After our 30 day Cargados trip I was looking forward to 8 badly needed days of rest in Reunion with no clients and no guests. I’d researched all the surf waves and paragliding sites over a year ago and couldn’t wait to taste the goods. I should have known better. Maintenace alone took the better part of a week. Continued engine worries, a number of canvas and sail projects, burned out battery charger- the list kept growing. And then 48 hours before our planned departure things went from bad to awful. We’d flown our wonder chef Bobby back to Jakarta for the week so he could meet his new daughter, who was born in February. I’d received a number of emails all week about how good everything was going with his family and how excited he was to return. I drove to the airport to pick him up, but he didn’t show. I assumed he’d just missed a connection, but learned shortly thereafter from his first wife (Bobby has two wives) that he been very badly injured in a car crash en route to the airport in Jakarta on his way back to Discovery. We were told he had a broken back, badly damaged face, hands and one knee; and of course would not be returning to the boat.
I wandered around a bit in disbelief. How could something so bad happen to such a wonderful person? I felt incredible sadness for Bobby and his family. What was meant to be such a great thing had gone horribly wrong. Unfortunately there wasn’t any time to dawdle in emotions. I returned to the boat, did a quick inventory and headed to the store. We had to provision wine, beer, spirits, dry goods and fresh goods for the next several months as Madagascar would not have the selection available in Reunion.
The last three days in port were spent in a blind rush of shopping, filling diesel, maintenance, internet, wrapping up the 2011 itinerary and interviewing potential chefs. We didn’t have time to be picky- our only real qualification had to be that they could depart immediately for Madagascar to join the boat by the first day of the trip with Ben Wilson and a bunch of his Aussie mates and one of our owners Scott Wisenbaker. We found an American guy named Israel, who I’d interviewed a year ago. He was available and keen. There were a number of red flags, all of which I kept sweeping under the rug. Chalk up another costly mistake for the Skipper.
Tim and I had a decent sail to Fort Dauphin, on the SE coast of Madagascar. A deep tropical depression, one of the latest in history for this time of year had swept past just 24 hours before our departure. Just another ill tiding and I coudln’t help but wonder if we were just pressing too hard. This year has been extraordinary in many ways, but it’s also been one of the hardest for me since I started sailing. Our trusted vessel has just been run too hard and it’s showing. The maintenance list gets longer as I get more tired. Crew changes and Bobby’s accident. One long fight after another trying to get in and out of countries who seem to string the red tape to the moon. All the while trying to stay on schedule, trying to keep everyone happy. I wanted to just walk away. Get off the boat and disappear into oblivion; forget the whole damn thing.
Two hours shy of Fort Dauphin the starboard engine fuel injection pump caughed up a lung and remains broken now three weeks later as I write this. I got some practice driving a 30 foot wide catamaran with one engine in the Maldives, where it was flat calm. We were now approaching one of the most exposed Cape’s in the world, one that is notorious for violent seas and freak waves, as witnessed by the littany of wrecks along the shore.
Thankfully the one all important ingredient for an awesome trip was there. People. Ben’s mates; Tony, Tim, Theo and Matt were raring to go and Scott and I had planned this trip for over a year. Tony and Theo got smacked with some kind of stomach flu before they got on board, which would unfortunately tour about half the group in the coming days, but this did little to sour the mood. The surf forecast looked solid. We had 240 miles of coast to cover which promised to be a long, empty, wild, beautiful, and totally vacant expanse of potential wave discovery.
Three remarkable things happened in our first week. The first was an awesome day surfing just outside Fort Dauphin on a hollow beach break, one that Ben milked tube after tube out of and the rest of us tried to emulate. This was the only time on the trip we shared the water with anyone else- a single local Expat. Other than that, the entire coast was all our own.
The second was directly off Cape St. Marie. We’d sailed all night, through a blizzard of rain and lightning and were just warming up to coffee and the new wild surroundings when someone noticed a bird pack diving onto a huge bait ball. The water is stirred up and mirky. Sheer cliffs a few hundred feet high are being pounded relentlessly by a 5 meter swell. The sea looks angry and unorganized. This is not a friendly place. As we approach the bait ball we see yellowfin tuna smacking the terrified fish along with the birds. A little voice in the back of my head insists that we are near the Mozambique strait, a place that is notorious for big sharks. It is saying “dude, SLOW down.” But right in front of us we’ve got a David Attenborough BBC spectacular happening and I’ve got to get this on film! I abandon the helm, grab my mask and GoPro camera and jump right off the side of the boat next to the ball. My head hits the water and I look down right onto the largest shark I’ve ever seen. He’s so big he doesn’t even spook when I practically land on his dorsal. I don’t take any time trying to figure out what kind of shark this is. My brain registers only two things: 1) BIG and 2) THERE MUST BE A LOT MORE. My feet turn into small props and I practically walk on water to the stern of the boat. This is also caught on film by Tony, who smartly stayed put on the deck of Discovery with everyone else. The guys all call me crazy, but that’s too nice. Stupid is more appropriate.
The third was spending two nights on a lee shore near the village of Lavanono in a 12 foot swell and 20 knot winds. We had two choices- ride out the weather at anchor or ride it out at sea and as we’d had a long night and day to get there, I chose riding it out at anchor, easily the worst “anchorage”, if you can call it that I’ve ever used. But the group was irrepressible, and staying put though nauseating allowed us to score a super fun kite session, and even a worthwhile SUP and surf after the winds eased off. Jody would have preferred spending the time on a crucifix however and jumped at the chance to get on solid ground when the shore break became negotiable in the dinghy.
Madagascar, or “le grande isle” is the 4th largest island and one of the poorest nations on earth, right up there with Haiti and Zimbabwe. Separated from mainland Africa some 165 million years ago, her dazzling and unique flora and fauna have developed in isolation since. From her 2,000 year old Baobab trees to dozens of species of ridiculously cute Lemurs, it is a fascinating place. But the average wage is $2 USD per day and most people scrape by with next to nothing. Those who visit the village at Lavanono find it the most primitive place they have seen, and this is a well traveled group. Matt says it’s like Indonesia must have been 50 years ago. Over the years we’ve been through dozens of third world areas, but Lavanono isn’t even comparable to these places. Tiny mud shacks sturdied with wooden poles are surrounded by cactus and sand for as far as the eye can see. There is no power, running water, or any “modern” convenience of any kind. I’m ashamed to realize that we’ve got more money invested in camera gear alone than the entire village probably makes in ten years. But smiling people and Dhows sailing onto the beach by very capable fishermen make for a memorable scene.
When the skies finally cleared and the seas calmed we headed northwest, keeping with the theme thus far of surfing a new break every day. But we found the surf so good near the village of Androka that a longer stop was in order. Here only Ben braves a heavy right hander, while the rest of us find absolute bliss in it’s lesser cousin around the corner.
Tony asks me that moonless night under a perfect canopy of bright stars how many times we’ve anchored in a place that had no lights on shore. We’re anchored very close to a large village, but at night there is no sign of life whatsoever. I think about this for some time. Other than the few uninhabited islands of course, the answer is very few, or maybe none.
We close more distance on Tulear, our destination with a short trip up the coast to Itampolo where we find another fun but small wave as the swell recedes. We take a trip to the village and find a much different scene than the last stop, and also take away a good lesson. While still very primitive, there are concrete structures, a school, a couple small tourist hotels and an outdoor market with women selling peanuts, dried beans, corn. Our group immediately attracts a growing throng of excited children and Tim decides to treat them to some lollies. As the throng grows he realizes many children have missed out. Faced with an impossible task, he buys a few more big bags of candies and entrusts the shopkeeper, a strong and attractive woman to execute the handout. The woman commands respect and dutifully attempts to coordinate what reminds me of a scene out of Lord of the Flies. After a half an hour she gives up and simply throws them into the crowd, as Tim had done. The big kids steal from the smaller kids, leaving many with none and many jubilant bullies with large handfuls. Much crying ensues after our group has disappeared into the sunset where the scene is forgotten over a few beers. I imagine we left a very poor impression.
We sail all night to Anakao, home of a number of well documented breaks where we will spend the last week of the trip. I go to shore to get some provisions for our chef and return some time later and find our First Mate Tim on the stern looking a bit sheepish. “Hey Tim, can you give this stuff to the chef?” Tim replies, “well, that is something we’re going to have to talk about. We ah….don’t have a chef.” Turns out the dimwit (sorry, don’t feel like being PC here) just jumped on a passing fishing boat without a word and disappeared. I had neglected to get his passport and apparently the miserable lout decided a vacation to Madagascar on our dime was better than doing his job. His name, if any of you care to know is Israel Campbell. Lives in Florida. Should be shot on sight.
So, as you can imagine I remember very little of that last week other than the galley. But luckily Ben is as good a chef as he is a surfer and Jody can bake all kinds of goodies so I had plenty of help. Tim went into super Mate mode and handled all the things I couldn’t and the group couldn’t be fussed, these guys were on cloud nine regardless of who was cooking for them. Flameballs served up a morning of stellar tubes, the wind finally made an appearance for an afternoon kite session, the nights were filled with laughter, music and good food. And Israel? Well hopefully Israel will be finding himself on the wrong side of a moving bus. There is this little thing called Karma my weaselly friend, and you are due your share.
As is always the case, as I sit here and reflect on our extraordinary journey which started long before everyone joined in Fort Dauphin I can barely recall the many tribulations that stood in our way. Memory is funny that way. If it wasn’t I would have long ago given all this up and settled down behind a desk. Where I could have reliable pay, time off, weekends- maybe even a steady routine! But as good as that sometimes sounds, I also wouldn’t have the memories of those starry nights, the bellyfuls of laughter, the endless vacant waves, the thrill of discovery. If a good life means some hellish long hours and no place to call home then so be it, I think I’ll stick around for the ride.