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Adventure Travel

Jun 21, 2018

#VanLife Meets Sailing: A Tom and Sofia Update, One Year Later

Tom de Dorlodot is a professional paraglider & paramotoring pilot, partnering with companies such as Red Bull, Volkswagen, Garmin and Patagonia. Sofia is Argentinian, born in Paraguay and the daughter of a diplomat, making her more than familiar with a lifetime of travelling

WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

We think they’re a pretty cool couple. 

On the 21st June 2017, The Outdoor Journal published a story about Thomas de Dorlodot and Sofia Pineiro. Having come from a VanLife, they were taking to the sea. The plan? To find the most beautiful places on the planet to paraglide, dive and surf.

Meanwhile, they would welcome professional athletes and friends to join them along the way. Their only goal? Seek intensity. We caught up with them last week, to find out how they are getting on.

You can read the original article from last year here, or alternatively check out the Search Projects video below.

TOJ: “Seek Intensity”, that’s the quote you left us with last year as your main objective. How did that go? What were your most ‘intense’ moments? Do you have one in particular you can share with us?

Tom: The year has been hectic. When we left Belgium, we didn’t know it at the time, but we really had no clue about sailing! I couldn’t even hold the helm. I was not even sure that I could take the boat out of the marina. So we left Brussels with a few friends that could sail, a bit better than us, and basically it’s been a year of learning, with all the possible mistakes you could make on a sailboat. But we didn’t break anything, so that’s good. 

Sofia: In the beginning, it was a good and a bad thing for us that we started with the worst conditions. With no experience, and difficult weather to navigate, we had to learn fast and adapt quickly. We developed good processes and reflexes on board. These were good lessons to learn early on.

Benoit Delfosse

Tom: One of the best moments was arriving in the Azores. It is just an incredible place, a very wild island. I remember one moment in particular, when we woke up in the morning and were sailing towards Faial. In a very calm sea, a whale came out of the water just a few meters away from the boat and exhaled, we got so wet. The whale just came out and pshht, we took all the humidity and the water in our faces. It was really crazy, it was the first time we really saw a whale that close to the boat. And then, the next day we saw ten sperm whales, dolphins everywhere, it was just incredible. We love the Azores so much that we actually found a piece of land there in Horta with a small ruin on it; when we finish our travels, we will build a house there.

TOJ: How did this year on a boat differ from the ‘van life’ you were doing before? Have you adjusted? Do you have a preference between one or the other, which and why?

Sofia: The boat life, by far. There are many similarities between the two lifestyles, but not when you compare driving for 10 hours or sailing for 10 hours. When you sail you’re always outside, the air is pure, you leave no harm behind you and it’s just you in the middle of this huge ocean. I think that is quite unique.

Tom: You also don’t need gas, that’s a good thing. Most of the time we have the wind in our sails, and it’s silent, you can just choose your own line in the water. It’s different when you’re on the road and you have to respect speed limits and red lights. The freedom of being able change plans in any moment is an amazing feeling. For example, we were in Dublin yesterday, and then for a moment you consider, “Why not go to England” and BOOM, you cross the sea and you go to England. You cannot replaces this feeling of freedom, knowing that the Azores were only 7 days away, which might look far, but you learn to travel at a different speed.

Tom de Dorlodot

When you walk in the mountains, ski, or cycle through a country, you have the time to see things, to meet people. It’s the same with a boat, because you don’t do long distances but everyday you’re in a different place. There’s also the sporty side to it; taking care of a 12-meter sailboat when in heavy conditions can be challenging, but very exciting.

Sofia: It’s common to experience strange feelings too, you reach land after a couple of days without being in a city, and you feel like an alien! You need a few hours to re-adapt and kind of act “normal” again.

Yann Verstraeten

Tom: The boat is actually a very good way to disconnect. It’s a bit like high altitudes in the mountains. You leave the coast, and you’re out there by yourself. The higher in the mountains you travel, the less people you meet. We have a lot of time to read, and we don’t need a watch or clock; we eat when we’re hungry, we sleep when we’re tired. Of course, it also comes with a few downsides. We have to take care of the boat, and the pictures you see on Instagram is the “glossy part”, but also we have problems, the boat took water a few times, we broke things.

“The good thing is that when you leave land, you only think about one thing: to come back. And when you’re back, you only think about leaving again.”

You always want to be on the move, and it’s great because when you come back to the land you get a good shower again, you appreciate the simple things. The restaurants, nice food, and sitting on a bench that doesn’t move around.

TOJ: How is the boat? and let’s talk about the SEARCH project.

Tom: The boat is doing really well. We expected to have a few problems, because it was out of the water for 7 years and we worked for 8 months to fix it. Now it’s in super good shape, everything is fine so we think it’s the perfect tool for moving efficiently from one place to the other.

Benoit Delfosse

Regarding the SEARCH project, it’s a very large search. The goal is to try to find the best places in the world to fly, we’ve encountered many places and made a good start. From the moment we landed in Gran Canaria (Canary Islands) and talked to the local pilots, we couldn’t stop grinning.

“One of the guys said that no one had crossed the island from one side to the other, they thought it was impossible. 2 days later, we did it.”

For us, it’s pretty cool to be able to arrive by boat, with the gliders, take them out and make a flight that local people have been dreaming about doing for years. It was a great moment. However, we’re not only looking for flying places, we’re also looking to continue to learn and to get to know new people.

Sofia: Gliding is taking a new dimension, there’s the sport side of it, but also the discovery when you find a new place, with a new culture. We also have the mission to not only show the beauty of our planet to the world. Having seen the bad things about the environment and pollution, we want to convey these findings to others. Try to expand the community awareness, for example by having a group of scientists coming onboard.

Benoit Delfosse

Tom: At the end of the day, it’s all about sharing. We are happy to invite people onboard, we had Simon Charrière, who is a professional skier, sponsored by Patagonia, recently. We had Gaetan Doligez who is an alpinist. These guys come onboard and they share their stories, and then they touch their own community. We now feel that we have more responsibility to share what we see, not only the dreamy part, but also what we think is wrong. That’s the direction of our focus for the next month.

TOJ:  With regards to the environment, climate change, etc, you’ve been in contact with it every day, from flying to diving, and everything in between. Did you have any moments where you said “wow, the climate is really changing”

Tom: One of our main concerns is plastic in the ocean. Unlike the CO2 emissions, this is a kind of pollution that you can see, that you can witness. The other day, whilst we were in the Azores, we saw seven big sea turtles. When you get close to them they get scared and usually go under water, but one was chewing a piece of white plastic, because it looked like jellyfish. She wouldn’t let it go and looked a bit sick. We don’t really realise how bad it is for the environment and we’ve been throwing plastic in the ocean for many years now. It’s difficult to acknowledge, because it’s difficult to count all the fish in the water; but when we speak with the locals and fishermen that have been sailing for 40 years, they all reach the same conclusion: we’ve reached a limit. We’ve gone too far and we now need to realise it.

Tom de Dorlodot

As a paraglider I’m super concerned about the weather, I have to look for stability and good weather to fly. When you speak with the local pilots, for example in the Canary Islands, where they started flying over 25 years ago, they say “we used to have better days, more stable conditions”. Everyone tends to say that everything is more extreme now. It moves you. When you’re connected to nature every day, it’s different then when you’re living in a city.

“You eat your sandwich wrapped in plastic and it looks normal, but if you live on the sea and you see a piece of plastic every 40 meters, you realise there is something wrong.”

Sofia: Now we have an opportunity to change habits. For example, when we go to the supermarket, we can only take the vegetable that are not wrapped in plastic. Our amount of waste has beed reduced drastically.

Tom de Dorlodot

Tom: I wish we could catch more fish, but sometimes it feels like the sea is empty. We didn’t manage to catch a single fish from the Azores to here (Ireland). We have good techniques, but we caught nothing. Then you come to Ireland, and you see massive boats dragging the ocean and taking tons of fish out of the water each day. We are really trying to make an effort on this side and I think it’s going to get better, but sometimes it’s impossible: you go to the supermarket and it’s plastic everywhere, everything is wrapped into plastic. I think now the consumer has the power to change this, by not buying things wrapped into plastic, and this can make a difference.

Benoit Delfosse

TOJ: You’ve embraced “a life with less” philosophy with regards to materialism, what have you found is really indispensable? What did you think was going to be essential, but actually wasn’t?

Tom: I think that nothing is essential at the end of the day. You need good food, healthy food, you need to catch a fish now and then.

“Fashion:”we are not into it, we try to just work with responsible brands…”

We are in a little bubble, for sure, but we’re not trying to live outside society, we are just on another page now. This kind of trip changes you, for sure.

TOJ: Do you receive clothing throughout the year, through your sponsors, or you just have a set of clothes from a year ago that you re-use endlessly?

Tom: We work with Patagonia and they have a “worn-wear” philosophy. You have to use your clothing until they are completely destroyed, and even then we can still fix it. We like it when your jacket looks used, and they want you to use it until the very end. Now we have a complete set, and I don’t think we will need a new one from the new collection. If we do, our old set of clothes will go to Pakistan, to the high-altitude porters that will need it more than us. We are happy to work with Patagonia who is trying to be eco-responsible in a way.

TOJ: One last thing about last year: scariest moment?

Tom: At the beginning when we left the Baleares and we went to Gibraltar, we got stuck in a thunderstorm in the middle of the sea. We took the sails out, and for 2 hours we were fighting in really heavy conditions, massive waves, with thunder all around us. At every lightning strike you think “ok, the next one is for me”. If it strikes you or your boat, you sink pretty fast. That was super scary. But we stayed focused, we stayed calm.

“It’s a very big lesson of humility, being on the ocean out there, you feel like you’re nothing. It’s impressive.”

TOJ: What’s next?

Tom: We are going to Scotland next week. From Scotland, further North, to the Shetland Island, and from there we cross to Norway. We think we will be there end of July, and we will spend a month / a month and a half in Norway; and then back down to Belgium. I have to go to Turkey for another expedition, but with 4x4s this time, with the SEARCH project team. We have 2 Amaroks (VW pick up) because Horacio is also sponsored by VW now, and with the roof-tents, a cameraman plus the photographer (John Stapels) we will do a kind of “old school” SEARCH project. Dirt bags, small budget, searching for places to fly. I think Turkey has lots of potential. Then we take the boat back to the Canary Islands, and from there we cross the Atlantic.

You can follow Search Projects on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

You can find Tom on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

You can find Sofia on Instagram.

Find your own sustainable paragliding or sailing trip on OutdoorVoyage.com

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Jul 06, 2018

Rescue from the Ice: A Narrow Escape In Iceland

Two men drive a jeep off a glacier and into a crevasse in Iceland. A US Air Force PJ recounts his role in a civilian rescue mission while stationed at a naval base in the North Atlantic.

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WRITTEN BY

Skiy Detray

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal. You can subscribe here.

November, 2006. The call came in as our team was having dinner at our base in Keflavik, Iceland.  A civilian jeep had fallen into a crevasse on the massive Hofsjokull Glacier. The jeep was wedged 80 feet down, with unknown passengers trapped inside. Accessing the jeep and saving these people would be complex and dangerous, so local authorities had called in the American military’s elite rescue team.

As a Pararescueman (or PJ) I worked on a team with some of the most elite soldiers in the U.S. military.  PJs are highly specialized personnel, trained to conduct high-risk combat and civilian rescue operations at a moment’s notice, anywhere in the world.  Unlike other special forces – Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets – who are trained to hunt and take life, the PJ’s primary mission is to save life: we resort to lethal force only when necessary to protect our patient.  I was stationed at Keflavik, from where we conducted military rescue operations but also extended our services to the local Icelandic population when needed.

We rushed to the staging area where our equipment was waiting for us, along with a fleet of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.  I could feel the adrenaline surging in my blood, my heart rate quickening.

The key to successful execution of high-pressure rescue is to remain calm. No matter how unlikely success may appear, one must be confident that he or she has the skills to overcome any situation.  One must improvise, based on instinct and years of training, often thinking well outside the box.  Since the very first days of our training, we had been taught to adapt, overcome and complete the mission at any cost.

The U.S. Navy base at Keflavik was established during World War II to defend Iceland and secure northern Atlantic air routes, and remains in operation 60 years later. The PJs stationed at Keflavik were on hand primarily to support F-16 fighter jets maintaining patrols over the icy northern Atlantic Ocean.  Any time an F-16 is in flight, two assigned PJs are on alert and ready to immediately respond to any incident.  Additional PJs are on alert 24 hours a day to respond to civilian rescues for the country of Iceland, a service provided to extend goodwill to our hosts.  When PJs are not performing actual missions, they spend their days preparing and training, always sharpening their skills for future missions.

At my locker in the PJ building, I suited up for the mission in warm layers and Gore-Tex.  I grabbed my rucksack and filled it with goggles, gloves and miscellaneous survival gear. Nearby, my teammates Alex and Matt suited up for the mission.  In addition to the usual medical equipment, we loaded an extrication device (“Jaws of Life”), extensive high-angle ice-rescue gear, and a full complement of glacier camping equipment, as we had no way of knowing how long the operation would require us to be out there. We headed outside to the launch pad, where maintenance personnel were making last-second checks on our bird.

“Ready to rock and roll,” I responded.

The HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter is the Air Force’s primary aircraft for combat and civilian search and rescue operations, a modified version of the well-known Blackhawk choppers, equipped with advanced cold-weather capability for the sub-arctic environments across the north Atlantic.  In addition to rescue operations, the Pave Hawk is frequently used for humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions throughout the world and is often seen in images of U.S. military personnel providing supplies or aid to victims of natural disasters.  

As the thud-thud-thud of the chopper blades slowly increased in tempo, we loaded up men and gear into the cabin and were greeted by our pilot, Captain Thomas.  

“How are you guys doing back there?” Captain Thomas asked over the intercom.  

“Ready to rock and roll,” I responded. As a crucial member of our team, the pilot is all business during a mission, but Captain Thomas had a style and grace far beyond most of the guys: I had noticed her long, curly chestnut hair and very fit athletic build. Being a woman in the Air Force special operations is not easy, and I saw our pilot as inspiring proof that gender differences are often irrelevant in the face of hard work, talent, and raw determination.
I had been a PJ for three years, and was working towards a promotion to team leader.  On this mission, Alex was officially the team leader, responsible for important decisions and ultimately accountable for the outcome of the mission. On paper, I was still a team member, but recently I’d been assuming more of a leadership role as my confidence and experience mounted.

“PJ Team Lead, how do you want to execute this?” Captain Thomas asked over the intercom. No response. After an awkward 30 seconds of silence, I looked over at Alex and was stunned to see the uncertainty in his eyes.  

Again the pilot asked, “PJ Team Lead, what is the game plan here?”  Another 20 awkward seconds went by, as time seemed to stand still.  Meanwhile Alex, a bona fide bad-ass and highly seasoned PJ, was simply freezing up. At the same time, I felt comfortable and in my element, having spent years in the mountains, navigating crevasses and climbing mountain faces and frozen waterfalls as a recreational alpinist, and high-angle rescue was one of my strongest skills in the quiver of PJ specialties.

I keyed the microphone and responded to Captain Thomas. “Let’s do a flyover of the scene to take a look, then try to find a safe place to land.  From there we can move as a rope team to the crevasse or perhaps you can drop us in on the hoist.”  

“Roger that,” Captain Thomas responded, her voice focused and alert.  

I looked at Alex, knowing now was my time to assume the team lead role. I felt confident and capable, and unlike Alex I had been raised in the snow. Having climbed mountains for most of my life, I understood glaciers and crevasses, and although I fully recognised the dangers present in the unstable medium, and the complexities involved in a patient extrication from 80 feet deep in the ice, I felt comfortable in the environment and ready to use my abilities. If there was ever a mission built for me, this was it.

It is not uncommon for candidates to lose consciousness underwater.

As the Pave Hawk carried us toward the Hofsjokull Glacier, I thought back to my PJ training. Conducted under the cruel sun of the hot Texas desert, some call the intense and brutal indoctrination course of the PJs the most difficult selection process in the U.S. military. Ten weeks of total hell, followed by an 18-month training pipeline during which 90 percent of candidates are eliminated. Beginning each day at 4:30 am, mandatory training includes running, calisthenics, push-ups, sit ups, all in the heat, numbering in the thousands per day. But this portion of training is actually the easy part: the real hell starts in the indoor pool.  

Each candidate sits at the edge of the pool, with his diving mask, fins, snorkel, weight belt and booties perfectly aligned behind him.  As the instructors approach the 100 aspiring PJs, a loud guttural war cry fills the indoor facility with bone-chilling intensity. All are aware that the pool is where most PJ hopes and dreams will be shattered. My second week in the program, I decided I was willing to die trying to make the cut.

“Enter the water!” the instructor yells. In perfect succession, the first row of candidates enters the water and performs a 25-meter underwater swim. Throughout each 4-hour pool session, instructions must be executed perfectly. Instructors pay ruthless attention to every candidate’s every move, issuing swift and severe consequence, usually involving additional underwater suffering, to the slightest mistake.  It is not uncommon for candidates to lose consciousness underwater. Fortunately, I had just finished a career as a college distance runner, so my body was familiar with operating on depleted oxygen. I was also very determined not to get washed out. This determination paid off and I was eventually successful in making the cut to become a special forces Pararescueman.

Five years later, and now en-route to the Hofsjokull Glacier, I was thankful that the instructors had not been easy on me. They taught me valuable lessons and to pay close attention to detail.

In this business, the smallest mistake can get you killed.

Upon arrival at the scene we found a gently rolling landscape of white snow and ice littered with crevasses.  I spotted a large crevasse with jeep tracks straddling the slit, ending at a broken hole where an ice bridge has collapsed.  Three people were near the crevasse, aware of the situation but unable to help.  

Over the intercom, I directed Captain Thomas to land about 600 yards from the crevasse, in a flat area where the jeeps had driven and their tracks indicated surface stability.  We exited the aircraft on a roped belay while probing for crevasses.  After we had deemed the landing area free of crevasses, we unloaded all our gear from the Pave Hawk and the bird took off.  We immediately loaded up our large packs and moved to the accident scene, still roped up to protect against falls into any hidden crevasses.  

chopper-1

We greeted the three Icelandic men standing at the scene, then probed the surrounding area to confirm that we could unrope and move about the area safely.  The men were local firefighters and had arrived on scene minutes earlier via glacier jeep.

I asked the firemen about the status of the passengers in the jeep. They indicated that one man was dead, on the upright side of the jeep, with one survivor trapped on the bottom side. They didn’t know the survivor’s condition other than that he was injured, cold and very uncomfortable, as the jeep had been severely crushed in the fall. The roof of the jeep was compressed down below its windows, and the patient was not in a good situation. In addition, the instability of a vehicle wedged into the ice presented serious danger to rescuers at the vehicle.

Alex allowed me to take control of the mission, even though he was the team leader on paper. I directed the team to set up some ice anchors and send rappel ropes down into the crevasse. Matt and Alex then rappelled down into the darkness, along with two of the Icelandic firemen. Upon arrival at the jeep they placed several ice screws into the walls, creating a safe anchor to protect them from slipping off the side of the vehicle into the abyss and also provide a safety net in the event the jeep should shift and suddenly fall further into the darkness.  

The temperature was 38 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping fast as the sun descended toward the horizon. Working quickly, Matt called for the extrication equipment and indicated their plan: “We are going to remove the driver’s-side door to gain access to the deceased, and hopefully to the survivor.”

“Roger that,” I respond, and prepare to send down our Jaws of Life.  As we work, several glacier jeeps approach from different directions; word of the accident has gotten out and it appears that every rescue team in Iceland is keen to help.

The first jeep pulled up and a tall, solidly-built man got out and introduced himself as Bjorg. As I briefed him on the situation, I mentioned the trouble we anticipated with our small Jaws of Life trying to cut open the crushed jeep. Bjorg explained that he had a more powerful Jaws of Life, currently en route via truck from the other side of the island—hours away. With the impending darkness and dropping temperature, I knew time was of the essence. I realised we may be able to speed up the extrication process by sending the Pave Hawk to intercept the Jaws, and immediately directed Captain Thomas to rendezvous with the vehicle carrying them across the island. She fired up the helicopter and, with GPS coordinates for a rendezvous point established, headed north to fetch the crucial tool.

More jeeps continued to arrive, all carrying well-intentioned volunteers or professional rescue teams. Bjorg stated that he would be the Icelandic in charge and that he and I would work together to get this done safe and efficiently. A few moments later an independent rescue team dressed in matching red uniforms arrived and started questioning everything: our equipment, our plan, our leadership. With no time to be distracted, I calmly asked Bjorg to tell the man to step down and that everything was under control. He sternly told the man and his team to step back, and we were able to proceed unhindered.

Just then I heard the dull thud of the helicopter returning.  “DeTray,” Caption Thomas asked over the radio, “where do you want these Jaws put down?”  

“Lower them right down on top of us,” I responded.  

“Roger that,” and with a precision hover she had the flight engineer lower the package. “DeTray, how much more time do you need?”  

I indicated we weren’t sure but would probably need several hours.  She needed to return to base to refuel, and promised to be back soon.  “Roger that, see you in a few hours,” I responded.  The bird took flight once again and disappeared into the distance.

With the help of the Icelanders I lowered the more powerful Jaws of Life down to our crew in the crevasse.  Removing the driver’s door, which had been violently crushed by the fall, proved very difficult, but eventually Alex called for a litter to be sent down.  Soon the body of the deceased was loaded and hoisted to the surface, where it was placed in a body bag.

Next, Matt’s voice came over the radio: “Detray, I have some bad news. We were hoping to be able to get to the trapped man through the driver’s side, but the roof has collapsed down to the centre console. It looks like we will need to rappel down under the jeep and attempt to remove the door from the underside.”  

My head swirled with the infinite number of things that could go wrong with this plan.  I trusted my teammates’ judgment and assessment of the situation, but I also understood the risks of sending men under the jeep.  If the jeep were to shift position, it could fall and crush my men.  As acting commander, I would be morally responsible for any injury to my team.  I took a deep breath and told Matt to do what he felt was the right course of action.  “I know you want to save him, Matt,” I radioed, “but please be careful down there.”  

The men descended below the jeep and began to work on the lower door.  Light from their powerful headlamps and the roar of the Jaws of Life drifted up to the surface, eerily echoing off the icy walls.  Time slowed to a standstill, and I could feel the pressure of the situation while waiting.  Matt had just been married and I suddenly felt heightened awareness that I was responsible for his safety.  I sure didn’t want to have to give his new wife any bad news.  

The evening sun finally set and darkness settled over the scene.  Alex radioed up to me, requesting the litter and stating their plan to remove the lower door and guide the patient into the litter.  I reminded the guys to be sure the patient was secured with a rope to prevent him tumbling deeper into the crevasse.

The plan went off perfectly.  The door of the jeep was removed and the patient was loaded into the litter and secured.  Alex radioed up requesting a slow raise of the patient, and our crew on the surface brought him up.  Just as we pulled the patient over the lip of the crevasse, I heard the sound of the Pave Hawk roaring back onto the scene, and at that very moment the Aurora Borealis broke into a beautiful display of blues, greens and reds dancing in the arctic sky.  

“Pilot, we have just extracted the survivor and he is stable and ready for transport.  Request hoist pick up.”  

After an hour flying through the arctic darkness, we could see the bright lights of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik and soon Captain Thomas landed on the helicopter pad of a modern medical facility.

We had pulled off a difficult mission, where success was uncertain. Despite difficult conditions and high risk, we were able to extricate and transport our patient, saving his life, without incurring any injuries to the rescuers.

Illustrations by Rimo Dey

Text by: Skiy Detray 

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