Las Perlas

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Isla Bartolome in the Las Perlas Archipelago on the Pacific Coast of Panama is truly a rare gem.  Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Today I entered the Pacific Ocean, and for Flying Fish it is exciting new water.

Just 30 miles from the coastline everything has changed. The sea is clear and full of life. There are whales and tuna. More than 200 islands make up the 90 square miles of Las Perlas. The islands are built upon a living reef that is rich with tropical fish. I snorkeled today amid a school of several hundred snapper that were completely unconcerned by my presence. Along the shoreline, hardwood jungles come down to sugar sand beaches. Thousands of orchids cover the trees in this maritime habitat. There is a stunning tree in bloom now called guayacan that is a solid mass of electric pink flowers. Shells cover the beaches. The islands are named for a history of pearls that were once found here in abundance.

Of course, in this part of the world there is always a dark history that seems to cast a shadow on paradise. Spanish conquistadors Gaspar de Morales and Francisco Pizarro invaded these islands which were ruled then by King Toe (yes, King Toe). The pearl beds were looted and the indigenous people were extinct by 1518. One notable pearl survived, La Peregrina, the largest pearl ever discovered. An African slave found this perfectly symmetrical 56-carat teardrop pearl on the island of Santa Margarita and La Peregrina made its way through the various treasuries of European Royalty before ultimately ending up in the jewelry box of Elizabeth Taylor, a gift from her husband Richard Burton. (Historical note: Elizabeth Taylor once lost La Peregrina. After some anguished searching she looked down at her puppy who was happily chewing on the world most famous pearl.)

The modern history of Las Perlas is as bizarre as its past.

In 1979, The Shah of Iran went into exile on the island of Contradora in Las Perlas. Panamanian Dictator General Omar Torrijos had taken in Shah Mohammad Reza under heavy American pressure because the U.S. didn’t want him in New York. Panamanians rioted. Torrijos made no secret of his dislike of the Shah, calling him a chupon, a Spanish term meaning an orange that has had all the juice squeezed out of it. Torrijos taunted the Shah of Iran by telling him “It must be hard to fall off the Peacock Throne and into Contadora.”

Later, the Las Perlas slipped onto obscurity until the islands were discovered as a reality TV destination. More than a dozen shows were produced here including the American television show Survivor which filmed three episodes in Las Perlas. Most notable, however, was a Dutch reality TV show called Adam Seeks Eve. It was promoted as a “unique love experiment.” In the production of Adam Seeks Eve everybody is naked, of course, but the twist comes midway in each episode when a “second candidate” (also naked) is introduced to compete for the affection of main character. Deserted island drama ensues.

Flying Fish is anchored in the lee of Contradora today. The Shah of Iran gone, he died in 1980. There are a few naked people on the beach in front of me, just regular French nudists, fortunately no TV cameras. I may just stay right here until I get voted off the island.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

 

The Panama Canal

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A Panamax cargo ship containing 5,000 automobiles is maneuvered to within several feet of Flying Fish in the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

So much has been written about the Panama Canal and yet nothing can prepare a sailor for what he sees and he feels when making a first transit in his own vessel.

The Canal is an engineering endeavor that has been compared to the construction of the pyramids. It has been named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Author David McCullough called it, “one of the supreme human achievements of all time.”

It has also been called the “greatest liberty ever taken with nature.” The loss of biomass when this 48-mile swath was cut between two oceans is incalculable. Mountains were moved, the land bridge between the north and south American continents was severed, and more than 150 square miles of pristine jungle was submerged under a new man-made lake.

Finally, there is the loss of human life. Some 27,000 men and women died to make this canal. They died of malaria, and yellow fever, and the bubonic plague. Workers died in dynamite blasts, crushed under tons of rock by landslides, and poisoned by the venomous bites from the spiders and snakes that they were displacing.

I don’t pass lightly as I transit the Panama Canal in Flying Fish.

To put some of this in perspective here is an abbreviated historic timeline: The earliest mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama dates back to 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would ease the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru.

In 1788, U.S. interest was first expressed when Thomas Jefferson encouraged a canal as a less treacherous route than going around the southern tip of South America.

Beginning in 1826, U.S. officials began negotiations with New Grenada (present-day Colombia), hoping to gain a concession for the building of a canal. Fearing (correctly) that his country would be dominated by an American presence, president Simon Bolivar declined American offers.

In 1877, Lucien Napoléon Bonaparte Wyse surveyed the route for France and negotiations were completed with Colombia to build the Canal. The French, however, were unprepared for the rainy season during which the Chagres River became a raging torrent rising up to 35 feet over its banks. Black clouds of mosquitos emerged from the standing water and thousands of Canal workers died of yellow fever and malaria. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889, after spending $287 million, losing an estimated 22,000 lives to disease and accidents, and wiping out the savings of 800,000 investors.

Seeing an opportunity, the United States stepped into the void in 1903, and encouraged a coup d’état on the isthmus. U.S. warships blocked sea lanes preventing Colombian troops sent to put down the rebellion. The new country of Panama declared independence on November 3, 1903. President Theodore Roosevelt famously stated, “I took the Isthmus.” The New York Times called it an “act of sordid conquest.” The New York Evening Post said it was a “vulgar and mercenary venture.” It is often cited as the classic example of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Latin America.

The construction of the Canal was completed in 1914, some 401 years after Panama was first crossed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The United States spent almost $375 million to finish the project. It was by far the largest American engineering project to date. The Panama Canal joined the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, changing international trade forever. The 48 mile-long pathway through the Isthmus of Panama created a significant shortcut enabling ships to avoid the lengthy and hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Straits of Magellan.

After World War II, U.S. control of the canal and the Canal Zone surrounding it became contentious. Relations between Panama and the United States were increasingly tense. Many Panamanians felt that the Canal Zone belonged to Panama.

In 1974, negotiations toward a settlement began. On September 7, 1977, the treaty was signed by United States President Jimmy Carter and Panama’s de facto leader Omar Torrijos. After a period of joint American–Panamanian control the Canal was taken over in 1999 by the Panamanian government and is now managed and operated by the Panama Canal Authority.

Since the Torrijos-Carter treaty in 1977, the Canal has been officially and permanently neutral, providing service to ships of all nations. This means that if any nation were to attempt to seize the Canal, every other nation in the world would, presumably, defend it. Panama has no military, nor do they need one, to protect the Canal.

It was estimated in 1934 that the maximum capacity of the Canal would be around 80 million tons of shipping per year. Canal traffic in 2015 reached 340.8 million tons. An expanded Canal began commercial operation on June 26, 2016. New locks now allow transit of larger, Post-Panamax ships, capable of handling more cargo. The expansion has cost nearly $6 billion. All vessels crossing the Canal must pay a toll based on their weight and length. The largest ships now pay well over $1 million to transit. In 1928, American adventurer Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Panama Canal. His rate to transit was 36 cents.

This is the paradox of the Panama Canal. Modern engineering wonder. Environmental holocaust. Graveyard for tens of thousands of people. And yet, superlatives alone cannot accurately describe the feeling of transiting the Canal. To be upon these waters in Flying Fish was simply humbling.

 

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

Río Chagres, Panama

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The Río Chagres is the only river on earth that flows into two oceans–the Atlantic and the Pacific

At the mouth of the Río Chagres on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama all that remains of what was once a thriving indigenous community and critical point of defense are the crumbling walls of the fortress of San Lorenzo. Rainforest has overgrown the coral rock fortifications. The edges of the jungle echo with riotous flocks of green parrots and the unearthly guttural roar of howler monkeys.

Flying Fish is staged at the entrance to the Panama Canal, waiting for transit. We are not alone. Dozens of ships are queued offshore including massive Post-Panamax container ships, some of which are longer than 1,200 feet. The Canal operates 24/7, every day of the year. The Canal pilots and advisors, however, do not. Many have cancelled their transit assignments over the holidays. One Canal agent today said that it has caused “chaos” at the Canal Authority.

Chaos is not a good way to start a new year. Which is why I chose to spend my downtime in the Río Chagres rainforest.

The Río Chagres is one of the most important rivers in the world and yet it remains relatively unknown despite its history and current global significance. Some 80% of the water that is needed to operate the Panama Canal originates from the Río Chagres watershed. Each boat that crosses the locks needs about 52 million nonrecoverable gallons of fresh water and the Chagres provides it.

Despite its industrial use to the Canal, this watershed is rich in biodiversity. The Río Chagres National Park includes 320,000 acres. In a 1996 Audubon Society annual census there were 525 species of birds recorded here on just one day. There are said to be more species of plants here than in all of Europe. Jaguars, anteaters, coati, and troops of monkeys inhabit this dense, dark, and wet environment.

The river and its habitat have borne witness to an extraordinary history of human greed, agony, and ingenuity. The Río Chagres valley contained rich veins of gold until it was removed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513. When the Chagres gold was gone the Spaniards turned their attention to Peru and shipped that treasure back to the Old World along a trade route that included the Chagres. More gold fever came centuries later when a nugget was discovered in California and thousands of miners transited the Chagres as they crossed the isthmus to the Pacific.

Today water from the Río Chagres carries the bulk of the world’s trade goods–another form of gold–across the 50 miles between two great oceans.

Tomorrow the Río Chagres may carry Flying Fish from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

For this moment I am content to sit in the solitude of this jungle and listen to the song of a toucan.

Weird Stuff About the Ocean

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Whale Eye / Credit: Roxanna Bikadoroff

Weird Stuff About the Ocean will be a random post, on the rare occasion that I have a wifi signal and there is nothing to repair aboard Flying Fish.

Today’s post even has a connection to the Holidays. From Nell Greenfieldboyce at NPR comes the story of a giant blue whale eyeball being gifted to the Animal Eyeball Lab at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

The eye, floating in a jar of preservative for 30 years, was part of a private collection that needed a new home. The Animal Eyeball Lab had some 50,000 specimens in their collection but nothing like this.

A beleaguered Postal Service carrier this week delivered a soggy white box wrapped in duct tape to the University. When the staff opened the package at the lab and beheld the dripping gray mass one scientist said, “It’s the best Christmas ever!”

NPR’s report is embedded here: https://www.npr.org/player/embed/572299263/573046527

Piracy: Then and Now

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The public wharf at Portobelo, Panamá with two local boats, Benedicion por Dios (Blessed by God) and Pirates

In an outdoor bar on the historic waterfront of Portobelo, Panamá I watch as a sailor shuffles out of his dinghy and slumps into a seat at a table next to mine. A waiter is quick to bring him a steaming mug of coffee. As the sailor shovels his seventh spoonful of sugar into the cup I ask, “Tough passage?”

“You could say that,” he says, in a thick eastern European accent.

“A few weeks ago I was boarded by 20 guys in three go-fast boats 35 miles offshore between the Nicaraguan coast and the island of Providencia. They ransacked my sailboat, in the middle of the day, taking everything of value—money, computers, electronics. They wanted drugs, which of course I didn’t have. I’m just a guy from Poland sailing my boat in the Caribbean.”

He is Jarek Glistak, a singlehanded sailor aboard the 44-foot sloop Draga (Darling).

After a terrifying hour looting the boat the pirates gave him back a laptop and portable GPS so that he could navigate to land. He reported the incident to Colombian officials upon his arrival in Providencia.

Sailors’ stories are sometimes just that—tall tales. But there is an organization called The Caribbean Safety and Security Net (CSSN) that monitors incidents such as these and their reports confirmed the details of this event happening in the disputed waters off the Honduras/Nicaragua border about six weeks ago. In fact, CSSN reports that there were four other incidents of piracy this year alone in this remote area of the Caribbean.

Jarek has finally made his way to Portobelo as he tries to reorganize his life. He said he is “scarred” from the attack but thankful that he was left with his Darling, and his life.

Portobelo has a rich history of piracy that dates back to the 1500s when this port was the transshipment center for the gold, silver, and precious jewels looted by the Spaniards from the New World.

Sir Francis Drake was considered one of the most ruthless privateers to prey upon the treasure galleons in Portobelo’s harbor. He was slave trader who went on to be a famed circumnavigator and knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. To the Spaniards he was simply a cold-blooded pirate known as “The Dragon.”

He was 55 when he died. The official cause of death was dysentery. Drake was interred in a lead casket that was dumped into the bay at Portobelo. There is speculation that he may have still been breathing when the coffin went overboard.

No trace of the lead coffin has ever been found but it is likely somewhere in the vicinity of where Flying Fish lays at anchor tonight in Bahia de Portobelo.

A Wild Ride

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A sailing passage can be like a small-scale version of life. There is joy and hardship, wonder and despair. It was only eight days from Key West to Panamá aboard Flying Fish, but it seemed like forever–and that is a good thing. How many more times will two brothers sail together with a father who introduced them to this world?

Each of us knew that this passage south would be a test. None of us realized how close this test came to be the final exam. There was a sweeping low pressure system that dropped deeper into the Caribbean than was forecast and it brought with it gale force winds and huge disoriented seas. We could not outrun this storm. Torrential rain and breaking waves shut down our temperamental navigation system. An electrical fault in the ship’s generator filled the cabin of Flying Fish with smoke from burning wires. Our landfall at Bocas del Toro, Panamá, at 1AM in a shrieking squall with zero visibility through an unmarked channel, was nothing but by the grace of God.

Selective memory usually means bad things that happen are forgotten and good things are retained. On this passage we took such a beating that those moments of wonder and joy are returning more slowly. The takeaway is (after two days of solid sleep), that despite this first passage nearly terminating in a catastrophic end, I have never felt more alive.

I remember a short period of time off the northwestern coast of Cuba when the winds moderated at sunset and we were able to tune in the radio to a baseball game between the Havana Industriales and the Vegueros of Pinar del Río. Our stomachs even tolerated a Cuban Cerveza Cristal and some salted peanuts in the shell.  In the Yucatán Channel, the fishing rod bent double and brother Bob pulled in a bull dolphin (mahi) which he then cooked into one of the best meals of the passage. And on one evening watch off Nicaragua’s Miskito Coast, during the intense black of night that precedes a moonrise, we sailed through a massive school of our namesake flying fish. Illuminated by the green glow of the starboard running light and their own bioluminescence, the flying fish exploded away from the hull of the boat like a fuselage of fireworks. Watching this with Dad at my side I asked, “Is this a dream?” The question was immediately answered with a thud to the back of my head. A flying fish had miscalculated its airspace.

These are the memories we keep. To be able to share them with family is an extraordinary privilege. I am stronger today because of these eight days together on Flying Fish. In life, and on this sailing passage to Panamá, my brother and my father have always had my back.

Onward!

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Flying Fish departs soon from Key West bound for the Panama Canal, Polynesia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Africa, the Caribbean, and then home again to Key West. It’s a three-year cruise. In my pre-launch discombobulation this morning I lamented to a friend that I could not even find my car keys; how was I going to find my way around the world?

His advice to me was perfect: “Just keep sailing in the same direction.”

Most voyagers, whether they are using a sailboat or some other conveyance of transit—mental or physical—depart on the journey with some level of trepidation. It is hard to step into the unknown. We take comfort in what is familiar. But, at the same time, those of us with restless souls cannot wait to see what is on the other side of the looking glass.

I guess that is one way to explain why I am leaving a happy marriage, a beautiful home, and a loving family to sail for three years across open water to distant islands. At age 61, the journey will be difficult. And it will be lonely. Somebody suggested I bring along a cat for company. That would end badly.

The first leg of this voyage will be 7 to 10 days en route to Panama. I will have a strong crew for this passage. My father, who celebrated his 91st birthday this year, is a master mariner and has inspired this voyage with extraordinary sailing adventures of his own. He was also onboard Flying Fish during her maiden voyage when we caught a blue marlin while trolling behind the sailboat in the Gulf of Mexico. Dad is coming along to catch our dinner. My brother Bob will also be aboard for the passage to Panama. Bob and I have a long and interesting history together on boats that includes a transatlantic crossing so under-provisioned that we ate food castoffs scavenged behind restaurants in Gibraltar. And upon arrival in the Caribbean after 30 days at sea we were so hungry that we roasted road kill over a beachside bonfire. Bob is not in charge of provisioning Flying Fish, but he will be great company nonetheless.

Of course, we all know the “best-laid plans” are subject to change. The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season is a case in point. But if adversity makes us stronger then change is the dynamic that challenges us to seek new horizons. I will consider this journey a success the day after tomorrow when we finally raise the sails on Flying Fish and point her bow to the west.

The Resurrection of Flying Fish

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Flying Fish on its maiden sail near Sarasota, Florida. Image courtesy of Deb at theretirementproject.blogspot.com

After two years of a stormy passage on land that included the financial failure of a legendary boat company, legal challenges, and three different owners of the Island Packet brand, the magnificent Flying Fish has finally been launched in Palmetto, Florida. The course ahead has never looked brighter.

A parable: Threatened by sub-aquatic predators, a flying fish instinctively leaves its element and becomes airborne. Once in flight, however, the trouble is multiplied. The flying fish that was driven skyward by pursuing mahi-mahi is now also being attacked from above by diving frigate birds. Survival for the flying fish is predicated on its ability to navigate the contours of the water until the path forward is clear sailing.

The new owners of Island Packet Yachts, Darrell and Leslie Allen, have provided that path forward, not only for Flying Fish but for the thousands of sailors who for decades have come to know and love this boat company. The Allens are sailors with a strong moral ethic, which is refreshing in these days of temporary corporate ownership. The Allens are in it for the long haul. For those of us who have invested our life’s savings, and will depend on our boats to carry us safely over rough water, that kind of commitment is priceless.

There are heroes and villains in every drama. The men and women at Island Packet who physically built, and then against all odds completed Flying Fish, are heroes. They will have my highest regard every time I set sail. The trade craft in the construction of this boat was flawless, even at a time when there was real concern that the workers at IPY might never see another paycheck. When I look at their spectacular woodwork in the interior of Flying Fish, or the meticulous mechanical systems they assembled, or the minute detail of finish work that they focused on this boat, I realize that their calling was to a higher purpose than simply an hourly wage.

So where does Flying Fish go from here? The sea trials and inspections are complete. Darrell Allen and his crew are addressing every item on the punch list with patience and extraordinary customer service. Flying Fish sails like a dream; in light air the boat speed is half of the apparent wind speed, and yet the boat is built solidly enough to cross any ocean.

Those distant oceans still beckon but there will be complications restarting the planning of a voyage that had been put on hold indefinitely while bankers and lawyers decided whenor if—Flying Fish would ever set sail.

But sail she does, and for now my next passage will be the 375-mile run from Tampa Bay to Miami for the Strictly Sail Miami Boat Show, which begins February 16. Come by to take a look at Flying Fish in Miami because after that there is no telling where she might be. I only know that I will be grateful to be at the helm for every mile that passes under her keel.

Familiar Water

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Setting sail on a singlehanded transatlantic passage in 1981, Betelgeuse my Ranger 23, departs Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale bound for Europe.

It is the summer of 1981 and I am crossing the Atlantic Ocean alone in my 23-foot sloop Betelgeuse.

It had been a week since I had known definitively where I was. I had been becalmed for days in the Sargasso Sea. I barely escaped disaster as a freighter on a collision course passed less than a boat length away on a moonless night. I was hungry and I was ill prepared. These were the days before GPS and I was depending–without much confidence–on celestial navigation to find my first landfall. I had never before used a sextant in real world conditions. Four legal-sized pages of scribbled calculations showed my noon sight intersecting with an earlier celestial line of position. It created an X on the chart. The black magic of celestial navigation told me I was over the Challenger Bank, some 20 miles southwest of Bermuda, a landfall surrounded by coral. How accurate was that position, I wondered? I scanned the horizon and saw nothing.

It is now the summer of 2015 and I am once again on the water over the Challenger Bank.

The circumstances are radically different this time, and yet there are some eerie similarities. I am fishing for tuna with friends in the Bermuda Flyfishing Invitational. We are with an experienced captain in a seaworthy boat but there are elements outside of our control. Wind speed is consistent at 25 knots and seas are 10 to 12 feet. The ocean swells meet the relatively shallow water of the seamount creating steep, anvil-shaped waves that that throw the sportfishing boat on its beam ends. Portuguese man-o-war and flying fish navigate the sloppy seas but there is a feeling by those of us aboard the boat that maybe human beings don’t belong out here today. A vicious squall drops down on us from the northwest and with it comes driving rain powered by gusts of 40 to 50 knots. Our anchor loses its hold and now we are drifting.

Adversity on the ocean is what attracts many of us to it. While it may seem that Divine Providence is what sees us through  difficult times, other people view it less theologically and say personal experience and even luck helps resolve challenges. I consider it a combination of all three. When I left Ft. Lauderdale at age 26 to sail alone across the ocean I was not adequately prepared for the endeavor. I survived that ocean crossing by the grace of God, by good fortune, and by a determination to learn at sea what I should have known before I set sail.

Now, as I look at this familiar water on the Challenger Bank, I think back to that day in Betelgeuse when anxiety and lack of confidence prefaced the moment of triumph that accompanies landfall. I realize now that I am on the same piece of water, on the same day of the month, at exactly the same time of the day, when I made that celestial calculation 34 years ago.

Then, as the sportfishing boat drifts wildly across the bank with a dragging anchor, the squall suddenly breaks. There is sunshine to the northeast. We crest a wave I see the faint outline of Gibbs Hill, Bermuda etched upon the horizon. It is without question–then and now–that we have been delivered by Divine Providence.

Sustainable Sapele Wood

The wood shop at Island Packet Yachts. Most of the finished interiors are now constructed with the beautiful--and sustainable--sapele wood.

The wood shop at Island Packet Yachts. Most of the finished interiors are now constructed with the beautiful–and sustainable–sapele wood.

As the Flying Fish evolves from a bare hull, craftsmen at Island Packet Yachts are transforming the interior of my boat from raw fiberglass into a finish of gorgeous sapele wood.

Sapele is a member of the mahogany family sourced from sustainable growers in Central Africa. In the Island Packet production assembly, sapele has replaced much of the traditional teak wood which often comes from clear-cut, old-growth forests.

Sapele is a highly sustainable, relatively fast-growing hardwood. It comes from a large tree that has a widespread growth range across Africa. It is common for the trunk to exceed 6 feet in diameter on a tree that may reach a height of 150-200 feet with minimal branching. This yields straight-grained lumber that is almost twice as hard as other types of mahogany.

Sapele grows with an interlocking grain pattern where the fibers twist around the tree as they grow.  When quartersawn the interlocking grain aligns to form beautiful ribbon striping. The innate properties of sapele, known as “figure”, can be spectacular. Sapele figure can include bird’s eye, burl, fiddleback, flame, and quilted grain patterns.

Sapele wood produces beautiful wood grain figuring.

The innate properties of sapele wood produces a beautiful wood grain figuring.

Among its more exotic uses sapele is often found in musical instruments. Taylor Guitars uses the wood on the back and sides of their acoustic guitar bodies. It is also used in manufacturing ukuleles and harps. The car maker Cadillac also uses sapele for interior wood trim on some of its vehicles.

The tree is also known as aboudikro. There are protected populations and logging restrictions in place in various countries including Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast where sustainable sapele plantations have been created. The Congo is one of the largest producers of sapele and while the area is often in political turmoil, logging companies still embrace strict regulation and verification programs like Timber Legality & Tracing Verification (TLTV) and Verification of Legal Origin (VLO).

While TLTV covers all the company processes during harvest, processing and export, VLO takes a closer look at the legal right to harvest the tree in the first place. VLO timbers have an in-depth and highly-maintained chain of custody system that can be audited at any point.

Island Packet Yachts buys sapele from a supplier who provides TLTV and VLO stock offering documentable and verifiable chains of evidence showing that the tree was responsibly harvested from a sustainable area.

Responsible forest management and the verification of legal harvest may not be cost effective with some manufacturing companies but in my eyes this sustainable ethic will make the wood inside Flying Fish all the more beautiful.