Team Uruguay Natural at Eco-Challenge. Part 6 - Racing The Storm To The Finish Line
I have full confidence in the expertise and courage of the team, so we keep the fast canoe and set off, with the caveat that when it gets dark the organization may force us to stop on an island.
Thiago plotted the course, and he is feeling much better and more animated ahead of the last leg of the race. I see our destination clearly on the horizon, Mana Island, and we set off. I easily take the helm and we gradually gain speed, the outrigger responds, and we enjoy a bit of fresh air at the start of those 45 kilometers. Little by little we reach Bones, who are parallel to us at about 400 meters, and when the afternoon light falls we leave them behind as a helicopter that watches over us. A boat from the organization approaches as it gets dark, and will accompany us all the way, watching over our safety.
Some wind picks up and clouds threaten us, because the organization's decision to send us to Beachcomber Island to weather the storm is hanging over us. When the darkness is absolute and the wind doesn't affect our pace, the boat approaches to a distance where we can talk and tells us that we can go on, they will stay by our side. The joy that the news gives us seems to drive the outrigger as if it has an engine. We go strongly and without worrying about the course, because to finish the message from the boat they tell us that the light, as powerful as a lighthouse, that we see flashing in the distance, is the CP next to the island.
We keep on paddling, sometimes we lose concentration and a voice of encouragement coming from any of us calls us to order and we get back into a strong rhythm. We do not eat anything, we do not drink water, we just advance hour after hour towards a light that calls us with insistence. When we pass in front of a long island that appears on the map, I inform them that we are remarkably close. The CP is in a boat anchored near the coast, so we head straight for the spotlight, which now almost dazzles us despite the fact that there are still 500 meters away. With only 200 meters to go, something happens.
A strong undertow takes us sideways and pulls us away from our direction abruptly. I struggle with the rudder and almost with my body out of the canoe, I manage to straighten it, but as soon as we are in the right direction, a sudden wind hits our face and stops us in the water. In those moments we come across a team that comes out of nowhere and surely has just left the CP, going towards the finish.
We do not see who it is and are not interested but later we find it was Bend Racing, but now we fight hard to make those last meters to the little boat. The CP manager stretches out his arm and Thiago, who is carrying the passport, leans out to hand it over. We row hard and I steer with all my strength, but we do not make contact and pass by. The confusion is great, I try to organize a constant paddling that, combined with an extreme turn of the rudder, will take us turn in a circle to try again. Now I am aiming straight for the center of the boat with murderous intentions, we will not miss the opportunity again, because the wind is already tremendous. Just when we are about to hit, the CP marshal deflects the tip of the canoe with an expert hand, so in one stroke, we are parallel to the boat and Thiago hands over the passport. Seconds later, we continue at full speed. Thiago, who speaks English has received some news from the marshal, that we could not hear.
We paddled like the possessed and laboriously managed to go around the tip of the island, so now we can see the lights of Mana Island, four kilometers away. We make little progress despite our efforts because the wind prevents us from going in the right direction or we risk turning around. Although I steer furiously to avoid it, every wave that arrives floods us, Thiago is pessimistic about our progress, so I entrust him with the task of bailing out, which he does frantically.
According to him, some lights that look like a fishing factory are the reference mentioned by the marshal at the CP, but I cannot see anything that resembles the finish on the coast. I cannot see the map either, so I do not know if there is a rocky peninsula or high mountain to cover the view, but I am afraid.
We made little progress and I hardly control the boat, which is loaded with water, as we head towards the coast. I am afraid that I am not up to the leadership required to get us to the finish line and I blatantly lie when I tell Thiago, in a calm voice, that we are advancing, slowly but surely. Federica and Gonzalo do not stop for a second. We are passing in front of those "reference" lights, when Thiago, who does not understand much English, shouts at me in Portuguese: "Rubo, the lights aren't a reference, it's the finish!”
An excitement similar to that of a mother recovering her lost pups comes over me and I scream with rage and joy, while, no matter the risk, I aim straight for the shore and shout at my brave companions to paddle for their lives, because speed will save us from the broadside of the waves.
We paddle as if the race had just begun and in a matter of minutes we enter a small bay that has almost no wind and where the waves do not break. We see torches, many people, familiar faces. I hear, as if in a dream, Lali's voice shouting like crazy as we have fulfilled our promise to arrive on her birthday. Seconds later, we touch the shore and jump out of the boat, among flashes and cameras. We are so weakened that we cannot lift the outrigger onto the shore, until volunteers come and help us to put it down definitively on the sand.
We pass the finish line and join Lali, the whole team, while Kevin Hodder himself hugs us tightly and places a medal on our chest. I am taken to a reserved area for an interview and I cannot concentrate on giving great answers. When I come back, Mindy Zemrak efficiently guides us out of there, with every word and gesture she makes it means that it is over, that from now on she is in charge. We are transported to the hotel, fed, and Federica is immediately put in the hands of medical staff who no longer takes their eyes off her. We sleep a restless sleep, in a daze I see those who take care of Federica, who absolutely unconscious, lets herself be cared for.
It is dawn and we wake up; in a golf cart we take Federica to breakfast. Her leg is a strange mass, so when we come back the head doctor tells us that there is a risk of septicemia, it has to be treated urgently and we have to consent to it. Of course we all accept and about ten minutes later, the helicopter that was waiting for orders, takes off with her and Lali, no longer the assistant but a concerned friend, for a direct trip to Lautoka's hospital, on Viti Levu.
Gonzalo, Thiago, and I, watched the takeoff with excitement, with the water at our waists on a coral beach that we cannot enjoy, in silence and waving. Although I am confused by the sequence of events that overwhelms me, I only care that my hand is seen from afar, that my greeting reaches its destination.