INTRO – OK, so this isn't so much of a classic as it is a gruelling bout of torture, but this particular journey will nevertheless be scribed into the history books. Brazil, home to some of the most popular downwind routes in the world, saw Frenchman, Eric Gramond, set a new world record for covering 419.9 kilometres over 24 hours along its northeast coast on the 12th and 13th October 2008. This is his story. Zut alors!
That's that, I’ve done it! I'm not really satisfied with the distance I covered, but looking at the conditions I had to deal with, I consider myself lucky. If there was one day in the month that was the most unsuitable to try and set the 24 hour distance record it must have been that one! Throughout the 24 hours I kept asking myself what I'd done to deserve such (there is no other word!) shitty conditions! The weather report predicted winds of 30 knots over the next four days, so according to logic the circumstances to make a successful attempt would never be more favourable.
In actual fact what materialized were very irregular, offshore conditions. Here’s what happened…
My friend Hubert would be tracking my progress on the internet and also following along in a car and hopefully be waiting to pick me up wherever my journey ended in 24 hours time. I got on the water at 17:15. The few people still on Praia do Futuro in Fortaleza looked on in disbelief at this surfer who was unfolding his kite at dinnertime with a great big light on his head usually used for tuna fishing. I could almost hear them thinking, “This ‘gringo’ must have had way too much sun today!”
The first stage of the journey along Fortaleza’s coastline went well. The wind continued steadily as it had all afternoon and I didn't need to move the kite too much to keep good speed. As night fell, the surface of the ocean began to calm down and the board glided from one wave to another. I thought, 'This is marvellous!' The full moon was shining brightly and I didn't even need to use the lamp.
Kiting at night in two metre swells is all very impressive, but my childhood fears soon re-surfaced all alone and in an environment unfamiliar at night time, far away from the safe lights of the cities and villages on the distant beaches, navigating over who knows what kind of big fish. I tried to hang on to the beauty of the scenery and banished any disturbing thoughts.
The wind started to show signs of weakness as I got closer to the immense pier just before Taiba and I had to fly my kite more and more aggressively from one side of the window to the other to stop it from dropping out of the sky. It was whistling with every sine wave as if to tell me of the problems that lay ahead…
I passed the pier with the noise of the waves breaking on the rocky coast drowning those of my kite. I concentrated hard; this was not the moment to let the kite crash into the water. The closer I got to Paracuru the harder I needed to fly the kite. Inevitably, three kilometres from Paracuru the kite went silent, crumbled and dropped to the water. The wind was too weak to relaunch. I waited ten minutes before deciding to swim the 400 metres back to the beach with the kite under my arms and the lines lagging behind me. Not the ideal start to a record-setting run!
Thirty minutes of swimming and 15 minutes spent straightening out the lines later I was off again. The wind seemed steadier, but still weak. Everything seemed normal - after all it was night and I couldn't expect to have the same strong winds as daytime. Glad simply to be able to kite, and despite my arms complaining bitterly, I pressed on. I know this stretch of coastline very well, which is why I decided to navigate this area at night - I managed to determine my position by recognising the villages on the shoreline. My slow and difficult progress didn't unduly affect my morale; I planned to make up the distance when the wind picked up the following day.
My sailor friend, Jean Louis, once told me that 'the moon is a loyal comrade'. It seemed to be playing hide-and-seek behind the clouds though. I tried talking to the man in the moon, and asked him to stop hiding and to keep his light shining on me. Instead it got cloudier and visibility became extremely poor. However, my legs seemed to be enduring the pounding; although I could no longer see them, they weren't complaining. The messages to my brain were reassuring: they're holding out!
At the same time 'HQ downwind' in Paracuru was organising itself. Hubert got in the car again and headed north, constantly informed by Eric and Bow, two kite friends staying at Dominique’s (have a look at his site, www.aguavila.com.br to see how some people don't have an easy life…) who were monitoring my progress.
I fought all night against the 'breeze', continuously changing the position of my hands to avoid cramp. I started suffering with my harness; the constant movements of the kite gave me chaffing wounds on both buttocks. The day still hadn’t started – it was 04:15 and my kite crashed brutally on the water. The wind had decided to take a sabbatical.
After my little chat with the moon it was now the wind’s turn to receive the sharp edge of my tongue. I started calmly but soon got louder and louder in my address to the heavens. I could hardly see the shore and it took me 40 minutes to swim in only to find myself facing an enormous mangrove lagoon. Condemned to a one kilometre wade up to my waist I eventually found an area of sand to put my kite down on and untangle my lines. Able to hear the sound of my breathing over the wind and with the ocean looking like marble it didn't take a genius to realise that my adventure was taking a big hit.
Cue the entrance of mosquitoes. They came in giant legions, taking full advantage of me as an unexpected meal. Again I cursed skywards from the depths of my lungs.
An answer seemed to come in the guise of a little offshore breeze. I put the kite into the water again and let it drag me and escaped the green inferno. I swam for 30 minutes, unable to launch the kite before I reached another beach. On my next attempt it had been three hours since the wind had clipped my wings. I was seeing red with frustration, which only deepened at the thought of how much pain my harness was causing.
At 07:20 the cheap excuse for a wind finally started having a proper go. I tried to verbally provoke it into showing me what it really had, but it remained light and offshore.
The battle between keeping my balance, remaining afloat and maintaining traction in my kite started again. I passed Prea with a SSW wind which was straight offshore and very irregular. Only able to kite for between 100 and 200 metres before I'd sink, I'd relaunch again, manage another short distance before sinking again and repeating the process. This continued until I reached Camocim.
Passing the bay of Jericoacoara was one of the most extreme moments in the day. I already knew that this could become a game of Russian roulette. The wind would either stay as it was and let me pass the five kilometres of the bay bit by bit, or it would completely stop, leaving me far from the beach with no chance of swimming back. Never in my life have I cried out to the elements so hard. Sick and tired of my incredible bad luck I held my bar by ‘hooking’ it with one of my wrists to relieve my aching fingers. Fingers that didn't seem able to hold on to anything whatsoever.
Camocim and its delta appeared as I continued to make exhausting crossings back-and-forth, when the wind crumbled once more. A kilometre separated me from the coast as my kite dropped. The wind was too light for a relaunch, but it was strong enough to pull me out to open water. I struggled for almost an hour, swimming against the wind to try and reach the beach in the distance. Exhausted and about to decide to ditch the kite and swim back without it, the wind suddenly changed in both direction and force. Now swinging onshore and rising up to 25-30 knots I got the morale boost I sorely needed. The adrenaline in my veins wanted 40 knots if he dared to blow!
Finally a strong wind, but there was only four hours before the 24 hours was over. I knew I wouldn't pass the 500 kilometre mark I'd hoped for but I dug in all the way to the end. The sea unchained itself from the wind and combined with a very strong tide.
In the delta of Luis Correira the hollow waves reached four metres. Like mines in a minefield, walls of water exploded simultaneously all around me. I didn't care any more, the only thing I could think of was reaching my goal and, if it wasn't for the harness torturing me, I could have gone on for another 12 hours.
When my watch indicated 17:15 I landed on the first beach in sight. I had left Fortaleza 24 hours earlier and kited a distance of 419.9 kilometres.
GOING THE DISTANCE
Catching up with Eric
How did the idea of doing this mega downwinder come about?
I got frustrated on the first downwinder I ever did in Brazil, between Taïba and Paracuru (20 kilometres), because we were followed the whole way by a buggy. I couldn't help but feel that we weren't 'free' to go where we wanted at the speed we wanted and I couldn't relax. Two days later we downwinded the 100 kilometres from Paracuru to Icaraï alone. It was magic. The best sensation is just to pack a spare T-shirt and shorts, some money, water, food and a pump, to start in the morning and stop when you get tired. Last year I did this form of kite-bivouac travel over 1100 kilometres but I left my camera behind when we'd stopped in Jericoacoara. When we came back to our base camp at Paracuru I decided to kite back to Jeri and pick it up. I had never done an intense long distance like that in one go (200 kilometres), but I started early at 5:30am from Paracuru. The wind was really good and I passed Jeri at 13:00. Not tired I decided to carry on and see what distance I could do. I finished at Luis Coriera at 17:35 having done 325 kilometres.
What sort of training can you do for a trip like these?
The best training is to do a kite-bivouac just before the attempt. Over the previous 13 days (with two days off) I followed the coast between Recife to Alcantara (1450 kilometres), riding long distances to join islands or cross estuaries, sometimes between 20 and 40 kilometres, and averaged over 100km per day.
What equipment did you take with you and how did you decide what you would take?
On the 24 hour record I took 100 Brazilian reals in cash, one pair of shorts, one T-shirt, flip-flops, a hat, sun glasses, five litres of water in a Camel pack, two GPSs (one tracker), two head lights, 5000 calories worth of food (fruit paste, concentrated milk, Dolce de Lete and guarana). On the four days just before I set-off I ate lots of noodles, fruit and meat. The most important factor is that whatever you take has to be light, so I took the minimum. No repair bag, no change back-up lines, no radio...no pump! The kite I used was an Ozone Instinct Edge 9m and the board was a Doll Velocity 149cm twin-tip.
How much did modern technology help your support on land?
During the kite-bivouac expedition I was alone. My friends could monitor my journey on the net with my GPS tracker. A friend came with me at the start of the 24 record and also followed my trip on the net to catch me at the end with a car.
What was the hardest aspect of the trip and at which point were you most worried?
Unfortunately I only had four hours of good, strong wind. I am sure I would be able to do more than 550 kilometres with 24 hours of solid wind. I was unlucky but it's difficult to find strong winds that blow during the night and the following day. The part I was most worried about was around Jericoacoara when the wind was offshore and really irregular. I was sure that I wouldn't make it back to the beach if the wind dropped. I was alone, very far off the shore with terrible wind....
Why did you choose to start from where you did?
I started from Praia de Futuro because it is 500 kilometres south of a village called Caburé which is the last village before the lençois de maranhenses; a very long desert, stretching 150 kilometres and I didn't want to start going along that part of the coast.
What was the most memorable moment?
Two moments were very memorable. The first was when two dolphins swam alongside me for five minutes. The second was in the delta of Luis Correira where the waves and sea swell reached four metres, and as I said it was like mines in a minefield with walls of water constantly exploding all around me.
| RECORD BRAZILIAN 24 HOUR DOWNWINDER
DISTANCE: 419.9 KILOMETRES
WORKING WIND DIRECTIONS: Ideally E-NE. Eric got 15-18 knots E at night, 12-18 knots S-SW in the morning and four hours of 35 knots from NE in the afternoon.
ACTUAL CONDITIONS OVER THE 24 HOURS: It was the second day of a full moon, so the tide played an important factor. The waves were two metres and hollow for 22 hours and four metres for the last two. Eric had to stay between 500 metres and a kilometre offshore because it was difficult to see rocks and the fishing traps close in.
OUTRO - Eric is currently looking for sponsors to help him make the first kitesurf crossing of the Bering Strait, linking Russia with Asia and Alaska, next August. Keep up with him at:
Read issue #37 HERE