Cartagena Map

I look guiltily back at Swell, feeling like I’ve abandoned my best friend, as the vessel in question enters the head of the bay. Tension builds. The Lost Coast turns north, and the Colombians turn north. Lost Coast goes south, and the other boat follows suit. McKenzie and I grip each other and the rail and prepare to witness a horrific nautical showdown.

As the Colombians finally overcome the Lost Coast, I can hardly bear to watch. I brace for gunshots, but all at once both boats stop, their anchors plunging abruptly seaward. Captain Chris’s voice comes over our VHF radio.

“It appears we are being boarded It’s not Colombians, it’s the Panamanian Navy, undercover.”

Swamped with relief, we circle back to learn that the navy had come out disguised as a drug boat, in hopes of coaxing the fugitives out of the jungle. When they saw us surfers flee and LCE try to do the same, they couldn’t help but find the behavior suspicious. No one had bothered to make radio contact until the situation had reached full panic.

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In spite of the explanation, the navy conducts a thorough search of the Lost Coast, and then four officials want to do the same aboard Swell. The mood leaps from gravely serious to serious disbelief when they discover it’s only McKenzie and me aboard. They ask me to fill out the required captain’s paperwork, but seem less interested in searching Swell than learning how we’d managed to get ourselves to this remote locale without any men. As they debark with smiles and handshakes, the commander gives us his personal phone number with a wink in case of any nautical emergency, of course.

In the days to follow, the saga continues as the undercover officials hunt for the missing men ashore. Their vessel remains anchored off the beach break, and we pass by daily en route to the surf to hear the latest news. When they capsize their aluminum tinny in the waves one day, we help out by providing masks and snorkels so they can find their machine guns washing around in the impact zone.

All the while, the crew of the LCE adopts McKenzie and me as part of their daily routine. On the fourth morning in the bay, we fail to stir for breakfast, and awaken to air horns and wake circles until we crawl sleepily into the panga with our boards. Our last day together is my twenty-sixth birthday, and after another fun day of surf and a lavish chocolate cake aboard the LCE, the Panamanian Navy crew shows up, bringing news that the fugitives have been apprehended. Captain Chris invites them aboard and we all celebrate together.

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