Wet toes squeak as five pairs of feet jam into pockets on the gray river raft's sole. White knuckles tighten around plastic oars. We shake off the day's shiver, look beyond the towering waterfall ahead and listen through the earholes in our protective red helmets. The Pacuare River, so soothing as it winds through a brilliant green valley of virgin tropical rainforest, is beginning to move faster. Slow gray-blue trickles give way to swift blue-green currents that are overcome by a rushing white rumble as the river slams through oncoming piles of imposing black rocks.
The rapid is pulling us down.
"Forward!" our guide, Ricardo, shouts from the back as we struggle to paddle in unison against the pounding waves.
"Forward! Harder!" he calls as our bow plummets into a canyon of water and thrusts hard toward the sky, nearly bending the raft in half.
"Down! Down! Down!" he cries as our helmets, elbows and kneecaps slam together in the raft's center.
The Pacuare gushes in with a violent chill, then flows out seconds later with a warm whisper. The raft returns to its naturally flat pose, and a white egret swoops overhead in graceful silence.
We scream with excitement, climb back into position and glide gently downstream, drenched from T-shirt to toenail and eager for our next turn along the 18-mile stretch.
So are the moments during a week's charter in Costa Rica aboard the 125-foot Centurion, a yacht that offers encounters with nature unlike any other. Dan Stabbert and his wife, Cheryl, bought the Delta Marine 1992 launch in 1997 and have been working ever since to create as unique a charter environment off Costa Rica's west coast as Centurion enjoys during her summers in Alaska. Stabbert, who co-owns a vessel management business, has enjoyed cruising the waters from Latin America to Alaska since he was a child aboard his father's medical missionary ships. He sees Costa Rica's undeveloped coastline as an untouched world to explore, and he knows Centurion is one of the few yachts that can offer guests a safe, elegant environment near the country's extraordinary inland adventures.
"Alaska has got grandeur," he said, sitting on the saloon's plush couch before an unlighted gas fireplace. "You could almost go there in a rowboat and have a great time. It's magnificent. So when we came here, we knew we had to develop a product of that level."
He has positioned Centurion at the fore of Costa Rica's burgeoning ecotourism market. The country is the size of West Virginia, bordered to the north by Nicaragua, to the south by Panama, to the east by the Caribbean Sea and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. It is frequently referred to as "the Switzerland of Central America" because it does not keep a standing army, and it draws naturalists from all over the world to its protected lands, which comprise about a quarter of the country.
More than half of Costa Rica's 3 million residents live in the central plain, an area nestled in the heart of the country between volcanic mountain chains. The outside borders of those chains lead to the lowlands, where the Caribbean coast is almost always rainy and the Pacific coast experiences a wet summer and a dry winter.
It is on the Pacific coast during the dry season that the Stabberts have built Centurion's "soft expedition" style of charter. They work with Costa Rica Expeditions, the oldest nature/adventure tour company in the country, to take charter guests on private hiking tours, river-rafting excursions and diving trips, then bring them back to the yacht for a relaxing evening in an elegant environment. Stabbert, a slightly built father of four, tries each excursion himself before putting it on Centurion's itinerary.
The cost of each charter includes a naturalist who stays on board during the week and acts as your travel agent, shore excursion coordinator and guide. Ours was Marcos Soto, who possesses encyclopedic knowledge of Costa Rican history and nature. He can recite the name, history and habits of any leaf, creature or mountain you point out, and he is a reassuring presence during each shore-side excursion.
"What was that?" I asked him the day before our rafting trip, walking cautiously along the Curu Wildlife Refuge's dusty dirt trail. There were roars up ahead. They sounded like the deep, throaty warnings of enraged lions.
"Howler monkeys," he replied, moving briskly along the inch-wide heat cracks in the trail. He stopped to listen when the roars returned. They were as loud as roller coasters.
"They're close," he said with a broad grin, directing our group deeper into the hot, tropical dry forest. "This way."
Soto has spent the past several decades learning every inch of the country's land as one of only five master naturalists Costa Rica Expeditions employs. What Centurion offers, he said, is the ability to discover Costa Rica from the sea, something he never imagined could be so unique. "When I went back to the company after my first trip here, I said, 'This is the best gift I ever got as a guide.'"
His involvement in our weeklong charter began at the airport in San José, where he greeted us and directed us onto the small, private bus that would take us to meet Centurion. The ride-about an hour and a half along the sometimes pothole-riddled roads that twist and climb through breathtaking mountainsides-is representative of the travel guests must endure to reach some of the inland excursions. To raft on the Pacuare, for example, we took a small, private bus to a private plane that took off from the Pacific coast at 7:15 a.m. The 45-minute flight to the Del Monte banana field airstrip on the Caribbean side was bumpy at times but offered stunning views punctuated by Soto's knowledge about every volcano tip. We left there at 8:20 a.m. in another private bus for the 30-minute ride to the river, which we entered at the bottom of a road so steep, we had to brace ourselves against the seats in front of us. At the end of the day's 18-mile rafting trip, we reversed course and took the bus to the plane to the bus to the boat, meeting Centurion just before 5 p.m.
These days of somewhat tiring travel and simply thrilling adventure, of course, make the yacht's soothing ambience even more welcoming. A year after they bought Centurion, the Stabberts put the finishing touches on her interior refit, including an interesting mix of artwork and photographs, the latter mostly of children interacting with people and nature.
"Some of our first clients were the wealthiest people in the world, and we thought, 'How can we compete?' Well, you can't," Stabbert said. "So we decided to display relationships."
"Relationships" is a good word to use when describing the type of charter Centurion offers. During a week aboard this yacht, even the strictest of businessmen is likely to develop new relationships with nature, with himself, with the world and his place in it.
Heck, it's hard not to contemplate your status in the animal kingdom while nose-to-nose with a monkey.
"There's no marinas, no night life, no shopping," said Capt. Shaun Preacher, who was skipper aboard a 125-foot motoryacht in Costa Rica for five years before joining Centurion's crew in late 2000. "It's just not happening here, which, in my opinion, is a great thing."
That attitude is important among every member of Centurion's crew. While Stabbert doesn't worry about the boat cruising in such a remote location ("From a master mariner's standpoint, she's one of the finest yachts I could own"), he understands he must have a crew that won't crack under the environment's solitary pressures.
"Chartering in unique areas of the world takes expertise unlike anywhere else," he said. "There is no shorepower. Finding a light bulb is difficult and time consuming."
He demands a history of self-sufficiency in every crew member, plus a love of adventure, first-class service skills and an ability to handle change. Capt. Preacher and deckhand Kelly Landen have first-aid training, and everyone from the chef to the stewardesses leave guests believing civilization's comforts are easily within reach.
"Charter guests don't know the difference," Preacher said. "They don't know we had to go 160 miles to get the fresh flowers on the table. And they shouldn't know."
Most guests won't. For those who don't want to lounge peacefully on the tri-deck motoryacht, a typical day can include kayaking among wild cicadas singing as loudly as a humming generator, hiking in search of three-toed sloths or snorkeling amid white-striped king angelfish. Late afternoon may bring a well-earned nap in one of the four queen-size berths belowdecks before a hot shower and a taste of chef Daniel Van Hamersfeld's enticing hors d'oeuvres. Van Hamersfeld, a native of Amsterdam, grew up in a shipyard where his family scrapped World War II minesweeper warships. His résumé includes co-owning a chocolate company, cooking for the rock band Def Leppard, serving as the sole chef at a fly-fishing lodge in Alaska and working as a chef/dive master at a Grand Cayman resort. He met his wife, Megan Yelle, Centurion's head stewardess, at a black-tie event when Daniel, the caterer, caught Megan in a storage room stuffing fistfuls of his homemade chocolate truffles into her beaded purse.
Van Hamersfeld's love of adventure, his welcoming personality and his exceptional understanding of food and presentation are exactly the kind of mix Stabbert wants in his crew members. The chef spent one morning with our group underwater, following a pair of graceful whitetip reef sharks around a rock the size of a car. We followed as the 4-foot-long sharks plunged from 40 to 60 feet, away from the 87-degree surface water, through a 20-degree thermocline and, finally, out of sight and into a dark cave. Dispirited at their disappearance, we floated upward, examining the rock's maroon, burnt orange and brown face. We didn't see the 8-foot-long, green-bean colored vertical patch at first, but the moray eel noticed us, leaned out of its crevice and flashed its canine teeth.
It was about a foot away. Its head was as big as mine.
Van Hamersfeld was just as thrilled as the rest of our group upon surfacing, but he vanished as soon as the dinghy reached Centurion's stern. By the time we made it up to the boat deck, a sumptuous grilled chicken salad was waiting, along with brownie-style layers of baked cheesecake and cookie dough.
The chef's style is like Centurion's décor: It bespeaks of elegance with a Bentley brilliance, not a Ferrari flash. Grilled mahi mahi with mango relish and cilantro aioli is simple and sweet; and beef tenderloin with portobello mushroom sauce has just enough garlic to complement homemade fennel bread.
Centurion is as impressive as her crew. She is an ocean-going vessel built to tackle rough seas, and is sure to arrive even in nasty weather. Her bow and hull are designed for swift, quiet movement through the ocean. You may hear her engines start up in the night, but she won't keep you awake while under way. Nor will she rattle the glassware while you dine amid low-key conversation.
Stabbert took the yacht's name from the Bible. A centurion, or officer with the strength of dozens of men, knew his might could not save an ailing servant. He took the servant to Jesus, acknowledging his higher power, to be cured.
The moniker is a reminder that despite Centurion's strength, the sea and all the nature it surrounds are a greater power-one most definitely worth adventuring within.
"You don't have to be in peak physical condition to enjoy this boat and what we're doing here. You just have to want to experience nature, something out of the ordinary, something beyond discos and tourist shops," Capt. Preacher said. "If you want to go port to port and be seen, this is not the boat for you. We like to explore."
Contact: Bob Saxon Associates Inc., (954) 760-5801; fax (954) 467-8909; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bobsaxon.com; Venture Pacific Marine, (206) 547-6161, ext. 16; fax (206) 547-6010; email@example.com; www.venture-pacific.com; or any charter broker. Centurion charters at $70,000 per week (winter) and $78,000 per week (summer) for 10 guests, plus expenses.