All At Sea
INTRO – Intrepid ocean explorer, captain of the Best Odyssey boat, Discovery, and regular KW columnist, Gavin McClurg logs in with another incredible report from a fantastically remote corner of the world. At the very edge of white man's reach, this time he's in the Marshall Islands he's leading the adventure with a boat full of names from the world of surfing with kites, all hungry for, even for them, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
WORDS - Gavin McClurg
ALL PHOTOS - Jody MacDonald
|LEGENDS OF THE ABYSS
We’ve prepped for this day for months and now that it has arrived I feel miserably behind schedule. My new First Mate was supposed to show up a few days ago but she missed her flight in Honolulu. So instead of handling the expedition’s inevitable logistical nightmares I’ve been making beds and cleaning heads. I’ve only been able to root up the scarcest of information for our planned itinerary; the supply boat hasn’t arrived to stock the stores with goods; my 'to-do' list remains way too long. The air is heavy with tropical humidity and my brain throbs, insisting I give it, and my body, sleep instead of the endless cups of coffee that have kept me going the past few days.
We’ve been operating trips like this for 11 years; you’d think I’d be more relaxed, but today is different. Our guest list includes four of the finest wave riders in the world. These people travel the world seeking out the best there is and I’ve talked them all into coming to a place most people have never heard of; a place at which I myself have only just arrived. I know it’s windy, I know it’s remote, I know from the charts there’s a good chance for waves, but beyond that it’s a crap-shoot. It has all the ingredients of what will hopefully be a grand expedition, but my usual optimism has been replaced with rampant doubt.
My handheld VHF barks to life. “Discovery, Discovery, Discovery…shore party here.” It’s game time. Our crew has arrived. I slosh down another cup of coffee and crumple up the to-do list. Things will have to be left undone. I race into the wharf with the dinghy to meet two large vans; one stuffed with jet-lagged bodies, the other with gear. Smiling faces emerge and I am instantly more at ease. Great expeditions begin with great people and, in this regard, we are not in short supply.
I meet legendary waterman Pete Cabrinha for the first time. His body is sculpted from a lifetime of surfing and, though slighter than I imagined, he exudes strength and power yet his smile is humble and magnetic. Pete is probably most famous for surfing a behemoth wave measured at a ludicrous 70 feet, a feat that brought home the 2004 Billbong XXL wave trophy. Of course in the kiting world he know that he heads up Cabrinha kites. I turn to meet multiple World Champion, Kristin Boese, and am instantly smitten. She is a Goddess, there is no other word. Moehau Goold and Mauricio Abreu (aka 'Morris') were returning for their third trip on Discovery and I anticipated watching these guys go to 'work'. They make their living tackling the largest waves in the world, a scene they have dominated for the past five years.
Two guests and shareholders round out the kiting group. Bruce Marks, a lovable wiry doctor from Australia and Scott Wisenbaker, recently relieved of his obligations in New York as part of a recent Goldman Sachs 'reorganisation'. Our chef, Soledad, tells me she’s scored what she needs at the store and I finally meet Pia, our new First Mate. The two are friends from Chile and have very little sailing background, another list item time will inevitably resolve.
I give a quick safety brief after everyone gets settled and describe the itinerary. We must sail a long way to get to a place little is known about. The Marshall Islands number over 1200, but they are not islands that stand on their own, like Tahiti or Oahu. At one time they were 29 towering volcanic mountains rising out of the sea but have long eroded and been replaced by deep lagoons. The largest stretch is nearly eighty miles across. The lagoons are encircled by barriers of live and dead coral; thin flat walls of reef that support little other than coconut palms in a great ocean of blue. These formations are known as atolls, and the ones in the Marshalls account for 10% of the earth's total. Atolls the world over are in great jeopardy as they rarely reach more than a few feet above the ocean’s surface. Melting icecaps present a very bleak future, but for now they are the siren’s call for wind sport junkies. From December through April every year the most reliable winds on the planet - the trade winds - blow through the day and night. Clean, strong, steady and undisturbed, trades are a kitesurfer’s holy grail.
Only two of the 29 atolls in the Marshalls are serviced by air. The rest are sparsely populated, fantastically isolated and inaccessible except by a yacht with offshore capabilities. There is no safety net where we’re going; no hospitals, no stores, no supplies.
The first leg takes 18 hours at a moderate downwind pace. John Bilderback is our videographer this trip and his stomach disagrees with the motion in the most violent of ways. My own doubts increase. What have I gotten us into?
We reach an atoll which has two passes on its northern shore and the first proves totally flat. It has promise, but presently there is no wave. I’m on the brink of tears as we sail down to the second pass. What if we completely bomb out? I know I am not travelling with the types who place blame, but I feel like I’m on the wrong side of a pressure cooker. Thankfully the second pass is picking up some swell and our forecast shows a big surge headed our way. We decide kiting is the perfect medicine for queasy stomachs and the sky becomes tinted with fast-moving orbs of color as kites are launched right off the stern of the boat, pulling smiling riders in their wake. A dozen or so locals appear out of the trees like a mirage in the desert. We’d all assumed the island was deserted and I find myself staring at them as you would an apparition. Their eyes are drawn to the sky for their first-ever view of kitesurfing and soon they are whooping and crying out in disbelief.
By the next morning our hoped-for swell arrived in full. We are anchored on a thin shelf at the end of a thick right hander that wraps purposefully along a deep-water pass into the inner lagoon. I’ve been awake all night; partly on anchor-watch due to our tenuous hold, and partly in anticipation of what the break will be doing come daylight.
“Whaaaaaaaaat?” screams Moehau before the sun has had chance to cleare the palm trees. I take a look and am too stunned to muster anything but “My God.” The break has doubled in size and side-offshore winds have tuned them perfectly for kiting. Months of tension depart my body like an exorcised demon and I finally relax. We were going to get what we came for.
Scott, Bruce and I ride with Pete Cabrinha, who seems to always glide effortlessly into the biggest wave of the set. We experience the thrill of witnessing Moehau drop dangerously deep and the pleasure of witnessing Morris’ notorious style. Kristin has already charmed each of us on board and now she’s taming giants and taking her own beatings. How can this girl do all this and be a Playboy cover model?
Jody, our photographer, returns from shooting on the beach and divulges that the locals have addressed a concern. One of the ladies questioned her, “Aren’t those people out there afraid of the sharks?” Jody replied, “Well no… but should they be?” The woman brought forth two children with sizable scars and the all-too-familiar crescent shape left by shark jaws on their legs. The mood onboard becomes less animated as the story is recounted and we each take another look at our surroundings.
The pass where we are kiting is no more than a notch between the reefs from the outside ocean to the inner lagoon. Turquoise water at the edge of the pass and where the wave lies is bordered by dense black water that plunges like a thrown rock, from inches deep to over 10,000 feet. Each time we sail out to catch another wave we must cross this contour - a haven for fish… and the fish who eat those fish. We have all spent much of our lives in the water and sharks are an ever-present fear, if rarely more than a perceived threat. None of us will vacate the water when the waves are this good, but each time we cross the line from blue to black our imaginations run wild!
During a lunch break Bruce asks Pete, who certainly has some verified wave knowledge, where this one ranks on his own swell Richter scale. Pete’s smile grows and he replies “9.9”. But it’s not just the quality of the wave and wind that make this spot most definitely too good to be true; it’s that we’re the only ones here. If this break was on the coast of California or Brazil there would be over a hundred surfers in the line-up and fist fights would be common. Each of us swears an oath we will never give this spot up, but the fact is that there is almost no way to get here even if we did. When we leave the wave will be as vacant as it has been since the beginning of time.
The day is replaced by coal black skies and the winds howl through the rigging. I set the anchor alarm as heavy rain keeps me from sleeping on deck to maintain an eye on things. Just after everyone has settled into bed the alarm blares. A quick check of the depth gauge and radar confirms we have lost our holding and are drifting down quickly on a leeward reef. I race to fire the engines while my First Mate raises the anchor. We’ll have to beat up the reef ten miles to the first pass and a better place to spend the night. An uncomfortably wet and raucous affair I'm left exhausted and much of the crew, seasick. But the move proves valuable. The morning light reveals the pass is now picking up swell and the wave is immediately compared to some of the world’s greatest surf breaks - the one’s that peal like a sun-kissed orange for a deliciously long time. Most people seem sure that waves like this have all been discovered and been populated with accompanying surf camps, resorts and, of course, crowds. We launch our kites off an uninhabited island rimmed with ghost-white sand, the grains so fine and soft it feels like warm fresh-fallen warm snow under our feet. Towering green and yellow palms reach out over crystal water that is literally translucent. Riding over the water, even at depths of 50 feet, the coral gardens below can be seen in perfect detail. Jody reckons the whole area is “stupid gorgeous”, and we agree this is the only appropriate description.
Just day four and the crew is already getting up more slowly. Hips are chafed, legs are sore and skin is burnt. Three cups of coffee are required instead of one. Inspired by the pro riders I inflate my kite, hit the water for a stint and come home with the first and, thankfully, only painful injury of the trip with a blown ear drum after dropping into a wave a bit too deep and getting pummelled in the whitewater over the reef. Painful, not from the blow, but the ensuing infection which feels distinctly like someone drilling an 1/8th inch drill bit into my brain. The pain is muted by the fact it's the most fun I've had kiting waves in my life, but I will be a spectator for the remainder of the trip.
Regrettably we make the decision to let bodies repair and plan a travel day to the next atoll 70 miles away. We leave the deep pass through a maze of reefs, the only sounds breaking the silence being the flutter of the deeply reefed sails and long breaking waves as we ride remnants of the swell we'd surfed gleefully in the days gone by. Unabated winds whip the seas into an angry and impressive froth. Discovery careens down the swells and I marvel at her resilience and speed. Pete draws the scene in his sketch pad as one of the fishing lines sings its magic song. Scott grabs the rod and an hour later lands a 120 pound mammoth Yellow Fin Tuna before stumbling exhaustedly into the shade of the cockpit wearing the grandest of smiles and a thick coat of sweat. None of us have seen a larger tuna and I am not alone in feeling remorse at killing such an exquisite and powerful animal. But the remorse is quickly eclipsed with our chef’s expert presentation of several pounds of sashimi. Great slabs of succulent meat are added to our freezer, already brimming with other fresh catches of Mahi-Mahi and Bonito.
Off our starboard bow a light blue line runs like a straight-edge into the distance until it disappears; the first sign of our destination. Outside this line we travel on a seemingly bottom-less sea, inside the line is an enormous lagoon and we hunt for an entrance through the reef. There isn't mention of this atoll in any cruising guide or travel guide. This line seems to demarcate the end of the earth; the abyss. Have we arrived at the farthest reaches of man. Never in all my travels by sea have I felt so remote, so far from anything. But the atoll is not uninhabited. There are people living on its small isles at the perimeter of the lagoon who approach us in hand-made wind-powered canoes with gaping, honest smiles and baffled, inquisitive looks. They receive no visitors. I've spoken with other 'yachties' who have spent years sailing the outer atolls of the Marshalls, not a single one had ever come here. I searched the internet long before the trip; not a single hit. We have come to the very edge of white man's reach.
The one pass into the lagoon is identified. It is deep yet narrow with two dark blue lanes that Y to the north and south, hemmed on each side by thriving coral walls that come to within inches of the surface. Huge schools of magnetic blue bait fish move in unison along the barrier, chased by unseen predators. Everyone jumps off the stern so Discovery can tow them along for a better view. I have never, ever seen such random sculpted beauty. The scenery is beyond words and I am gaffed at any attempt.
We travel under sail in no hurry to reach whatever destination lies ahead. Miles of pristine reef pass at a languorous pace; each of us lost in easy thoughts, our minds sponges for our surroundings. In time we reach a lone isle at the northern extremity of the lagoon. The anchor sinks into deep sand in 35-feet of water in what must be the largest swimming pool in the world. Locals approach in outrigger canoes, hand-made from breadfruit trees that seem much too small for their owners. Big men in pygmy sized boats.
The village is filled with smiling children, proud mothers, finely-featured grandmothers and we are graciously received. The children giggle uncontrollably when they see their faces on the camera’s LCD. Pete has it right when he says we should just stay forever. We should.
In the coming days we would play for hours on yet another break as the pros entertained the locals on the flat water in front of their village. Moehau and Morris take some of the most daring for rides on their backs, whisking the delighted kids across the lagoon while the rest of the village cheered them on.
We take a break with the local teacher on his floor and drink coconut water. Someone asks what the biggest problem is for the community here. The man laughs a bit, looks lovingly at his wife, innocently at us and replies, "Problems? We have no problems here."
Life is like this at the end of the world.
In the final days we each come to our own conclusions from our own highlights. The expedition was terrifically risky and, in many ways, we got lucky to pull it off. We all agree it has been the trip of a lifetime, but maybe that is too cliché? I can easily call this one of the best places, no... some of the best moments of my life. I'm confronted with a similar feeling as it all comes to a close, one I can never shake at the end of a particular trip and I imagine is shared by my peers. Sadness. These magnificent days that seemed would never end have indeed drawn short. Another trip behind us and one fewer in front. I am monumentally thankful and appreciative of this crazy life we have carved out for ourselves but I am all too conscious of how it races by. Like the swell, like the wind - it comes... and then it is gone.
Follow Gavin and Jody on their expeditions at: www.offshoreodysseys.com
You can find this feature in issue #47