five days into the trip, the real darkness began to set in. It was still raining, and there were no waves. We battled boredom with adult-beverage consumption and fishing for tasty mackerel.

There were two other groups of surfers staying at the camp besides us—one from Hawai’i and one from Florida. Nobody really spoke to the other groups until one day at lunch, when Jon Frank stood up and said, “Volleyball—seppos against the world.” After his team’s subsequent loss, Jon offered to pay for the beverages. Unfortunately, supplies were scarce—and the troops got restless. If this were Los Angeles, rioting would have ensued.

The Hawai’ian group was especially pissed. They yelled for hours into the night—they were fed up and making comparisons to being stuck in jail. The next morning, they demanded to leave the island, and their wish came true. As for our crew, we had a job to do—we had to stick it out.

We desperately held out hope. With a week left, the heart of darkness had gone pitch black. We definitely got some sort of waves, but those damn clouds and tides only allowed us an hour at the best spot. The break in front of the camp has potential, but it needs a giant swell to really work. It also has razor-sharp coral lurking below the shallow water.

Nursing fresh cuts on his legs from the reef, Losness looked at me and said, “I’ve never been so hurt as I’ve been on this trip.” His list of injuries included a leash wrapping around his arm after a fall, having his board hit him in the eye, hitting a coconut with his head while bodysurfing, a splinter in his foot, getting stung by a jellyfish, and a case of the Hershey squirts. On top of that, while throwing rocks at coconuts with Jon Frank, one of Jon’s rocks missed, almost hitting Mike in the head and landing on his foot—overall he wasn’t doing well. In fact, nobody was.

Expecting a full-on swell, by the tenth day we realized the size was going back down. Every now and then you’d hear a random “arghhh“—a growl of desperation from Clint Kimmins’ mouth. The misery became almost unbearable. Travis Lynch hit his elbow on the reef and came out of the water ready to get on the next bus, but instead ended a self-imposed non-drinking stand by getting obnoxiously pickled. In fact, some of the boys got so pickled they began thoroughly pissing off the camp workers.

The next day we woke to dismal waves, bad attitudes, and declining health. Everyone wanted out. We had to make a decision, and after a call to Rip Curl, we voted to get the hell out of there. Morale immediately changed for the better. Despite having two days of travel ahead of us, we played soccer in the afternoon rainsqualls. Typical travel problems didn’t matter anymore. The gamut of emotions, from happy to pissed, ran over us as the bus driver explained his new rule about paying for surfboards at the bus terminal—whatever, we were going home.

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We found ourselves rejoicing on our way home as though we’d been paroled from prison. To many, the thought of an island surf camp is heavenly. But spoiled by the comforts of other better surf trips and the indulgences of home life, it didn’t work out that way for us. Whether it was the Newcastle McDonald’s for Travis Lynch, Mike Klein’s girlfriends, or Jon Frank’s kids, everyone appreciated their lives at home that much more—we were leaving the heart of darkness behind.

f home life, it didn’t work out that way for us. Whether it was the Newcastle McDonald’s for Travis Lynch, Mike Klein’s girlfriends, or Jon Frank’s kids, everyone appreciated their lives at home that much more—we were leaving the heart of darkness behind.