I’ve been fortunate to have played and explored in some breathtaking places over the past 11 years of sailing our shared blue earth. The most common question I get from our guests is “what’s the best place you’ve been?” It’s an impossible question to answer – there are so many amazing places; each have unique vistas and opportunities and each presents their splendor in remarkable ways. The truth is most of the places we travel are visually stunning, so what is it that makes one place more special than another? The answer must be the people we have for company and all the tiny little things that add up to just plain gob smack you into the feeling that THIS JUST CAN’T BE HAPPENING.
The list of “tiny things” in the Marshall islands could easily fill many logs all on their own. Without doubt, our experiences in the Marshalls on this trip and the last will be the benchmark on all future itineraries. I cannot imagine ever—-ever finding another place that equals what the Marshalls have on so many levels: If remoteness could be classified on the Richter scale, the Marshalls are an 8.6. Beauty? Michelangelo wouldn’t have even tried. Fish? We’ve caught all we can eat of Mahi, Bonito, and two of the largest Yellow fin I’ve ever seen, and clearly we could have caught a lot more, but our freezer can only hold so much. Wind? Pegged at 25 smooth knots two weeks ago and hasn’t dropped since- 24 hours a day. In fact it’s the windiest place I’ve ever been. And waves? World class breaks, we’re the only ones on them. Day after day. When we leave the waves will be as vacant as they have been for millennia. The locals? Stunning, smiling, curious, warm and as welcoming as any we’ve come across.
Now for the people. We all pick up on a lot more of the little things when we are surrounded by greatness. John Bilderback and Jody MacDonald work relentlessly with trained eyes on capturing it all on film and camera. Pete Cabrinha joins with his impeccable style, charm and pure passion for all things related to water. Moehau Goold and Mauricio Abreu return for their 3rd trip on the Best Odyssey, always gracious, always charging, always fearless. Kristin Boese, 4 time world-champion and Goddess- there is no other word. Two owners, Bruce Marks and Scott Wisenbaker learning from the best in the biz and taking their own considerable game to new levels. Sole serves up love with every meal, Pia cold beers after long days in the sun. With this mix, little can go wrong.
But it isn’t easy. The greatest rewards of course require the greatest risk, the greatest commitment. Long sails are required to spots that almost nothing is known. The trip back, if you must- long and very, very hard. We spend little time on the first day just stowing gear and getting to know one-another before we sail the first leg, 18 hours at a moderate pace. Bilderback’s stomach disagrees with the trip in the most violent of ways, the rest of the gang stable yet sympathetic.
Our arrival, just after sunrise confirms what we already know. The forecasted big swell has not quite arrived so there’s time to do a bit of exploring. By the afternoon the swell does indeed begin to pick up. A dozen or so locals living on an outer island appear out of the trees like a mirage in the desert. On the previous trip we hadn’t seen a soul here, and I find myself staring at them in disbelief as you would an apparition. Their eyes are drawn to the sky for their first-ever view of kitesurfing, and soon they are whooping and crying out a song of “whoas!” and “wows!”, as Pete, Moehau, Mauricio, Kristin, Scott and Bruce rip up one pearly double overhead wave after another.
By the next morning our hoped-for swell has arrived in full. Hours of play ensue- surfing all morning at a wave everyone agrees compares to Fiji’s famous “Restaurants”, the afternoon spent kiting what I call giants, what these guys just call perfection. Kristin, Bruce and I take our kite gear to launch from a small island that Jody reckons is “Stupid Gorgeous”, and we agree. We all wander around a bit just trying to take it in, confused by the inputs our brains can’t categorize. With the sun waning we kite out to the reef and kite some of the waves Pete, Mauricio, Scott and Moehau have been surfing for hours.
In the final minutes of the day John finds a massive green wine bottle washed up on the shore, filled with messages. We can’t muster the gumption to crack it open just yet. We stow the bottle to be explored when we are ready. It’s about this time I believe every one of us were well and truly at the “gob smacked” stage of the journey. Someone for God’s sake pinch us!
It’s only on day 4 that the crew is already getting up a bit later. Hips are bruised, legs are sore, skin is burnt. Three cups of coffee instead of 1. The swell and wind however have not let up, and these folks are the not the types to let precious moments pass. Inspired by what I’ve seen and reasonably sure of our anchor holding (in most places anchoring is impossible- the reefs go from shallow to over 10,000 feet in a near-vertical descent) I inflate my 10 meter kite, hit the water for a stint and come home with the first and thankfully only painful injury of the trip with a blown ear drum. Painful not from the blow, but the ensuing infection, which feels distinctly like someone drilling an 1/8th inch bit into my brain. At the same time, it’s the most fun I’ve had kiting waves in my life and therefore the best medication there is.
Sometime after dinner while putting Discovery to bed the anchor drag alarm goes off. A quick check confirms we are indeed floating free of our holding. As it had taken 4 tries in the daylight to get the marginal footing that it was, I decide to make the windward beat to a more solid spot, 10 miles up the reef. Two hours of heavy pounding in a sea of angry black and some tricky night-time reef navigation gets us finally to a place where we can get some sleep.
Onward the next morning 70 miles on a fast broad-reach to another atoll. The seas are probably 12-15′ now with winds refusing to ease. Discovery has been covering a lot of miles of late, 2,000 up from Tonga before Christmas, 1,000 on the last trip, much of them to windward. She’s holding up well but I can tell like myself, she needs rest and maintenance. We find it at our next stop, after a long fight with a 120 pound Yellow fin tuna that Scott lands triumphantly. She is mighty and strong; a supremely beautiful fish. Sole expertly filets the great slabs of succulent meat that deliver one mouth-watering meal after another in the days to come.
We return to visit the village I wrote about in the last log; Sole and I find we miss the people as you would your own family and our new guests quickly become bitten by their charm and gracious hospitality. We chant the local greeting, “Iokwe! Iokwe!” and the chant is returned, which literally means “love to you”. The many children race out to meet us, delighted by the new faces and new friends. We bring a few gifts; a volley ball and net, some things for the school. We are paid back tenfold in smiles and the sweet juice of coconuts. Pete says what everyone is thinking- we should just stay here and never go back.
While the winds continue to crank we’ve lost a bit of our swell so the focus turns to flatwater riding. There aren’t colorful enough adjectives to describe this place so I’ll let the photos handle the task.
We finally decide to crack the message bottle. I think we were all so excited by the endless possibilities of what we would find, the reality was a bit anti-climatic. But we learn it was placed in the ocean by a group of mostly bitter, home-sick maritime students sailing on “The Golden Bear” on August 27, 2007 near San Francisco. As the crow flies, the vessel traveled nearly 4,000 miles in a year and a half, and that in itself is impressive on its own.
In the final days we each come to our own conclusions, we’ve each had our own highlights. We all agree it has been the trip of a lifetime but maybe that is too cliché? I can easily call this one of the best places, no…one of the best moments of my life. I’m confronted with a similar feeling as it all comes to a close, one I can never dispel at trips end and I imagine is shared by my peers. The feeling is sadness. These magnificent days that seemed would never end have indeed drawn short. Another trip behind us, one fewer in front. I find I am monumentally thankful and appreciative of this crazy life we have carved out for ourselves but I am all too conscious of how fast it goes. Like the swell, like the wind- it comes…and then it is gone.
“The past is history. The future, a mystery. Today is a gift, that’s why they call it a present.” –Kung Fu Panda