Venezuela-01

 

By: Colleen Carroll / Photos by: Toby Bromwich

This story first appeared in The Kiteboarder Magazine’s Fall 2015 Issue: Volume 12, No. 3

Venezuela-10to just 10 days earlier as Craig Cunningham, Aaron Hadlow and I stepped off our respective flights, hungry for flat water sessions and full of ambition to build a few features for our upcoming team shoot. We would have just one week to assess the scene at the kite spot and get to work. Having built his share of sliders in the past, Craig would be leading the project and had big plans for what we would construct.

The three of us had made our way to Isla de Coche, our kiteboarding paradise for the next week and a half. The legendary flat water at Punta Playa, the well known kite spot on Coche, was situated only an hour’s flight and a short boat ride away from the nation’s capital, Caracas, located on the coastal mainland of Venezuela. We were in and out of the city in the blink of an eye, just as we had planned. Currently regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous cities, Caracas faces political instability and heavy drug trafficking, so we wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.

The flight to Los Roques offers human room only. Tight quarters and weight limits force the North Team to book a second plane for their equipment.

The flight to Los Roques offers human room only. Tight quarters and weight limits force the North Team to book a second plane for their equipment.

To make matters even more interesting, the US State Department discourages its citizens from traveling to the country. While the boys didn’t have any issues, Craig, hailing from Canada and Aaron from the United Kingdom, I had had to jump through a few extra hoops to attain the necessary visas. For the first time in all my travels, I stopped to consider if it was a good idea to visit a country my government deemed so dangerous. I’ve become so accustomed to traveling where and when I want without reserve, but my intuition was telling me to go. Despite all the dire warnings, I cruised through Venezuelan customs with only a few extra questions. The customs agents miraculously deciphered my broken Spanish and soon I was bouncing my board bag down an uneven dock on Isla de Coche alongside my North Kiteboarding teammates.

Over the next few days, the three of us slipped into an easy routine of waking to a traditional Venezuelan breakfast of beans, fried plantains and arepas (corn cakes), then wandering down the beach towards the undeveloped sandy point for a quick morning session in smooth winds and protected flat waters. We’d walk back to the hotel pondering a mental list of to-do’s for the slider build, check off some tasks, fit in an afternoon kite session and repeat. If the first two days were any indication of what was to come, this trip was off to a great start. The spot was just as good as we expected and the features we were building were almost complete. With the anticipated arrival of the photography crew in a couple of days, we knew we could get some awesome footage.

Somewhere around day three we ran into our first setback. The small town of San Pedro de Coche started facing frequent power outages, which meant businesses were more often than not closed, making it nearly impossible to get the necessary materials to work on the sliders. Venezuela as a country has experienced incredible economic and political instability in recent years. We were told that the Venezuelan economy is heavily based on oil exports and the recent fluctuations in crude pricing has led to rampant inflation and little investment in transportation and energy infrastructure.

Challenges like this are expected, and logistical hiccups are bound to come up during international travel, so we pressed on and did what we could. Minor delays began stacking up as our construction progress ground to a standstill. The entire photo and film crew had arrived ready to start shooting and despite our head start, our time in Coche was nearing its end with not a single feature completed. Craig scrapped his original plan and shifted to plan B. We were now focusing on just two features: A simple kicker and a unique up-flat-up tube that Craig envisioned as an easy build off of an existing structure at the local kite school. Like all things involving sliders, even the downscaled project was proving to be more challenging than expected. With only two full days of shooting left, it would be a struggle to get the images needed for our team shoot.

Underneath clean logos and pretty vinyl graphics lurks a complicated beast not easily tamed into a ridable feature.

Underneath clean logos and pretty vinyl graphics lurks a complicated beast not easily tamed into a ridable feature.

Having added riders Reno Romeu and Stefan Speissberger, as well as our team manager, photographer and two videographers, our group was up to nine people. We sat down to a late dinner to discuss the details of an abbreviated two-day shoot. Optimistic, we agreed that it was conceivably possible if the wind cooperated, we set off early and everyone rallied hard all day to get it done.

As we walked back to our rooms from dinner, we couldn’t help but feel the pressure building for the day to come. We needed the very best from each team member to pull this off. But as the evening turned to night, Craig started to question his dinner choice. With the frequent power outages, food poisoning had been in the back of our minds and Reno had already succumbed to an unknown foodborne illness within hours of his arrival. Everyone else had been ok, but then Craig started vomiting and it wasn’t long before our photographer, Toby Bromwich, followed suit.

By the next morning, a good portion of our group was severely ill, so the task of building the features was even more daunting. We recruited local kiters to help carry everything to the water and pressed on. Craig and Reno managed to drag themselves out of bed and Toby pushed through unmentionable discomfort to keep his camera firing. Despite everyone’s best efforts, after eight days filled with construction delays and endless frustration, we managed to put two features into the water, only to find that neither of them were working as planned.

Craig takes a break from a food poison induced coma to stomp out some signature moves during one of the few kicker sessions on Coche Island.

Craig takes a break from a food poison induced coma to stomp out some signature moves during one of the few kicker sessions on Coche Island.

We needed additional anchors for the kicker because hectic weekend boat traffic had spun it out of place. On the contrary, the flatbar need more floatation because it was tilting to one side, and we had to figure out a method for digging deeper into the sand to secure the up tube.

Craig and Colleen struggle to get tubes securely planted in the unstable Venezuelan sand.

Craig and Colleen struggle to get tubes securely planted in the unstable Venezuelan sand.

We were losing crucial filming time. In hindsight, we should have anticipated this; building features always takes more time, energy, and money than expected. This is one of the reasons why it’s so special to score a good park session and also why there are so few slider parks in the world. The countless hours of building and troubleshooting that go into building any feature for kiteboarding takes determination and on the fly decisions. We were attempting to pull this off in Venezuela. While a beautiful country for kiting, it was making this mission next to impossible.

It was all we could do on our last day in Coche to make something happen. With a little ingenuity from a sickly Craig and our local guide, Christiano, we had a floating flatbar. We jammed the pole out the end and jerry-rigged a fitting using extra kite leashes to keep it in place. The kicker was finally working as well. Because of the unforeseen challenges, it wasn’t what we had initially conceptualized, but we were incredibly relieved and excited to finally have our park completed.

We rode until the sun sank to the horizon, transforming the sky into a gorgeous palette of deep orange and pink hues before slipping into darkness. Exhausted, sunburnt and some of us still fatigued from illness, we had finally ridden our park, but it wasn’t time to claim victory yet. While the building process seemed long and stressful, we had merely begun our trip and were headed first thing the next morning for the remote archipelago of Los Roques National Park.

Colleen enjoys the last light during one of the few hard earned slider sessions.

Colleen enjoys the last light during one of the few hard earned slider sessions.

The team desperately needed the change. Our group had struggled to maintain the enthusiasm required to accomplish a project of this magnitude. The images in the magazines do a phenomenal job at making it seem like the team shoots produced by the big kiteboarding brands are a vacation for everyone involved, and yes they certainly are incredible, but they also take hard work, determination and a knack for problem solving. When the crew repacked our 20 or so board bags to continue the team shoot at the next location, we were a fresh start for the next segment of our adventure.

Rejuvenated by the prospect of greener pastures, we eagerly loaded our excessive amount of gear into two wooden boats that would take us back across the channel to Isla de Margarita from which we jump on a small plane to our next stop, Los Roques National Park. Despite the relatively short distance between the two islands, we endured a second round of customs interrogations. The rapid fire questions aimed at camera equipment, drones, and what seemed to them like a completely unreasonable amount of “stuff,” was staved off with a simple airport act commonly referred to as “the stupid tourist.” Luckily for us, this time, the performance worked and we were eventually waved off with a mere headshake of annoyance.

However, we weren’t out of the woods yet. As we checked in for our small-chartered plane we found that it couldn’t safely carry all of us along with our oversized gear. Without our carry-ons we had over 1,700 pounds of equipment. Fortunately, our smooth talking Brazilian teammate, Reno Romeu, negotiated a deal to pack our equipment onto a second plane that would arrive in the archipelago the next day. It wasn’t an ideal situation but it would have to do. Despite the frequent setbacks, the shoot trudged on. We had claimed a few gems along the way, but there was still so much work to be done and we couldn’t afford to continue at such a slow rate.

Craig Cunningham finally scores hits on the Frankenstein up-flat-up slider that proved a challenge to complete.

Craig Cunningham finally scores hits on the Frankenstein up-flat-up slider that proved a challenge to complete.

The flight to Los Roques was incredible. Shortly after takeoff in our comfortable 14-person plane, we flew over the most beautiful chain of islands I’ve ever seen. The contrast in colors was spectacular. From the window, tiny white irregular-shaped dots outlined by brilliant turquoise rings with layers of deep ocean blue speckled the Caribbean Sea below. With hardly a palm tree, hill or building in sight, it looked like we had just discovered kiteboarding heaven.

For as far as the eye could see, Los Roques National Park was a flat water utopia; island after island with not a sign of human existence. We waited an extra day for our airborne baggage mule to arrive, and in the meantime settled into our 43-foot luxury catamaran. Once our gear had arrived and was lugged onboard, we set sail from Gran Roque, loaded with everything we needed for our 10-day voyage.

Our first stop offered the perfect glassy waters we were after, yet a meager breeze left us unsatisfied with the conditions. We relied on our captain’s local knowledge and cruised to another island, which provided yet again the picture perfect waters we desired, but the wind was merely a tease. We were playing a game of cat and mouse. We sailed around the islands in a steady 12 knot breeze; the perfect amount of wind for a leisurely and quite speedy sail but just below that coveted amount of wind necessary for the hardcore freestyle action we had hoped to capture.

Day after day, we sailed, forecasted, and chased our best-guessed predictions. We covered countless miles of pristine marine territory, constantly in awe of its raw and unaltered beauty. Despite the uncooperative wind conditions, we couldn’t help but feel fortunate for the opportunity to simply experience a place so serene. On rare occasions, we did get on the water. Ready at all times, our gear was pre-rigged and our eyes were glued to the anemometer; any spike over 15 knots meant all riders and cameras were out making the most of every minute.

Aaron Hadlow scores a solo freestyle session at one of the many isolated oases in Los Roques.

Aaron Hadlow scores a solo freestyle session at one of the many isolated oases in Los Roques.

In a way, it made the time spent kiting even more special because you never knew how long it would last; a savor the moment type of experience. There wasn’t time to hold anything back so each session was full on with 100% commitment into every trick. You could see the energy in each athlete’s riding as each rider was driven to land their tricks and get a shot, as their deadline could be up at any moment. In reality, I think we saw the best come out in everyone.

Although it felt as though the universe had been working against us almost every step of the way, finishing off our two-week trip, we had hard drives full of footage for North’s 2016 international campaigns. We had ventured out to a place lesser known in the kiteboarding world despite the warnings. We had experienced kindness and generosity from the locals, success with creating new features under challenging conditions, as well as a rare opportunity to explore the remote islands off of Los Roques. We never really experienced the turning point we had hoped for, but through hard work and persistence we got the job done.

This story first appeared in The Kiteboarder Magazine’s Fall 2015 Issue: Volume 12, No. 3