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Posted by Dix Roper on 07 November 2007 at 06:25 AM

May, 2006

I had my hands full—it was choppy, the water dirty, the current was pulling us too close to the rocks and crashing waves,  I was with my brother Butch, 70, who had not dived for two years, and I was trying to watch Michelle driving the boat to see if she could keep the boat under control and away from the rocks in the rough seas.  I tucked and kicked down knowing the current would pull me past the high spot in thirty seconds. To my surprise a big Bohala of 50 lbs plus appeared just as I was out of air.  He brazenly approached within ten feet, turned broadside, and I fired. BAM! Good shot, but off about two inches from the black line behind his eye, which is the perfect stone shot. As I kicked for the surface I looked for my float line and realized something was wrong.  Where was my float line and buoy?  Within seconds I knew that I had just free-shafted a fifty pound fish in dirty, deep water with my $200.00 shaft and slip tip. I had completely forgotten to clip my float line and buoy to my shooting line, and the fish had presented itself before I was aware of my mistake.  I immediately dived back down knowing the fish was almost stoned, but with a sinking feeling I realized with the water dirty and being too deep to get to the bottom—- that I had just lost a great fish as well as my expensive shaft and slip tip that is hard to replace in Panama.  When I explained to Butch and Michelle what I had just done,  it gave them a real boost of confidence to see, as we started this five day live-a-board panga adventure, that they were in the hands of a highly trained, careful, and experienced diver and guide.

    The best diving in the dry season in Panama is probably in the Perlas but the best areas are 70 to 90 miles away by boat. To make the round trip in my panga and have a couple of days to dive we would need 4 or 5 days and cover over 200 miles. For sleeping, three people works best, and for diving, two in the water and one driving is necessay because of the currents and twelve to fifteen foot tidal change.

    The crew for this first trip would be Butch, 70, in good shape but with little blue water experience, Michelle my 22 year old dive buddy trainee who just recently learned to swim, and myself, with little experience in the Perlas. Long sea trips in small, open, outboard boats always have some risks and potential discomfort.  I knew Butch could deal as an ex-Special Forces guy with 30 years in the Army. I was interested to see how Michelle would handle this next level of dive-buddy boot camp. Live aboard—panga style, means no privacy, 30 second showers on the swim step, no hot meals but eating from cans, dawn wake up calls, high winds, rough seas, dark nights with black rocky shores, possible pirates, no coast guard, no medical, no one to call, one anchor and possible sharks.  Sleeping accommodations are open to the stars, and the rain, but this is supposed to be the dry season.. PURE LUXURY.  On the Plus side the trip offers total freedom, no controls and no people, big fish, and a rare opportunity to live really close to Mother nature 24 and 7 and experience her moods, her changes and her power. It was just   Eat, Sleep, Dive and Survive —What could be more fun?

    We made the long run the first day and still had time to dive, but we waited too late to start to look for night anchorage.  It was almost dark when I threw the anchor in 25 feet of water in a deserted bay with the bow facing the beach and the north wind. As I let the anchor line out by hand we looked back and saw a line of waves coming at us from behind. Butch at the wheel knew that we could not take a wave over the stern, turned the wheel, put the motor in reverse, and gunned the engine to bring the bow around to face the wave. As I watched the approaching wave, the unattached nylon anchor line ran through my hands and suddenly—-POP—.the end of the anchor line popped out of my hands and was gone.  We rode over the wave before it broke but now we had no anchor.—No anchor, the wind was blowing, it was dark and we were really tired.—It was one miserable first night.  We thought about using the weight belts but if we lost them the trip was over on our first day. Then we thought we could drift and each take a one hour watch, but we were too tired. So we used our two small marker buoy weights attached to some 550 lb. cord to slow the drift. Every three hours or so we would wake up and move the boat back to shallow water.  Free drifting around in the ocean at night where there are rocks and islands nearby is not conducive to a good nights sleep. Some major lessons I learned from the misery. 1. Stop diving early and find good anchorage long before dark. 2. With nylon anchor line I need to keep a small buoy attached to the end to keep the line afloat in case I have to ditch the anchor. 3. Carry a second anchor and extra line for emergencies 4. Carry a dive light in case we need to look for an anchor or set or release an anchor in the dark. 5. Carry a bigger roll of 550 cord or larger, for the unexpected. The limitation is always how much more can we load in this little boat before we sink it.

    The next day Butch got on the board first.  The few days we spent at the pool before the trip got him up to speed and he was getting down to thirty feet plus with time to hunt. We found a great drop off with a bottom change from 130 up to 50 feet, dirty on the top ten feet but clear and cold below, with the current flowing into the wall.  It was a one dive wall—you had to make your drop in the deep water, ride the current to the fish,  and when you came up, you were in 50 feet, over the rocks where there were no fish.  I watched Butch as two small bohala approached him as he rose, but they were followed by a big fish and he fired just before he entered into the murky layer.  It was a solid shot but did not slow the fish much. He fought the fish before he reached the surface and was then pulled down three times before he had a chance to recover. In his excitement he used his reserves and overextended himself, and at the end of the battle he was almost as dead as the fish. He felt great however, that he had successfully landed a 54 lb. Bohala and now he could rest, eat his gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwich, recover, and be boat driver.

    When it was Michelle’s turn on the same spot she got her first lesson on not chasing the fish when we saw our first big cherna. When she saw the 70-80 lb. Cherna coming up from deep water she swam directly toward the fish. Of course, the fish felt the predator approach and just turned and went back down. Michelle was doing great even with the poor vis and ripping current.  With no fear, and her little fins flapping like mad, she was getting down to thirty feet. Her total shooting experience at this point was one tiny fish a few weeks before, with my euro gun, and she had never shot the wood gun we were using now, loaded with only two 9/16 bands. We were side by side at twenty feet when she had her first chance for a nice fish. A bohala warily approached to about 15 feet and Michelle wanted to charge the fish, but I motioned her to wait. She was so excited about her newly discovered ability to swim and dive that she really wanted to shoot her first big fish. The fish turned and came back—this time close enough. It felt like it took forever as I watched her trying to line up the shot but when she was satisfied, she pulled the trigger, hit the fish and the tip toggled. As we headed for the surface she grabbed the float line and quickly realized air takes priorty over pulling the fish up. I stayed close in case she got wrapped but I did not interfer as I wanted her to feel the power of the fish. When she got to the shooting line I had to remind her to keep the line away from her body, don’t wrap the line around your hand, and try to take your time and relax and think what you want to do next. When she caught her breath and finally had her hand in the gills she stared at her massive catch in disbelief and wonder. Her Second Fish. I was very proud that this little country girl, who could only afford to eat fish once a year, couldn’t swim, never knew the ocean, had never done anything in her life fun or unusual, until just a couple of months ago, had discovered the Magic Kingdom. With this fish she had now earned her entry into the elite brotherhood of underwater hunters. Look out fish—There is a new muchacha on the scene that is armed and dangerous..  I could see in the expression on her face a mixture of joy, pride,excitement and surprise that was new in her life experience.

    This place was great with cherna, bohala and pargo and I managed to stone a beautiful pargo before the current changed and the vis disappeared. We had great fun the next couple of days diving different places and we all managed to shoot more fish. Michelle missed a really big big bohala when she got excited and shot before she was looking down the barrel and had the gun lined up properly. I watched the shaft fly over the top of the fish, one half inch high. After three days of great diving we had run out of ice, water, and food, we knew it was time to head home at daylight.  We lucked out with smooth, no wind conditions and made it back with energy and time for the major clean up operation. We had a few days to recover and refit before we planned to go again with a new Australian friend from the freedive list that we had not yet met.

    Phil Mcdowall was 24, but had years of diving experience and was taking some months off to travel, surf and dive.  Phil, showed up keen for a new adventure, and as with all the new freedive list friends we have met, he was a great diver, helpful and totally turned on. This trip we had a new anchor but only one, as I planned to recover the lost anchor.  We never found the lost anchor of course, and bent the flukes 90 degrees on the new lightweight anchor, so Phil was the man appointed to go down and tie the chain around the rocks so we could sleep. When we had to pull anchor in the dark to come back, we flipped to see who would make the night dive, with no light, to unwrap the anchor chain.  As guest on this luxury live-aboard he got the honors.

    On this second trip the water seemed to warming and the season was changing a month early. Phil and Michelle got to see their first roosters and while checking out a spot alone in dirty water, Phil got a surprise visit from a couple of hammerheads.  Michelle made a tail shot on a nice bohala in a shallow area with ripping current and the fish immediately wrapped the shooting cable around the bottom rocks.  It almost turned into another $200 shot with lost shaft and tip, but I was able to pull myself down the line against the current and free the cable. Sometimes the Gods are on your side.

    The second night the weather Gods brought us an unexpected surprise for the dry season. Just before getting ready to sleep under the stars, dark clouds materialized and dumped a deluge on us for which we were totally unprepared. As we had no tarps or protection it could have been a disaster later but it worked great. We still had our foam pads and sheets in plastic bags, and the rain only lasted a half hour. It ended, we dried off the floor, rolled out our pads and slept like the dead. The Gods smiled on us again.

    Hunting was not super as the conditions had changed and we had depth finder problems, but Phil managed to shoot both his first Bohala and Pargo.  The highlight of the trip for me was watching his battle to the death with his first pargo. Floating on the surface, with 30-40 feet of clear water and good current, I watched the battle rage for 15 minutes.  Phil got a good shot on the pargo but could not stop him and he went under a four foot overhang. Phil swam back against the current, went down, grabbed the shaft and started up with the fish. The cable was wrapped in the rocks so he had to release the shaft and the fish then went back down to the hole. Upcurrent again and Phil went down, freed the cable, pulled the fish out and started up up holding the cable clip. He accidentally squeezed the clip,  the shooting line came loose and the fish went back down again. After swimming back upcurrent Phil went down again, pulled the fish out and started up with the fish going crazy swimming tight circles around Phil and the loose cable.  I went down just in case but Phil had it under control and successfully surfaced with his very memorable first Pargo.

      The return trip to Panama this time was into the wind, with rough seas and the spray stinging our faces, but I felt joy and was already thinking of the next trip. Each luxury live-aboard trip – panga style, is a unique adventure in terms of opening up new diving opportunities in distant places.  Each trip offers lessons to make the next trips more comfortable and safer as we push the envelope further in search of the denizens of the deep. The real luxury of the panga live-aboard is not about comfort, but about freedom from limitation, endless new adventure, self reliance, and the pure joy of living a few days or hours where you think about nothing other than eating, sleeping, diving and surviving. For me each day I dive and survive I enjoy a heightened sense of gratitude and a hightened sense of being alive.  For all of us that experience this joy, freedom, and gratitude through diving may we be an inspiration to ourselves and the others around us, on our own personal Live-Aboard—Panga-Style   called   L I F E.


Dix Roper
     May,  2006

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