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 (www.thedigitalsurfschool.com) 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 (www.islandmomma.wordpress.com) 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

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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.

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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.