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Feature Marshall Isands

Legends at the Abyss Story by Gavin McClurg

Photography by Jody MacDonald


A boatload of kiting superstars at play among the breaks and blissful atolls of the idyllic Marshall Islands find themselves on the very edge of the unknown

W

e’ve prepped for this day for months and now that it has arrived I feel miserably behind schedule. My new First Mate was supposed to show up a few days ago but she missed her flight in Honolulu so instead of handling the expedition’s logistical snafus, I’ve been making beds and cleaning heads. I’ve

only been able to root out a few shreds of information on our itinerary; the supply boat hasn’t returned with our stock of stores; my ‘to-do’ list remains way too long. The air is heavy with tropical humidity and my brain throbs, insisting I give it and my body sleep instead of the endless cups of coffee which have kept me going the past few days. I’ve been operating trips like this for 11 years; you’d think I’d be more relaxed. But today is different. Today our guest list includes four of the finest wave kitesurfers in the world. These people travel the globe seeking out the best spots and I’ve talked them all into coming here to Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, a place most people have never heard of, and a place I myself have only just laid eyes on. I know it’s windy, I know it’s remote, I know from the charts there’s a good chance of

Boardsport legend Pete Cabrinha shows he still has it.

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These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.

These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.

waves, but beyond that it’s a crapshoot. It has all the ingredients of what will hopefully be a grand expedition but my usual optimism has been replaced with rampant doubt. My handheld VHF barks to life. “Discovery, Discovery, Discovery . . . shore party here.” It’s game time. Our crew has arrived. I slosh down another cup of coffee and crumple up the to-do list. Things will have to be left undone. I race into the wharf with the dinghy to meet two large vans; one stuffed with jet-lagged bodies, the other with gear. Smiling faces emerge and I am instantly more at ease. Great expeditions begin with great people and in this regard we are not in short supply. I meet legendary waterman Pete Cabrinha for the first time. His body is sculpted from a lifetime of surfing and though slighter than I imagined he exudes strength and power; yet his smile is humble and magnetic. Pete is probably most famous for surfing a behemoth wave measured at a ludicrous 21m (70ft), a feat that brought home the 2004 Billbong XXL wave trophy; and now heads up the kite brand that carries his name. I turn to meet four-time world-champion and Playboy cover model Kristin Boese and am instantly smitten. She is a goddess, there is no other word. Moehau Goold and Mauricio Abreu (aka ‘Morris’) I knew already: they are returning for their third trip onboard Discovery and I’m already anticipating watching these guys go to work. They make their living tackling the largest waves in the world, a scene they have dominated for the past five years. Two guests round out our kiting group, shareholders in the boat that operates as a time-share for kite explorers and modern-day adventurers. Bruce Marks, a lovable, wiry doctor from Australia and Scott Wisenbaker, recently relieved of his obligations in New York as part of a recent Goldman Sachs ‘reorganisation’. Soledad our Chef tells me she’s scored what she needs at the store, and I finally meet Pia, our new First Mate. The two are friends from Chile 52 ACTION ASIA

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I know it’s windy, I know it’s remote, I know from the charts there’s a good chance of waves, but beyond that it’s a crapshoot

These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.

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These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.

and have very little sailing background, another list item time will inevitably resolve. I give a quick safety brief after everyone gets settled and then move on to describe where we are headed. There are more than 1,200 Marshall Islands in all, grouped into 29 atolls, the remains of towering volcanoes that once rose from the ocean. They have long since been eroded to the mere nubs marked on charts today, but along with barrier reefs, they fringe deep lagoons, the largest of which stretches nearly 130km (80 miles) across. Only two of the atolls are served by air. The rest are sparsely populated, fantastically isolated and inaccessible except by an offshore-capable boat such as ours. There is no safety net where we’re going. No hospitals. No stores. No supplies. With the Marshalls sat so close to the Equator, what there is plenty of is reliable wind: easterly trade winds which blow day and night from December through to April. Strong and steady, the trades are a kiter’s holy grail. Our first leg takes 18 hours at a moderate downwind pace, bringing us to an atoll with two passes on its northern shore. The first proves totally flat. It has promise, but there is no wave. We sail down to the second pass. What if we completely bomb out? I feel the pressure of my guests’ high expectations.

These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.


Thankfully the second pass is picking up some swell and

At lunch, our photographer Jody MacDonald returns from

our forecast shows a big surge headed our way. The sky is soon

shooting on the beach and mentions a conversation with the

tinted with fast-moving orbs of color as kites are launched right

locals. One of the ladies had asked her: “Aren’t those people out

off the stern of the boat, pulling smiling riders in their wake.

there afraid of the sharks?” MacDonald had replied, “Well no .

A dozen or so locals appear out of the trees like a mirage in

. . but should they be?” The woman answered by bringing forth

the desert. We’d all assumed the island was deserted and I find

two children with the sizable crescent-shaped scars of shark

myself staring at them as you would an apparition. Their eyes

jaws on their legs. The mood on board gets suddenly rather

are drawn to the sky for their first-ever view of kite surfing, and

less animated as the story is recounted. Our gazes swept our

soon they are whooping and crying out in disbelief.

surroundings, as though the sharks would suddenly be evident.

By the next morning the hoped-for swell has arrived in

The pass where we are kiting is no more than a notch

full. We are anchored on a thin shelf at the end of a thick

between reefs. Turquoise water at the edge of the pass and

right-hander that wraps purposefully along a deep-water

where the wave lies is bordered by dense near-black water

pass into the inner lagoon. I’ve been awake all night; partly

where the bottom plunges from being barely underwater to

on anchor-watch due to our tenuous hold, and partly in

hundreds and then thousands of metres deep. Each time we

anticipation of what the break will be doing come daylight.

catch another wave we must cross this aquatic contour, a haven

“Waaaaaaaaat?” screams Goold, joining me before the

for fish . . . and the fish who eat those fish. We have all spent

sun has cleared the palm trees. The break has doubled in size

much of our lives in the water where sharks are rarely anything

and side-offshore winds have tuned them perfectly for kiting.

more than a perceived threat. None of us will leave the water

Months of tension are exorcised from my body and I finally

when the waves are this good, but now each time we cross that

relax. We are going to get what we came for. The kiters all

line from blue to black, our imaginations’ soar!

scramble and soon they are all etching their personal styles on the rolling waves.

During a lunch break, Marks asks Cabrinha, who certainly knows his waves, where this one ranks on his Richter scale.

These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.

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These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.

These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.

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Pete’s smile grows and he replies “9.9”. We all know he’s not just

immediately compared to some of the world’s greatest surf

judging the quality of the wave and wind but the fact that we’re

breaks by no less an authority than Mr Cabrinha himself. Most

the only ones here. If this break was on the coast of California

waves this good have long since been populated with surf camps

or Brazil there would be over a hundred surfers in the line-up

and resorts. We launch our kites off an uninhabited island

and fist fights would be common.

rimmed with ghost-white sand, the grains so fine and soft it

Each of us swears never to give this spot up but the fact

feels like warm fresh-fallen snow under our feet. Towering green

is there is almost no way to get here even if we did. When

and yellow palms reach out over crystal water that is literally

we leave the wave will be as vacant as it has been since the

translucent. Riding over the water even at depths of 15m (50ft)

beginning of time.

the coral gardens below can be seen in perfect detail. MacDonald

The day is replaced by coal black skies and the winds howl through the rigging. I set the anchor alarm as heavy

reckons the whole area is “stupid gorgeous”, and we all second this as the only appropriate description.

rain keeps me from sleeping on deck to maintain an eye on

It’s only on Day Four that the crew is getting up more

things. Just after everyone has settled into bed the alarm

slowly. Hips are chafed, legs are sore, skin is burnt. Three

blares. A quick check of the depth gauge and radar confirms

leisurely cups of coffee are required instead of one gulped one.

we have lost our holding and are drifting quickly towards a

Inspired by the pro riders I inflate my kite, hit the water for

leeward reef. I race to fire the engines while my First Mate

a stint and come home with the one and only injury of the trip:

raises the anchor. We have to beat up the reef 16km (10

a blown ear drum after dropping into a wave a bit too deep and

miles) to the first pass and a better place to spend the night,

getting pummeled in the whitewater over the reef. The pain

an uncomfortably wet and raucous affair that leaves me

comes not from the blow but the ensuing infection, which feels

exhausted, and much of the crew seasick.

distinctly like someone working a drill bit into my brain. The

The morning light though reveals the pass is now picking up swell and the wave, pealing a deliciously long time, is

pain is muted by the fact it’s the most fun I've had kiting waves in my life, but I will spectate for the remainder of the trip. We decide to let bodies repair and plan a travel day to the next atoll, 110km (70 miles) distant. We leave the deep pass through a

We launch our kites off an uninhabited island rimmed with ghost-white sand, the grains so fine and soft it feels like warm fresh-fallen snow under our feet.

maze of reefs, the only sounds breaking the silence the flutter of the deeply reefed sails and long breaking waves, remnants of the swell we'd surfed gleefully in the days gone by. Unabated winds whip the seas into an angry and impressive froth. Discovery careens down the swells and I marvel at her resilience and speed. Cabrinha draws the scene in his sketch pad as one of the fishing lines sings its magic song. Wisenbaker grabs the rod and an hour later lands a mammoth, 45kg (120lb) yellowfin tuna; then stumbles exhaustedly into the shade of the cockpit wearing the grandest of smiles and a thick coat of sweat. None of us have seen a larger tuna, and I am not alone in feeling remorse at killing such an exquisite and powerful animal. Our remorse is tempered later though when our chef presents a kilo or two of the freshest possible sashimi. Great slabs of succulent meat are added to our freezer, already brimming with other fresh catches of mahi-mahi and bonito. Off our starboard bow a light blue line runs like a straight-edge, disappearing into the distance. It’s the first sign of our destination. Outside this line we travel on a nearly bottomless sea, inside the line lies an enormous lagoon. We hunt for an entrance. There’s no mention of this atoll in any cruising or travel guide that I have seen. This line seems to demarcate the end of the earth, the farthest reach of man, the edge of the abyss. Never in all my travels on the sea have I felt JULY/AUGUST 2010

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These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.

so far from anything. But the atoll is not uninhabited. There are people living on its small isles at the perimeter of the lagoon who approach us in

us graciously. The children giggle when they see their faces on our camera LCDs. Cabrinha has it right when he says we should just stay forever. We should.

wind-powered dugouts with gaping, honest smiles and inquisitive

In the coming days we play for hours in the waves and the

looks. They get no visitors. I had spoken with ‘yachties’ who had

pros entertain the locals on the flat water in front of their village.

spent years sailing the outer atolls of the Marshalls – I couldn’t find

Goold and Abreu take some of the most daring for rides on their

a single one who had ever come here. I had searched the internet

backs, whisking delighted kids across the lagoon while the rest of

long before the trip: not a single hit.

the village cheers them on.

We find the lagoon’s one pass, Y-shaped with two deep,

One day we take a break with the local teacher, sat on his

narrow, dark blue lanes, hemmed on each side by thriving coral

floor drinking coconut water. Someone asks what the biggest

walls. Huge schools of magnetic blue baitfish move in unison

problem is for the community here. The man laughs a bit, looks

along the barrier, chased by unseen predators. Everyone jumps

lovingly at his wife, innocently at us and replies, “Problems? We

off the stern so Discovery can tow them along for a better view. I

have no problems here.”

have never, ever seen such nature-sculpted beauty. The scenery is

Life is like this at the end of the world.

beyond words, and I am gaffed at any attempt.

We all leave with our own highlights but agree it has been

We travel under sail in no hurr y to reach whatever

the trip of a lifetime. Is that too clichéd? Perhaps, but it fits. I can

destination lies ahead. Miles of reef pass at a languorous pace,

honestly call this one of the best places, no . . . one of the best

each of us lost in easy thoughts, our minds sponges for our

moments of my life.

surroundings.

I’m confronted with a familiar feeling as it all comes to a close,

In time we reach a lone isle at the northern extremity of

one I can never shake at trips’ end and which is shared by my

the lagoon. The anchor sinks into deep sand in 10m of water in

peers. The feeling is sadness. These magnificent days that seemed

what must be the largest swimming pool on earth. More locals

would never end have indeed drawn short. Another trip behind

approach in outriggers handmade from breadfruit trees that

us, one fewer in front. I am monumentally thankful for this life

seem much too small for them. Big men in pygmy-sized boats.

and all too conscious of how it races by. Like the swell, like the

Their village of smiling children and proud parents receives 58 ACTION ASIA

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wind, it comes for a while . . . and then is gone. ∆∆


Practicalities

Contacts The Marshall Islands Visitors Authority are very helpful and delighted to have visitors as they get very few.

When to go Strong trade winds blow 24 hours a day from mid-December through to April during the Northeast Monsoon.

How to get there

Discovery, the boat mentioned in the story, is on a fiveyear world kiteboarding expedition. Find out more at www.offshoreodysseys.com

Continental Airlines (www.continental.com) is the only airline to service the Marshall Islands with several direct flights per week to Majuro from Honolulu and Guam. Getting anywhere outside of Majuro requires an offshore-capable boat as the domestic airline (two planes) is grounded. If you have no boat of your own, try Arno, just 50km east of Majuro which boasts great waves and nuking winds. There’s even talk of a local setting up accommodation for kiters.

Where to stay On the main island of Majuro, the best bet is the Ramsey Reimers Hotel. It’s clean and friendly, and they can arrange small boat trips to good kiting spots away from the town.

What to take Bring everything you might conceivably need. You’ll have to fix whatever gear you break. Go heavy on the medical kit too: the hospital is poorly supplied.

These rare anti-aircraft weapons are mounted on the boat deck of the Shotan Maru.

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Story by Gavin McClurg Photography by Jody MacDonald Feature Marshall Isands Boardsport legend Pete Cabrinha shows he still has it. JULY/AUG...

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