Bocas del Toro

Chapter 3: No Beach, No Way

Theme Song: “Some Beach,” Blake Shelton

Max and Emma, the couple I hired to build and run the resort, were in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, searching for the perfect property to build on. I couldn’t make the trip, so I relied on their eyes and ears. Then the phone rang: Max and Emma had fallen in love with one particular island.

Home in Michigan, I wasn’t so sure. I had my heart set on a picturesque white sand beach with towering palm trees. This was a mangrove island without a beach. “Max, I love the idea of an island,” I said, “but Americans will be hesitant to pay big money to stay at a luxury resort without a beach. I won’t buy the island unless we can figure out a way to have a beach.”

“There are nine acres of land,” Max replied. “The water is crystal-clear aquamarine, there is lots of coral, starfish and tropical fish everywhere, and it is wonderful for swimming. The island is only eighteen minutes by boat to Bocas town, and it is private with no tourists next door. No loud music. No trash. The protected bay is perfect for over-the-water villas with little tide difference. And,” he paused, “Emma and I have a good feeling.”

The island, looking south to north

Their enthusiasm was contagious, and I was beginning to think this island was a possibility. But the name of the island was Navalo, and I didn’t like it. So when Max said we could name the island anything we liked, that might have been the tipping point. I was downright excited!

The idea of a private island resort was enticing. Gilligan’s Island and all of that. Don’t get me wrong, we still needed a beach, but it didn’t need to be day one. Maybe we could build it slowly over time or dream up an out-of-the-box unconventional beach. We eventually identified the following possibilities.

Possibility #1: Manmade Beach

Near the proposed resort is a great spot for a beach with a sandy bottom swimming area. And white sand is just a few feet below the water’s surface all around the island. So we thought we could simply pump the sand in from the ocean bottom and remove a few mangrove trees to build a small manmade beach.

After doing some research, though, we found out the mangroves are protected, and sand cannot be pumped without a permit. The only possibility for a manmade beach is an expensive environmental study that may or may not be approved. If approved, we would be required to replace every mangrove tree removed with ten new mangrove trees elsewhere on the island. In addition, a permit is required to pump the sand, and it needs to be pumped from a deeper area in the ocean.

Building a manmade beach was the most obvious solution, but considering the expense and uncertainty of gaining approval we started looking for a better option.

Possibility #2: Floating Beach

My son-in-law Josh is one of the most creative people I know and this time he came up with a doozey. “If none of that works,” he said, “what about creating a floating beach?”

Along with his suggestion Josh sent a link to a company that actually markets a floating beach. Here it is:

Since the company is in the Netherlands, Max reached out to them in his native language to see if their solution would be a fit for us. These guys are for real and what a cool concept. Can you imagine building an entire hotel on a floating island? That is the kind of thing they are up to.

According to the website, “A floating artificial beach offers an alternative for areas/cities where there are no beaches, where land is sinking or where sand shortages present drawbacks for traditional land reclamation. The beach is completely floating and just as comfortable as a normal beach, ecologically justified and erosion free.”

Floating beach. Courtesy of Dutch Docklands.

Unfortunately, their initial price estimate came in at over a million dollars for our proposed floating beach. There goes that idea, but it doesn’t mean we have completely ruled it out. This solution is environmentally friendly, and the cool factor is over the top. So we’ll keep the idea in mind in hopes that we can find a way to lower the price.

Possibility #3: Over-the-Water Sandbox Beach

It wasn’t long after the floating beach idea sank that Max floated the idea of an over-the-water “sandbox” beach. What an ingenious idea! It is simple, and we think the guests will love it. What grown-up wouldn’t want to play in a sandbox the size of a 747 fuselage?

Envision a large sandbox, maybe 30 X 150 feet, with beach loungers, a gazebo, and several potted native flowering palm trees, and an ice-cold margarita. Another way to think about it (the sandbox – not the margarita) is a 4,500 square foot deck (a large 12 X 30 deck on a home is 360 square feet), elevated four feet over the water with a foot of sand piled on top. That is 166 cubic yards of sand – 9 dump truck loads!

A garden variety sandbox. Ours will be 70 times this size!

I have searched the internet and can’t find anything like this in the world. It might be because a cubic yard of sand weighs more than a ton, so the 30- X 150-foot structure would need to support more than 166 tons of sand! It might also be because there isn’t another moron stupid enough to try.

Remember, it needs to be elevated four feet above the ocean at low tide. Another challenge is water drainage. Remember your sandbox as a kid after a heavy rain? Sand is very fine, so you can’t just drill holes in the bottom of the structure; the sand will run out.

All in all a sandbox beach is intriguing. It may be cost prohibitive and an engineering nightmare, but if we could find a way to pull it off it might be our best option. Like the floating beach, it also has the benefit of being environmentally friendly. As of today, this option is in first place.

Optimism Prevails

My commitment was not to buy an island unless we could figure out a way to have a beach. The good news is we have two or three decent possibilities. The bad news is we can’t afford any of them. We have not given up on the idea of a beach. As a matter of fact, we are more determined than ever to have one – it will just take some time.

We will continue research on the viability of a sandbox beach. The more we think about it, the more we love this idea, as it would likely be one of the first anywhere. I can see it now in the Guinness Book of World Records: “The World’s Largest Sandbox.” If this idea ever becomes a reality, I think we’ll name it the “Sand Box Beach Club.”

With the beach issue resolved (I am an optimist), I decided to make an offer on the island.

Question: What do you think, was I too optimistic? Got a better idea than the sandbox beach? I’m wide open!

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9 responses to “Chapter 3: No Beach, No Way”

  1. Dan Nicolini says:

    This is not one of those social science tests where you see just how many times someone will come back to repost their comment, right? John Stossle isn’t behind this, is he? ????

    • Dan Behm says:

      We all feel terrible about losing the comments. However, here are many new people signing up daily. Today over 50. So the conversations should start up again shortly. Your John Stossle comment made me laugh! If I could only have 60 Minutes catch wind of this blog – then it would really take off!

  2. Dan Nicolini says:

    I’m picturing a giant sand box with a water tight plastic liner. One end of the sand box is lower/deeper than the other so that when it rains, water runs to the lower end where there is controlled and screened drainage. Any fine sand that makes it through the screen with the water can be recollected and deposited back in the sand box.

    I googled sand volleyball court construction, and the drainage design for that I think will work – basically: liner, drainage tubes, gravel, poly fabric, and then sand. (
    I made a sketch the idea, see it at this pic collage link.

    Now picture that held up by dock pilings over the water, maybe with some nice steps leading down into the water where it’s shallow enough.

    • Dan Behm says:

      Great idea Dan! We were trying to figure out how we can let the water through without loosing too much of the sand as the sand particles are very fine. Your thought about building the whole plat form at a slight angle, having a liner, and letting the water drain out at one end, were the filter is, makes a lot of sense. I would not have thought of that. It feels like it might be even better if we let the water through tiny holes to a chamber below the structure that is on an angle exactly as you described. This way the sand would dry more quickly and we would not need to have an angle on the main platform; just the chamber. As I was writing this I looked back at your comment about the tubes under the volleyball court. This is a similar concept to what I just described. If you get a chance take a look at the “island beach” solution that Luc commented on after the first post. I think your idea could be applied to the island beach as well. Thank you for taking the time to describe your idea. We will likely use it and refine it. I am really liking the island beach idea because I am concerned about the coral reef in front of the proposed area for the sandbox beach. Using Luc’s idea of the island beach and your ideas for drainage is an extremely interesting solution!

  3. Dan Behm says:

    I received an email from Cy Ruel wity more interesting ideas for the sandbox beach – see below. Dan

    As I was reading your blog about the beach issue the first thought I had was self-contained beaches or sandboxes. As I read your post further I agree with your ideas on the engineering challenges involved with drainage and the lose of sand. Here are couple of quick thoughts I had on the topic.

    Instead of a mesh screen for drainage you could try a Gore Tex type of fabric. Designed to allow moisture to pass through the fabric in primarily one direction. Here is a link to article with some alternative products that might be more cost effective. If you coupled a solution like this or a very fine screen with a drainage / collection area any sand that did pass through with the water could be collected and reclaimed. I would have to think on it some more and draw something up but I think it’s a somewhat workable solution.

    • Cassie Lambert says:

      Gore-Tex is just the beginning of wicking materials. There are so many options now. One of my material suppliers at work is using a foam that allows water to pour through it and dry quickly. Textile trade shows, such as Texworld USA, are a great place to find these solution-based materials. I’m sure there is a textile out there that will serve the purpose of draining the sandboxes.

      • Dan Behm says:

        Hello Cassle,

        Thank you for your valuable insights. Right now, we are leaning heavily toward a sandbox beach on cement pilings in a deeper part of the ocean where you can dive in instead of walk in. I am not engineering inclined, but if I hear what everyone is saying this could be a slick and relatively easy solution. This is what I envision: “We build a large platform on stilts over the ocean with an edge to contain the sand. We drill holes over the entire surface of the platform where the sand will be. We place the wicking material on the surface of the deck (let’s say we use the foam you suggested.) Then we place the sand over the foam. We just need to figure out the circumference and frequency of the drilled holes and the depth of the sand.” Is this similar to what you envision?

        We are also hoping to make the beach large enough to add palm trees, a few secluded areas for privacy, and possibly a small bar.

        Thank you for participating in the discussion!

        Any additional comments and suggestions from others on how to refine this solution even further is much appreciated.

  4. Lash Ashmore says:

    I envision a number of individual beaches as opposed to one large one. Perhaps one for each Villa. They need be only large enough for the same number of people as the Villas are designed for. Problems of weight would be somewhat mitigated and they might have a cover that could easily be rolled back ( when occupied) that would shed water instead of accepting it, negating the need for drainage.

    • Dan Behm says:

      Fascinating idea that I had not thought about Lash! If there were individual beaches it would also provide for more privacy. I also like the idea of a cover; like a sandbox cover to keep the sand dry. That would also eliminate the need for replenishing the sand that drains away. We will include your idea as one of our options. Thank you for tasking the time to contribute!

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