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A Bikini, A Sunburn & A Smile by Jennifer Flanigan

A Panama surf adventure with Holly Beck, Jenni Flanigan, Kim Mayer, Kyla Langen and Helina Beck.

Presented by Azucar Surf Retreat

A BIKINI, A SUNBURN & A SMILE by Jennifer Flanigan
Five girls escape to the Caribbean for sun, surf and unlikely adventures
Photos: Jenni Flanigan and Kim Mayer - Videos: filmed by Pete Mack & Jeff Greenwood and edited by Holly Beck

Struggling to pull a cold, soggy wetsuit over popsicle legs after another freezing-February, California session, pro surfer Holly Beck sighed miserably and shivered a little harder as she realized, through the cloud of an ice cream headache, that summer was still three whole months away. According to author Isak Denisen, "The cure for anything is saltwater: sweat, tears, or the sea." So, cold enough to cry, with the prospect of sweating growing more attractive by the minute, Holly decided to take to the sea to complete her cure for the wintertime blues—the Caribbean Sea, to be exact.

With the help of a little online research, Holly picked the Bocas del Toro archipelago off Panama's Caribbean coast as the perfect place for a group of girls with an early case of spring fever. A successful pro from Los Angeles known for her surfer girl good looks and serious snaps, Holly gathered up a group which would include her younger sister, 16 year-old Helina Beck, heiress to the Beck surfing throne; Kim Mayer a true Santa Cruiser complete with long hair, a laidback attitude and groovy vibes; Kyla Langen, one of Southern California's strongest shortboarders, fresh off a WQS contest win at the barreling beach break of Puerto Escondido; and myself, the lone longboarder amongst a school of shredtacular shortboarders. So it was bye-bye wetsuit, hello bikini as this group of Panamamas headed south to defrost in some much-needed Caribbean Sea surf and sun.

The Mentawais of the Caribbean
The Bocas del Toro archipelago consists of nine main islands that sit just off the northeast coast of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. This small gathering of islands contains hundreds of mangrove cays, virgin coral reefs, and white sand beaches surrounded by the warm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Bocas is a province of Panama, but its people represent a wild mosaic of cultures, including indigenous Indians, people of African descent, English and French-speaking West Indies islanders, Latinos, gringos, and assorted Europeans. The culture, architecture and food are constant reminders of Bocas' riotous blend of backgrounds, all accented by vibrantly colorful, Caribbean flavor. Bocas is still largely uncommercialised, but tourism is slowly beginning to infiltrate its economy as more foreigners are choosing Bocas as a vacation destination, including surfers. The arrangement of craggy, key-holed islands surrounded by coral reef makes Bocas a prime suspect for quality waves, and sure enough, surfers are slowly catching on; the Bocas islands have been recently nicknamed the "Mentawais of the Caribbean" by visiting surfers for their warm, clear water, pristine beaches, and powerful surf accessible only by boat.

Coffee, Coffee, Coffee, Coffee!
During the trip we stayed on Isla Colon at the islands' only surf camp (Azucar Surf Retreat). I shared a room with sisters Holly and Helina, and not only was I privy to their sisterly quarrels and endless bikini-swapping (they must have brought a hundred bikinis each!) I got to know the pair pretty well. Helina was sixteen years old, the second youngest in the Beck family of five daughters, with an easy going attitude and demure demeanor that belies her young age—not your typical bouncing-off-the-walls, crazy-kid surf grommet at all. Which is surprising considering her older sister's seemingly endless amounts of energy that come through at all hours of the day—especially mornings.

Holly is a solar powered person, and each morning as the sun's first rays crept into our bedroom window, Holly's eyes would instantly pop wide open and she'd leap out of bed, as if struck by lightning or even electrocuted, with a morning mantra on her lips: "Coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee!" she'd chant aloud as if she'd already drank ten cups, before galloping to the kitchen to get the water boiling. And all this while Helina and I are trying to sleep, and Kim and Kyla doze in the next room over, snoring soundly, oblivious to the whirlwind spinning in our room—but not for long. Now in the kitchen, Holly would grab a metal pot and spoon, and banging the pot, march through our bedrooms singing a song of her own creation with Spanish lyrics that went, "Buenos dias, mis amigas!" (good morning, my friends!). Although we may have hated Holly in that moment, we all sure thanked her when fifteen minutes later we were sitting in perfect surf with the crowds still on snooze.

In Search of the Silverback
The most famous wave in Bocas del Toro is a heavy, Hawaiian-style reef break called Silverback's. Although the waves never got big enough for Silverback's to break while we were in Bocas, it is reputed that the shallow reef holds up in the biggest swells to reach the archipelago, and twenty-foot faces are not uncommon in the right conditions. Because the wave comes from deep water to break over a sharp, shallow reef, the drops are steep and the wave itself a hollow beast-of-a-thing best navigated with skill and precision—and a solid suit of body armor.

When the swell was small we'd boat by Silverback's on our way to the dumpy beach breaks of Isla Bastimentos and envision twenty-foot waves winding in across the point's man-eating reef. After passing Silverback's several times, our curiosity about the place got the best of us, and we asked our boat captain, Mike, how the wave got its unusual name. As soon as we asked, Mike's face lit up and the laughter in his eyes let us know we were in for a tasty bit of local lore. Answering our question, Mike was the first to tell us the tale of the infamous Bocas del Toro Silverback. According to him, there's a woman who lives in Bocas town who is the surf break's namesake: a very large and peculiar-looking woman, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a silverback guerilla, complete with hair to spare. This creepy creature stalks about town in hirsute pursuit of the person who dares challenge her position as queen of the Caribbean jungle, and it's said that one bad wipeout surfing the razor-sharp reefs of Silverback's will leave a surfer looking as if she had survived a nasty encounter with the true Silverback herself, hence the break's name.

From that moment on, the search for the Silverback became our main mission in Bocas del Toro, second only to surfing. From the beaches of Bastimentos to the streets of Bocas town, we looked for her everywhere; we were sure we'd find the Silverback in one place or another, perhaps swinging from a tree branch, lurking in a dark corner, or eating a banana in the town square. What we'd do once we found her—shake hands, snap a photo, run like hell—we weren't exactly sure, we just knew we had to make an acquaintance with this elusive and curious creature. Our friend Mike gave us daily tips to aid in our search—telling us where she was known to prowl and that she rode a bike with a banana seat (of course)—and every day we looked for her, but the hunt continued with poor results. We encountered a number of other Bocas del Torian creatures along the way—starfish, dolphins, sea lice, curious local boys—but the mysterious Bocas beast eluded us around every corner, forcing us to vow to return to the islands next year simply to continue our search for the Silverback.

Senor Amigo vs. The Israeli Mafia
After battling several days of small-scale surf, we woke one morning to the surprising sound of (gasp!) waves crashing somewhere in the distance! Before the sun had even crested the horizon, Holly leapt out of bed with considerably more enthusiasm than usual, her morning mantra of "Coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee!" chanted stronger than ever as she sensed, with a finely-tuned, traveling surfer's psychic insight, that the long-awaited swell had finally arrived. And right she was, for the trusty wave hunter, Captain Mike, soon exploded into our rooms with a surf report that read like a Godsend: the swell had finally picked up, winds were calm, and the point was working.

"Yippee!" we all cried as we tied double knots in bikini strings, plastered on several gallons of sun block, and skipped to the boat in excitement. Arriving at Bocas' most popular point, a reefy lefthander called Carenero Cay, we were the first in the water and had each caught a few long lefts before the sun had a chance to come up. But as the sun's rays arrived, so did the other surfers, and we soon found ourselves amidst unlikely company.

Enter the Israeli Mafia: It seems a group of ten eager Israeli surfer boys were visiting Bocas del Toro at the same time as us, and just as we were getting comfortable on the long lefts of Carenero, they showed up by the boatload to rain on our parade. And reign they did, as they commandeered the point with strong-arm tactics, guerilla warfare, and sheer numbers alone. They paddled right around us girls to take over primo positioning at the tip of the point as they back-paddled and dropped-in their way to infamy. We dubbed them the "Israeli Mafia" for the cutthroat diplomacy that they applied to everyone in the lineup, including their own Mafia members; not only did they burn us, they burned each other and then got angry about it! We were about to board our boat and split to seek waves elsewhere when our salvation arrived via longhaired, mustachioed machismo.

Pulling up to Carenero Cay in a pointy little boat, the Panamanian man who we would later name "Senor Amigo," or Mister Friend, looked more like an enemy at first glance. Paddling up the point on a razor-sharp shortboard, Senor Amigo's tattoos glistened in the morning sun: a scorpion on one bulging bicep, a skull and crossbones on the other. He looked mean and lawless—his long, dark hair splayed across his beefy shoulders like an ominous Aztec sun—and we all held our breaths as he went on a set wave, burning a member of the Israeli Mafia with not a hint of remorse. The outlook had just gone from bad to worse for us surfer girls; not only did we have the Mafia to go to war with, we now had Mister Mysterioso with his gang tattoos and menacing muscles. Something drastic had to be done or we wouldn't catch any waves at all, so as the new stranger stroked past me on his way to regain priority, I did the only thing a girl could do in such a scenario: I began to sing to him.

Singing a much-loved, Spanish folk song, the lines of "Guantanamera" slipped past my lips in a soothing melody as I awaited the outcome of my strategic little plan: "Yo soy un hombre sinscero/De donde crece la palma/Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera." By the end of the third line I could tell my strategy was working, as what man can resist a serenading siren? As soon as the melody wafted into the ears of Senor Amigo, his mustache gave a sensitive little quiver and he turned to look at me with the slow eyes of a heartbroken sailor; a dopey grin spread across his face to reveal his softer side—and several missing teeth. We had done it! We had converted a previous enemy into a loyal puppy dog and gained a bodyguard in the process. From that moment on we knew we would prevail over the Israeli Mafia with the banner of Senor Amigo's macho mustache waving victoriously by our side, and we continued surfing in blissful abandonment knowing we were safe under the watchful eye of our faithful new amigo for life.

Planes, Trains & Water Taxis
The swell was dying, our sunburns had started to peel, and our board-rashed bellies were beginning to bleed, so after a week in the islands we decided it might be time to say bye to our bikinis and beautiful Bocas and head back home. Since the isolated island chain is situated in a remote region of the world, getting there and back can be difficult. We took a plane, multiple taxis, a boat, and even walked over a popsicle-stick bridge that, despite looking as if it were constructed of toothpicks and dental floss, amazingly accommodated pedestrians, cars, 18-wheelers, and even a train. It took us two days to get to Bocas and two to get back, but in exchange for the chance to simmer in the Caribbean's warm, blue surf wearing nothing but a bikini, a sunburn, and a smile, it was worth every second.

*Now that you've read the story, take some time to view all six video clips. You can find them along the upper right side of this page or by clicking on any one of the following: Holly Beck, Jenni Flanigan, Kim Mayer, Kyla Langen, Helina Beck, and "Getting There"


Azucar Surf Retreat -
Location: Bocas de Toro, Panama

Azucar Surf RetreatFeed the soul.
At Azucar Surf Retreat (Bocas del Toro, Panama) we personally cater to your every need in a private oceanfront environment. Whether you want to learn to surf or you are a top pro we will provide you with the surfing experience of a lifetime. Since we cater to private groups, you can surf when you want, where you want without compromise. Originally an all-girls resort, we are very female-friendly and do offer an all-girls surf package. Please see our packages page or contact us for pricing details.

A day in the life...
Wake up in the morning to the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean lapping at the shore of Isla Colon. Check the wave conditions over breakfast, while the captain prepares the custom outfitted surf ponga for the day’s adventure.

Spend the day exploring the clear blue waters and white sand beaches of the archipelago, surfing uncrowded glassy waves wearing nothing but your bikini or boardshorts and a huge grin. Wind down the exhausting day with a stroll through colorful historic Bocas town, awing at the magnificent sunset. Then if you have anything left in you, chill to some beats in the boathouse, or dance the night away at the local discotheque. It’s your call we’re walking distance from everything.

Our boat is at your disposal throughout the trip. Typically we surf in the morning, relax in a hammock and refuel through siesta time, and then hit the surf again in the afternoon. Or you may chose from a variety of daily activities to mend your tired muscles and soothe your soul, including spa treatments, yoga, a massage, snorkeling a coral reef, dolphin watching, a visit to the butterfly farm, or a jungle hike.

For breakfast and lunch we provide a delicious healthy gourmet menu that varies with the seasons of the exotic local fruits and veggies. After sunset cocktails and hors d'oeuvres you are on your own for dinner, off to feast on a variety of local fare at one of the many restaurants that line the vibrant streets of Bocas town.

For more information, please visit

Holly Beck Panama surf video clip

Jenni Flanigan Panama surf video clip

Kim Mayer Panama surf video clip

Kyla Langen Panama surf video clip

Helina Beck surf video clip

Getting There surf video clip

Azucar Surf Retreat


Additional Resources:

Azucar Surf Retreat

Jennifer Flanigan

Holly Beck's blog

Hayley Sales



Drum Major Instinct

The Groms

7 Come 11

Go Green

Close Enough




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