Paddles in the sun

Paddles in the sun

Vic Sussman

I am snorkeling a quarter mile off Pelican Island in the British Virgin Islands in water that is psychedelically blue. Sixty feet of ocean drops beneath me, a yawning trench swarming with hundreds of technicolored fish. Puffers, parrotfish, angelfish, and a hawksbill turtle glide nonchalantly beneath my flippers, old friends from countless Jacques Cousteau documentaries. A basketball-size jellyfish undulates nearby, its translucent beauty belying its paralyzing sting.

My gut tightens in a spasm of fear and existential dread. Ten fathoms of water beneath my feet and no lifeguard or boats in sight and no land nearby and the nearness of a brainless creature whose accidental caress could stun me into insensibility are a subtle reminder: I am nothing but chum, a bobbing meat puppet in a liquid and impersonal universe.

Life doesn’t get much better.

Need you ask why adventure travel is growing in popularity? Boomers are hiking their aging bodies up Mount Kilimanjaro or crashing through the Colorado’s rapids in rubber rafts, to get away from it all, to test themselves, temporarily trading lives measured out in domesticity for jolts of fear and freedom. The adventurers are people seriously ready for fun who are willing to pay for a week of muscle aches, sunburn, bug bites, no toilet except a shovel, discomfort, and potential danger.

Our kayak flotilla of seven tourists and two guides is ready. After a quick dockside breakfast in Cruz Bay, St. John, we clamber aboard a powerboat for an hour of crashing through 12 miles of choppy sea, heading for Peter Island, in the British Virgin Islands. We stuff a week’s supply of food, water, and belongings into the storage chambers of our two-person fiberglass kayaks. Farewell to cell phones, computers, televisions, and electricity.

We set up camp, pitching our two-person tents along Peter Island’s narrow beach, and then practice “wet exits” in the bay, purposely capsizing our kayaks in the rolling surf. Afterwards we head into open water for our first taste of kayaking miles from land. We ride up and over 5-foot waves and slide down the face of white-capped rollers. Five double kayaks and a guide’s single-seater are spread out across the billowing waves, our paddles wheeling and flashing in the sunlight. Strangers no more, we are now a graceful fleet of nomads at home under an aquamarine sky.

An insane idea. My kayak mate, Tom Broderick, a 46-year-old emergency-medicine doctor, shatters my reverie with a hoot of joy. “Hey, I’ll bet we could catch one of these waves and ride it all the way in!” he yells over his shoulder. This is an insane idea hatched in the madcap brain of a middle-aged surfer who routinely drives three hours from his Vermont home for a day of wet-suited surfing in New Hampshire’s frigid waves. Yet it makes perfect sense to me here in this Kodachrome ocean. Tom and I whoop and paddle like maniacs, digging in hard to race in front of a looming wave, on the edge of capsizing and laughing too hard to care. That evening we eat mahi-mahi cooked over the campfire’s coals, vegetables, and corn bread baked in a camp oven. The night’s greatest pleasure comes after dinner when we gather around the crackling beach fire under a moonless sky sparkling with every one of the galaxy’s 400 billion stars. Venus rises, casting a shimmering path of light across the water’s surface. Meteors streak across the roof of the sky.

Then the night turns miserable. The tents become mini-saunas. My multiple mosquito, sand fly, and no-see-um bites itch and burn as the Therm-a-Rest air mattress springs a slow leak. I toss sleeplessly all night on pebbles that grow into boulders. Every frog and cricket and night bird and chittering insect on the island joins in a cacophony, trilling and twanging in an insomniac’s opera. Shortly after dawn, gathered on the beach like sleep-deprived POWs, hollow-eyed campers hold their steaming coffee cups like sacraments. I curse my Therm-a-Un-Rest mattress and search for a patch kit. A kayaker speaks for all of us when she snarls, “I’m never going camping again without sedatives!”

After snorkeling off Pelican Island that afternoon, we paddle our first long stretch in the ocean, 5 miles to Norman Island, reportedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. We spend the afternoon on the good ship William Thornton, a floating open-air restaurant and bar anchored just off the island’s white beaches.

Once aboard the Willie T (oddly named after the architect who designed the U.S. Capitol building), our rowdy bunch cares less about history and cholesterol than about wolfing down every morsel of food and drink, ravenous hunger being one of the side effects of paddling for hours.

We’re told it is a Willie T tradition to jump off the ship’s top deck, a screaming 25 feet above the water. I leap into space with a macho bellow, not daring to risk the gibes of my sarcastic peers. When I open my eyes underwater, I see teeth. Lots of them. And then a flash of their owner, a 5-foot-long barracuda that darts away. This, I discover, is one of two that endlessly circle the Willie T in search of food scraps–or stupid guys who jump on top of them. The experience satisfies my quest for “extreme lite” activities scary and hairy enough to goose my adrenalin without dumping me into a wheelchair.

Kayaking across miles of ocean and living in the open render me serenely introspective, a common side effect of adventure travel. Henry David Thoreau said no one can fully understand the wilderness until he has been drenched to the skin. What better baptism than to give oneself up to the rhythm of thousands of paddle strokes, becoming a twig in a wave-tossed universe? Paddler, kayak, and ocean merge into a single unit, and all else becomes as inconsequential as a speck of foam swirling in the current.

We spend our last two days on Jost Van Dyke (named after a Dutch pirate), in British territory, 5 miles from Tortola. White Bay Campground is our home, an island paradise of dazzling beaches and the ocean’s relentless azure. A hammock swings in the almost constant breeze on a rise above the sea; a covered patio abuts an open-air bar; two bathrooms with real flush toilets (a luxury for us) are a short walk down a wooded path favored by scuttling hermit crabs.

“De islands, mon.” The campground’s genial owner is Ivan Chinnery, a Jost native whose unique “honor bar” is known to sailors and kayakers plying the islands. Take what drinks you desire, and leave the money for Ivan in a big pickle jar. One afternoon, as we are enjoying the patio’s shade and cold beers, Ivan plugs his guitar into battered speakers on the porch and begins an hour of artful playing and singing, sliding easily from reggae to jazz and blues. He plays not to entertain his guests but for the sheer joy of music. As the locals say, “It’s de islands, mon,” an all-purpose explanation for whatever happens in the tropics, which is anything you can imagine. On our last day, a gleaming white cruise ship–picture Moby Dick with running lights and shuffleboard–anchors in White Bay. Then a yacht appears in the east, disgorging a half-dozen deeply tanned Frenchmen wearing what look like thongs made of colored dental floss. The men refuel at Ivan’s bar, spend the day sunbathing, and sail away before sunset.

We paddle the last 5 or 6 miles to Cruz Bay the next day–we have kayaked 30 miles over five days–stopping for lunch and a few final hours of snorkeling along the reefs of Henley Cay. Dreading the end of this trip, I adjust my goggles and slip beneath the water for the last time. A languid ray glides by under me, and I see starfish the size of dinner plates scattered across the seabed. I dive down 10 feet to swim among slender trumpet fish and discover a nearly invisible flounder half buried in the sand. I don’t ordinarily believe in omens, but as I move in for a closer look, the flounder roils the sand with a wiggle. And winks at me.

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