INTRO - Gavin McClurg is captain of Discovery, a 57-foot catamaran that becomes home to riders on the Best Odyssey, transporting them on remote expeditions, chasing wind and waves. This time they navigate the Panama Canal, a place that surely no one in their right mind would think about kiting...
WORDS - Gavin McClurg
PHOTOS - Jody MacDonald
Over the past ten years I've sailed dozens and dozens of seas, I've been across all the major oceans and rounded Cape Horn. The driving force for many of these miles has been finding virgin places to kite. The most memorable locations usually have a combination of factors: clear water, solid winds and no one around but us to share in our find. But in March 2008 we pulled off something that has never been done and will likely never be repeated. Everything about it was totally opposite to what usually makes for great kiting. The water was dirty, the winds were gusty and a city of one million people sat right along the filthy shores. It was one of the most thrilling moments I've ever experienced, and I wasn't even the one in the water.
The Panama Canal employs 6,000 full time workers and handles 40 monster ships every day of the year, each paying up to half a million dollars for the passage. Three locks, each over 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide reside at the Pacific and Atlantic ends, separated by the second-largest manmade lake in the world. Our transit, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was a first for everyone on board and a trip I had both anticipated and fretted over for years. It is a mind-boggling and ultimately dwarfing experience. Let me explain.
For the big boys, that is ships in excess of 3,500 gross tonnes (Discovery weighs in at 19 tonnes) passages are made through the canal with precision. Minutes add up to many thousands of dollars and delays are not tolerated. But the canal must also on occasion process boats like ours. By most standards Discovery would not be described as a 'small' yacht. But in the canal she is little more than a bug. One wrong move and we would be a smashed fly on the wall and discarded immediately. Every evening just before sunset, no more than three cruising boats like ours are rafted together, the largest placed in the centre. The centre boat's Captain is in charge of steering the small flotilla through the locks either directly in front of, or directly behind, a cargo, tanker, or some other ungodly large steel ship. Stories of prop wash from these giants sinking ships like ours did not ease my stomach as our pilot (each boat carries a mandatory pilot to advise the captain and crew on steerage and line handling) informed me that our boat would be placed in the central position. Which meant it would be my job to keep our tiny flotilla off the towering walls.
It turned out that driving Discovery with two hangers-on at each side wasn't as difficult as I'd suspected. Once I got the hang of it and my heart stopped racing I found myself as bewildered as our crew. Awesome. There is no other word to describe the canal. 'Big', or 'huge' are wholly inadequate. It takes your breath away.
By nightfall we exited the last Pacific canal into Lake Gatun and were escorted to a mooring ball where we would spend the night. We were only two miles from Colón, regarded as one of the most dangerous and polluted cities in the world, but here there was a perfect blanket of stars and an infinite untouched jungle singing with life. The entire area is protected and hosts not only crocodiles and howler monkeys but one of the most diverse bird and insect populations on the planet.
In the morning we were escorted across the lake to the Pacific locks, a trip which takes over six hours and is one of the strangest passages by boat I have ever taken. Where else can you witness colossal man-made structures alongside such exquisite natural beauty? A steady stream of hulking giants burning thousands of tonnes of diesel fuel an hour steam by practically on top of one-another, while a whole cacophony of birds, moths, butterflies and lizards carry on seemingly oblivious to the intrusion.
And yet as we motored out from the last lock under the Bridge of the Americas into the Pacific, I noticed the same goofy grin on my crew mates' faces that I must have been wearing. The winds were blowing, the water was flat. We could kite here?
But it would take some planning. For weeks we watched the traffic and the conditions. Sunset was best: good light, the best winds (they were always gusty) and downwind traffic, which could provide a supertanker backdrop. We contacted our good friend Moises Niddam, one of Panama's original kiters, to get his thoughts.
'You will get arrested,' was his short reply. And then he smiled and said he would do it. Moises highlighted the following hazards: ripping currents, gusty winds, massive ships that can't decelerate, filthy water and a likely trip to jail.
A day with passable conditions arrived. Two ships went by, which meant a last one was on its way. We had ten minutes and one chance to get it right. We tumbled into the dinghy and raced across the channel (about 200 metres) and practically threw Moises into the water. We got his kite flying and then Jody and I raced back down the channel to witness the show. The plan was for Moises to kite along the side of the starboard channel buoys, which would keep him from getting run over and, hopefully, out of cuffs as we hoped the ship would hide his kite from the authorities.
But with Moises's brain clearly clouded with adrenaline and us watching in thrilled horror, he tacked not once, but several times right in front and directly downwind of one of the largest cargo ships we'd seen. The ship practically eclipsed the sky and made Moises's kite look like a blue plastic bag. As the ship gained he tacked off to our side, jumping and hollering like a lunatic. I just kept screaming 'You crazy bastard!', while Jody's camera clicked away, both of our hearts beating like carnival drums. In no time the ship passed and then we heard sirens. Loud sirens. The cops were hot on our tail, racing down the canal directly for us.
Running or hiding was out of the question. We were caught red handed and the only play we had was to ask for forgiveness and act completely stupid. Moises kited over to the dinghy just as the cops arrived in a fast launch. Three large angry-looking uniformed men stared us down but you could also see they were a bit mystified and didn't know what to charge us with. Moises laid on some serious schmoozing and Jody and I put on the best big dumb gringo grins we could muster, which actually wasn't hard as we were both still beaming from the wholly radical stunt. The Policia took down our names and gave us a stern warning that if they caught us again we were all off to prison. They raced off and left us to enjoy the last few seconds of a blood red sky. I've never had so much fun not kiteboarding in my life.
Kiteworld does not condone this kind of tomfoolery and asks all kiteboarders to use their sense and uphold the good name of kiteboarding by riding sensibly... but we do love a keen sense of adventure.
Check The Best Odyssey's amazing itinerary at www.offshoreodysseys.com/schedule
This article was taken from issue #42. Click here to find out more about it
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