At 7 in the morning at the Gamboa Docks, with the sun still new-looking and pale in the sky, the first paddlers out that day are panting at this public boat ramp on the Chagres River, which feeds the Panama Canal.
When they first return, they hold onto the dock with one arm while they rest in their cayuco, a traditional Panamanian canoe modified for racing. They sip water from tubes attached to bladders hiding within the hull. Their heads are tilted back and their eyes are closed, enjoying the long-awaited repose. They have just returned from practice, a two-hour, 20-mile circuit from Gamboa to Colón, and they look exhausted.
Carlos Herbert, a four-time Ocean to Ocean champion who coaches cayuco, has four boats in the canal this morning. He’s kneeling on a paddleboard as they return, watching to see who might prevail in two upcoming regattas, one of which is the Ocean to Ocean, a grueling three-day, five-leg, 50-plus-mile race that spans the canal by starting in one ocean and ending in another.
“It is a really authentic sport, and it only exists in Panama,” says a proud Herbert. After a beat, he makes an amendment. “It’s more than a sport.”
The cayuco races are unique to Panama, its canoes shaped from the traditional utilitarian boats built by the Guna-Embera, a people indigenous to the Panama Canal’s surrounding rivers and Atlantic coast. Carved from a single trunk of the cedro amargo, maria and espave trees, they are built to carry four rowers who must be able to endure hours of paddling without a rudder if they are under 21, and for everyone else, without a foil, which is a wing-like structure fitted to the hull to stabilize a boat when it hits water at high speed. Every year, 60 to 70 boats will set off from Colón, a city at the Atlantic entrance to the canal, in the hopes of paddling to Panama City on the Pacific, completing the Ocean to Ocean, usually held in April though cancelled this year due to the COVID pandemic.
These races are the pride of all those who participate in them. “The sport was and is the only truly national sport in the country since it was birthed and evolved in Panama, from their native tribes, with the help of Americans,” says Dalton Johnson, 41, CREBA’s “fiscal,” or the person in charge of rules and regulations during the races. CREBA is a local organization that encourages Panamanians to engage in the sport to foster an appreciation and continuation of native culture and traditions. “I paddled in the ‘90s and it was a high school sport, it was something everyone that grew up in the area did.”
Now, the races are far more evolved. Each year, over 240 people participate in the Ocean to Ocean. Like professional teams, each boat is covered in sponsorships from Panamanian businesses. It has garnered the interest of world-class rowers like Ross Flemmer, who visited Panama and tried cayuco. In the past, rowing teams from New York and Washington have visited to compete in the races. But unlike seasoned cayucoers, they usually end up flipping their boats.
Back on the water, Herbert has jumped off the paddleboard and into a cayuco canoe known as the Halibut to meet the other boats just now slicing their way onto the horizon. They’ve been paddling for at least two hours, since 5 a.m., and while the rowers look fatigued – men, women, teenagers, seniors, some elite athletes with long sinewy arms – they do not look finished.
Herbert has paddled to a mooring ball at the edge of an opening into the expanse of the Gatún Lake and hollers in Spanish for them to sprint. They pause and then in unison slice hard for the remaining 100 meters at about 8 miles per hour. (Though the goal is, for short sprints, to have them hit 15.)
Herbert, 29, who stands over 6 feet tall, is clearly pleased when he gets back to the dock. “We don’t go to the Olympics for the cayuco, so it doesn’t matter what your body is like,” he says. “If you don’t have teamwork or synchronization, it doesn’t matter if you have all the muscles.”
He of course does as most champions would, evident as he steps out of the boat with his muscular and imposing frame. “Where else can you paddle from Atlantic to Pacific?” he says with pride and a boyish grin. “Just Panama.”
Indigenous and American
While the history of the physical cayucos can be traced back to indigenous origins in Panama, the sport has American ancestry. The very first Ocean to Ocean race, in fact, wasn’t even held in Panama. In the mid 20th century, U.S. Army Engineer Frank Townsend, who worked on the Panama Canal, introduced explorers in the Boy Scouts of America to people indigenous to the Chagres River, which is the largest body of water in the Panama Canal’s watershed and through its dams feeds into Gatún Lake and Lake Alajuela. This interaction led to the introduction of the dugout canoe, or the cayuco, the indigenous people’s main method of transportation in the early part of the 20th century.
As time went on, informal competitions were held in the canal and rivers by Boy Scouts visiting Panama, and in 1954 the American organization created the first official Ocean to Ocean competition with their own dug-out boats. The first race had just nine cayucos, though back then they were called piraguas. A formal, regulated system also emerged:
A crew member’s location in the boat came with a designated role. The position closest to the bow is called the pacer, who sets the tempo for the boat and tells the rest of the crew when to switch sides paddling. The seat behind the pacer is the powerhouse, whose only job is to paddle hard, be the engine. The last two spots are for the bailer and the steerer. The bailer throws water out of the boat, and the steerer is in control of direction, using paddles located by their feet, which are connected to the floor.
The Ocean to Ocean races were held and organized by the Boy Scouts of America until 1999 when the last enclaves of American territory were returned back to Panamanians. “From 1954 to 2000, to participate in the cayuco race, you paid a fee of approximately $9 to $14 to become a one-year explorer scout,” says Johnson. The Canal Zone, the 10-mile strip of land owned and operated by the U.S. and inhabited by U.S. citizens, was its own entity and although the races were open to all, most who participated were teenagers living within the zone.
Pablo Prieto, 69, is a dual Panamanian and American citizen who paddled cayuco in the ‘60s and grew up in the Canal Zone with other Americans. He has witnessed so many changes since then. 1981 was the first year a female competition was created, for example, and the following year saw the conception of the three separate categories: mixed, female and male. In 1993 a select few Panamanian teenagers were allowed to participate in the races but since, Panamanian participation has been a staple.
Prieto used to have a pool in the backyard of his home, he says, where he worked with hundreds of paddlers. “All the kids that were born and raised in the Canal Zone, you couldn’t wait to turn 14 years old,” he says.
Not wanting to see the sport die with the departure of the Boy Scouts, Prieto and other parents founded Club de Remos de Balboa, or CREBA. The first Panamanian-organized Ocean to Ocean was held in 2000. Luis Lasso, now race director for CREBA, paddled in the boat that won. He was just 17. “We did not expect to win,” says Lasso, “we were the underdogs.”
Since then, CREBA has made many changes, including adding a series of four single-day qualifying races that range from a 400-meter sprint to 10 kilometers. Lasso uses these preliminary races to determine whether the boats are canal-worthy, as well as the teams. “There was a sort of pride,” says Lasso, “that Panamanians could organize the races.”
But the athletes bear no resentment toward their American past, says Lasso. When the Boy Scouts of America left the Canal Zone in 1999, it was both Americans and Panamanians who came together to prevent its dissolution. “They did it together,” says Lasso. “We always mention that the creators of the race were the Boy Scouts.”
An evolving sport
Like Herbert and Lasso, Maria Vergara belongs in, or on, the water.
Now 30, she paddled in the first-ever all-female boat to win the Ocean to Ocean three years in a row – the final win coming in 2014 – called a triple cup, in both the under-21 and the open categories. The vessel she paddled, Nossa Vitoria, was an all-wooden boat shaped in the traditional Guna-Embera style.
Vergara, who retired from paddling four years ago, represents the cayuco’s advancement into the 21st century. Under CREBA, the sport has focused on more inclusion, stricter safety regulations and technological advancements. Along with the first female triple crown win, the sport has attempted to return to its indigenous heritage.
Lasso says that since 2006, CREBA has been trying to accomodate an all-indigenous crew because organizers feel it’s important to return the sport to its origins. When proposed in 2006, “they said that’s not for us, that’s not a cayuco.” But in 2017, CREBA waived entrance fees and provided a race-worthy cayuco to an all-indigenous crew to race the Ocean to Ocean, “because their culture is cayuco.” Now, there are three boats with an all-indigenous crew.
Safety regulations have also advanced in recent seasons. In 2014, for example, when over 100 boats participated in the Ocean to Ocean, more than half did not complete the first two days of the race due to heavy winds and waves. “2014 was crazy,” says Vergara. Now, the race is limited to 60 to 70 boats, and the Panama Canal Authority provides radios to the racers and organizers. To help reduce the danger, the number of chase boats – those that follow the canoes to ensure their safety – were upped from one for every four cayucos to a chase boat per every cayuco. 2014 was also the last year that the cayucos were allowed through the canal locks, a ritual halted when the canal was expanded to accommodate larger ships.
The cayucos themselves have also been evolving. Most people now race in what Lasso calls an “eco boat.” Many are now made from wooden planks rather than just one, which required they be constructed from a single tree. Also, since the “open category” has no material restrictions, most boats incorporate fiberglass into the hulls. Many cayucos are now also fitted with a Garmin, or GPS, and most of the paddlers at the Gamboa docks are outfitted with Fitbits.
At the Gamboa docks, the steerer for the Halibut, Federico Castro, gestures to the devices on his crewmates’ wrists and the Garmin fastened to the inside of the cayuco. Castro says they often download information onto computers and turn that into graphs so they can look at when they hit top speed. Although this is an amateur sport, professional-level training and detail are required.
As Castro speaks, David Shocron, 22, walks up. “This is David, one of the best cayucoers in the country,” Castro says.
Shocron is in his first season, which is six months long, and is preparing for his first open category race in April. To get ready, he’s been training “six times a week, twice a day.” The mornings are out on the water in the boats. The evenings are spent on land. He’s not alone in that schedule. Even for those in the master’s category, people over 50, the sport requires practices four to five times a week. They practice in gyms, using rowing erg machines modified for paddling.
Back on the water
From the front door of a house in the El Carmen neighborhood of Panama, the makeshift practice space looks like a closed business. After a knock, a man opens the door, walks through the building and out the back toward what sounds like a waterfall. Four people – three men and one woman – are hovering over a pool on a metal bar and paddling hard. Standing over them, next to the pool, is Herbert. They will work for an hour that night. Any longer in static water risks injury. Another all-women team is waiting to go next.
For the next 60 minutes, the rowers dig in with silent stares; the steerer is the only one who speaks, barking out commands. Herbert’s teams are preparing for a sprint race in Colón the following Wednesday. The women are “rookies” says Herbert. “As of now they are qualifying for the Ocean to Ocean, which is great,” he says.
Almost an hour has passed and the man in the powerhouse position on the metal beam is exhausted, as he’s been working the hardest. It is Pierre Francois’ second season in a cayuco. Francois says that the team aspect of the sport is what drew him to it. At “over 50 years old,” and a lifetime of playing sports, he says, “it is maybe the sport where team is most important. If you are not synchronized, out of pace with your team, the boat doesn’t run.”
Francois, who owns a cabinet business, completed his first Ocean to Ocean last year. He races in a bright orange boat with blue lettering that reads “Sky Dragon.”
“Huge experience. It’s fantastic,” says Francois. His arm is draped around his teammate Victoria Figueroa, a retired lawyer. Both are sweaty, but content. “When you finish it, the feeling that you have when you arrive there is, wow, I mean there are no words for it.”