SURF-PRENEURS OF BOCAS DEL TORO

As you bob up and down in the line-up looking to position yourself for the big lefts at Paunch, Dumpers or Caren- ero, you will see the boats come splashing through the swells to the channel where four or five guys will toss their boards in the water led by their captain who directs them to the several take off zones. Over the last eleven years it has been my pleasure to get to know these captains, the entrepreneurs of surf in Bocas del Toro: Cookie and Ivan Evans, Robert Sullivan, Scott Balogh and Juan David Isaac.

The burliest and first of the surf-preneurs to establish their surf related business are the Panamanians Cookie and Ivan Evans. I interviewed Cookie at Toro Loco for this article. Remarkably his English has no Spanish accent because he went to “American schools” in the Canal Zone and spent five years in Miami. He uses his brightly tattooed arms to emphasize his stories and has a ready smile surrounded by his short beard. Cookie and Ivan learned to surf the Caribbean growing up in the Colon area. Through the surf grape vine, they heard there were waves in Bocas del Toro, so in 1996 they made the long drive from Colon to the Isla Colon. “It took a long time back then. The roads were awful and totally unreliable.” In Bocas, the Evans brothers met one of the pioneering Bocas surfers Kinga Samudio who took them to Paunch, which was the only place people surfed in those days. They were joined by the only other surfers on the island Julio Sturgeon and Gregory Smalls. The Evans boys could rip and they taught the local boys a lot about how to ride the waves.

Cookie and Ivan had good paying jobs in the Canal Zone, but when they were offered land to buy on Carenero by Kinga they were all in. “Kinga said the offer came with an asterisk and that was that we had to commit to stay in Bocas. We assured him that we were committed for life,” Cookie told me. They sold all of their stuff and cashed out in Colon and moved here permanently in 1998 to build the lovely Hotel Tierra Verde on Isla Carenero in a remark- able six months. They were delighted to find out that there were waves almost in front of their property at Caren- ero. There were so few surfers at the time and no one had actually surfed the Carenero point. They were one of the first to do so. They spent that first year surfing and building their business. They also realized that no one was doing surf related work in Bocas, so they developed relationships with Waterways and other surf and travel publications offering all inclusive surf packages creating a successful business. That business is still booming during the season, bringing in surfers to the hotel and Evan and Cookie still lead their clients to the surf nirvana that Bocas has become.

The second pioneer of the surf businessmen in Bocas is Robert Sullivan, known by many as “Captain Sully.” He operates his business at his place near Playa Tortuga. One of eleven children who migrated from Boston to Florida, Sully fell in love with fishing and surfing at an early age. He quit school to work on fishing boats, eventually estab- lishing a successful landscape maintenance business. Every two years or so, Sully saved his money and traveled with friends to exotic surf locations. In 1993 he visited Bocas and met Kinga, Julio Surgeon and his friend Little Wally. Big Wally owned much of the property in the E-Griega (Y road split) section of Isla Colon. Sully used to take Big Wally fishing, and he was so appreciative that he gave Sully his choice of land to buy. He chose an exquisite piece at the E-griega where in 1996 he built a six bedroom, two kitchen, four bathroom house with an amazing view of Bocas Town and Isla Carenero.

Not computer literate, Sully primarily used word of mouth to develop his clientele; many from his home base in Florida. Sully is a short bundle of muscle with a skin head and dark tan. I used to cringe when I saw his boat show up with his clients because Sully dominates. I got to know Sully around 2009 and we have been best buds ever since. I am forever in his debt, because he challenged me to be my best, and extended my surf life immeasurably. He is a fascinating character accentuating his fractured English by using the third person when he talks. (“Sully got 55 today, Rob. How’d you do?”) He is also one of the best fish guides on the island. In the off season we take our fishing poles with us when we go surfing. On my 67th birthday we caught 55 fish in less than an hour and never even got to Paunch. You can see photos of the fish on his Facebook page Captain Sully’s Surf and Fish.
In the next installment of Surf Scene, we will highlight the surf guide to the pros Scott Balogh from Hawaii and the creator of Mono Loco Surf the Juan David Isaac. In the meantime surf on, dudes.

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