Albert Einstein wrote ‘If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it’.
For most sailors, the concept of holding a sailing regatta at high altitude in one of the most remote and land-locked locations in the world might seem totally crazy. But this is what the team that conceived of the ‘Roof of the World’ Regatta set out to achieve in September 2014 – a regatta like no other…
Lake Karakul (‘Black Lake’) lies at an altitude of just under 4000m in the Tajik Pamirs and, being approximately 380 km2 it offers serious sailing opportunities. Furthermore, being formed from a meteorite impact 25 million years ago it lies in a wide depression surrounded by magnificent snow-covered peaks rising to Peak Lenin at 7136m altitude. The lake is served solely by water from local glaciers and for 7 months of the year is completely frozen. However, from June to October it turns from ice-white to turquoise-blue.
Intrepid sailors from all parts of the world were invited to travel to the lake and participate in what would be the highest altitude sailing event in the world, ever. Perhaps surprisingly, expectations of the event organisers were high – they knew that there are always some people willing to take on such a challenge. Sailors, such as Columbus, Shackleton and, more recently, Tristan Jones, have braved the elements to reach previously improbable destinations. By July 2014, 26 participants from 12 different countries had registered to join the regatta, including kite-surfers, wind-surfers, dinghies and even a catamaran.
However, in early August unforeseen problems arose. Initially, rumours circulated about an impending closure of Tajikistan’s borders, and then restrictions in the issuing of visas occurred in several Tajik embassies around the globe. Prospective regatta participants were faced with the possibility that they might travel 5000 miles to the event to find themselves unable to access their destination. 26 participants rapidly diminished to just five remaining sailors who already had visas and were willing to take a risk with the border – two German kite-surfers driving from Berlin; one kite-surfer flying in to Osh from the UK; a US dinghy sailor who already worked in Tajikistan; and a colleague of the dinghy sailor.
Tony and Jackie Nelson, the regatta event organizers have visited Karakul on six previous occasions. They work closely with local tourism development organisation META (Murghab Eco-tourism Association, www.meta.tj) to market the Pamir Highway as an adventure destination. Gulnara Apandieva, the Executive Director of META, was the local coordinator and she, Tony and Jackie had spent over 12 months in preparations for the regatta.
Their journey started in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and they travelled south on the highway up to the Alay valley at 3000m, where they acclimatized for 3 days, admiring the Pamir wall on the south side of the valley. They travelled with Polly Crathorne, who was the first participant to sign up for the event. Polly was the UK’s number one kite-surfing freestyle champion in 2012 and she only took moments to decide to join the adventure.
“I just knew this would be the adventure of a life-time and the opportunity to crack some world records was enough for me to want to come along, no matter what the odds were on us being able to sail.”
On Thursday 11th September they headed out from the Alay valley towards the Tajik border. It was the moment that they dreaded and relished – would they be refused entry into Tajikistan? The Tajik border post lies on the apex of the Kyzyl-Art pass, at an altitude of 4280m and on arrival it was immediately clear that there were no unusual hold-ups. Within 45 minutes they were through the border and travelling the 50 km down to the north shore of the lake.
The regatta, after all
The village of Karakul lies on the eastern edge of the lake, close to the Chinese border. Approximately 220 families live in the village and although in Tajikistan, the inhabitants are ethnically Kyrgyz and speak Kyrgyz. Most of the families rely on nomadic herding of sheep, goats, cattle and yaks. The village has no electricity or running water and conditions are very basic.
In the early afternoon our second participant arrived, also travelling from Osh. Kelly, from the US, works for an organisation in north-western Tajikistan and regularly sails on a reservoir in that part of the country but at a more reasonable altitude of just 400m above sea-level. She had brought with her an Aquaglide ‘Multi-sport’ 270 dinghy/windsurfer which took up only marginally more luggage space than Polly’s kite-surfer.
By 4:30pm that evening they had all unloaded their luggage at the Sadat homestay in Karakul, which was to be the base of operations for the regatta, and were down at the lake shore. Polly was about to sail on the lake in beautiful sunshine and kick-off the regatta. With four local children in attendance she kite-surfed until her fingers and toes were numb with the coldness of the water. The wind was reasonable but the reduced air density (approximately 65% compared to sea-level) made for limited opportunities to jump. However, as the lake water has a higher salt content than normal sea-water, the added buoyancy enabled Polly to skate the surface more easily and with less drag – speed was not a problem.
On Day 2, winds again arrived late in the afternoon. The weather conditions were excellent with outstanding views of Peak Lenin and snow-laden mountains that surround the lake. Kelly inflated and rigged the Aquaglide and sailed in relatively light winds whilst Polly held off going out until the winds grew stronger. This evening attracted more children to the lake shore from the village and approximately 30 kids watched the sailing and were eager to help in launching and landing the craft.
On the first official day of the regatta event our German participants arrived early morning. They had spent 8 days driving from Berlin, via Moscow and Kazakhstan to get to the event but their car had broken down in ‘no-man’s land’ on the Kyzyl-Art pass before the Tajik border. They had to spend a night at over 4200m altitude, having had no acclimatization. Benny Stefanski, a former professional volleyball player, learned to kite-surf this year and just came on a spontaneous desire to see Central Asia.
Kathrin Borgwardt, Benny’s driving companion for the marathon road-trip, is ranked world number 1 kite-board racer and has won the Asian tour 5 times for racing and 3 times for freestyle. She runs a kite-school and resort in Boracay, Philippines.
Kite-surfing in the snow
Despite feeling the oncoming effects of altitude sickness, Kathrin, along with Polly and Kelly decide to try an alternative location for sailing in the evening. Weather conditions had slightly deteriorated and large storm clouds accumulated over the mountains making an impressive backdrop to sailing out on the lake. Kelly tried out the wind surfing mode of her Aquaglide but soon found the water temperatures of the northern shore of the lake to be much colder than down by the village.
Despite some excellent sailing performances in adverse conditions and with darkness and the water temperatures they raced and free-styled for over an hour. All 3 sailors later commented on how the combination of really cold water temperatures and the difficulty in getting sufficient oxygen at this altitude had made competing extremely tough.
On Day 4 (Sunday 14th September), Kathrin continued to feel very sick, suffering from sickness and headaches as a consequence of the rapid rise to this altitude. The villagers also expressed disappointment at not having seen any sailing the evening before, however, by lunchtime they were enjoying a game of beach-volleyball thanks to Benny. He had brought two volleyball pitches, nets and several balls and he proceeded to conduct a training session for nearly 30 kids. Volleyball is considered the number one sport in the region.
By late afternoon and despite the advent of snow, the young men of the village had also been drawn to the beach for the volleyball but later everyone stopped playing to watch as first Kelly and then Polly went out onto the lake for more sailing.
Over breakfast on Day 5, the events of what was agreed to be the final day of the regatta were planned. Thankfully Kathrin was feeling a little better although reluctant to try the low water temperatures again – the Philippines clearly offering a more pleasurable experience. Benny and Kathrin also paid a visit to the local school to formally donate the volleyball equipment to the school.
The whole regatta team set about running volleyball matches and power-kiting on the beach through the afternoon with over 300 villagers watching or participating. The local Imam declared that he had never seen so many locals, of all age groups, out enjoying themselves at one time. During the day a team of 10 Tajik journalists arrived from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to report the event. Our fifth and final participant also arrived. Andy had driven from Dushanbe with the journalists to partner with Kelly in her sail boat.
By 5pm the wind had again grown stronger and the Aquaglide was launched with the pair of them as crew. An inflatable river raft had also been made available by a local tour operator, and a small team of locals ventured out in it under Jane’s captaincy. Finally, Benny and Polly went out in increasingly strong winds. They raced at high speeds in the most turbulent conditions of the five days. Eventually they both had to come in – Benny was nearly frozen as he didn’t have a dry-suit and he could no longer control the kite properly.
The following morning brought fond farewells and departures in different directions. Despite sickness, the cold water and adversities the absurd event had successfully happened – the highest altitude sailing regatta in the world, ever…