Stab Magazine | How A Covid-Extended Surf Trip Saved This Depressed Surfer's Life

How A Covid-Extended Surf Trip Saved This Depressed Surfer’s Life

“I have spent the last six months drinking myself to sleep and chain-smoking one to two packs of cigarettes every day.”

news // Jun 27, 2020
Words by Dan Cohns
Reading Time: 11 minutes

The story starts in Oregon, in the town of Lake Oswego, in my parents’ house.

I have spent the last six months drinking myself to sleep and chain-smoking one-to-two packs of cigarettes every day. I have not worked in three months. A series of mistakes led me into a pit of shame and bottomless depression.

Depression is the absence of hope, and I had none. But for those of you that have never felt true depression here is how it felt for me.  

Every day I woke up with a literal ache in my belly and heart, a sort of heaviness that feels like your intestines are being pulled down and smushed together. I would wake up at 10:00 AM then sleep until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. I did not want to eat, but when I did, I craved easy, greasy, fast food. My brain would tell me repeatedly that I did not deserve to live.

I will not go into the details of all the things that put me into this spiral. That is not important to this story. I am also sure I will write about it in other pieces. I am going to write now about how I climbed out.  

This is a story of redemption. After six months of doing the same thing every day, in early March, just before Corona shut down the world, I booked a ticket to Bocas Del Toro, Panama to go surfing. This surf adventure literally saved my life.  

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Your author: Dan Cohns.

I booked the plane ticket for two days later to spend eight days in Panama. I packed my surfboard bag with the essentials: three boards, a few pairs of board shorts, a handful of clothes, a pair of sandals, and I wore my shoes to the airport.

This was my first trip solo. I hyperventilated and had mild panic attacks on the way to the airport. My mom comforted me, gave me a hug, wished me good luck, and left me in PDX. When I walked into the airport the fear disappeared, and I burst into laughter. Here I was in the throes of suicidal depression and my idea of a good idea was to leave everyone I know and love and who supported me and travel alone to Panama. What could go wrong?

So I drink some beers while I wait to board the plane to California. In California, I drink some beers to board the plane to Miami. In Miami, I hear my name called over the intercom while I am drinking a beer. I down it, run to the gate, and they tell me I am the last one, and that they are waiting for me. I feel guilty until I get on the plane and still must wait behind a line of standing people.

Finally, 23 hours later, I arrive in Panama with a terrible head cold—probably because I red-eyed the flights drunk. Corona is spreading worldwide, so this is the kind of thing that doesn’t let you into a country, which is mildly disconcerting. I am also thinking about how much it would suck to spend eight days quarantined in Panama and then go home. But I make it through customs, and the cold symptoms are gone the next day. 

Bocas Del Toro is cool. It is a small group of islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast with a few fun waves and a few really heavy waves too. I also have a number of specific stories that need to be told from my time there, but most are of me getting myself into outrageous situations that I cannot write about for a magazine article, so for those you will have to go to my website.

What is important about my time spent in Bocas Del Toro is this: for the first time in six months, I found myself waking up at 5 am (before the sun) to take a taxi to a left-hand reef break called Paunch. Surfing provided me a reason to start pushing past my emotions for something greater. The other part that is important is I met a number of people who were traveling for months on end—not days—and I thought, I wish I could do that. Why can´t I do that? Screw it, I am going to do that!  

So, I abandoned my plane ride home and stayed in Bocas Del Toro for 10 days instead of eight, before making my way across the country to Santa Catalina, a small surf village on the Pacific side.  Some girls I met in Bocas were traveling to Santa Teresa, Costa Rica through the center of the country, and my plan was to meet them in two weeks traveling the Pacific Coast starting in Santa Catalina and stopping in Pavones, Costa Rica to surf the world’s second-longest left.

In the meantime, I asked my parents if they could help me by sending a package of stuff—some clothes and the rest of my antidepressants I left at home. My Dad even threw in my Martin travel guitar. That package never arrived.


When I made it to Santa Catalina, I hopped off the bus to a large group of tourists.  “Hey man, we are sorry they closed everything. The parks, beaches, hostels, everything. We are all leaving.”  

The familiar feeling of panic hit me. But I had called the hostel I planned to stay at, Surfer’s Paradise, and the owner had told me to come. Of course, things change.

I managed to thumb a ride from a local to the front gate of Surfer´s Paradise.  The gate had a sign that read, “Sorry, no more guests, we are closed due to Corona.”  But I had to at least try, so I climbed through the gate door and walked to the second main gate, opened that and found the owner Italo. I introduced myself as the kid who called yesterday, and he said, “You are good, but you are the last guest.”  And with that, I was able to relax.

I had now made it across the country, without realizing it, the same day everything in the world started shutting down. It was not that I was taking the situation lightly. It was that up until this moment, there was no situation. Panama acted fast. Within a few days of being at the hostel, busses were canceled, borders and airports closed, and mandatory quarantine was instituted. The country was effectively shut down.

Surfer’s Paradise  Hostel is the most beautiful hostel I have ever stayed at, and I do not write this just because the owner and his family have become like a second family to me. Here are a handful of pictures to show the grounds. My words won’t do it justice.

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Surfer’s Paradise hostel in Santa Catalina, Panama. Photo: Gabriel Salgado (@Gabrielsalgadophoto)

Italo, the owner, has been here for twenty years, since the town was not much more than a jungle. His was the first hostel. The hostel sits on a cliff and overlooks La Punta—“The Point”, in Spanish.

I thought Bocas waves were amazing compared to my local Oregon beach breaks, but La Punta is another level. It is a point break 200 meters offshore. It breaks both right and left, but the right is normally what everyone is out to surf. The wave can be fat and mushy or hollow and spitting. I have seen it break fun ankle biters and hold triple overhead monsters.  My favorite boards to surf on it are the 5’10” Murdey Mod fish I brought with me and a 6’6” TWIG round-tail step-up I bought from a friend who I met here once I realized I was outgunned for my surfing ability on most days.  

When I originally showed up it was breaking daily 6-8 foot with glass in the morning and offshore winds all day after. Here are some pictures from the nomadic Guatemalan photographer Gabriela Castillo.

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SC local Izzy Elizondo finds a small cubby. Photo Gabriella Castillo


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La Punta. Photo Gabriella Castillo

There were roughly fifteen to twenty people staying in the hostel when I showed up.  One by one, they left on humanitarian flights fearing they would be stuck here. Meanwhile, I could not believe how lucky I was to get stuck here! I cannot think of a better place to be stuck. We were some of the only tourists left in the city, and because of that, the wave had fewer people on it than normal. Locals told me normally there are between 30 and 50 people in the water, so I am sorry but I am not sharing any big secret wave with the world. 

I surfed every day with not more than 15, average about 7-9, and on multiple occasions surfed it alone or with one or two friends from the hostel. Eventually, everyone who wanted to leave left and what was left was eight guests, the owner, and an incredible woman who helped around the hostel with the daily work.  We each had our own room with multiple empty beds in it. And the kitchen was slowly sectioned off for the five people who used it. 

Panama did a number of drastic things to prevent the spread of Corona, but two weeks after I got to the hostel, they banned the sale of alcohol, which forced me to stop drinking.

And like on any good surf trip, I started incorporating a daily yoga regimen. My routine was simple, wake up, surf, yoga, cook healthy meals, and meditate a lot.  There are also four dogs, one is a puppy, so we became really good friends too.  

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I also had a lot of downtime, so much of the day was spent figuring out what to do. I tried to help whenever I could around the hostel. I really could not believe Italo was putting us up through this crisis, and I helped in any way I could. We built a concrete walkway and one of the other guests and I stained the deck. One of the guys staying here had land across the road and was building a house while living in his van at the hostel, so I started working with him too. My big contribution was the front door of the chicken coup and a sign for it that read, “Casita De Coco”, for his evil chicken who lived at the hostel.  

Eventually, Panama followed suit with the rest of the world and outlawed surfing for two months. The first month we were respectful of the country’s law, though they did not outright ban surfing, they closed the beaches. It was implied. And somehow it coincided with some of the best swell I saw while I was here. From the pictures above there, is no one surfing because no one was allowed, but that did not stop us from sitting on the back porch frothing over it, and watching the occasional rogue surfer take a risk with the local police to get an epic solo session.  

In the second month, the community of Santa Catalina Surfers decided to prescribe to the laws of our morals and not the laws created by man that made no sense for our situation. Let me explain. There was (and still is at the time I write this) a travel ban with checkpoints around Panama, and a mandatory semi-quarantine still in place.  There were (and still are) no confirmed Coronavirus cases in Santa Catalina, which is a town of 800-2,000 people.

So when we decided to start surfing La Punta again, it was based on these conditions: “Who does our decision affect? Who can get hurt? Who can get in trouble?” And the answer to all of these was only ourselves, so we surfed. And as one local told me in the water, “it’s kind of fun playing cat and mouse with the cops.”  

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On dark. Photo Gabriella Castillo

One day in the second month about a week before surfing was legalized again, there were seven of us surfing on a fun head-high day. The three kids that are surfing paddle in together, then the local from above paddles in. He paddles back out to tell us all the cops have the kids. One of the kid’s dad is in the water so he paddles in.  The penalty for surfing was $100 fine, so I can only guess he had to eat $100 along with the kids. But the local, one other and I stay out. Eventually the other sneaks in through a different route, and it is just the local and me. But we are sitting out in the water laughing, hooting,  and hollering. We are trading waves for hours. And we can see the cops on the hill 150 meters away from us just watching.  So we just kept surfing. And finally, after five hours of trading waves, both of us were dead tired and thankfully the sun set low enough that the cops could no longer see us, so we paddled in. I think they were not there anymore, because we could no longer see them either, and if I ever needed proof enough that what I was doing was more of a made-up law than a real law, I cannot imagine another law you can break in front of police and because they get hungry, their shift ends, and they are tired, they just leave you alone.  

            *To any Panamanian official who might read this, I accept full responsibility for the epic waves I surfed while in your country. Italo did not consent*

I have now been here for four months.  Panama legalized surfing again, and since then, we get to surf without the fear of being arrested. At some point, and I do not remember when, I woke up one morning and the flood of emotions of depression never hit, and have not since. I have been able to use this time now to work extensively on myself, my mind, my body, and my spirit. Through this whole experience, I have started to write about the lessons I have learned, the people I have met, and the stories I want to share. There are so many pieces of this story that need their own look, so I started my very own blog.

Because now that I have helped myself, I have found the energy to help others by any means necessary, so if you are someone who has or is struggling with mental illness and/or depression, check out my blog. I have found through this journey some of the ways to get out of the pits and probably more ways how to not get in them in the first place.

At this very moment, I am still in Panama. Surfing is open, but the country is not, and recently the government announced the airport would be closed another month past the end of June deadline. This could continue to get pushed back. No one knows. But this is a community that thrives on tourism that has effectively disappeared. So what I do know is more than 20 families in this community are struggling to get food. There is a man who walks around asking for donations. The old man I met up the road who is a retired US veteran spent $75 of his own pension last week to help. And after he told us this, I thought, well, we could try to help too.  

So my friend Khatarina and I started a GoFundMe to raise money to buy groceries.  We set the goal for $250 and raised a little over $900 in three days. If the country stays shut, we will continue to leave the fundraiser going.  


Italo, the owner of Surfer’s Paradise, made a list of 26 families, and a list of the food he thought we should put in bags to give to the families. Each bag costs about $38, so right now we can feed each family with one bag, one time. Our goal will be to figure out how long the bags last and continue to do this as much as needed. With the help of the community here and our communities back home, we can give immediate help to people the Coronavirus pandemic has hurt and continues to hurt.

I could not really have imagined how bad my life would get or how an impulsive decision would change the entire course of it. I could not have imagined the story before, and now I get to live it as it unfolds.

Struggle is something everyone deals with. For some of us, it puts us on our back while for others it is a small setback. I had a lot of help through all my time spent in the pit, and hopefully I can help others rise from their own too. We all have work that we have to do ourselves, but many of the greatest things come from the work done together.


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