By Robert Ostertag
I have a much larger and more robust rudder, a different dry bag that fits snugly against the deck, no spare paddle so the dry bag fits even tighter, even less in the dry bag (half a salami now), and just two liters of water (I have water bags for six, but won’t fill more than two unless circumstances require). The boat is heavy for sure. It is not going to handle like its designers intended, but it is manageable. Repeating the first leg will add twenty miles to the length of the journey, but who’s counting miles?
The day is gorgeous, like they all seem to be at this time of year in Sardinia. The sunlight is dancing nimbly across the water. The outer reaches of Cagliari disappear behind me. The water is so clear I can watch the ocean floor pass below. The scent of the salty Mediterranean is filling the air. Time to settle in.
What I settle in to is seven heavenly days of paddling north up the eastern coast of Sardinia. Beautiful beaches, tiny towns, and few people. Stunning cliffs. Mountains jutting straight up of the water. Rocky reefs extending far off shore. Solitude and quiet.
The wind is light and the seas are mild. The waves are just ripples moving through cascading shades of blue. I can’t surf them in the sense of stopping paddling and just riding the wave, but there will be plenty of time for surfing on the western side of the island which is not sheltered from the Mediterranean by the Italian peninsula. What I can do now is use the energy of these little waves to dance, and even overloaded the Code Zero makes for an excellent dance partner is these conditions. The point of the dance is to move the boat forward using as much of the wave energy and as little of your own energy as possible. Surfski Tai Chi.
Surfskiers are known as “wave chasers” because you infer what that wave behind you will do by staring intently at the wave just in front you. It requires considerable focus on the smallest details of a very dynamic environment. Doing this for hours and hours, days on end, becomes a meditation to become beautifully lost in.
It dawns on me that I am on an endurance expedition of over 500 miles that most people would have trained for. I trained by playing music, sitting for hours on planes and trains, eating pasta, and drinking red wine and grappa. So the first few days are a bit slow. The Mediterranean helps me out with miles of easy downwind baby-wave runs. Plenty of time for me to get my sea legs: taking the fewest possible strokes, bracing on my left (weak) side, timing, timing, timing, timing.
I realize that the resort does have a useful social function: it siphons people who are not interested in the real world off into a phony one. This leaves the real world much less crowded for the rest of us.
The Code Zero and I are becoming friends. This kind of paddling is not the typical downwind surfski run where you pick just the right day and drive to just the right place to get the best waves. You take what comes. I spend a lot of time with cross wind and quartering seas. The Code Zero is very happy in these conditions.
I wrap myself in a blanket of solitude, quiet, motion, and the color blue: clear blue, sky blue, windy blue, cloudy blue, reflective blue, rocky blue, light blue, dark blue, crystal blue, turquoise blue, silver blue, Mediterranean blue. The miles fly by. When I get hot I put on my face mask and dive off the boat and into the blue.
The artist David Wojnarowicz appears in the meditation. When he was in the end stage of dying of AIDS he said he longed to be someplace where all he could see was the color blue. “David!” I call out. “That place you were looking for? I found it. It is beautiful. More beautiful than I could have imagine. Did you find it too?”
When I land I find the beaches on the eastern coast of Sardinia in late June to be just about the most relaxed thing you can imagine. Never crowded. More often nearly empty. But you still get the full menu of Italian beach culture: dazzling babes in thong bikinis; muscle men strutting their stuff; kids and grandparents; sulky teenagers and topless German tourists. All in manageable numbers, and all of it charming. Somewhere there will be a funky little beach cafe whose meager offerings bear little relationship to the extraordinary cuisine of the island, but there will at least be a sandwich and an ice cream bar, a beer and an espresso.
Then there are the more remote beaches like Cala Luna and Cala Sistine. Tour boats may show up occasionally and drop off a load of tourists from a town up the coast, but for the most part I find myself nearly alone with the gnarled cliffs, mounds of shells, surprising red and pink blossoms, occasional driftwood, and the odd family of wild pigs.
I stay in beach hotels and and bungalows. I am unconvinced by my can of Off! particularly since there are often lagoons of standing water just behind the beaches. Luxury resorts for mosquitos. The few other beach campers I come across all have tents.
The people I meet are universally friendly despite my lack of even rudimentary Italian (learning some Italian was another great idea for which there was no time). The first evening I pull out on a beach in front of a house where a man named Giovanni comes out–not to shoo me away but to welcome me in. Though he speaks no English and I no Italian, we have a lovely conversation over iced tea. He introduces me to his young son. When he realizes I am looking for a hotel, he calls the only hotel around and the receptionist drives a few kilometers over to pick me up. Giovanni insists that I leave my boat in his yard overnight for safekeeping.
The hotel is a big, beautiful, stately old thing for people who want to spend their vacation horseback riding. Such people seem in short supply however. I am one of just three guests in the entire place. The thoroughly bored staff has little to do, and I become their entertainment. There is a large horse arena and a collection of beautiful horses, a swimming pool and well kept garden, all surrounded by mountains. My room features a lovely balcony overlooking the entire scene. I go to bed with the balcony doors open so I can drift off to sleep gazing at the stars. In come the mosquitos. I try killing them, then ignoring them, but at 5am I give up and shut the doors. Huh. If I can’t sleep in a hotel room with the balcony open be cause of the mosquitoes, how am I going to sleep on a beach without a tent?
The next day I land on a little beach with a path disappearing into the woods that seems to promise a little beach cafe, but when I follow it I find myself in a large resort with swimming pools, shops, day care center, cafeteria, the works. Apparently meals are included in the base price because no one is exchanging money in the cafe. It also appears no one has considered the possibility that someone might arrive here by kayak, so there is no one to tell me to go away. I help myself to a gourmet lunch and marvel at all the American tourists hanging out at the pool just steps from an empty beach. Why do you put a pool next to a beach? A Mediterranean beach with warm, clear water so salty you can float with no effort? This resort could be anywhere. Missouri, for example. It is a completely self-contained, completely fake world.
Then I realize that the resort does have a useful social function: it siphons people who are not interested in the real world off into a phony one. This leaves the real world much less crowded for the rest of us. In this case, the only people at the beach are two windsurfers, a lifeguard, and me enjoying the free food. Which, by the way, is excellent.
One week in and I am feeling good. I am covering greater distances and less exhausted afterwards with each passing day. The big water around the points where the waves kick up and become chaotic can be a challenge, but organized waves from any direction are now easily incorporated into the day’s meditation. I have learned, however, that with this 210-pound paddler and his drinking water and his gear, the Code Zero will not surf a wave of a meter or more. It is not a problem of boat design or skill. There is just too much weight in the boat. When the wind does occasionally kick up what would typically be considered surfable waves, I am left broaching and swamping. OK, so this is not going to be the sort of screaming downwind trip I had imagined, but I want nothing more than these long meditations in the rippling blue.