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.
To get here wasn’t easy, but that was no surprise. From the Azores we had to sail 1,200 miles NNE to southern Ireland, but that plan was scrapped shortly after leaving. The typical Westerlies in these upper latitudes disappeared and were replaced with strong and very cold NE’ers, greatly extending our miles and associated pain. As the water temps dropped and the days got longer heading towards the summer solstice, Discovery and crew were miserable. She’d opened up two pretty serious leaks with torrents of green water cascading over the decks, and we were mysteriously taking on saltwater into our starboard hull (where our fresh water is stored). Had we hit something—maybe a whale? Or was it just the stress of sailing our beloved catamaran around the world, and was she finally saying she was getting tired?
We needed a port and a facility to haul us out to make the repairs. Catamarans are a rare sight this far north, and finding a dry dock wide enough for us turned out to be rather difficult. Cork, where we were heading, had nothing available, so we cracked off on port tack just enough to make the beating a little more tolerable and headed for Falmouth in the UK.
Three weeks later, Discovery was mostly repaired. I’d spent two of them paragliding in the French and Swiss Alps with Jody and Bruce and our friends Mike and Stu Belbas, who own Verbier-Summits. Upon returning I found out Discovery never actually made it out of the water, for reasons that remain a little mysterious. The yard doing the work had a number of rather idiotic excuses, but never mind: We’ve been crippled many times over the years, and a little saltwater wasn’t going to stop us from heading once again into the unknown.
In Falmouth, again, unfortunately, I had no crew to help me take her north. Our chef, Bobby, would be meeting me in Dublin, as we could not get him a UK visa. Jody was still in the Alps, and Martin, our British first mate over the last few months, could, I believe, smell something rather enticing and distinctly lacking on the Best Odyssey Expedition as soon as we hit land: females. I think the monastic lifestyle of living on a boat with no neighbors had run its course, and it was with some sadness that we wished one another well.
The sail to Dublin turned out to be a motor in zero wind up the Irish Sea. I’ve done plenty of solo trips. Most of them turn out to be anything but placid, but this one went without mishap. Thirty hours and 300 miles after departure, I laid anchor off a small marina in Howthe and was whisked off to Dublin by a local kitesurfer I’d never even met named George Karellas. He’d heard the Best Odyssey was coming to town and graciously spent the entire day with me demonstrating remarkable Irish hospitality. Several of those hours were spent in the supermarket, where we added 4,000 Euros worth of food and booze to our holds and another 600 Euros worth of fuel to the tanks. Welcome to Europe, it’s bloody expensive.
Bobby and Jody arrived right on time that evening, and we set sail just 10 hours after my arrival that morning. As always, our pressing schedule is driving the whip. In 36 hours we had a trip starting on the isle of Barra, at the south end of the Outer Hebrides.
I met a number of people on the docks in Falmouth and Dublin who kept saying the same thing when I told them where we were heading. “You’re crazy! Well, it will be beautiful, but you’re crazy!” Stories of horrendous midges (sand flies), storms, freezing water, huge tides that created vicious whirlpools, and radical overfalls. I have to admit I was feeling like maybe I’d made a big mistake taking us this far from our usual tropical environs. I’d learned to sail in the Pacific Northwest, so I felt reasonably confident the skills required to keep people safe this far north would come back to me, but that was a long time ago….
It wasn’t long after worrying over these things that any doubts about coming north vanished completely. By day three of the trip I’d already decided the Outer Hebrides would rank in the top three spots of the expedition. I don’t know if it’s the Celtic blood in my veins; the similarities to the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up; or just the sublime ethereal beauty; or another dozen things, but I haven’t been this enthralled with a place in a long time. It was in these islands that Tolkien found the inspiration for Mordor, as well as the Hobbit Shire and the elfin forest, Lothlórien, in The Lord of the Rings. It’s a place that just gives you hope, I guess. Hope for the planet, hope for our species. Things seem natural here. Clean. A huge range of seafood is caught or grown (mostly) sustainably, as far as I can tell: oysters, mussels, prawns, lobster, scallops, mackerel, cod, hake, haddock …. All you need is a sack of lemons and some butter, and you could live like a king for weeks. The sun never really goes down. At midnight there is still a sliver of light, sunsets and sunrises last for hours. It must be a fiercely difficult place to be in the winter: dark, wet, miserable and cold. But in summer it is a land of magic.
On day three we were beginning to head north to Stornoway and came across a few massive dorsal fins. At first I thought they had to be Great Whites. I called to Jody, “There is something HUGE in the water up here!” We were under sail and one of the fins was right in front of the boat. Our guests, Thomas and his lovely family; Keith Cockrum; and my mom, all ran up to the bow just in time for us to feel a small thump. We’d actually hit the beast! But it was not a beast at all. Jody correctly identified them as basking sharks, over a half dozen all within a few hundred meters of our boat. They were feeding on plankton in the tidal rich waters and seemed indifferent to our presence. We frantically set the anchor and clawed our way into thick wetsuits and jumped overboard. Here is the result:
In the days that followed we found one anchorage after another that would go into my log as “the best anchorage we have yet found.” I had to stop writing it for the redundancy. Fjords and bays are too innumerable to count. No matter the wind or sea, there is absolute protection and a perfect place to hide every few miles. And in most of these spots an idyllic little hill would be perched just a few minutes walk from the boat where we could hike up and huck off with our paragliders and fly for hours at times.
Even the non-pilots in the group—Thomas’s family and my mom—were all treated to the first thrilling flights of their lives with the addition of our new Niviuk (Thank you, Niviuk!!!) tandem wing to the boat. It’s quite a special thing to take a bit of fabric and webbing and hike a short distance and soar like a bird. Lakes, lochs, fjords and rolling green hills sweep by under your feet; air whistles in your ears; the ever-changing light continually highlights the dramatic landscape in a way that can only happen once and then only briefly. That we are here to glimpse these moments from a perspective that I felt certain no one has before is … overwhelming.
At each corner: a new vista, a new surprise, something wonderful to fill your heart and eyes. I even started meditating each morning on the bow, huddled up in all of my new First Ascent down (thank you, First Ascent!) against the biting wind. I wanted to be very cognizant of our surroundings; I wanted to fully appreciate how extraordinary it was for us to be here. For the millionth time on the expedition thus far, I found myself feeling wildly lucky and fortunate. To be surrounded by incredible people; eating Bobby’s perfect combinations of exquisite food; taking to the air in places where no one else has before; sharing this wild and crazy world with people I love. There have been many times in the past when I felt the end of the expedition could not come soon enough. So many times when either extraordinary luck or more often—remarkable perseverance—kept us going. The effort has shaved years from my life, of this I am sure. But in the Garden of Eden, which is what the Outer Hebrides feels like to me, I never want the end to come. It’s a place you want to stay awhile. Or maybe … forever.
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