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The Best Odyssey Team Surfs and Sails at The Azores
Posted on July 3, 2011

Be First recipients Gavin McClurg and Jody MacDonald—The Best Odyssey Team—are attempting to be the first to kiteboard, surf, stand up paddleboard and paraglide some of the most remote places on earth, which they will access by sail on their 60-foot catamaran Discovery. Are you in pursuit of your own “first?” Our Be First program is an opportunity to get sponsored when you go for your own summit, whatever that may be. To learn more, visit Be First.

By Gavin McClurg; photos by Jody MacDonald

Discovery does not hold a lot of fuel. Our range, which is greatly influenced by current, wind, and seas, is about 900 miles in perfect conditions, well short of the distance on a standard ocean passage. Our forecast as we left Cape Verde for the 1,200-mile trip north showed almost no wind at all. Simple math meant we’d either have to get some wind, or we’d be doing some sitting around in the middle of the ocean. But no wind does have its benefits. For one, Jody actually gets to enjoy being at sea. Usually the passages for her are synonymous with suffering, and I too admit that as the years have gone by, my indifference to seasickness seems to be wearing off.

For three days, the ocean was almost perfectly flat. Dolphins visited regularly; sometimes hundreds would join off our bow to play in our wake. Martin and I hung off the swimstep one afternoon, and several came up right beside us, certainly wondering why we couldn’t just let go and join them. As our latitude increased, the water temp dropped, and the sunsets lengthened. Sunsets at sea are one of the most precious things we experience. You have the feeling that you are the only one to see them. In fact, this is true, at least from our perspective. Other than dolphins, whales, and an incredible number of Portuguese Man o’ War (NASTY to the touch, but beautiful) sailing placidly on the surface, we are the only ones out here. We’ve spent nearly all our time in the last five years in the tropics, where the days and nights are equal, there are no seasons except wet and dry, and the sun spends very little time on the horizon. I found myself relishing the change.

Then we got some breeze, but unfortunately it was right on the nose. Our options were to crack off to a heading that allowed us to use the wind, but greatly increase our miles, or use more fuel going the right way. We had 10 days to complete the journey, our first trip was scheduled on May 10th in Sao Miguel, in the Azores. Ten days to go 1,200 miles is typically a very comfortable margin. With decent wind, Discovery can easily make 200 miles a day. But by day six of the trip, things were looking desperate. By my calculations, we were going to run out of fuel a full 400 miles short, and then of course not make the start of the trip. We needed wind … or a miracle.

At sunset on the seventh day the radar picked up a ship 12 miles off our port bow, headed right for us. I put out a call to the ship, which ended up being a natural gas supertanker out of Norway, the “Norman Lady.” I explained that we were in no distress, would cheerfully wait for the wind if need be, but would happily receive a wee bit of diesel if they were so inclined. Knowing these massive ships are on tight schedules and their operating costs are exorbitant, I never imagined they could help. But as usual, someone was looking after us.

The law of the sea and our incredible luck of literally running right across an extremely friendly and helpful skipper (thank you, Morgan!) in the middle of the Atlantic prevailed, and the looming monster immediately began to slow. It took her 12 miles just to slow to 6 knots. I gingerly pulled alongside, and the crew of the ship—well above the top of our mast at their deck level—heaved us a line and lowered 150 litres of fuel in jerry cans in a sunset exchange that was literally bewildering. Discovery seemed like a dinghy, a miniscule toy, dwarfed by a mega giant. As sunset turned to night and with a fresh load of fuel on board, we said goodbye to Morgan and his crew, who proudly wore some Best Odyssey gear and turned north again, full steam ahead.

We arrived the night before our scheduled trip, as always just in the nick of time. We were again down to a sip of fuel remaining as we never did get any real wind to help us along. We came to the Azores to paraglide, kitesurf, surf and hopefully swim with whales with recent reports of Blue, Sei, Fin, Humpback and Sperm whales all being spotted right off the marina in Sao Miguel, our home for three weeks. Being in a marina was, I’m sure, disappointing for the clients, but it was a welcome change for the crew. Bobby could walk to the stores daily for provisions, Martin could hook into shore-water to rinse the decks, I could actually get parts from chandleries instead of waiting for people to arrive from distant places with parts hidden in their bags. It was all very “first world,” and after five years of roaming in places where getting a croissant or good cup of coffee was nigh impossible, the modernity was appreciated.

Our three weeks in the Azores was as varied as the weather, which changes every 15 minutes. Sun, rain, wind, calms; repeat indefinitely, every day. I’m not sure what I expected from the Azores, but I know I loved it all. The scenery is a lot like the north island of New Zealand—lush, rolling green hills and towering craters with small lakes shrouded in wispy clouds. When the sun comes out, the whole place turns technicolor, the contrasts—rich and vibrant—tells you something about the climate. Black sand beaches and steep cliffs are continually battered by fierce Atlantic swells, and clouds whistle through valleys in a real-time time lapse. A long history of whaling lends a very nautical feel to the area, and the Portuguese people are as friendly as they come, and all very adept with the English language.

We were welcomed into the local flying community (Asas Sao Miguel) with open arms. The head of the community, Joao Brum, eagerly showed us incredible site after site to soar and fly over his beautiful island. We spent three weeks enjoying the people, kiting, flying, sailing in rather rough conditions to nearby Santa Maria, swimming with dolphins and even got a brief encounter with a Sperm whale. The weather was at best uncooperative, but somehow between bouts of rain and wind we were able to carve out delicious fun every day.

Joao showed us a rarely flown cliff site near Ribiera Grande that immediately caught Jody’s photographic eye. For three weeks we visited almost daily, sometimes several times in a single day, hoping for a short go. On our last night in Sao Miguel, it finally happened. For several hours we were able to soar directly over the ocean. If the winds shut down when doing this you’re dead, literally. As soon as you hit the water with a paraglider it fills with water and turns into a 1 ton block of cement that pulls you to the bottom. But the conditions were perfect, and I for once have no untoward incidents to report.

Author: - Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

  1. Brendon Held

    You guys are living the dream Gavin! Fantastic article as always…

  2. Caroline George

    Love the big FA logo on the wing. Nice!

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