Bagging a spot on an old-time schooner to sail around Madagascan outer reefs hunting for waves with all-star company is clearly not a trip Olivia Jenkins was ever going to turn down. But with little internet to check on the swell conditions, skunking is a serious pitfall. Luckily, the skunking didn’t last long, and for Olivia an epic trip of a lifetime became all the more so…
Words: Olivia Jenkins
Photos: Ydwer van der Heide
At the start of World War II, the Luna Moon was intentionally sunk by its owner so she couldn't be used in the war. She was resurfaced in 1949 and refitted as a fishing vessel. She was then purchased in 1982 and refitted again, this time into a gaff rig schooner, and she was bought by a company in the Seychelles to be used as a luxury charter vessel. In 2019, she was purchased by a South African businessman, upgraded, and delivered to Nasi Bay in Madagascar, where she is now being used for a sailing academy and for surf charters. I traveled to Madagascar this past September and boarded the Luna Moon with Jalou Langeree, Catta Edin, Patri McLaughlin, Ydwer Van Der Heide, and Mint Grigas in search of epic kitesurfing and surfing conditions…
// The airport sprint
I woke up in Mauritius at 6am and began packing my wet clothes straight off the line and into one of my many cases. Patri and I headed to the MRU airport where I was greeted by Catta, Jalou, Ydwer, and Mint, all donning huge smiles, eager to head off on our journey. We checked in our multitude of suitcases and board bags, then boarded our flight to the capital city of Antananarivo, Madagascar. On arrival we only had an hour to get through immigration, recheck our bags, then board the next flight to Tulear, Madagascar. This was a very busy airport, and movement through it was extremely difficult. I felt a culture shock almost immediately. What instantly caught my attention were the posters of plague and Ebola health warnings on the walls in the immigration line… I am quite the infectious disease enthusiast, so this was interesting to me. We climbed over trolleys to collect our board bags from the luggage belt, then began our sprint through the tiny hallways. I had three suitcases and two board bags on top of my cart… Bags would fall off and locals would come to my rescue and help me pile them back on. We rechecked the bags with just five minutes to spare, but luckily the flight attendants held the place for us, and the group of us sat down on the next flight, dripping with sweat, but relieved to have made our flight.
We arrived late at night and piled our bags into a little tuk-tuk motorbike. We had a 20-minute drive through the buzzing city of Tulear to get to the boat. It was remarkable how packed the markets were so late at night, and we had dinner at a local restaurant that night, then decided to set sail the following morning.
I woke up the next morning to loud, squeaky floorboards and dock lines and got up and had my first oatmeal breakfast of the trip – one of many. The boat then set off to the first destination, called Flame Bowls, a four-hour sail away from the dock. There was no internet on the boat so I couldn't check Windguru on the way out and we weren’t too sure what conditions to expect. I was overly excited so I opened my board bag and set up all my kite gear during this time: I put fins in, waxed all my boards, and unpacked all my. Then, finally, we arrived… to completely flat conditions. Honestly, it was hard to even tell where the wave was supposed to break since it was high tide. It’s interesting because at high tide the land is completely covered, so it looked as if were just in the middle of the ocean. There is such a big tidal range that through the day, the tide goes out, and the land becomes exposed and it becomes too shallow to even kite over. Although there were no waves, we decided to just go for a kite anyways. Launching a kite off a boat is always a challenge, so we thought we would give it a test run. The Luna Moon was especially difficult to launch off of because she’s an old schooner, which means there are ropes and shackles everywhere! This means there are plenty of places for lines to get caught. Patri pumped up my kite in a raised part in the middle, while I ran out my lines down the side. We attached the lines then wrapped the bar partially back up. I jumped in the water whilst he held the kite over the side of the boat. I swam away whilst unraveling my lines. The kite got a little power, so he let go. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite powered enough, and it started to drift towards the stern (where a dinghy hung). He rushed to the back and made sure my lines never got stuck on anything, and my kite was finally free of the boat. It was definitely sketchy, but it was a first semi-successful first boat launch.
After this first day, which at least had some wind, the conditions became worse. The wind dropped, and the waves were maxing out at 1ft. We were able to get onto the internet and discovered that these would be the conditions for the following few days. I wished I’d brought my longboard! The captain anchored the boat in the lee of the land, and we found activities to keep ourselves busy during this time. We did a lot of backflipping off the side of the boat, set up a rope swing, and played endless amounts of card games. Most nights we went to bed straight after dinner. I had my birthday on the boat during one of these down days, and one of the crew made me a birthday cake – he said this was the first birthday cake he had ever made! One morning we were woken by a whale. It came towards the boat and swam about three meters away from the side for a little while. Still awaiting the wind, we surfed a couple of breaks around Anakao. The waves were small, but it was a good warmup before the proper swell arrived.
The first day of real swell finally arrived halfway into the trip. We awoke to glassy waves that were visible in the distance through the binoculars. The captain picked up the anchor as we motored towards Flame Bowls. The tide was a little too low on arrival, so we had to wait until mid-high tide until we could go out. I had a bit of a stomach bug, and wasn’t feeling all that well, but I was also really eager to surf. The group paddled out, and it was just us in the line-up. It was head and a half high on the sets, and such an easy take off, and a pretty fast wave, so I had to pump a few times down the face so the wave didn’t outrun me. I tried to pull into a barrel on my first wave but didn’t pull up high enough, and had the lip of the wave land really hard onto my back.
We surfed for a few hours until the breeze kicked in around midday, and paddled back to the boat to eat lunch. We then got our kite gear ready and headed off to a nearby island that was easy to launch the kites from, and significantly easier than everyone launching from the boat. After launching, it took a few minutes to kite to the wave, weaving through coral heads. The wind was pretty offshore, making kiting a little difficult for me riding the left backside. Instead of trying to attempt big powerful backside hacks, I decided I would just search for barrels, since this wave is notoriously big and hollow. I was nervous because it wasn't like trying to kite at Lakey Peak in Indonesia, where if your kite goes down when trying to get barreled, it usually goes down in the channel. Here if the kite crashed it would be more likely you'd get washed up on the reef inside. I was pretty hesitant at first and I definitely didn't have a great session that afternoon. I just never seemed to be in the right spot… I was either too fast and outrunning the wave, or too deep, and having the lip slam onto my head.
A few days later another swell came through. Windguru said Flame Bowls would be three meters at 13 seconds, so we had high hopes. We anchored the boat back at Flame Bowls, a little close for comfort. The weather was much stormier than it had been the previous days, with cranking wind directly offshore and the wave was closing out a bit more than before. After about an hour of watching the waves, the wind switched a little sideshore, so we packed up our kite gear and took the dinghy to the island. I went out on my 6m Duotone Neo and 5’7 Pro Wam. Once I got to the break, I discovered it wasn’t as windy as I had anticipated and I was totally underpowered on the 6m. Unfortunately it would be very difficult and time consuming to go back to the island, deflate, take the dinghy back to the sailboat, and get another kite rigged up, so I remained on the 6m. Some local surfers arrived on a boat and paddled out. I was nervous that they would be upset that we were kiting, but they were actually very friendly. It did make it a little more difficult as I had to pull off of many waves to let the surfers’ go. We went in for a quick lunch then went out again for a sunset session. The waves got a bit bigger and the wind was still pretty offshore and had picked up a little, so I decided to go out on my 6m Neo again. I was now more motivated to get a good barrel after a couple of days of messing around with no proper good waves. Patri rode up to me and yelled that on the upwind section of the wave there was a step that formed. He told me to catch a set wave, look for the step, and pull up underneath it and grab my rail. This is the section that was barreling almost every set wave. Almost immediately a set wave rolled through and I did exactly as he said. I saw the step, bottom-turned underneath it, ducked down, grabbed the rail, and the wave pitched over me. My lines cut through the lip and I thought I was about to get blown up! Instead, I came flying out of the barrel to a member of the group, Rick, screaming in the channel. He was the only one to see it, as Ydwer and Mint were shooting on the end section of the reef and the girls were tacking on the outside. I was so stoked as this was the first solid barrel I had made it in and out of. There may have been no photo evidence, but that was definitely imprinted in my brain! Then not long after, just as the sun had set, I caught a wave at the end of the reef and pulled in, and the wave opened up into a nice little square barrel. This was definitely a memorable session. We landed our kites onto the dinghy in the dusk light, and made it back to the Luna Moon in the darkness.
On the final day that waves were forecast, the swell wasn’t pushing in the right direction for Flame Bowls to work. So we picked up anchor and went along the coast to a spot that might catch this change in direction. We all woke up late, pretty exhausted from the previous few days. There was a little town on the shore that we decided to take the dinghy to in the morning, since the waves looked small and the wind was at a weird direction. Children and dogs swarmed around us on arrival. We remained at the town bar for most of the morning until lunch. At around 3pm the wind improved a little, so we decided to go kite and just mess around at a nearby wave not far from the boat. The wave was alright but nothing special, as it was super choppy down the face. But then the wind started to crank and I was really overpowered on my 7m Neo. Meanwhile, Ydwer and Mint took the dinghy and went on an exploration to another wave which we couldn't really see. They were gone a while, so Patri decided to kite downwind to check it out too. When no-one returned, Catta, Jalou and I decided to go find them and see why they were taking so long… We arrived at the wave and it was pumping! The waves were easily double overhead and the sets wouldn't stop. We arrived to see Patri on a wave, and I think he did about 10 turns down the face. It seemed like it would never end. With only five of us in the line-up, it was so easy to catch set waves. The wind direction was so perfect… You could just park your kite in one spot and do turns down the line. Up until this point I had a difficult time riding backside, but this was the first time in my life that I felt comfortable cranking turns in the backside pocket. I think we all got some of the best turns of our life here. Mint and Ydwer jumped in the water to film and shoot photos, but the current was too strong and they drifted away, so they jumped back on the boat and filmed from two drones. We all kited until sunset. It was a really long tack back upwind to the shore, but it was all so, so worth it.
This feature originally appeared in TheKiteMag #36. To subscribe, head here.