For once it wasn’t me who almost died. But I’m already getting ahead of myself.
We had a week in Bazaruto without guests to play on the dunes before heading back across the Mozambique channel to Madagascar. In this time we flew as much as possible; spent way too much time in Vilanculos trying to repair one of our refrigerators (unsuccessfully); and got about $12,000 dollars worth of camera and paragliding equipment stolen from right under our noses on the beach. In less than 12 hours we had it all back in perfect nick after spreading the word that we’d pay a handsome reward no questions asked for the return of the items. We also had our secondary anchor stolen by some fishermen from right off the bottom one night, but this seemed a small price to pay for all that Bazaruto had provided.
The crossing was uneventful and fast. Light winds out of the south propelled Discovery along at an easy pace and we arrived with plenty of time to spare to prep for the second to last trip of the season. After spending nearly 2 months in the Tulear region it was pretty strange to return. I can’t remember a time since the Caribbean in our first year that we’ve backtracked somewhere on our global tour. But considering the waves and wind that this area was so famous for had for the most part eluded us, I was glad to have one more shot. This time Madagascar would not disappoint. We kited 9 days out of 9, almost all of them on 7 meter kites in 25-30 knots of wind which arrived as reliably as a Swiss train every afternoon and died off just as reasonably every sunset to leave us with perfectly flat anchorages.
Right from the start the “wind curse” for our guests was clearly broken. Gavin and Victoria had been skunked on their Burma trip earlier in the season; Martin had been skunked on both his previous trips- one in Palau and the other in French Polynesia; and returning guest Toby with his lovely wife Lilly would finally get the opportunity to not only actually kite on his 3rd or 4th planned “kite” trips, but get the hang of unintentional kiteloops (much to the spectators’ amusement) and ripping upwind. Martin’s friend Simon had no idea what the curse was in the first place- this was his first trip on Discovery and I’m pretty sure he thinks we actually have a remote control for the wind- speed and time all dictated by our whim.
We spent the first three days kiting the lagoon in Ifaty before a blip in the swell forecast signaled the time for departure for wave country to the south. Jody opted to head north to check out Morondova and the famous Baobab Alley, seen in so many classic photos of Madagascar. We hadn’t had an opportunity to explore inland and with the winds nuking every day Discovery’s rock and roll wasn’t what she had in mind for fun. She was more happy speeding around on a dirtbike (much to the local’s delight- they had never seen a white woman on a motorbike!) than huddling on the couch feeling nauseous.
By the time we got to Flameballs the wave that we’d seen only short glimpses of the possibilities was finally firing in perfect form. What’s more, the winds this time of year were out of the SW instead of the SE, making the wave perfectly sideshore (what kiters dream of).
Every morning it was dead calm and Tim, Simon and I would try as hard as we could to get the gumption to paddle into towering waves that crunched over sharp coral just a foot below the surface. The drops were absolutely petrifying. Stormriders says the wave is for “experts only- sharky, fast, sharp, and shallow” so on the rare occasion any of us actually made the drop there was so much hooting and hollering the buzz would overshadow all the many times we just didn’t quite make it (aka we wimped out!)
By the 3rd day at Flameballs all the guys, two of whom had never even ridden upwind before the start of the trip, let alone ridden in waves were getting more and more daring with a wave that was firing at double overhead and throwing nice barrels. With the help of the kite in their hand and a surfboard underfoot something radical and achievable only after years and years of dedication (I’m talking about surfing of course) becomes possible with just a few days of practice.
They would ride off downwind from our anchorage, tear it up on the wave for a couple hours, then make the long tacks back to the boat upwind just in time for the fiery sun to settle into an angry ocean, whipped up by 30+ knots of wind. I couldn’t help but be proud of what felt like my little flock of students, who not only didn’t need a rescue, but were totally self-sufficient. They would each arrive exhausted but full of adrenaline and energy, telling animated stories of their conquests.
On the last night of the trip I think everyone had lulled themselves as I had- into thinking that nothing could possibly go wrong. Considering all the nightmares we’ve been through this season, I was certainly accepting of our recent turn of events. But life is like a good pitcher, one who likes to serve up an unexpected curveball. Just to make sure we stay in touch with reality I suppose.
We were playing poker, having a couple drinks, but nothing too heavy when Victoria went to the stern of the boat to smoke a cigarette. The conditions were hardly rough, but the boat was moving enough that you had to watch your step. It was pitch black. Suddenly we hear a splash, then what sounds like kicking, but no voice. At first I laughed, and yelled out “Vix, did you just fall in?”. Nothing. We ran to the back of the boat, still nothing. In my head I just couldn’t figure out what was going on. I thought she might be pulling a prank and hiding from us, but considering she had all her cloths on, it was dark and windy- it seemed unlikely. After maybe 30 seconds we still hadn’t seen anything. Tim handed me a flashlight and I remember feeling guilty that I hadn’t already jumped in- but I knew I couldn’t see anything; and the dark fear that was in all our minds was that she must have been taken by something, and that something was probably still around…I was frankly too terrified to jump.
I remember Gavin (Vix’s fiancee, and someone who is no stranger to extreme environments) was screaming. Time seemed to be ticking away gut-wrenchingly slowly. Suddenly after what seemed way too long, Toby sees something on the opposite stern and yells out. A ghostly white body is slowly moving towards the surface. I jump in and race to her and grab her as she gets to the surface. But she’s not flailing her arms, not gulping for air. I’m prepped for her to panic and thrash at me, but she’s just dead weight, listless. I guess she was just in shock and all we can figure is that when she fell in she got disoriented and swam the wrong way. Down. I swam Vix back to the boat, telling her everything is going to be ok. I ask her to tell me what’s going on. She just keeps saying “I’m fine” over and over and over in a faint voice.
It was a sobering moment to be sure and I’m still not sure any of us have any idea what actually happened. But it was scary. A reminder of how tenuous our lives can be. For 10 days we’d been kiting and surfing and doing things that certainly can be classified as “dangerous”, when the reality is any stupid thing can jump out and end it all just as fast, even all the way out here. I knew smoking was dangerous but holy hell!
We motor sailed back to Tulear on the last day and said goodbye to our departing friends as the winds once again cranked back up to 30 knots. 24 hours later the wind died and stayed that way for nearly a week. The curse was broken for sure.
“The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.” ~quoted in the incredible movie, 180 south