Circling Sardinia Part III: Decision Time

The Dance: Ostertag riding bumps at home in San Francisco Bay. Courtesy photo.
The Dance: Ostertag riding bumps at home in San Francisco Bay. Courtesy photo. Joe Scarnici / Getty Images

By Robert Ostertag

A strong headwind is predicted for late morning. I go to sleep early with the alarm set for 7:30 so I can get on the water early and beat that wind. But 7:30 turns into 8, turns into breakfast, turns into checkout, turns into buying more sunscreen, turns into a hunt for an ATM, and before I know it the phone says it’s 10:30 and I am just putting the boat in the water. I paddle an hour in the morning calm and then the head wind shows up with all the punctuality of a German train. For another hour I make good headway. A little headwind can actually balance the boat for you and improve your skills, as the increase resistance makes obvious everything that is good and bad about your stroke. But after an hour the wind kicks up another notch or two, and further progress comes at a high cost of energy.

//Circling Sardinia Part 1//

Decision time. I have come 14 miles today. If I can make 7 more I will round the farthest east point of Sardinia and change my heading from northeast to northwest, which will put the wind which is forecast for the next few days on my tail. There are no beach cafes or towns until just after the point, so if I continue I am committed to the full 7 miles against the wind. I check in with my engine room and discover I have sufficient fuel, so I decide to go for it.

The miles glide by in spite of the wind and soon I am coming around the point and looking for an exit. A most beautiful secluded beach appears, flanked by rock masterpieces on both sides, just a few people sunning themselves, and what looks to be a classy restaurant perched above it all. Bingo! I approach and immediately see that the rocky ocean floor is much closer to the surface than I expected. Uh oh. I have that extra-large rudder sticking out down below. To land here without hitting it on a rock will be a trick, but at this point turning around without hitting a rock will be just as tricky. I may have to dismount and swim the boat to shore without my weight pushing it low in the water. This thought has just entered my mind when I hear a very unhappy crunch and realize that I have hit the rudder on a rock. Ugh.

I manage to turn around and paddle to the next beach, a few miles farther at the tiny village of Santa Lucia. I pull out the boat and examine the rudder and find real damage. No, it didn’t snap clean off, but it could easily do so now if stressed by wind and waves. Fortunately after the first rudder broke, generous Luca supplied me with a conventionally-sized spare which I now install, but with two rudders down, continuing without a spare would be inviting trouble. I will contact Luca tonight to see what might be done. In the meantime I find Stefania Benedetti, the proprietor of Santa Lucia’s only lodging, the Vista Mar bed and breakfast, and have a fresh fish dinner at one of the town’s only two eating establishments, where the chef is also the fisherman who caught the fish.

Stefania is funny, warm, gracious, a little bit crazy, and very proud of her culture. Sardinia personified. She asks me to leave my gear to dry on the clothes rack she keeps on the sidewalk. She is mildly offended when I ask if something might disappear from the rack during the night. “We are principled people,” she explains.

In the morning my sunglasses have gone missing. Tears well up in Stefania’s eyes in shame for what she imagines I will think of her people now. I console her by explaining that in my country the sunglasses would not have lasted five minutes.

Two days later I am paddling into the port of Olbia, whose 58,000 residents make it a large city by Sardinian standards. Luca’s friend Attilo Perino picks me up, puts me up at his home overnight, repairs the broken rudder in his garage, and takes me shopping for sunglasses. Though he was not born here, after 25 years on the island he has all the warmth and generosity of a Sardinian native. At night the sea kayakers of Olbia throw a barbecue for me, which turns into one of the most memorable experiences of the trip. The setting is a house in the countryside, with nothing around but quiet and nothing overhead but stars. We begin with homemade red wine, then homemade white wine, then more red wine, then an incredible assortment of barbecued meats piled high on gorgeous cork platters with myrtle garnish. There are vegetables and a potato pie. Just when I think I cannot eat a single bite more, the fish arrives. The wine flows and flows. Followed by a seemingly endless stream of grappas and other aperitifs. Soon there are women dancing and singing on the chairs. A perfect evening I will never forget.

The Costa Smeralda

Beyond Olbia is the famed Costa Smeralda of northern Sardinia. Here the landscape becomes even more dramatic, with ever more fantastic rock formations and many offshore islands which are among the most beautiful paddling destinations in the world. The Costa Smeralda is also one of the wealthiest places in the world, a favorite of the super-rich who party-hop between here, Monaco, and the Riviera. Though the physical beauty is stunning, socially and culturally you are hardly in Sardinia anymore.

The first clue that the setting had changed are the golf courses which start appearing on shore. Then come the luxury resorts. Then the luxury craft: giant speed boats and personal yachts large enough to hold a helicopter on deck so the owner can drop in for a night or two wherever his staff have taken the boat. These yachts are so large the pilot cannot see a kayaker directly off the bow, and the speedboats are constantly taking sharp turns in their high speed race to nowhere. The biggest hazard for the next few days will be neither wind nor rocks but money.

The Costa Smeralda, or Emerald Coast.
The Costa Smeralda, or Emerald Coast.

The days are a blur of more mild wind and rippling blue, hot sun and visible ocean floor, Dali-esque rock formations and white sand beaches, luxury boats, faster and bigger luxury boats, and more faster and more bigger luxury boats. The weather is hot and the wind is at my back. There are rock gardens to paddle through and island trails to hike. I paddle by inflatable tender boats picking up the uber rich from their yachts to ferry them to lavish beach parties. Part of my on-the-water meditation becomes not getting annoyed at how close the racing boats come, or how every time I get in rhythm with the wind a boat wake hits me crosswise and screws it all up.

The northern tip of Isola Maddalena is the most dramatic landscape yet, and I pull in for the night at a commercial campground. Of all the campgrounds in Sardinia, this one has the prime real estate, yet the place turns out to be a sort of Bates Motel of Sardinian camping. This is possibly the single most beautiful spot in all of Sardinia yet there are almost no guests. The receptionist is a somewhat icy Romanian. The “chef” has no teeth. The cafe serves only one dish: spaghetti with “meat sauce” (I cannot determine what type of animal had provided the meat). The rusted stove in my bungalow looks like a booby trap. All the employees are similarly muscular men with shaved heads and torsos plastered in gang tattoos.

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.

The “bungalow” I am given for the night is an old trailer which smells terrible and has no screens on the windows. I get to choose between closing the windows and creating a sweltering stinky sauna, or opening them and offering myself up as a mosquito feast. After alternating between these two dreary options, I make a jail break, grab my sheet and my can of Off! and give beach camping a try. The beach is breathtaking at night, with the Maddalena archipelago spread out before me and the starry night overhead. But the mosquitos do their best to remind me I am not in heaven yet, and the cold night sand beneath my sheet keeps me too chilled to sleep. Eventually I beat a retreat to the trailer, close the windows, and sweat out the night, reconciling myself to the fact that any thought of beach camping went out the window when I could not get my hands on a tent.

In the morning I paddle away as quickly as possible, and paddle straight into a drug deal. Or at least what I think is a drug deal. I am making a five-mile open water crossing and there is a boat directly in my path with three men aboard who appear to be fishing. Or something. Whatever it is they are doing, they are completely engrossed and fail to notice my approach. When I am within easy speaking distance and am about to call out a Bongiorno, they look up and notice me with a visible start, then hit the gas. Voom. Their boat goes fast. I have never seen a boat go this fast. Whatever it was they were doing on the boat they most definitely did not want me to see it, and they leave behind the largest dry bag I have ever seen, floating in the water. For a moment I have a sort of giggling curiously about the bag. I straddle my boat for stability and stare at the bobbing in the water. What could be in there? Heroin? Cash? Body parts? A wave of common sense washes over me. I give the bag a wink, and continue on my merry way.

I am really in a groove now with the Code Zero, and before I know it 35 miles of blue has passed under the boat. There are few places to land here, and finally I pull in at a tiny marina tucked in among the rocks and discover a problem I had not anticipated: accidentally landing in a private community of the super rich. It takes me a while to figure out where I am. After much misunderstanding, cold stares, and finally a mention of the police, I scurry away. I had felt like the day was done at 35 miles, and the extra miles I must paddle now feel a lot like work, but soon I pull in at the beautiful town of Isola Rossa, find a lovely hotel on the beach, and after an Aperol spritz all is right with the world.

Circling Sardinia Part IV: Things Go Wrong, and then Go Wrong Again. And Again

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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