Photos by Gavin McClurg and Rob Born.
In the days of old imagine how frightful it must have been to sail off into the unknown, on a presumably flat earth, wondering where the abyss lay. As we begin our 3rd year of The Best Odyssey it was never my intention to reach the end of the world with three years left in the voyage, but somewhat incredibly that is what I’ve done.
Thankfully we do in fact live on a round globe and there is no danger (at least that I acknowledge) of running out of horizon, but I promise you- we have indeed reached the end of the earth. Without providing the exact coordinates of this place I will endeavor to describe what you can expect to find at this rather distinct line between reality and fiction. It begins by acquiring and socking away tiny tidbits of rumors, gossip and stories, heard over the years through various grapevines. For example: The Captain of the Quiksilver “Crossing” Expedition, who we met on the outside of Sumatra back in 2005 mentioned the Marshalls had the best waves they found in 6 years of looking (but of course did not give me any details or coordinates, and I won’t either). A year later, a sailor and addicted diver I met in a bar in Thailand swore that the Marshalls had the best visibility and marine life he’s seen in 10 years of circumnavigating (he didn’t fall off either). But you mention the Marshall islands to, well just about anyone and they might, just might have heard of Bikini atoll, which the US used indiscriminately as an Atomic bomb testing center for decades. But very very little is known about the other 28 atolls and some 1200 islands of this group of the Pacific.
I knew practically zero. But I’m always willing to chase down rumors, the pilot charts proved the area had substantial trade winds, and this thought of finding waves at the end of the world….well it just had to be explored.
I came back to Discovery, now moored safely in Majuro, the Capital of the Marshall islands just two days before Christmas. A dozen other sailboats are moored here, many of whom have been in the Marshall islands for several years. Yes, they are that enchanting. But the atolls we were most interested in, a solid down-wind distance from Majuro? Not a single cruiser had visited them. They aren’t mentioned once on the internet, they aren’t mentioned in a single cruising guide or travel guide. Not ONCE. I want to reemphasize this point as I’ve been at this for awhile and this is practically unfathomable in todays’ information rich society. Places like this DO NOT EXIST.
I couldn’t shake the feeling when we departed Majuro with our spartan crew- our fabulous new chef Soledad Correa and just two guests, Rob Born and Claudia Batchelor that we were heading into the land of the lost. Even the most reliable information source, the Pacific Sailing Directions had but a few lines about our destination. For the first time in months I spent a considerable amount of time getting reacquainted with the Single Side Band radio- if something happened to us out here there would be very few places we could go for help.
An easy overnight sail and we’d arrived at the abyss, the catechism, the edge… I was actually surprised to see our horizon was in fact in place. The world certainly appeared in tact, but clearly something was wrong in the most magnificent of ways. First was the right hander, a perfect peeling head and a half high wave with not a soul around. A postcard palm-clad uninhabited island lit by the sun overhead lends a tangible feel to the backdrop, thriving corals in various shapes and colors light up the depths.
On day four of our journey, departing one atoll for another I wrote the following entry in my journal in an attempt to capture what it’s actually like to sail at the edge of the earth:
Jan 2, Marshall Islands Expedition
We left the atoll before day break, in the calm and tranquility only a painted dark sky can provide. The ocean a mirror of the sky’s black, reflecting
pinpricks of light from the heavens- Perseus and Orion protecting overhead, Cepheus and his lover Cassiopeia on our northern horizon to guide the way.
Everyone peaceful and asleep below we head out of the deep pass through a maze of reefs, the only sounds breaking the silence the hum of the engines and the
long breaking waves, remnants of the swell we’d surfed gleefully in the days gone by.
The arrival of the sun and the arrival of color, they are synonymous. The ocean can only be described as fiercely blue. Only hundreds of meters clear of
the atoll the depths plunge to 10,000 feet and beyond. Staring down it is possible to experience vertigo – the waters are translucent, impossibly clear.
But they are brimming with life. Birds dive on bait fish, turtles come up for air to have a look at the world above. One of the fishing line sings its
magic song, everyone jumps to their assigned place- Sole to get the knives, Gavin to slow the boat, Rob to reel our catch in, Claudia to giddily provide
encouragement. We land a gorgeous bonito, a sashimi favorite.
Tranquil hours pass by with no care in the world. Bliss on every horizon. No schedules, no meetings, nothing to do but watch the time slip by in step with
the water on the hulls. Later we land the most majestic of the pelagic fish, the Mahi-Mahi, and then another. Off our starboard bow now a light blue line
runs like a straight-edge into the distance until it disappears. Outside this line a nearly bottom-less sea, inside the line an enormous lagoon. There isn’t mention of it in any cruising guide, nor any travel guide. This line feels to me like the end of the earth- we have reached 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
it’s small isles at the perimeter of the lagoon who approach us in their hand-made wind-powered canoes with gaping honest smiles and baffled, inquisitive
looks. She receives no visitors. I spoke with other “yachties” who had spent years in the Marshall islands back in the main port, Majuro- not a single
one had ever come here. I searched the internet- not a single hit. We have gone to the very edge of white man’s reach.
The pass into the lagoon is deep yet narrow, two dark blue lanes that Y to the north and south, walled 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 walls, the girls and Rob jump off the stern and Discovery
tows them along for a better view. I have never, ever seen a place like this. The beauty is beyond words, and I am gaffed at any attempt.
We travel slowly under sail in very light wind and almost perfectly calm seas, in no hurry to reach whatever destination lies ahead. Miles of 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 the largest swimming pool in the world. Locals approach in outrigger canoes made from
breadfruit trees that seem much too small for their owners. Big men in pygmy sized boats- boats we learn are capable of sailing in even the nastiest
The village, filled with smiling children, proud mothers, and finely-featured grandmothers welcome us literally with open-arms. They delight with hoops and
hollers in seeing their faces on Rob’s camera screen. We take a tour of their island bewitched with the texture and charm. This place just feels right.
In time the sun gives-way to a perfect day and is replaced with a perfect night. Gradually Orion and Perseus return, Cassiopeia and Cepheus follow, again to
our north. But this time we are not beckoned on ward. We devour a meal of fresh bonito and mahi-mahi and I retire to the bow of the boat, falling asleep
with a smile under the stars.
In the coming days we discover yet another break. Rob and I spend nearly 7 hours one day catching one long glassy right hander after another on 10 M kites, perfect side-shore wind line everything up as I’ve only imagined in my dreams. I return to Discovery this night scorched and exhausted with a smile I couldn’t erase if I’d wanted to. We sit the next day with the local teacher on his floor drinking coconut water. Claudia 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. Everthing is perfect.” Life is like this, at the end of the world.
A preview of things to come: we revisit these places this week with Pete Cabrinha, Mauricio Abreu, Moehau Goold, and Kristin Boese. Stay tuned for more tales from the edge…With many thanks to Continental Airlines, the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority and the RRE Hotel for generously providing their support.