Text and photos : Javier A. Pinzón
The indigenous peoples of Panama (Emberás, Ngäbes, Nasos, and Gunas) have used the cayuco —a boat made from a hollowed tree trunk— as a form transportation for millennia. Ancestral knowledge of which trees are suitable for making cayucos, when the trunk is ready to be carved, when to fell the tree, and how to handle the canoes in turbulent water is still passed on from generation to generation.
In the first half of the 20th century, when the Panama Canal was still operated by the U.S. Army, engineer Frank Townsend introduced a group of U.S. Boy Scouts to an Emberá community living on the Chagres River.
The U.S. youngsters spent time with the indigenous youth, not only learning how to handle these heavy wood boats, but also competing with experienced Emberá paddlers in informal regattas. These unofficial races continued until 1954, when the first official regatta from the Atlantic to the Pacific was organized. The new regatta became a tradition in the Canal Zone. After the Canal was reverted to Panamanian control and the U.S. enclave in the isthmus was dismantled, a group of canoeing enthusiasts founded the Balboa Paddle Club (CREBA) in 2000 to preserve the tradition. The annual Ocean to Ocean Regatta is still going strong.
A Legacy Restored
While the origin of the regatta may be bicultural, its connection with its roots had been so obscured that indigenous people never competed in the official races.
When participating in international competitions, Christopher Huerbsch —one of the founders and current President of the Balboa Paddle Club— noted that some paddling cultures still pay tribute to their roots. For example, paddlers in Hawaii and Tahiti give orders in the native language and ancient rituals are performed before the start of a race.
A few years ago, this pushed Chris to form paddling teams with indigenous members. Since the first teams —formed in 2016— used the race as a way of learning about competitive canoeing and as an aid in winning ancestral indigenous competitions, they did not enter the Ocean to Ocean race. The following year, two Guna canoes trained the entire season, all the way through to the Ocean to Ocean. These teams are still learning and creating initiatives with their congresses and communities for training in competitive cayuco racing. The idea is to have indigenous groups educate the cayuco racing community on canoeing from an indigenous perspective.
The Dugout Canoe
The first cayucos, or dugout canoes, were made from huge, heavy trunks, but they gradually morphed into more efficient boats. The design evolved naturally, beginning with the families of the Boy Scouts: the cayuco slowly grew longer, narrower, lighter, and more aerodynamic. The Panamanian cayuco emerged and developed here; no other canoe in the world is made to the same dimensions.
Each one of these cayucos has its own personality: heavy ones are more stable, but demand greater effort from the crew, while lighter ones glide faster, but require better balance.
Since the open category has no rules on how a cayuco is made, the use of molded fiberglass for the bottom of the cayuco has been allowed since 2000; the sides of the boat consist of lengths of wood. Chris has built a cayuco both ways: a traditional boat took him six to seven months, whereas the more modern version using fiberglass required only three to four weeks.
Rules for the junior category say that the cayuco must be carved from a tree trunk in the traditional manner, without molds. The fact that no one knows how to do this is rather a problem, but there are still people in the indigenous communities who craft cayucos in the manner of their ancestors, providing hope that reconnecting with the origins of the dugout canoe will inspire modern artisans to make racing cayucos.
The cayuco opened doors for many good Panamanian paddlers, who then progressed to international competitions in other events.
Competitive teams spend the entire year preparing for the race. When there are no races on the horizon, they paddle once a week or twice a month until August rolls around. From then on, they train two times a day, both in the gym and on the water. There are three difficult tests before the big race. The 4-mile Coastal Beltway Regatta is held in December. The Amador Regatta, covering a little over 6 miles, comes in January. The Veracruz Regatta, meant to verify the paddlers’ control over their cayucos, takes place in February. Lastly, the Gamboa Regatta, which tests the teams’ speed, falls in March.
Finally, in March, the last month before the Ocean to Ocean Regatta, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) allows the paddlers to use Lake Gatún for practice. This sport demands discipline, responsibility, perseverance, and determination.
Ocean to Ocean
The season wraps up with the enormous challenge of paddling from the Atlantic to the Pacific. All the months of training, all the days of hard work on the water are merely prologue to this 3-day race. The 34-mile race starts in Cristóbal, on the Caribbean side, with the first day ending on Lake Gatún at the heart of the Canal. The second leg is the longest, running from Gatún to Gamboa, a small town in the forest skirting the Canal. The third day features three races: the first (the third leg overall) is the laguito, a 15-minute sprint, followed by an hour of rest. The fourth leg takes place in Corte Culebra —the narrowest part of the canal— and the race closes with the fifth leg near Diablo, a small town on the Pacific side of the Canal.
The teams give their all during those three days. The level of integration attained by a team is revealed in their degree of synchronicity. So many months of training fuse the crew members into a single entity as precise and steady as a Swiss watch. In the end, regardless of who comes in first or last, everyone will have the satisfaction of achieving what few others in the world have done: paddling from one ocean to another.
Racing cayucos carry four crew members in the junior (ages 14 to 21), open (ages 21 to 40), and master (above 40) categories. Juniors must steer the boat with their hands, while racers in the other two categories manage the rudder with their feet. Each crew member has his or her own task.
The pacer sits closest to the prow of the cayuco and acts as the heartbeat of the team. He or she sets the paddling rhythm and dictates changes of pace.
The power house sits behind the pacer; his/her task is to paddle as hard as possible in accordance with instructions.
In addition to paddling, the bailer bails out the water that accumulates inside the cayucos.
The steer (coxswain) is the paddler closest to the stern of the cayuco and is responsible for steering the boat, which requires a great deal of skill.
The captain, chosen by the team, could be any of the crew members, but is usually the steer.