Friday, July 13, 2007

In My Next Life, I Want to be a Pelican (My HIHO Adventure)

Yeah, that’s right. And I’m sure I’ll be a better pelican than I am a windsurfing racer today. Can you imagine the poor soul who was reincarnated into Paris Hilton? They must have done some awful things in their other life to deserve that. I’m standing at a bar at Village Cay in Roadtown, Tortola looking at a bartender with his back to me. He has the bar TV on CNN and guess who’s on? That’s right…Paris Hilton. That poor soul who was reincarnated into her got the last laugh for the moment. I turned to the Brit at the bar next to me and proclaimed how I came here to get away from the endless parade of talentless and tasteless people who are constantly the media’s infatuation. “Ay mate, you can’t get away from it” was his simple reply. Maybe he was Australian? I looked around the bar and restaurant. It was the opening party for the 2007 HIHO event. 15 countries were represented – South Africa, Great Britain (the British Royal Navy brought their team), Denmark, France, California, Antigua, Martinique, North Carolina…to name a few. The lone Californian and us three North Carolinians decided we were actually a country within ourselves…which is pretty accurate anyway. At least Bruce, our yacht captain, thought that was funny.

HIHO 2007 from WaterTurtle Media on Vimeo.

Captain Bruce was raised in South Africa and Australia, so he could relate…you know…the south…ok, the southern hemisphere and the southern U.S. aren’t really the same but we got along great anyway. He said he likes grits, so he was definitely southern in some sort of way. When I found out Captain Bruce had sailed around the world twice and done 67 trans-Atlantic crossings, I knew we had the right guy to sail our 43 foot catamaran...our home for the week. Great accent and he knew his way around the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) like the back of his hand. More on Bruce later as he was definitely one of the many positives of our HIHO experience.

My yacht mates and fellow racers, Rob, Jim, and Jim’s wife Angela arrived with me the day before (my wife Kris arrived a day later) and had already squeezed in quite an adventure in less than 24 hours….the full moon party at Bomba’s Shack, snorkeling at Smugglers Cove, and fish sandwiches at Cane Garden Bay. Bomba’s Shack is a legend unto itself if you like debauchery after midnight and the moon is full. If I was five years younger, I probably wouldn’t have left at 11:30pm. Heck, I was tired and I’ve seen naked people before anyway. My beautiful wife, Kris, was arriving the next day so that gave me a good excuse to leave early and a safe explanation for when I picked her up. Smugglers Cove was a bit sad in that the Queen’s car had been carried out of its cinderblock shelter and into the trees and brush by a hurricane a few years back. In 1966, Queen Elizabeth visited Tortola (A British territory) and was paraded around in a Lincoln convertible. This same car sat at Bob’s beachfront honor bar at Smuggler’s Cove for years, along with a picture of the Queen in it. You can only get to this spot by driving off-road to the northwest end of the island. Kris and I had met Bob’s elderly wife at this spot about 10 years ago in a past visit to the island. She served us drinks out of the old refrigerator that used to sit in the bar and which normally sat alone for folks to retrieve drinks out of, and pay cash on the honor system in a basket on top of the fridge. I was told by a local that she passed away a couple of years ago. No car, no fridge…definitely wasn’t the same here anymore. After snorkeling in the bay, we went on to Cane Garden Bay for fabulous mahi sandwiches at Myetts.

Kris arrived that afternoon after Rob, Jim, and I got registered for the HIHO racing, got our boards and sails on our yacht, along with the booze and breakfast we were responsible for picking up ourselves. HIHO provided all the lunch and dinners, so we ran to the store to stock up on the other necessities. We ran into Josh Sampiero and Sandie Allen in the necessity aisle (read beer). I think that has to be a good sign when the editor of Windsurfing Magazine (Josh) and the official HIHO photographer (Sandie) are in the beer aisle when I’m there. The next morning, I awake at 6:30am with the boat shoving off from Roadtown, Tortola. The ride out is a bit rough as we get out onto open water and head the yacht straight into the wind. I’m feeling fine and so is everyone else. Bruce says if we feel fine now, then we won’t get seasick the rest of the week. He was right. We acclimated very quickly. As soon as we get leeward of Virgin Gorda, it flattens out. We arrive at the Bitter End Yacht Club for the first day’s racing. The wind dies on us and they eventually cancel that day’s official race and instead hold a fun race. Us racing newbies got a chance to practice and experience a start sequence and do a little racing in light winds before the real racing the week ahead.

The annual Highland Springs sponsored HIHO event is claimed as windsurfing's greatest week of racing & adventure. It was started back in 1979 as a long distance race between St. Thomas and Tortola and has taken on different shapes, sizes, and sponsors throughout in the years since. It has taken on a new resurgence in recent years thanks to Highland Springs Water as a major sponsor and new media coverage. It's a combination of great windsurfing, sailing and island exploration…and is a week-long odyssey through the British Virgin Islands aboard captained catamarans. HIHO stands for “Hook In and Hold On”. I’ve been wanting to do the HIHO for over 10 years ever since I learned about it. This was one of those Top 10 things I needed to get checked off my list. I came to challenge and test myself. Boy, little did I know how much I would be challenged.

Did I brush my teeth this morning? What day is it? Those were common questions during the week. This was a good sign that started only on Day 2. Day 2 was our first official HIHO race of the week as we had enough wind to go out. We raced in Eustatia Sound between the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda and Eustatia Island and then out through a cut in the reef into the open ocean to a mark set next to Necker Island and then back through a different cut in the reef back into Eustatia Sound. That was lap 1. We had to do that for 2 laps, then back straight downwind to the back of Prickly Pear Island. It took me 1 ½ hours. Just getting to the 1st upwind mark from the starting line seemed to take forever. A woman racer and I celebrated as we both rounded that first mark together…Woo Hoo! Only another 1 ½ laps to go!

So, my left hand and left foot are numb. It’s Day 3 and I’m a half hour into the Anegada crossing...which is twelve miles of open ocean between the islands of Virgin Gorda and Anegada. It was one screaming starboard reach that took me 45 minutes to finish. One direction with no turning…my neck was sore, my hands and feet were hurting, cramping, and then going numb. What an incredible ride! It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life (I said this a lot throughout the week). I had some serious butterflies before this race but once I was out there and past the nuttiness that was the starting line, I was getting comfortable. The start line was like a washing machine with everyone hitting the line at full speed and all at once. I hung back a little bit and got a clean line to windward and upwind of all the traffic. But going upwind slowed me a bit while several folks took a speedier run a bit more downwind. Big dark blue rolling swells…up and down, up and down…getting into a nice rhythm. The wind got stronger as we neared Anegada, which is a very flat island. It is only 25 feet at its highest point. So, it was as if we were sailing into the great blue horizon when we started and it wasn’t until we were about three miles out that we could see land. The finish line was at Pompano Point on the southwest corner of the island. It was exhilarating and a huge relief that I finished.

Just when I thought we had enough adventure for the day, another unexpected one popped up. We were anchoring the yacht outside the Anegada Reef Hotel for the night when the dinghy’s line got wrapped around the propeller. Captain Bruce went into high alert and yelled for us to grab a knife and mask and go under to get the line unwrapped. Rob and I dove under and found the line wrapped around the propeller shaft several times and we couldn’t get it unwrapped, it was so tight. The boat was drifting towards other boats and a reef…not good. The situation became a little less dire when the anchor was dropped finally which now gave us time to cut the line loose. After several attempts and Captain Bruce diving in to finish the job of pulling the remaining stuck line with pliers, it was resolved. I had blue hull paint all over me, a few nicks on my hand from the propeller, and out of breath. That was enough adventure for one day. Jim, who is a veterinarian, brought out the antibiotics he uses on dogs. He treated my hand like the dog that I am. Ever since, I’ve been growling and barking orders at Kris. I knew I should have used good old Neosporin. Captain Bruce thought was pretty funny too. We winded down after all the excitement with a few drinks, put on our red white and blue lays that Kris brought to celebrate the 4th of July, and had a lobster dinner that night at the Anegada Reef Hotel, then dancing to a live band. We seemed to find more energy.

Can I just state for the record that the lunches and dinners that HIHO provided for us were fantastic? Most of the lunches were catered by Kiwi Cuisine, based out of Spanishtown, Virgin Gorda. It was all very fresh food with lots of fruits and vegetables, salads, pastas, rice, and meats such as chicken or pork. I can’t describe how each lunch kept outdoing the other. I wish I could eat like that all the time. I think some of these yacht captains came just for the food. We had great dinners at each of our stops that week – Village Cay, Bitter End Yacht Club, Leverick Bay Resort, Anegada Reef Hotel, The Last Resort at Trellis Bay, and Foxy’s. We ate a lot of Mahi Mahi as that was the freshest fish caught on a daily basis. Remember, I’m going to be a pelican some day. And, I ate some of the best ribs I’ve ever had at Foxy’s…I know…not pelican-like.

Did I mention the showering? Since fresh water is limited on our 43 foot catamaran, we opted to conserve by jumping in the water off the back of the boat. Then getting out, lathering up with soap and shampoo, then jumping back in to rinse off. Then we got back on the boat and rinsed the salt water off with a fresh water hose located at the rear of the boat. Afterwards, it felt like we took a real shower. Towards the end of the week, we had a lot of fresh water left, so we started taking showers entirely with the fresh water hose or in the small bathrooms by our berths.

Let me get back to Captain Bruce. He’s tall and wiry, looks like a skinny and tan Kenny Rogers, or Yanni with white, gray, salty hair. He’s a real pirate except he doesn’t rape, pillage or plunder. Take every Jimmy Buffett lyric and Bruce has been there, done that. Any coastal region around the world, he’s been there. We had many conversations about life at sea, growing up in South Africa and Australia, his 28 year old girlfriend (Bruce is 57), what the locals are really like in the BVIs, among other things. Just talking to him was like living vicariously through an older grey and salty seaman’s life. He had delivered boats for many years all over the world. But he tires of life at sea with no permanent address. He’s resided on Tortola for a few months now. His dream now is to just have a little plot of land somewhere and settle down with his girlfriend. I could be wrong but I think he will long to get back out on the sea.

Official race #3 – Thursday July 5th, Day 4 –
It’s Thursday morning and today is the yacht race back to Necker Island. The original plan was to make this a free day for the windsurfers after the yacht race. But the wind was stronger, so they decided to take advantage of it and hold an official race after the yacht race. It was going to be a busy day. The yacht race was fun…a full sail across the Anegada channel again. The swells and chop were big as the wind was blowing 15-20 knots. Captain Bruce put us to work with the mainsail and jib and we constantly made adjustments the entire race. We finished 8th place out of 15 yachts…not too bad. We hurriedly dinghied our boards and sails to the beach at Prickly Pear Island to prepare for our race around Necker Island. The wind was stronger, so we rigged smaller sails. The course was set up so that we sailed around Necker Island from Prickly Pear and finished at Necker Island, then have lunch there on its private beach and pool. The start was insane with everyone hitting the line with such full force. I was just behind the first rush and on a plane quickly. There was a pile up at the line and I was able to maneuver around it. I was off and running after a pretty good start and was making good headway to the upwind mark. I finally made my way around Necker Island, giving myself a wide berth on the back side of the island to get clean wind and a straight shot to the downwind mark. I took my rear foot out of the back foot strap and placed it in the middle of the board, just in front of the rear foot straps and off I went, screaming on a straight downwind run. I rounded that mark successfully and had one more broad reach to round before heading upwind to the finish line. No mistakes I told myself. I was running a very good and clean race. I rounded the last mark, then whammo…I biffed my tack and fell in…unbelievable! One or two people passed me. I was back up and running in no time, then whammo…I fell again on another tack to get to the finish. Dangit! I finally screamed into the beach, dropped my gear, and ran to touch the flag. I’m at the flag bent over tired. I look up and a gentleman with wavy brownish blonde hair and sunglasses reaches out his hand and says “Congratulations Mate”. I instantly replied “Hey Richard! I’m Mac. Thanks for having us today”. It was Sir Richard Branson, owner of Necker Island, as well as owner of Virgin Airlines, Virgin Records, and various other businesses. Wow…now that was a very cool moment. And even cooler, I finished 13th out of 49 racers in that race…my best of the week. Richard Branson is also known to be quite the adventurer in sailing, hot air ballooning, he windsurfs and kiteboards. In fact, he was kiteboarding later as we were leaving the island. But not before we had an unbelievable lunch at his pool. Words can’t describe this place. We were very fortunate to be here because it normally costs $40,000 per day to stay on the island. People don’t just come to this island…you have to be a special guest…you know the type…Oprah, Mel, Harrison, British royalty. Kris and I each had our picture taken with Sir Richard…he was a cool guy and very nice. “Cheers” were his parting words to us. I had a fun windsurf session out between Necker and Prickly Pear Island, then it was time to derig, get our stuff on the yacht, and head downwind to Trellis Bay, Tortola…the site of that night’s infamous pirate party.

Official race #4 – Friday, July 6th – Day 5 –
I thought the Anegada crossing was our long distance race and it would be all downhill from there. Boy, was I wrong. Can I just say it right now…Oh-Mi-Gosh! A 27 mile slalom and downhill course the entire length of the Sir Francis Drake Channel stretching from the top of Tortola starting from Salt Island all the way down to Little Thatch Island at the bottom of Tortola across from St John. This was the mother of all races. I probably ended up actually sailing 30 miles, like a lot of folks, because we sailed off course a bit trying to locate the marks which were hard to see. The wind was 15-25 knots and there was big swell and chop out in the open channel. I’ve done a couple of triathlons and this race was harder. It took me longer to recover after this race than it did after those triathlons. Many racers said it was the hardest race they’ve ever done. The conditions were very tough. Of approximately 50 racers who started the race, approximately 20 had to be rescued, including one of the British Royal Navy guys. He got separated from his rig for 45 minutes. He was alone in the water, no boats could see him, and he watched helplessly as a large shark passed right by him. Fortunately, the shark never returned (I’ve been told the sharks are well fed down there…lots of fish). I saw a shark too, right after I had gotten back up after a fall in the water.

But I prevailed and finished the race in 2 hours…coming in 20th out of 50 racers. I was extremely beat up and tired, but incredibly proud of what I had done. It was one of the, if not the, hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Rob finished the race too, very dehydrated, and collapsed at the finish line. He was OK as some folks got him up and got him some water and juice, then some food for recovery. This was a very serious race and an experience we’ll never forget. Afterwards , the yacht took us to Great Harbor, Jost Van Dyke, and we had a great dinner at Foxy’s that night. Unfortunately, Foxy was “off-island”. Kris and I met Foxy about ten years ago when we were there. Foxy is world famous for his poetry style of singing, his bar on Jost Van Dyke, and having world class New Years Eve parties. In fact, the Millenium New Years Eve Party attracted thousands of boaters. I’m told Great Harbor was so full (and it’s a big harbor), you could walk across the boats to shore. But this night we were there after the hardest race any of us had ever done, and it was a beautiful night. Looking out from the shore, all the mast lights lit up, and all the stars above…all reflecting on the water. The bar was bigger than I remember…I think they added to it since the time we were there ten years ago. At that time, Kris and I, her brother and his wife, took a ferry over to Foxys from Tortola. We strolled into Foxys and there was Foxy himself sitting on a stool in the corner, singing and strumming a guitar. I listened to his lyrics…he was singing about some guy in the back of the bar without a shirt. Heads turned…why was everyone looking at me? Dangit! I didn’t have a shirt on. Foxy rule – everyone has to wear a shirt in his bar. This isn’t Bombas after all…this is a high class joint…with sand floors and bras hanging from the ceiling. I corrected the infraction, got my shirt on, and Foxy welcomed me in with some of his Foxy Firewater…hmmm. Great memories.

Race # 5, Saturday July 7th – Day 6 –
Next stop, Sandy Cay…a small island right around the corner from Great Harbor. The plan was for 2 small races around Sandy Cay. We started the first race, I had a clean start, 2 tacks upwind, then a clear run to the upwind mark…then the wind dropped and the postponement flag went up. Dangit again! I was in the top 1/3 of racers and they stopped the race. We all headed back to the beach and had lunch. Except for Jim, who missed the postponement flag, didn’t see everyone turn around, and proceeded to complete the course anyway. He finished the course as we were finishing lunch. I can tell you that Jim is a very determined individual. We made another attempt at a race since the wind filled back in. I had another good start but the wind lulled on me again just before the first upwind mark. I fell in. Dangit again! Lots of people passed me. I got up and rounded the upwind mark only to fall in two more times heading to the downwind mark at Sandy Spit, the most photographed island in the world. This was not my race. I finally finished the race…29th out of 49. That was it…I had completed the HIHO. I felt such a sense of accomplishment. We yachted back around to Roadtown, Tortola, docked back at The Moorings, and returned all our windsurfing gear. Then a real shower…Aaaahh. The awards ceremony was that night and fun was had by all. Musical recording artist, MJ Blues, provided the live music…an awesome assortment of blues and island music. This guy could play the guitar.

So how did I do? Better than I expected going into this…I was very happy with how I did. 26th overall out of 49 racers in the Techno One Design Class, 11th out of 18 in the Masters Class (age group 35-44, the highest number of age groupers and the most competitive class), and 4th out of the 13 Americans who raced.

We raced from, to, or around Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Eustatia Island, Necker Island, Prickly Pear Island, Mosquito Island, Anegada, Salt Island, Buck Island, Peter Island, Dead Man’s Chest, Little Thatch Island, Jost Van Dyke, Sandy Cay, and Sandy Spit.

Like I said, I think I’ll be a better pelican in my next life than I am a windsurfing racer today. Why a pelican? Ever just sit and watch one for a while? They get to be at a Caribbean beach every day. They dive bomb into the water for fish all day. And they fly over the water…just like a windsurfer.

Caribbean Beaches, Fish, Windsurfing…sounds like a dream trip. I just lived it.