By Robert Ostertag
A decision awaits me in the morning. I am roughly halfway around Sardinia. The Austrian radio broadcast of my music has been moved up a couple of days, reducing my total available paddle days yet again. Added to the gear collecting days at the start, and the rudder repair days and a rest day somewhere along the way, time is getting tight. And once I reach the town of Stintino and round the northwest corner of the Sardinia I will head south along the exposed west coast, where mistrals can blow a paddler off the water for days at a time.
Luca has put me in touch with Mauro Milone, a sea kayaker from Stintino who is offering me lodging. Between Mauro and I are 35 miles of open water. I could try cutting a straight line to Stintino, but 35 miles is a long way, and I would be far off shore with absolutely no one around, and me all alone sitting on a sliver of a kayak. However, following the shore would drastically increase the distance, and what could be a day trip becomes two days.
At the beach I assess the situation. The day is perfect: not too hot, and with an 8-10 knot wind blowing directly toward my destination, predicted to blow unchanged throughout the day. The waves won’t be big enough to put my paddle into a brace and surf, but my overweight boat would swamp out in those conditions anyway. Ten knots is the speed the Code Zero and I like best. So: two days of paddling with cross wind, or a few hours of downwind heaven. Guess which I chose? With a few curious Italian beach goers staring in curiosity, I jump on the boat and paddle straight out into the blue.
Next comes one of the best times of my life. After over a week of paddling all day my forward stroke is in fine form, and the Code Zero and I have found a real meeting of minds. The waltzes I have been doing with the waves for many days now shift into uptempo western swing. And I have nothing to do but dance for 35 miles, alone in the blue. Is this paddling or flying? The boat is moving so fast it seems like I will be in Stintino in a couple of hours or so.
In the gathering darkness I throw my last reserves of fuel onto the fire and give it everything I’ve got. No way. This current is much much bigger than me.
About 2 p.m. the waves suddenly kick up considerably. This is not what was forecast, but if the wind is going to pick up now is the time it would do so. The waves become big enough that I start swamping out. I turn on my booster engine. The waves become even steeper and quite disorganized. I note with satisfaction how comfortable I feel in these difficult conditions. But after a while muscling through at full throttle, I don’t seem to be making much progress. I notice that, in fact, the wind seems no stronger than it was earlier in the day. I take a range to the south (not easy in a surfski in such conditions with the shore so far away), and discover I am not moving. Current! Fast current!
That’s weird. I have not had much of any current this entire trip, and none of my Sardinian paddler friends had mentioned current when filling me in on the local conditions. But I am most definitely being tossed around by big-time current. I try to paddle out of it in several directions and seem to be glued in place. The waves are not getting any smaller and my stamina is being severely tested. I need to get off the water fast. The most viable escape route seems to be a line due south to the closest land, and soon I am falling on the beach, exhausted, just east of the town of Porto Torres.
I pull out my phone and call Luca to get clued in about the current, but he is not picking up. I try Mauro in Stintino but he is not picking up either. I google everything I can think of combining “Sardinia” and “ocean currents” and find nothing to enlighten me. I decide to just get a hotel room at this beach, rest up, and wait for information, but the nearest hotel turns out to be a few miles west in Porto Torres. I get back on the water and paddle to Porto Torres but the town waterfront is a cliff and I see no easy place to land. I think maybe the landing will be better on the far side of the port, so I carefully paddle across the shipping lanes entering the port and discover that the coastline on the far side is an extended industrial catastrophe associated with a chemical plant. In the meantime I have picked up a considerable current pushing me directly to Stintino, probably an eddy of the first current. I certainly don’t want to land at a chemical plant, and I don’t want to turn around and paddle against the current to cross the shipping lanes again, just to cross them yet again in the morning. I decide to ride the current all the way to Stintino. The catch is that the sun is beginning to set, but I am flying now and should be in Stintino shortly, and anyway there is no other good option. Soon I am less than a mile from Stintino, flying along and watching the sunset explode off my bow when – wham! – I am back in the mother current and once again paddling in place.
The situation has gone from less than desirable to actually pretty bad. The sun has disappeared over the horizon, the current has my feet nailed to the floor, and the escape route leads straight to the chemical plant. I am so close to Stintino that I can see the people on the beach and the detail of the waterfront architecture. Surely I can muscle through this. In the gathering darkness I throw my last reserves of fuel onto the fire and give it everything I’ve got. No way. This current is much much bigger than me.
It is dark now and I have no light. I must get to shore. I see some lights of what I hope will be a beach hotel to the west and angle off. It is slow going but it is going. Maybe 30 minutes later I reach dry land. I have paddled over 50 nautical miles, not counting all the time spent paddling furiously in one place.
To my dismay, I find myself on the beach of a gargantuan self-contained all-inclusive luxury resort. There is no one on the beach at this hour, so I collapse into a one of the many vacant beach chairs. When I have rested enough to move again, I change into dry clothes, get my ID, and go exploring. There is a beach bar where I try to order food but they cannot sell to anyone without the wristband that marks them as a guest. The bartender sends me to the main office, far away on the opposite end of the huge campus, where I present my ID and explain that I don’t mean to intrude but I had an urgent situation on the water. The manager is very polite. He tells me there is no problem. He just wants to know two things: when I am going to leave, and when am I going to get my boat off his property. I call Mauro in Stintino but he is still not picking up. I call Luca and neither is he. I decide to leave the boat and take a bus into Stintino. The manager hands me a map that identifies the property boundaries and dispatches an assistant to follow me to the boat and verify that I have carried it off the property before I board the bus. Like I said, the Costa Smeralda is hardly Sardinia. I miss Giovanni and his warm welcome and bottomless glass of iced tea.
The bus drops me on the outskirts of Stintino in front of a charming hotel and restaurant. There is a vacancy, so I settle into an extraordinary seafood antipasto, thinking my ordeal is over. But after I pay the check I find the hotel locked. The waiter explains that it is now closed. What? The hotel and the restaurant have the same name, share the same building and sign, and are separated by only a glass door. How can one be open and the other not? But this is the situation, I am told, and there is nothing to be done about it.
With drybag, PFD, and paddle, I walk to every hotel and B&B in Stintino. All are either full or closed for the night. By now it is well after 1am. The receptionist at the last hotel takes pity on me, locks up the lobby, puts me in his car and drives me to the far side of town to drop me at another resort hotel. This also turns out to be closed for the night, and my good Samaritan friend has left. I walk back to the highway and up the road to the next resort. Finally I fall asleep about 3am in an ugly and overpriced hotel room.
Mauro comes to pick me up in the morning, takes me to retrieve the boat, and then takes me to his place. Generous to a fault, he is deeply embarrassed that, after paddling all day the previous day, he returned home and fell asleep at 7pm, sleeping through all my phone calls. Mauro makes me feel like I have left the land of the rich and their resorts and have returned to Sardinia. Mauro is a major character. His car is an extraordinary heap of rust, paddling gear and assorted junk. “I know,” he explains in broken English. “But car is not important. Kayaking is important.” His apartment is a similar heap of dirty clothes and dishes, paddling gear and assorted junk. “I know,” he says. “But apartment is not important. Kayaking is important.” I note that the windows instead of having screens have fragments of mosquito netting hammered into the frames. He appears to be camping in his apartment. When he hears that I have not mosquito net for camping, he glances around the apartment and notices that the pillow on his bed has a mesh cover. Without a moment’s hesitation he produces a pair of scissors, cuts the case off the stuffing, and hands it to me with a smile. Dude, that’s your pillow…
Mauro may have spent more time in a kayak than anyone I have ever met. He goes on trips in the Mediterranean for two months at a time. He lives on the beach and fishes for tuna from his kayak. Tuna? I ask him what happens when he catches one. He grins. “Surfing!”
Mauro delivers me to the beach the next morning and I am back in the water. This time, instead of accidentally paddling into a drug deal, I accidentally paddle into an unprecedented European heat wave. In northern Germany the thermometer hits 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest day in history. It is so hot that even the European Union seems to be melting, as the continent’s finance ministers assemble to the north of me to yell at one another about the Greek financial crisis.
I have no idea what the thermometer would read out on the water here 1,000 miles to the south, but it is pretty darn hot. And I am out here in my black paddling shirt (the only color they had in the shop in Cagliari), my black pants (I stopped wearing shorts a few days ago when I realized that sun exposure had become the main hazard I was dealing with), black neoprene water shoes, and even black neoprene gloves (the only gloves I could find along the way when blisters became an issue). I have four liters of water and three bottles of Gatorade and I drink every drop. I have to continually jump off the boat and into the water to keep from overheating. What’s more, the heat seems to have utterly killed the wind that had been forecast. All that wind has died and gone to wind heaven. The heat burns both the water and the air into absolute stillness.
Somehow I manage to paddle 35 miles anyway. At this point I can’t help it: I get into the boat and my body just takes off. The cliffs of this section of coast are the most beautiful of the trip yet, as if that is even possible. I spend a lot of time floating the water next to my boat, cooling off and admiring the cliffs. At the end of the day pull out on beautiful Bombarde beach in Algerho.
The next day is another 30 miles in even hotter air, another 4 liters of water and 3 bottles of gatorade. How much longer can I keep this up? The toll the heat is taking on my body is adding up.
At sunset I paddle two miles up the Temo river into the ancient village of Bosa. The riverfront is beautiful but in places the water smells strongly of sewage.
In the morning I eat a little breakfast at my B&B and head to the water to collect the boat. Feeling a bit odd in the stomach, I stop at a cafe to eat something more substantial, and a stomach virus hits me so hard and so fast that the waiter calls for an ambulance. I spend the next six hours at the hospital in the emergency room expelling the entire contents of my stomach in a variety of ways that I will not describe in detail.
The doctor explains I have a stomach virus that is known the area, and will have to be hospitalized for several days. He keeps asking me what I ate for breakfast, but I wonder about the sewage smell of the river last night. One way or the other, after three days in the hospital and one more day resting in Baso I paddle back out on the water, realize I am still far from full strength, and return to shore. The next day I paddle for about 10 miles and realized it will take some time to recover my stamina. But time has run out. Looking at the map I see there is no way I will be able to make it back to Cagliari where I stared with the days I have left. Not even close. My attempt to circumnavigate Sardinia is over.
What an adventure! Who exactly was it who thought that paddling all 500 miles+ of Sardinia in a long, skinny, tippy, fragile racing kayak was a good idea? Oh right, that was me.
In the end I paddled over 400 miles. I saw unbelievable physical beauty. I met extraordinary people. I fell in love with Sardinia, its beaches, its seas, and its people. I dealt with headwind, cross wind, high wind, and no wind. I danced with the Code Zero on miles upon miles of mesmerizing blue Mediterranean waters. I broke one rudder and had another rudder break on me. I accidentally paddled into a drug deal and a heat wave.
Thank you to Guido Cali for all his help and wisdom, and to Attilo Perino and Mauro for such kind and generous help along the way. And to Kenny Howell and Epic Kayaks for the paddle. Most of all, thank you to Luca Basciu and and FG Kayaks for the Code Zero surfski that took me almost all the way around Sardinia.
I did not make it back to Cagliari, and for this I was at first sadly disappointed. But my friends helped me put this in perspective. My friend Christian wrote to me:
“Bob, in all of history, a few, very few, expeditions wound up exactly where they planned to. The vast majority (including Christopher Columbus) wound up somewhere else.”
Bob Ostertag has published over 20 CDs of music, four books on a variety of topics, covered the civil war in El Salvador has a journalist, and has passionately paddled surf skis and kayaks for several decades in California, Alaska, Mexico, Central America, and the Mediterranean.