The greatest gift?

I am sat on a lay-over in Barcelona airport, mid way on my trip from Tenerife to Palma Mallorca and a new job working aboard an 80m superyacht, all part of my 5 year plan. As I hunch over my laptop and type I feel a tightness in my shoulders and back, my skin feels like the texture of crispy chicken and whenever I walk I feel the rubbing in my deck shoe of a cut I sustained surfing yesterday. I don’t care, they are the physical memories of a magic surf session. That will likely be my last for a while as Mallorca is not known for it’s surf. I will be living aboard the yacht though and this summer my goal is to add another string to my waterman’s bow and learn to Kitesurf, in my bag my swim fins are packed too on the off chance some bodysurfing is possible. The yacht also has windsurf equipment and a wakeboat so I can do some wakeboarding too. Non of that could compare to yesterday’s session though.

The waves were not big, but the right hand reef break at Derecha de Fitenia was firing….. Head high, glassy perfection shared with two surfed buddies who I hadn’t seen in a long while. It was coincidence that we met up in the water, another gift from the ocean perhaps. We caught wave after wave, some sets even allowing us to catch two waves a piece, one from the outside peak and the second from the inside bowl. I felt so in touch during that session that I can’t really describe it…. I caught a nice tube on the inside, which finally picked me up, flipping me and my 8 foot mini-mal over the falls and onto the shallow volcanic reef (hence the cut on my foot) but before it did I looked up as the lip curled over me and the sun sparkled through its crystal blue lip. Betting barreled like that is like getting pulled into creation itself, nothing is quite like it. I rode down the line feeling the board in perfect trim, and even made some attempts to hang five on the heavy old board. With my left foot’s toes right on the nose and my center of gravity arched back the feeling of flying with just water infront of you is surreal. I definitely want a longboard in my future board quivers!!

Derecha de Fitenia doing it's thing....

Derecha de Fitenia doing it’s thing….

The board I rode is an 8′ mini-mal by Sunshine Shapes Australia. I call it ‘Big Red’ as the bottom and rails are bright red, a decal on the bottom says ”Ocean Therapy Model”. This could not be any closer to the perfect description as ‘Big Red’ has helped me regain something I had started to lose over he last year. That something is stoke. Stoke is hard to explain, it’s a kind of energy that comes from within and from the Ocean, a sublime happiness, a state of bliss. Surfers talk about it all the time, the Hawaiian’s know it as ‘Mana’. This week I shared some very small, tiny even, waves with my friend Lynn ( who works at K-16 surf school in Las Americas (Tenerife). Lynn is the most stoked person I know, by a long way. She is always happy, always smiling and most importantly she has a gift for sharing that passion and feeling with the surf students she teaches. That was obvious by the goofy smiles and whooping coming from her disciples on their first days surf ever.

I was lucky growing up, I had it all. I started surfing at 12 and have been in the Ocean since 5 years old when my parents emigrated to the island of Tenerife. As a kid and later as an adult I would spend every free second in the Ocean, surfing, diving, spearfishing, playing around on boats and generally getting wet and burnt. One key figure in my life, and the lives of many young kids at the time, was Peter. Peter owned the LA (Las Americas) Surf surf shop. It was tiny, and overflowing with wetsuits, leashes, boards etc, in short it as like an Aladdin’s cave. Photos of Peter on trips to Hawaii and Indonesia clung to the walls, amazing feats on surf and windsurf boards alike. I would spend hours there, chatting and soaking up any detail I could. He would give me posters, old magazines and bits and pieces as well as tips in the water. The shop is gone now, part of my past is now an ugly disco smelling of stale urine and smoke. But Peter is still here, giving the gift of stoke. I caught up with him last week as he sat in the back of his van, surrounded by local kids who laughed and joked, full of his infectious stoke. He lends his battered board collection to them so that they can enjoy the Ocean. Some of the boards are yellowed, patched and waterlogged, relics from another time. I was touched by his willingness and selflessness, I saw myself in those kids. It was then that I decided I wanted to help him pass on that gift. I knew I was leaving for Mallorca in a few days and hadn’t decided where to store ‘Big Red’ anyway. When I broached the subject with Peter his eyes lit up, followed by the words ”but you know it would be for the kids, right?”. So now ‘Big Red’ lives on, bringing it’s therapy to what I hope will be the next generation of surf stoked kids under the care and guidance of Peter. As I handed over the board to him I told him of my future plans, my 5 year goal. He laughed and said ”Don’t dream, just live the day and do”, classic Peter.

Handing over 'Big Red' to Peter, hoping to inspire the next generation.

Handing over ‘Big Red’ to Peter (on left), hoping to inspire the next generation.

I honestly cannot think of a greater gift that I can give than to share that passion which infects me. This week I also took my 65 year old mother ( out on a tandem stand up paddle board (SUP) session, taking us into some small beach break waves. She started off scared as the board rolled and accelerated, but after the first few waves the stoke was clear, almost visibly dripping from her like the salt water. After our last wave deposited us the beach she cried ‘wow! I could hear the wave really roaring behind us’ as a smile shaped her face.I am proud of her for facing her fear of water and happy to have had the opportunity to give back to someone who has given so much to my brother and I. Later that day I took my best friend, Miguel Angel, out on his first session too on the SUP. He doesn’t surf, not ever, yet he managed to catch his first waves as the sun set around us, bathing the whole scene in orange, auburn and yellow hues. Again the stoke was clear to see, despite the many falls and tumbles, radiating from us both as we paddled back to the safety of the small harbor entrance, guided by the lights of the town.

I will miss all those experiences, those people and my home breaks waves. I carry their images in my mind and in my pocket a small smooth pebble from the shore of La Fitenia……

SUP session at El Médano

SUP session at El Médano

She gives and she takes away….

Please note: This is a hard post to read, some content may be emotionally distressing to some. I have tried to capture the moment as I remember it but I simply can’t do that in words…..

I love the Ocean, if you have read any of my posts to date that is kind of obvious. I cannot sit here however and tell you that every moment is a golden one, filled with warm water, breeze and sunshine. The Ocean has a dark side too, one which to some is so great that it precludes them from going in the water at all. People often ask if I am afraid of the Ocean, well, I am not. I do however have an enormous respect for her and am acutely aware of where my limits are. She can be a cruel  mistress though, taking away everything.

From 2005 until the end of 2008 I worked for the Spanish Red Cross in Tenerife, Canary Islands. My initial interest was fueled by a desire to be an Ocean Lifeguard, one more string to my proverbial bow and one that would make me a more complete waterman. I started of as a volunteer in 2003 and gained qualifications as a Lifeguard, Emergency Medical Technician along with other certificates and what was a part time thing become a full time job in 2005 when I started working as Head Lifeguard for our area, covering 3 beaches year round. This job was quickly overshadowed by a more dramatic phenomenon, one which as also linked to the sea, that of clandestine immigration from Africa.

For years small boats, known as ”Pateras”, had been arriving in southern Spain and the more easterly Canary Islands. These flimsy vessels left from Morroco, each carrying around 15 to 20 immigrants from both northern and sub-saharan Africa. Men, Women, children and even new born babies who where willing to risk all in a desperate attempt to make it to European soil. As the EU, Morroco and Spain took ever increasing measures to stem the flow of these boats the mass of migrants on the African shores moved south, looking for the chink in the armour that would allow them to make it to the islands without being intercepted and returned to Morroco. By the beginning of 2006 we where starting to see boats departing Mauritania and later Senegal and Gambia, this time heading for the more westerly and altogether more southerly islands of Gran Canaria and mainly Tenerife.   By the end of 2006 the Red Cross had attended to the medical and humanitarian needs of over 30.000 migrants, 17.000 of them arriving in Tenerife. The boats leaving from these new areas where bigger, some carrying up to 180 tired, hypothermic, dehydrated and desperate souls. ”Cayuco” was the name given to these boats. These people paid fortunes to organised people smuggling gangs, years of wages just for the chance to risk their lives for a better future for their families. The look in their eyes is one that will haunt me forever. We will never know how many boats never made it here, hundreds of sea miles against prevailing wind and waves in open boats meant that thousands drowned chasing a dream…..That phenomenon here in the Canaries has largely subsided now, mostly do to increased patrols and repatriation of those who arrive. Sadly, this does not mean that these people’s desperation and willingness to risk it all to escape poverty has vanished, it just means we don’t see it.


A typical Cayuco from senegal, imagine 700 nautical miles in that…

My duty phone rang at around 3.00am, the coordination centre informing of another ”Cayuco”. This one had slipped through the surveillance cloak that enveloped the islands and was spotted just meters from the shore. Now the Police had it alongside the dock and where waiting for our arrival to disembark. ”Hurry, they are in a bad state”, words you dread to hear. My mind was in overdrive, my body on automatic as I threw on uniform, boots, grabbed car keys and raced to the Toyata Pick-up that I had whilst on duty as Team Leader. I flipped the button and the eerie orange glow from the revolving light bar reflected off the empty tarmac as the siren wailed like a banshee at the cross roads and roundabouts. The engine gunned and I sped towards the port, stopping briefly an-route to pick up our team doctor and nurse. The few minutes it took to arrive passed as an eternity, in my mind I played through the various scenarios that I might face and how I would deal with them. Are there any children or women? How long where they at sea? hypothermia? dead?………. The phone rang in an incessant buzz as journalists constantly called, each trying to get the scoop, each ring adding to the mounting anxiety.

Finally we pulled into the port, I told the medical team to grab their gear on the fly and start a triage, I would organise the volunteers as we set up the pneumatic field hospital and aid stations. I swung the truck around, we piled out and the doctor and nurse headed immediately for the dockside. Seconds later I heard the call, the one that put you into overdrive and sets the world into a spinning slow motion… ”Austin, we need the defribrillator”…… That can only mean that one of the immigrants was in cardiac arrest. I later learned that he literally stepped off the wretched boat, not more than 8m long with no shelter and a bucket for a toilet, and dropped dead. I grabbed the resuscitation gear and sprinted the few paces to where he lay prostrate on the dock. CPR was already in progress as I pulled open the gear, then taking over chest compressions as the doctor intubated the person lying before us. I say person as that is what he was, he was a brother, son or lover to someone…. from his features he was little over 18. The defribrillator would not allow us to shock him, his heart rhythm being in a non shockable rhythm…. CPR continued, I could feel his sternum under my hands as I pressed down, counting to myself as I did so. Around us police watched as we tried to return life to this boy. Behind us a bright mural depicting local sealife streched across the inner sea wall, its vivid colors contrasting sharply with the tradgedy of the moment. 1-2-3-4-5-6…. my arms start to ache as sweat form on my brow despite the chill of the pre-dawn.

We worked for 40 minutes on him but he was too far gone. After days of no food, almost no water and hypothermia the ocean had taken his life. He had come trying to find hope and a future for his family, now he lay there in silence. He took one step on Spanish soil and that was it, after braving hundreds of miles of open ocean it was over, forever.

We dealt with the rest of the occupants, sending several to hospital with varying degrees of hypothermia and or dehydration. The rest received first aid for varying maladies, dry clothes, blankets and hot tea. You never forget the looks they give, the look of desperation mixed with hope. Every now and then one will smile, thanking you…..and it breaks your heart. I can’t really begin to describe the things I have seen doing that job…I just don’t have the words.

We finished up and headed to base, everything had to be checked and re-stocked ready to go again. My teams shift ended that morning at 8am. We handed over to the new team, said some a very tired goodbye to one another and headed to our homes.

As I drove I could feel anger inside me, we hadn’t been able to save him and he had died trying to help his family…. He was so close yet so far. I was exhausted but knew that I would be unable to sleep. I headed for the beach instead. The waves were pretty poor, nobody had even bothered to go out. I paddles out anyway, feeling the ocean wash over me, cleansing me. I caught a few waves and let others flow by as I contemplated the nights events. Then it dawned on me the irony of what I was doing… there I was enjoying the ocean, seeking solace in the big blue when she had taken the life of that young man just hours before……

Back in my Red Cross days. La Tejita breach, 2006.

Back in my Red Cross days. La Tejita breach, 2006.

Racing the sun

The alarm started it’s increasing chime at 6:30, no light penetrating under the shutters yet. I am pretty good at waking up, looking forward to the challenges of a new day. I train most mornings, a legacy from my triathlon days perhaps but now I just enjoy it. I also find that being fit helps me feel good and makes me better at work, whether it be sailing or lifeguarding.

Today it’s a bit harder though, the chill of a clear night still lingering, trying to poke in under my blanket. I was up from 3 till 5am on the phone, a friend of mine who needed a friend in a crisis. I hit snooz,e thinking I will run this afternoon, after all we have a water rescue training session this morning. Then I realize I am not that tired and in complete autopilot I roll out of my camp bed, head for the bathroom, flicking on the coffee maker as I pass.

Twenty minutes later I am running, stumbling occasionally on one of the loose rocks that litter the shoreline, obscured by the inky blackness. A cool breeze washes over me as I slowly feel my coffee kick in and the shrouds of sleep fall away. I veer left and start up the track which winds up and away from the ocean through sparse desert scrub. What was an almost imperceptible glow on the horizon is now transforming into light, the island of Gran Canaria’s hulking silhouette outlined against it.

The path winds for a while, passing the solar power station and then forks right sharply and up. The going really gets tough here, loose volcanic shale and what seems like a vertical climb. The lactic acid builds in my thighs and claves, the burn feels good, making me feel alive. All of a sudden I am up on the rim of the small crater or Montaña Pelada, fingers of red, yellow and electric orange flashed across the clouds. With my heart pounding still and my lungs searing I descend around the craters rim, picking up the pace. It’s hard going as I try to concentrate on the terrain and not natures light show which is gaining momentum. Montaña Pelada sticks out into the sea, it’s yellow rock contrasts deeply with the sapphire blue of the Atlantic. Half way around I am at the bottom of the rim track, hidden away in a small gully which falls away into a tiny hidden sandy beach. There is no wind down here although I can still hear the whirr of the wind farm nearby, everything is still. Despite my momentum I stop, I can’t help it. The vista is just too good to pass by….. Small waves break on the secret beach, as the water recedes it leaves a thin film of liquid gold, which reflects the ever growing palette of colours thrown into the sky. I linger for a few moments, wishing I could stay, even drop down onto the sand, strip of my shoes and shirt and run headlong into the surf. I breathe deeply…… drinking it in and trying to imprint this scene on the canvas of my mind. I don’t think it could be anymore perfect.

Back to reality, my shift at the station starts at nine and it is already 7:35. I start back up the rocky trail, hoping from rock to rock until I am at the top, above the beach at Montaña Pelada where I have enjoyed so many surf sessions in summer, making the most of the frothy beach break. Looking back I see the sun is not quite up. I pick up the pace again, racing the sun now, I wonder if I can make it home before it is fully risen?

Sunrise over El Cabezo beach, just between home and Montaña Pelada. Foto: Island Momma

Sunrise over El Cabezo beach, just between home and Montaña Pelada. Foto: Island Momma

Happy New Year!!!

Well, once again we find ourselves at the dawn of a New Year. Quite why at the strike of a clock things should magically change, people stop smoking, lose kilos, take up skydiving I will never understand. But hey, if that’s what makes you happy then rock on.

I am not a big New Years fan, don’t get me wrong. I love a cold beer or good whisky as much as the next guy but I hate the excesses that seem to follow the hype of New Years. To me, waking up with a hangover and penniless is not a good way to start the year. I have worked a number of New Years on a professional or volunteer basis with the ambulance service but every now and then I try to do something special.

At the dawn of the now forgotten millennium I was working as an instructor at Aqua-Marina dive centre. At around 8pm we did the last dive of the millenium. It was just a shore dive right in front of the centre, down to 8m with staff and some loyal clients. At 5 metres we knelt on the sandy bottom in a tight circle as we passed around a bottle of champagne, each taking a symbolic swig. As the bottle is pressurised due to the gas the sea water stays out, as long as you press your thumb over the hole.

After that we had a quick dinner and then I pulled my wetsuit on again, this time my surfing shortie and grabbed my board. Both where festooned with glow sticks and a strobe light as where those of my brother, Guy, and our friends. You see, I had read in the November 1999 issue of Transworld Surf Magazine an article about ”joining the two millenniums with a wave”. I seemed like a special way to mark the occasion, one that fully stated who I was and one that I would always remember and cherish. It was also totally wacky, we loved it! At 23:30h we paddled out from the rocky shore at La Fitenia, our local break, to the applause of well over a hundred people. This was a huge surprise as we had expected something a little more intimate, what we hadn’t counted on was the fact that the hotel that backs onto the break has one of the biggest firework displays in the area at New Years…… We where extremely stoked, we kind of felt like rock stars I guess and at 18 years old it was awesome. The waves weren’t great but that wasn’t the point,  chest high chop was all that was on offer. We laughed as we paddled into the dark sets, feeling more than seeing the waves as they picked us up and hurled us, javelin like, towards the shore. As the gongs sounded at midnight a set rolled in and we all caught a wave, one that joined two millenia in a short frothy 10 second ride. Fireworks exploded overhead, painting the sea green, red and blue as the sparks fell earthward. Reading this you might think it is all fiction. or at least embellished but it is not, that is the way we saw in the year 2000. Just to prove it isn’t all good, I should mention that on getting out of the water I stood on a sea-urchin and had 3 spines in my foot for days!!

This year my best friend and I planned to climb ”El Teide”, the 3718m high monolith that sits at the centre of the island of Tenerife. It just happens to be the highest mountain in Spain and has one of the largest volcanic craters in the world. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage sight and the set for movies such as the original Planet of the Apes or the 2011 Wrath of Titans. In winter it is often tipped with snow and at night temperatures drop to well below freezing.

I worked my shift at the lifeguard station, had my last session in the ocean for 2012 (a quick 30 minutes of bodysurfing as that was all the waves were up to and the wind was too fickle to sail). Not long after I was swathed in thermals and mountaineering gear, a santa hat on my head and trudging up the Montaña Blanca trail head. Our eyes concentrated on the terrain in front, our worlds reduced to a pool of light just a few feet wide. Sadly, we set of late and even after pushing hard and getting from 2000m to 3200m in just 1 hour and 50 minutes we decided to stop there. The plan had been to hit the peak, see in the New Year with the few other nut jobs who had the same plan and then hit the trail again as I was on a full shift on New Years day (no rest for the wicked). We arrived at the AltaVista mountain hut at 3200m just after 23:00h and decided to stay there rather than carry on and be in the middle of no-where as the bells chimed.

We settled into a sheltered corner outside the hut, whipped up some hot chocolate on the camping stove and pulled on several layers as the temperature was -2ºC, and with the wind chill the actual sensation was much lower. Miguel put on a small radio to hear the official timing and we prepared our meal. Overhead a billion stars spread a mantle of fairy lights over our us. I spotted Orion, Osa Major but couldn’t make out Casiopea which is my favorite. I was a bit upset by this as I always look out for Casiopea and even talk to her on night watches at sea (yes, sea fever will do that to you…). It crossed my mind that it was ironic that I was seeing in a New Year, one that I hoped would bring new ocean adventures, about as far from the sea as you can get on this island. Seeing the stars hanging there, like old friends, reminded me too that nature is always there and we are always linked to her.

Miguel Angel enjoying hot chocolate fresh off the stove. 3200m, -2ºC and dropping!!

Miguel Angel enjoying hot chocolate fresh off the stove. 3200m, -2ºC and dropping!!

As the final few minutes grew closer we uncorked the miniature bottles of champagne and got our grapes ready (in Spain it is good luck to eat a grape at each strike of the clock, 12 grapes in all). The time came we choked the SEEDED grapes down, hugged, chugged down the champagne, took in the epic view which was by now illuminated by a spectacularly bright moon and pulled on our packs ready to head down.

Only a few  hours later I was back in the beach town of El Médano where I currently live, weaving my way down the street to my buildings door as I dodged the detritus or human society debauchery. Glass bottles, plastic cups, streamers and stinking vomit littered the pavement as the BOOM BOOM of music blasted from the square. Such world apart…… I certainly know where I would rather have been.

Me with a very red nose.... Refugio de Altavista, Mount Teide, Tenerife. 3200m. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Me with a very red nose…. Refugio de Altavista, Mount Teide, Tenerife. 3200m. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

So, 2013 is here and I wish you all the very best. I sincerely hope this year is filled with smiles, happiness and warmth. For those of you who like me crave the ocean I also wish you clean and warm seas, fair winds and good swells.