Kitesurfer: A high-flying boat close to lift off

In high winds, a kitesurfer can be pulled across the sea like a runaway train. So why are members of the public lining up to pay twenty grand to surf where no one has surfed before? Mark MacKenzie reports
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The Independent Travel

There are some dreams money can't buy. But then again, there are some that it can. If you happen to have a spare twenty grand and your idea of nirvana is having the wind drag you across the ocean like a wilful racehorse, how about kitesurfing on deep blue swells off some of the remotest islands on earth?

And should your technique require a little fine-tuning, why not take along some of the best professional board riders on earth? After a day carving graceful arcs at sea, why not retire for margaritas and sushi made from the fish you caught while spear-fishing that morning?

If all this sounds like part of a seductive sales pitch, that's essentially what it is, a rough precis of what daily life might be like on the Best Offshore Odyssey, an innovative new approach to adventure travel. In Nov-ember a 60ft, purpose-built catamaran will set sail from the island of St John in the US Virgin Islands. Aboard will be six investors, hand-picked for the privilege of shelling out close to £20,000 each, and each able to handle a power-kite on the open ocean.

Part of an "expedition" that will last for the next five years, they will sail with one aim: to find the best - and as yet undiscovered - kitesurfing locations in the world.

The idea was born in 1998 when Gavin McClurg, the American who is in charge of the project and will skipper the boat, took ownership of a 52ft yacht from his father. "While I could afford the down payment," he explains, "I had to find a way of making it [financially viable]." The answer was a modest chartering business, and over the next seven years McClurg sailed countless nautical miles, noting down remote spots with the wind and waves one day to accommodate his other passion, the then relatively new sport of kitesurfing.

To combine his sport and his business, he hit upon the idea of a continuous kitesurfing cruise and began poring over maps, weather reports and, more recently, the online satellite imaging service Google Earth. Combining old-fashioned hard data with new technology, he built an impressive list of year-round island kitesurfing spots in, among other destinations, Micronesia, the Coral Sea, Australasia and the Indian Ocean.

Now all he needed was a way to pay for it. Last year he secured sponsorship from the US kit giants Best Kiteboards, but it wasn't enough. He decided he had to find some like-minded investors. Before he can set sail in November he has to offload the remaining 40 per cent of "shares" in his boat, a share being a two-berth cabin which investors book for a minimum of 10 days at a time for the next five years.

If all this sounds rather familiar, you might have spotted that McClurg's expedition will operate as something resembling a timeshare scheme, albeit an exotic one. Shares in the Odyssey require a minimum cash injection of £15,000, and a minimum yearly membership fee of £1,500 plus expenses each time an investor wants to join the boat.

Although the price tag may sound steep, McClurg insists the deal represents value for money: "At the end of the five years investors can expect to get half of their money back from the sale of the yacht, making the price of each trip a fraction of that charged by other well-known operators for just a simple cruise." There, however, the similarities with traditional timeshare schemes end. For it is on the subject of who gets to go that things get a little complicated. McClurg says the Odyssey team will consider applications from novice kite-surfers, but those wishing to take part in the more demanding legs, the 15-day, self-contained journeys McClurg refers to as "epics", should be of at least intermediate ability.

"They need to be comfortable [at sea] and be able to handle themselves in deep water," he says. The reason for this becomes clear when you consider just what McClurg means by "epic". One trip planned for next year, for example, runs from Tahiti to Bora Bora via the Austral Islands of French Polynesia. Designed to coincide with the arrival at the Austral Islands of migrating humpback whales, it will cover 800 nautical miles.

In which case it is probably not a good idea to lie about your ability when applying. It is also worth bearing in mind that, in addition to its crew of advanced kitesurfers, the Odyssey will be joined intermittently by some of the world's top kitesurfers, professional athletes such as Will James, Ben Wilson and Jeff Tobias, to help clients hone their skills

The presence of such waveriding luminaries is intended to add touch of class to the kitesurfing documentary that will be filmed in five parts along the way. Those investors who fail to make it aboard in the weeks the film crew are there will have to make do with the boat's full-time extreme sports photographer.

"We are being quite picky and can't say yes to everyone," says McClurg. "This isn't a canned trip, and what we're looking for is [kite-surfers] not averse to risk. We don't know for sure what [conditions] we're going to get, so we'll study charts, winds and currents for the season, then... hope for the best."

Those signed up so far come from a variety of backgrounds, and ages range from the late twenties to the early fifties. In addition to a love of kitesurfing, the hobbies cited on application forms suggest there won't be much time spent playing chess. "Most come from a surfing, windsurfing or other watersports background," says McClurg. "We've got a world-record paraglider, a world-class triathlete and several Ironman [triathlon] finishers." For the record, Ironman participants must swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and run a full marathon.

McClurg also says that, in addition to being mildly superhuman, clients will be expected to share the expedition's philosophy, which apart from kitesurfing whenever conditions allow means a commitment to minimising its environmental impact.

He concedes that, inevitably, a number of clients may need to fly in order to hook up with the boat yet, unlike established kitesurfing meccas such as Tarifa in Spain or Cabarete in the Dominican Republic, the Odyssey requires no permanent inhabitants and will leave no "footprint" other than a few foaming white lines on the sea.

However, given that he is selling the dream of exclusivity in a global sport of mushrooming popularity, can McClurg really guarantee to produce locations no other kitesurfers will have heard of?

"Most islands in the world can only be accessed via sailboat," he says. "The Tuamotus, for example, an archipelago of 170 islands in French Polynesia, only have a few that can be easily accessed; the rest are all ours. Even somewhere like Fiji, which is relatively easy to get to with most kinds of boats, has many sites that have never seen kites."

McClurg feels that the unpredictability of conditions is a key part of the expedition's appeal. "There is no such thing as an average day," he says. "Most will be focused around kiting, but when there's no wind we'll do something else; some [destinations] are quite surf-orientated."

But any lull in the storm is likely to be a temporary one. "First and foremost we're a kitesurfing expedition - when there's wind, we kite."

The Best Offshore Odyssey departs from St John on 25 November. To apply for a place or for more details: 001 206 239 8205

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