|INTRO - A regular travel column on the ups and downs of life at sea from Gavin McClurg, Captain of the Best Odyssey boat, Discovery. This time, not just another travel story filled with 'the most amazing wave ever' and 'sorry, but we can't tell you where it is'... well, it is, but at least this yarn gets spiced up by the fact that it all nearly goes very wrong in the middle of the night for Captain and co!
WORDS - Gavin McClurg
PHOTOS - Jody MacDonald
For two weeks in June, at the start of the trade-wind season in Polynesia, we were joined by wave legends Mauricio Abreu, Moehau Goold, Josh Mulcoy and KPWT charger, Clinton Bolton. Two new chefs, Hannah from Holland and Lars from America came to us straight from the The Fat Duck restaurant in England, owned by Heston Blumenthal (which had just been rated the second best restaurant in the world) and would also be showcasing their skills for one of our owners, Scott, and his friend Chris, both from the States. John and Alexis Bilderback were also along with Jody, who would document the journey with video and stills.
In my experience, and I've been at this a while, actually finding consistent waves (and I'm not talking about dumpy little beach-breaks, but big, hollow tubes that wrap forever and line-up with solid laminar wind that's just right so you can actually tow into and then surf said waves), is a monumentally difficult task. A lot of things have to come together, and even then you can get completely shut down.
It starts with a solid forecast. For exactly ten days before everyone joined Discovery, the supposedly predictable trade-winds, which typically blast from the east, were non-existent. I'm talking dead-calm. But a big fat high pressure cell to our north and a nice deep low to our south looked to put us directly in what meteorologists call the 'squash zone'. Meteorologists tell sailors to avoid the squash zone, but we're a kiteboarding expedition; we seek out squash zones like honeybees seek nectar.
Unfortunately I can't divulge our exact location. Let's call it Polynesia. Specifically French Polynesia, but as that's an area roughly the size of Europe, I realise that doesn't narrow it down very much. It went like this: in 14 days we surfed and kited on some of the most amazing waves our seasoned wave veterans had ever seen. By day two of the journey a pact had already been made: we would never give these spots up.
Polynesian breaks are anything but friendly. We've all seen pictures of Teahupoo and the carnage it can wreak. Polynesia is blessed with waves but they break shallow and over razorsharp coral. Don't even think about coming here to surf unless you know what you're doing. We had four people who knew about as much as anyone and still lost two of them right out of the blocks, barely 48 hours into the trip. We'd left one island before daybreak and sailed into the pass of another as the tropical morning sun began highlighting the magical purples and blues of the Pacific. These 'islands', or atolls, are actually little more than vast lagoons circled by barrier reefs dotted with small 'Motus', or mini-islands, dusted with palm trees and white and pink coral sand beaches. In other words, real estate is in short supply. In some cases navigable passes allow boat traffic to enter and exit the lagoons and, if things line up right, here's where you find waves.
My job as a Captain is first and foremost to keep everyone safe. Imagine my surprise when we'd barely pulled into the pass after nabbing a gorgeous sailfish and still well underway when Mulcoy bailed off the stern with his surfboard, followed closely by Goold, Bolton and Abreu. They all seemed to be in some sort of glassy-eyed trance. I started to shout, 'What in the hell is going on?', and looked up in time to see Mulcoy peeling down an overhead left-handed barrel with a huge grin on his face before ending practically at our stern. There wasn't another soul in the water. We had this place all to ourselves.
The cameras started clicking and the atmosphere went into hyper-drive. This was just the first stop and we already had one of the best waves I've ever seen, and we'd barely started! Unfortunately for Abreu and Bolton the party would end quickly. First Clinton got a little too intimate with the coral and basically bounced over the reef, shredding much ofhis stomach and back. One pro down. Then Mauricio went over the falls and had to be rescued by Josh and Moehau after taking a wicked crack to his head. When they got him back to the boat we laid him down to stop the bleeding and headed into town where we hoped to find a medical clinic. It wasn't hard to tell he'd suffered a pretty good concussion when he asked for about the twentieth time how he got out of the water? Two pros down.
The town did indeed have a clinic and in no time Clinton and Mauricio were cleaned up, sewn up and discharged, but not before being told unequivocally that their surfing days were over for two weeks. Luckily Moehau and Josh were still healthy and ready to charge. Mauricio and Clinton joined the bleacher section, which I know wasn't where they wanted to be, but the show made Circue Du Soleil seem like an evening on tranquilizers. We were all in for a tour-de-force.
On day three we opted to explore the inner lagoon, a vast expanse of shallow, brilliantly clear water that somehow covers every hue of blue in the colour spectrum. Sky blue, turquoise blue, midnight blue, pastel blue; blue on top of blue unbounded by blue everywhere! We tucked in behind the reef and launched the kites near a sand spit and motu that were beyond the scope of my writing ability to describe. The purpose of the eye is to take in light and colour and send messages and information to the brain in order for it to categorise and correctly order these inputs so we can behave in a civilised manner. I'm not sure about everyone else's brain, but mine was experiencing some kind of circuit malfunction. Colour, distance and shapes seemed wildly beyond my comprehension. Certainly this place couldn't be for real. But no matter how much I kept rubbing my eyes, there was Moehau doing airs over the sand into a foot of water that you can't actually see because it's so clear; and there was Scott doing massive kite loops with an orange kite with green palm trees in the background. Maybe the chefs snuck a bit of acid or something into my lunch?
But reality was to set in that night, and this time it was all black. Currents moving in and out of narrow passes into the atolls in this part of the world can reach 20 knots or more, rendering even the most powerful boats useless. It's known as the 'dangerous archipelago' for good reason, as witnessed by the hundreds of wrecks on nearly every atoll. You have to time entry and exit exactly with the slack tide or risk complete loss of control, which leads to loss of your vessel. For reasons too complicated to dictate here, we had to exit a pass shortly before midnight with no moon and with the ebb tide cranking at an estimated five knots. Before departure I recommended to all but my crew and Bilderback, who is a sailor and would not have missed the night trip for the world, to get some rest. My ulterior motive was simple: this was going to be extremely frightening and I did not want people in my way, and I really didn't want people screaming.
I put Jody on the helm and John on the mainsail. I hunkered down in front of the computer and radar screen in the cockpit working out angles and speed. We had to follow our track log from our entrance the day before perfectly as the pass was no more than 80 metres wide. As we neared the pass Jody yelled at me that the navigation lights looked all wrong. They weren't; we were just being carried sideways. I began yelling instructions.
'Full throttle starboard side.'
'Ease the main John, ease the main.'
'Fuck, trim the main JB, and Jody back off starboard, full port!'
Suddenly Discovery's bow crashed through a four foot standing wave that had been created solely by the current. Jody later told me she thought it was a reef and was too scared to say anything. We were now in the pass. JB handled the sail beautifully and my radar clearly showed our exit. Our speed over ground was nearly 14 knots with the engines idling. We'd made it, but my heart didn't slow for hours and I didn't sleep a wink that night as we sailed downwind towards our next atoll. JB gave me the nickname 'Iron Balls' that night and the name has stuck. I'm not sure if I should be proud.
The following days on the trip have become hazy in my recollection. Highlight on top of highlight begins to gray the world between real and imagined. One day we're on a left, the next day after a short sail we're on a right. The wind stayed miraculously pinned at 25 knots for 24 hours a day. Barrels all day, every day. But which day was which? Just to see if I'm not the only one losing my mind we play 'guess the day of the week'... and not a single person got it right.
We catch sailfish, yellow fin, wahoo, and bonito. Lars, who is tattooed head to toe, tore expertly into all of them with his Japanese blades like a man possessed, and shortly after we are showered with every possible array of sashimi and sushi: seared, ceviche, drizzled in truffle oil and orange zest.
The pros onboard that trip are in a league all of their own and it wouldn't be surprising if they were egotistical pricks, yet their positive energy and humility is as easy to catch as a common cold. You can't help but be impressed and they often leave you speechless; but both on and off the water they are just guys who love to kite and have all the characteristics of a treasured friend. They work hard, they ride hard and they appreciate and live life in ways that permeate everyone in their vicinity. Their passion and energy for not just kiting, but living, is infectious.
At night we told stories and laughed, dreaming of the days ahead. Then, suddenly we were at another island standing at an airport and it was all over. The Best Odyssey continued though, with more adventures in store.
Follow Gavin and Jody on their expeditions at: www.offshoreodysseys.com
This article was taken from issue #44. Click here to find out more about it
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