All At Sea
INTRO – In our anniversary issue, Captain of Discovery, Gavin McClurg exposes The Best Odyssey – surely the most amazing trip in the world - for what it really is.
WORDS - Gavin McClurg
PHOTOS - Jody MacDonald
THE PRICE OF DISCOVERY
When Lehman brothers announced they were bankrupt and the world’s economy went upside down we were on passage in one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, completely oblivious. When the Twin Towers were ambushed we once again had no idea. This time we were sailing on a previous boat between the Gambiers and Pitcairn Island, a region Outside magazine described as one of the 25 hardest to reach places on earth. Take a moment to let that sink in. We live in a world of nearly seven billion people; where information can be shared in every country in fractions of a second and two of the largest events of the last decade passed by without our knowledge.
The painful lesson that we all learned from both of these events was that statistics lie. Statistically, a terrorist attack on US soil was impossible. Lehman Brothers’ balance sheet was 'sound'. On the surface, investing with Bernie Madoff was a good play. We now know that a serene surface often obscures a sea of sharks.
Here’s an example of some of the numbers we’ve compiled on The Best Odyssey, an expedition whose mission is simply to find the most remote, idyllic places to kiteboard on earth. Nearly 45,000 miles under sail; traversed all three oceans; visited 45 countries; documented over 130 virgin locations; had 35 professional riders on board; swam with innumerable whales, manta rays and sharks; caught hundreds and hundreds of pounds of tuna… the list goes on. Sounds pretty good, right?
On the surface, my partner Jody and I have incredible jobs. While some people would certainly miss not being tapped into the daily news, and be horrified at the prospect of not knowing when major world events take place, I think the majority are like us - relishing the thought of having little to trouble over beyond the coming and going of the wind, the rise and fall of the sun. On some days life at sea is this simple. This is the life that we all dream of and long for. But seeking bliss by a commercial sail operation extracts a toll on mind and body that few can imagine.
First there is the reality of space. Our year-round home is a vessel of 57 feet in length and 30 feet in width. We share this sometimes-heaving platform with an average of six guests and two crew members for 200+ days per year. Alone time does not exist. My day has no beginning and no end. It is constant; there is no such thing as 'time off'. I haven’t been home for Christmas in over ten years, haven’t had a day off in nearly a year.
Time between trips is always a mad dash of cleaning, provisioning, maintenance and administration. Dealing with immigration, permits, customs and general bureaucracy alone rob us of thousands of dollars and untold amounts of time. If the generator, engine, water maker or any other critical part fails we don’t have the luxury of calling in at port and making the repair. We operate almost exclusively where no other boats go, places where no facilities exist.
Not only does Jody suffer debilitating and nauseating sea sickness whenever we are underway, there are a plague of parasites and infections we’ve both suffered as a result of travel in third world tropical countries, compounded by weak immune systems that are a by-product of consistent lack of sleep and rest, and the enormous stress we must endure to keep this machine running smoothly. We’ve both been host to resistant and repeated Staph infections since the first year. In the last year alone Jody has suffered through Typhoid (Indonesia), E-Coli and Giardia (India), and an unidentified intestinal parasite in Madagascar that landed her in the hospital for the third time in as many months.
ON THE ROCKS
Just two months after the start of the expedition I nearly ended it all after a series of small but serious mistakes put us on a reef sailing at full speed off Anegada island in the Caribbean. My mind that night was on other matters. Jody and I had taken on serious debt to get the expedition off the ground, I hadn’t had a proper sleep in months, I was a walking stressed-out zombie. Luckily an emergency haul-out in Tortola and a relatively cheap repair of $5,000 USD had us back in the water without delay. My ego took a well-deserved clobbering and the mistake was a sobering reminder that there was no excuse as a Captain to have a lapse in judgment, regardless of the circumstances.
SWIMMING IN SEWAGE
In Cartagena, Colombia we were anchored in the foulest body of water I’ve ever seen. Millions of tons of raw sewage runs into the bay at the foot of the city every day, the water is black as night. It was here that I took a bad step in our dinghy and fell into the water holding our backup outboard. I donned snorkel, mask and fins and freedove 40 feet to the bottom and tied a line to the motor, barely visible in the muck and hauled it back to the surface, completely flooded with shit (literally) and salt water.
The following year in Tonga half way through an otherwise incredible trip, I was awoken at sunrise by our First Mate. She was distraught and crying uncontrollably. She told me she needed help. Her boyfriend, our chef, was being restrained by three very large Polynesians on the beach. He had imbibed in too much drink and become violent, threatening anyone within earshot, but especially his girlfriend. This was not the first time. I fired him on the spot, losing not only a good friend but also a very talented and capable chef.
A few months later I was kiting the most terrific wave we’ve found to date on the expedition in the Marshall Islands alongside Pete Cabrinha, Kristin Boese, Mauricio Abreud and Moehau Goold when I put my kite down and took a beating, blowing out an ear drum; one of the many, many injuries I’ve sustained out here. Two days later an infection takes hold and becomes excruciating. No amount of pain killer stills the sensation that someone is boring into my head with a power drill. It would be over a month before I could get in the water again.
After a day surfing and kiting the famous 'P-Pass' in Pohnpei last season, some local surfers invite us to a beach bar-b-que. They insist we anchor in a spot I deem totally unsuitable for the boat. Quelled by peer pressure and their repeated assurance that the spot was safe I relent and join our guests and crew for a night of festivities. We return to Discovery just after midnight and she is high and dry, sitting lopsided on top of the reef. I curse myself for the unforgivable breach in common sense and wait for the tide to release us from our temporary prison. Thankfully no damage is sustained.
NOTHING COMES EASY
Later in the year we were based off the south side of Sumba, Indonesia for a month in the almost singular pursuit of finding waves. In that hunt we are victorious, but it exacts a cost. Just the simple procedure of fueling the boat and obtaining provisions requires transporting jerry cans by dinghy through a hefty shore break, across a long beach, then a six hour drive on a dirt road that would be difficult to walk, let alone negotiate by car; then return via the same method. This all-day unpleasant affair would have to be done twice between every trip.
At the end of the season we were in Bali on the eve of our departure for Malaysia where we have planned a major refit to the boat. Due to a number of unrelated factors I was suddenly without crew and had no time to arrange temporary replacements. I was faced with the most daunting challenge I’ve yet faced at sea; crossing two of the busiest shipping routes on earth, which also happen to straddle the equator, a band of latitude notorious for rancid weather. For ten days I never sleep more than a few minutes at a time. The autopilot is on the glitch and cannot be trusted, and we frequently veer off course. A nasty Staph infection takes hold in my left leg. In the Java Sea a succession of violent squalls batters us unabated for nearly three days. The radar proves useless- visibility in the torrential rain is less than 25 feet, thunder and lightning crack with shuddering intensity one on top of another, fraying my nerves to a point where I am shaking in fear. In fact, it is the most scared I have ever been at sea, and the seas are relatively calm. In the Malacca Straits north of Singapore similar weather causes a near-collision with a cargo ship. There were at least two dozen freighters and tankers in close proximity travelling at 25 knots; and we were invisible to one another. We were sitting ducks, a snail on a six lane freeway at rush hour.
In the Maldives this season the sail drive (transmission) of our port engine blew a clutch. Driving a catamaran with one engine is like driving an 18 wheeler in Manhattan with no reverse, except a mistake meant we would be on the reef and all lost, instead of just receiving a traffic violation. To get the needed parts we have to fly a person in from Europe and another from the States, as shipping them might involve customs delays we could not afford. It is too hot in the equatorial heat to carry out the repair once the parts arrive in the daytime, so with clients on board we lift the engine and complete the repairs by night. At the same time our agent in charge of our immigration and customs clearance had disappeared to Sri Lanka and taken all the necessary paperwork with him. For a week I battle the authorities and make every known plea I can muster in order to get clearance, including a flight from the Southern Maldives to Male, the capital to meet with the head of immigration to plead our case. The delays and repairs run well over $10,000 USD and leave me a nervous wreck.
Two months ago in Madagascar a newly hired chef jumped ship without a word mid-trip and disappeared. After a brief and vocal cussing I descend into the galley and wear the hat of Chef and Captain until a more suitable replacement can be found.
And yet people tell me all the time that I must have the best job in the world. These examples are a small sample of proof that they don’t understand the full picture. They are like the investors on Wall Street who believed in the sham. What lies beneath those placid waters at the surface tells a completely different story.
Our mission is kiteboarding. Finding the best places on earth to play hard. What we go through chasing this mission is daunting, sometimes life threatening, frequently nearly intolerable, and often painful. But to me that other world, the world of headline news and Google search, 'reality' TV and HBO, traffic jams and car payments, well, that is a scarier world by far. As a friend recently remarked, 'your battles may be as big as a God, but at least it shows its face.' The price of admission is certainly steep, but it’s a ticket I’ll happily pay for again and again.
OUTRO – The Best Odyssey is a five year kiteboarding expedition. Read more from the Captain's log and see more of Jody's stunning images at: www.offshoreodysseys.com
This feature is in issue #50