Two years ago, my boyfriend and I set sail in a four-decade-old boat, built around the time we were born, heading down a coast we had never seen. Few modern vessels have traversed the entire coastline, more than 5,000 miles from the Sea of Cortez through the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean. We sailed to learn more about coastal climate change than we could read in books or news reports—we wanted to hear the stories of local fishers and grandmothers, not rely on government or academic reports. In the end, we found a new story about climate change and resilience, grounded in local experiences. And we found evidence of climate change in everything from coffee beans to canal commerce.
PANAMA CITY—I stare at my doctor in disbelief. He’s supposed to provide the best prenatal care in all of Panama. And he’s telling me, at eleven weeks pregnant during my first prenatal appointment, that I don’t need a blood test for the Zika virus.
I’ve traveled here from a remote community in Bocas del Toro, Panama—an outpost for backpackers, surfers, outlaws, and an uneasy mix of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous cultures. By US standards, I’m nearly a month tardy for my first prenatal exam. But getting to decent medical care is time-consuming and expensive, so I hope to combine necessary tests for this trip. I’m at the only hospital in Latin America affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, believing it will be my best shot at keeping this growing baby safe as the threat of disease rises.
“You don’t need to worry about Zika there,” the doctor says, leaning back confidently in his desk chair. “It’s really only in the indigenous communities.”
But Panama is the only country in the Americas with increasing reported cases of Zika. In the rural archipelago where we have lived on Oleada for the past four months, there have been 11 reported cases. That statistic makes me nervous: due to a combination of painfully limited state resources and reputedly poor healthcare, very few people see a doctor in Bocas. The hospital at the edge of town reflects the sorry state of medical care here: it’s crumbling into the unmown grass and trash scattered across the property. The facility is unable to test for Zika in Bocas, so any reported cases must travel elsewhere and self-identify for the test, which costs the equivalent of $150, a flabbergasting amount by local standards. In an area of only 2,000 people densely packed into a single settlement, 11 reported cases likely reflects only a tiny, eerie shadow of a much larger epidemic.
BOCAS DEL TORO, Panama—We hear the buzz of the motor closing in. Both Josh and I stand up instinctively, peering into the inky blackness for the invisible boat. We’ve just finished eating at our little teak table in the cockpit, enjoying the dark ensconce of the warm, humid evening. I see only reflected yellow lights from town. The whine of the outboard screams toward us, the noise building exponentially. I search the water, confused: the engine is opened up, full throttle. It shouldn’t be coming straight at us, I think, but my ears tell me otherwise.
“JESS, LOOK OUT!” Josh cries and reaches out for me.
Like a ghoul in a nightmare, a massive white bow appears perpendicular to Oleada exactly where I stand. I wave my arms in vain to alert a hidden driver. I let out an angry howl, the kind of primal yell that makes my throat hurt for days.
My yell turns to a scream in the fraction of a second between when the boat materializes and when it collides at full speed with Oleada’s hull. It’s a 25-foot cayuco, the kind of massive, narrow open boat that the native Ngobe people carve out of a single immense tree. It hits like a six-foot-wide redwood slamming into our boat at 20 miles per hour. Oleada barely budges—she takes the hit so well that Josh and I aren’t even knocked off our feet. But our dishes fly off the table as the bow rides up into our lifelines, thin rope stronger than steel that lines the edge of the boat to keep us from falling off, before the cord stretches, then springs the cayuco back into the water, stopping it from launching into our cockpit. The inch-thick steel stanchions securing the lifelines remain bent from the effort to repel the boat as it slides back into the black water.
Josh is still yelling as I stare in amazement at the edge of Oleada, expecting it to be torn in two. The cayuco that just hit us drifts alongside, the motor still chugging. Josh rushes to the side of the boat.
“Amigo! Amigo! Todo bien? Jess, find a light!”
Staring at this inexplicably violent scene in front of me, Josh’s voice breaks my trance and I rush into the cabin and grab our spotlight. It does not dawn on me how lucky I am to be alive. I am mainly worried that we might be taking on massive amounts of water. I drop to my knees amid shards of wood and fiberglass to run a beam of light along the hull. I expect to see water rushing in; surely our boat, our home, is sinking. But at the waterline and almost all the way up to the joint where the deck meets the hull, Oleada remains clean and white, unharmed. I continue to search the hull with the light, expecting catastrophe, until Josh asks me to search the cayuco.
At first, we don’t see anyone in the boat. A bizarre foreboding fills me as I imagine a driverless boat slamming us in the night. But when I spotlight the massive cayuco up to its majestically proud bow, a body lies in the bottom, splayed face down in the rough-hewn wooden hull in the middle, motionless.
The body moans.
On the ocean, the horizon can feel crushingly wide. From the cockpit, we can only react to what the expanse reveals—and what it doesn’t, with frustratingly vague clues. As we sail through the tropics in rainy season—filled with towering thunderclouds and sudden, violent storms at any hour—we find ourselves often peering nervously into the horizon. As black clouds mushroom, we can only guess at many factors: how hard is it raining? Will it continue? Which direction will this storm go? How much wind does this storm cell pack? Do we need to shorten our sails? Now? If there isn’t lightning now, will there be? Should we turn around or forge ahead?
A sailing adage calls the sport ‘hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.’ But that leaves out the gnawing uncertainty of reading a horizon and the edginess that can accompany complete vulnerability to the elements.
Off the Pacific coast of Panama, Josh and I sit in the cockpit and discuss the darkening horizon. We left Islas Secas in a good breeze and clear sunshine one hour earlier. Now, I watch with increasing dread as the indigo underbellies of storm clouds billow higher into a wash of white above the mainland. These storms grow rapidly, packing powerful winds and terrifying lightning that could easily destroy our boat’s electronics, punch a hole in the hull, and electrocute Josh and me.
Maybe we can beat this storm, I wonder aloud. I sit on the edge of the cockpit and we watch the clouds for a few tense minutes. The wind increases on our bow, and our silence is carried away by the headwind that flogs our jib, leaving it snapping angrily.
I want to make it to the mainland and the promise of calm anchorage. It’s been two weeks since I’ve slept well, and I can feel my nerves fraying under my salt-stained skin. We have been taking shelter behind offshore islands, where storms and swell wrap into our anchorages in the night, causing the boat to toss and turn, leaving us doing the same.
We could stop at Isla Brincanco, a small, steep island between us and the continent, but it’s a “roadstead” anchorage. We would be potentially exposed to wind and swell, and the guidebook warns that the only solid holding (for the anchor) is at least forty feet deep—fifty-five feet at high tide. Deep anchorages are not ideal because they require we pay out extensive chain, at least 200 feet, and this is tiring to pull up manually. Plus it leaves us vulnerable to an invisible bottom, along which rocks and trees could snag our anchor in this seldom-used location, and freediving to unsnag the anchor would be at Josh’s limits.
I watch the leading edge of the storm, a distinct line of black sweeping south, giving us an idea that it’s traveling north—towards where we want to go. No. No, I don’t like the look of the clouds. I make our decision.
I pick up the VHF radio and hail our friends Jon and Shannon on Prism, sailing half an hour behind us. We have been sailing with this young couple off and on for seven months, and we frequently chat on our VHF radio to check in and to help each other. “I think we’re going to tuck into this island and see what happens with these clouds.” The wind picks up, and we roll in all but a fraction of our jib.
“Well, we’re going to keep going.” Shannon’s cheery assertion causes me to cringe internally. Am I overreacting? Should we do the same?
I’m at the bottom of the ocean, and I hear singing.
I can’t see them, but their voices are clear, like a bird calling in the night. I wait motionless on the sand bottom under twenty feet of water as reef fish dart around me. I’m listening for whales. The sounds I hear are not deep, slow baritones: the whales chirp like a baby trying out its voice in gurgles and giggles. It sounds like a conversation between whales, talking in rising and falling coos and blips. I can’t help but grin behind my mask. read more