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ocean for years and now the captain Intro > Having sailed the world's n expedition, the Best Odyssey, eve of a five year world kiteboarding e lurg, is unlikely to see many wav our regular columnist, Gavin McC sessions like this one again

all at sea Words > Gavin McClurg

all Photos > Jody MacDonald

Caption > Ben dives out front of an Indian Ocean explosion

RIDING GIANTS he ones we long for always begin in the Southern Ocean. From there they travel fast; thundering over 600 nautical miles a day. The giants are created only after an intense deep low pressure system screams across the limitless fetch of the polar latitudes, generating sustained winds in excess of 100 miles per hour; well beyond a class V tropical cyclone the most severe classification that exists. On a weather chart they look like a bright, thick swirling question mark of crimson and red. To the untrained eye these colours are no more exciting than a traffic light, but to those who seek to ride the biggest waves in the world, there is not an artist on earth who could paint something more

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pleasing to the naked eye. Every winter surfers flock to the ubiquitous islands of Indonesia hoping some of that Antarctic fury will spend its energy on her shores. Their odds are good. The archipelago is uniquely geographically situated to catch the Southern Ocean swells like a giant magnet or interstellar tractor beam. Thousands and thousands of miles of shoreline, from Timor to Sumatra, face what many say are the cleanest, longest swells found anywhere on earth. Between August and October every season professional and amateur riders from around the world descend on Indo’s coasts like honey bees to spring flowers. Unfortunately Indonesia is also ripe with malaria, dengue

fever, typhoid and no doubt other rather painful and sometimes life threatening diseases but, judging by the crowds this year, apparently these are risks wave hunters are willing to take. One wave hunter in particular has lofted his career on getting very good at reading weather maps and deciphering where those colourful orbs will land. Ben Wilson could easily call the road as much a home as the place where his wife and one-and-a-half-year-old daughter reside on the Sunshine Coast of Australia as he’s off seeking waves more days of every year than he’s rooted in his role as father and husband. But such sacrifice is necessary to pay the bills for a professional kitesurfer; and there would be no less than another dozen pro riders


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Caption > Bertrand Fleury tucks in to temptation

Caption > The calm after the storm

in town for the swell’s arrival; each of them surrendering stability for not only the rush of the ride, but the hopedfor photos that sponsors trade for cash. And nothing pays better than monster waves. Ben emailed me nearly two weeks before he was scheduled to board our vessel, Discovery, with a simple statement. “Gavin, this one looks huge, mate. I’m watching this.” At that time the storm had generated a swell exceeding 12 metres and was over 6,000 miles away. Much too far away to get overly excited, but nevertheless something to track.

The spot we were anchored at is near the end of a dirt and poorly maintained minefield disguised as a road at the mouth of Shu’u bay (not it’s real name), on the south coast of one of the largest islands in the archipelago. The bay is so large I didn’t meet a single person in our two months living there who had even seen the end. But its size is what creates something the rest of Indonesia has in very short supply: wind. When the wind arrives, usually sometime in August, it is reputed to be reliable and strong and usually blows until the monsoon arrives in late October. But the wind’s arrival is as hard to pin down as a

petulant child. Scores of kitesurfers arrive every year and go home without kiting a single day. There may be more theories on the wind than there are mosquitoes, and there are A LOT of mosquitoes. The overriding theory is that the land surrounding the bay acts like a giant oven. As the days of winter get drier and drier the oven gets hotter and hotter and eventually all that hot air rises and bang, you’ve got sea breeze. Shu’u bay has over a half dozen world-class breaks. You can ride them all easily in a single day and make it home before sunset with your designated 'kite boy', who WWW.KITEWORLDMAG.COM > 53


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ALL AT SEA earns a relatively high wage in Indonesia of three dollars a day by patiently following your every move from shore on motorbike. Images like the ones you see here have made the area famous within the kitesurfing world; a hollow tube generator that photographers prize. But it’s a short, powerful, dangerous ride and left mainly to the pros. Further along the coast even a beginning wave-rider can get 20 second quality rides and mistakes rarely cost more than a bruised ego. But that’s on normal days. And there was nothing normal about what was on the way. By five days out, if anything, the forecast had only improved and there was a lot of talk that if anything it was going to be too big. The wave period was stamped down at between 18-20 seconds, which in surf terms simply means dreamy. Ben and his buddy and F-One team rider, Daniel Bevin, and our other guests boarded with plenty of time to get used to boat living before the swell hit. While the many people staying on shore were trying mostly unsuccessfully to escape a nasty stomach virus, compliments of the poor sanitation at the local 'warungs', or food stalls and dousing themselves in mosquito repellant; those of us onboard Discovery were dining on five star cuisines prepared by our Balinese chef and enjoying the mosquito-free environs. In the days before the big event all of us complained of only one thing: a lack of sleep. My own anxiety surfaced not only from a distinct nervousness about my personal ability to survive riding such a swell, but also from what would likely become a very precarious position for the boat. We were anchored behind one of the main breaks, which for a month had been wellprotected and reasonably calm and afforded good holding. But it wasn’t hard to imagine our exposed nest turning into a maelstrom if things got out of control.

Caption > Under fire, Ben Wilson races for the trench exit

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The pros experienced similar anxiety, but it stemmed from a different source. Every trip for a pro is a weighed gamble. The cost to get there versus the payoff from the results. A dud swell means no pay off at all. Would the swell really stack up and be everything they hoped for, and had travelled so far to reach? And if so, would they get the images their sponsors cut cheques for? This second worry sounds trite, but it’s anything but. Each of these guys knows that in the fledgling kitesurfing industry the only way to make it is to consistently stand out. If they don’t, they have to find another job. Standing out with the kind of talent who were in town in conditions like what was coming meant putting your life very much on the line. And so it goes with photographers, which you will see. On the last Friday of September our long days of anticipation were over. By that afternoon the break off our bow was firing at double overhead. The barrel machine up the beach was executing a series of explosions that could be seen from over a mile away. By Saturday morning we had moved the boat back off the break another 100 metres and the swell had doubled again. Getting caught in a break called Periscopes, typically a long beautiful right hander downwind of us was equivalent to playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun. But all the breaks had become death-traps and the few surfers with the skill and requisite command of fear to attempt any of them had to spend over an hour paddling off the beach against raging current to even get in the line-up. I saw more broken boards than I saw successful drops. That afternoon we took Discovery up the reef to see if we couldn’t thread the needle and hover in the channel between the two main breaks. Doing so would allow Jody, our photographer, to climb the mast and hopefully shoot some wild images. But the risk was enourmous. If I made even the smallest mistake at the helm we would be unmercifully slammed on the reef; a 60 foot, million dollar yacht and all its dreams dashed in seconds. The swell was creating 'Hawaiian' 20 foot faces and at times was nearly closing out between the two breaks. An area that was


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Caption > An experience is better shared. Ben spreading the buzz

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perfectly calm and easily navigable in our dinghy for the previous month had been transformed into mayhem. The kitesurfing show on display was staggering. Waves no surfer could even attempt were fair-game for the few bold riders who could use the wind to tow them in. Triple overhead giants thundered down mercilessly one after another. Each one of them driving some of the most skilled wave kitesurfers in the world, and we had a front row seat (albeit a scary one) to all of the action. Ben Wilson, Cameron Dietrich, Bertrand Fleury, Jessie Richman, Marc Ramseier, Philippe Alengrin and a dozen others all tackled, and more often got tackled, by mountains of deadly water; again and again and again. The swell’s first victim was veteran photographer Christian Black. As the local fishermen were wisely unwilling to risk their boats and lives navigating out to the break the handful of shore-based photographers had limited vantage points. Big lenses from shore were useless as the foam and spray coming off the giants were like dense fog. The viewing tower in front of Peak was unreachable, its base engulfed in a mad chorus of crushing waves. While Jody, still recovering from typhoid, a parasitic present she’d picked up in Bali two weeks previously, battled the violent pitching at the top of the mast, Christian battled the waves with nothing more than a pair of fins and a ten pound underwater camera. He made only one mistake, and it could have cost him his life. A well-executed dive beneath a heavy set nevertheless ended up too shallow and he was plucked and thrown violently against the reef. His back was etched deeply from his neck to his tail bone, even through a thick wetsuit, and his head was clobbered hard enough to knock him

Caption > Boomshanka!

temporarily unconscious. Thankfully he was swept clear of the reef and made it to our boat where he mostly slept recovering for two days. A noticeable increase in the swell on Saturday night forced us several miles down into the bay to take up safer anchorage. When we returned the next morning, on Big Sunday, as it became known, there wasn’t a surfer in the water. The day passed in a blur. The size and power of the ocean was as scary as it was awesome. When the winds came up that afternoon only the most daring dropped in and I registered as much fear in the smiles on the riders as I did joy. Daniel and I bounced around in the dinghy manoeuvring Jody in to get a few shots, but were rewarded with more than photos. We were witnessing history, something that only happens once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. Many said it was the biggest swell ever witnessed in these parts. Later in the day we returned to Discovery, I inflated my kite and dug in for the biggest and most terrifying rides of my life. For a couple of hours I too experienced the thrill; the fear; the sheer joy of riding that hazy line between the rational and insane. That evening, with the pounding surf still ringing in our collective ears, all the nights of anxiety came to an abrupt end and were replaced by unadulterated slumber. Memories of riding giants had been given to us like a neatly wrapped present from lands impossibly far away. But unlike the waves which ended on these Indonesian shores, we have the memories, which last forever.

Gavin McClurg is the Captain of Discovery and CEO of Offshore Odysseys. They are operating a world kitesurfing expedition called The Best Odyssey. For more information, visit: www.offshoreodysseys.com.

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Riding Giants  

The largest swell to hit Indonesia in 10 years descends on the Best Odyssey with Ben Wilson on board.

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