There’s adventure… and then there’s the kind of adventure that Porsche kitesurfing athlete Liam Whaley and fellow pros Matchu Lopes Almeida and Reno Romeu got up to on an epic road trip to the coast of Alaska. Together with top kitesurfing equipment brand Duotone and Porsche they embarked on a wild trip – in every sense of the word – to remote locations, where they experienced some of the most challenging conditions any sportsperson could encounter. To a land of towering glaciers and icy waters, where chunks of ice and high winds mean your concentration levels have to be at peak levels, at all times. We caught up with Liam in his hometown of Tarifa in southern Spain, a windsport mecca, to hear all about his epic kitesurfing Porsche road trip.
First, an obvious question, Liam – why go kitesurfing in the freezing waters of Alaska?
We’re always seeking a new adventure, a new thrill. A different landscape, a crazier experience. When you do this for a living, we’re usually kiting at sunny beaches, in warm weather and waters with nice winds, and people in board shorts and bikinis all around us. It’s a very friendly and comfortable environment. So, part of the reason was to challenge ourselves and do something out of the box. And obviously, a picture with a massive glacier wall behind you is something that really stands out in pictures, so it’s also about getting a great story.
Why Alaska rather than anywhere else for your kitesurfing Porsche road trip?
It’s like the last frontier. You’re so isolated from everything, in the middle of nowhere, and that always makes for a good story along with the whole logistics needed for this kind of trip. It’s always the most challenging trips that make the best ones. There’s something special about heading out into the wild.
How differently do you have to prepare when you are kitesurfing in Arctic conditions?
I had a bunch of trips in the calendar in warmer destinations in the weeks before this one, which meant that I had to bring all of the gear that I was going to be using in Alaska and travel around with it. When I go to Brazil, I just bring a few pairs of board shorts and a few T-shirts, but I had to carry around winter clothes too. Luckily, we went to Alaska in the summer when the outside temperature isn’t actually that cold. It ranges between 8-20°C during the day.
What was crazy was the water temperatures. As its running straight through the glaciers, the water here is ice water – around 3°C. It meant that we needed to wear full wetsuits. We didn’t wear drysuits because they can limit your mobility. Instead, we wanted to wear something that was warm enough but still allows you some flexibility and movement. We wore 6mm wetsuits with gloves, booties and a hoodie, so pretty much no water got inside unless you fell into the water. Drop your kite and fall in and I’d say you’d last around 20 minutes maximum before getting hypothermia.
What logistical hurdles are then when kitesurfing in remote locations like this one?
We were kiting in lots of different locations along the coast of Alaska. After arriving in Anchorage, we met up with Scott, our pilot, who has one of these little seaplanes. But when we loaded all of the stuff onto it, we had way more gear than he was expecting. The whole concept of a seaplane is to fly light, yet we had tons of camera equipment, kite gear, surfboards, foils, kites… our pilot was a little overwhelmed! We flew out to the first glacier in two groups, because there were way too many of us to go all at the same time.
Your road trip saw you travel on sea planes, boats and, of course, your kiteboard – but there was plenty of driving too. Tell us about the Porsche Macan S and Cayenne Coupé.
You get to really know a car on a long drive and we did that when driving from Anchorage all the way up to Valdez, which is about an eight-hour trip. I drove the Macan most of the way and it was a beautiful journey. We started on these big city highways, where there’s a lot of cars. Then, slowly, as you head towards Valdez, the roads get windier, and the landscape starts to change. Soon you’re driving on this road with massive cliffs to the side of you, through big river valleys. It’s very dramatic. And it was amazing to have a car like the Macan to make the most of this. It also enabled us to go off the beaten track a little to take photos.
Both the Macan and Cayenne were fitted with Porsche Tequipment roof tents. It was the first time I’d driven a Porsche with a roof tent attached and I was surprised how well the car drove. I really didn’t notice it. And the tent itself was really practical – easy to set up and pack. Kitesurfing takes a lot out of you, and it allowed us to park up somewhere nice and take a little nap whenever we needed one.
You had to take a seaplane for some of the trip. What was the Alaskan landscape like from the air?
We saw the craziest landscapes and ice sculptures. You’re hit by the contrast between the green mountains and the blue, radiant ice. When you go skiing in the mountains, you sometimes see glaciers, but most of the time they’re covered by snow. You don’t get to see its crevasses and all the details of the glacier. In summer, there was no snow on the glacier. Flying over this landscape I felt like I was living in a simulation. It didn’t look real. Quite overwhelming.
Did you feel scared being in such an inhospitable location?
For one part of the trip, we were dropped off at this high-altitude lake and left to fend for ourselves when the plane went back to get the other group. In the safety briefings, we were told that there would be no phone connection. And we had to bring extra food just in case we had to camp out on our own, pack bear spray and take precautions like always stay in a group. That’s quite intimidating at first. Things don’t normally go wrong, but when they go wrong up there, they go very wrong. None of us had ever experienced any of this before, so we were relying on our intuition.
When it came to the kiting, my colleague Reno and I would try and get as close as we could to the glacier. When the wind died, it was really scary, because you’d sink and be sitting in the freezing cold glacier water with your kite. And the only rescue boat was this tiny inflatable dinghy. In these conditions, you have to do your very best to keep the kite up in the sky, because you want to get above the water as soon as possible as it’s freezing. In the back of your mind you’re thinking, if I dropped my kite and have to swim, all I have to rely on is this little dinghy with a 6hp engine that could break at any moment.
What’s it like kitesurfing next to these enormous glaciers?
When we headed up to the LeConte glacier we had to take a big, steel icebreaking boat, captained by a man called Captain Hook! Heading into the bay on a sunny day and seeing it for the first time was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever encountered. You had these little icebergs floating around, all different shapes and textures. There were huge mountains either side of us and as we headed further upstream, the icebergs got bigger and bigger. And the further upstream we went, the stronger the wind got.
When the wind funnels through the glaciers you’re able to ride 50m away from them. Look behind you and there’s a 100m-high wall of ice. It’s insane
Suddenly, the wind changed from a few knots of wind to these amazing kitesurfing conditions, so we hurried to set up our kites to take advantage of it. By the end of this part of our trip, we were literally up against the glacier walls kiting. I didn’t think it would be possible to get so close to them because I thought the wind would be super gusty, but it creates this weird funnel effect, where the wind is channeled through the glaciers and you’re able to ride 50m away from them. When you look behind you there’s a 100m-high wall of ice. It’s insane.
We were on the boat the first time that we saw ice falling off the glacier. When you hear a crack, you know that something’s going to happen a few seconds later. Sometimes it’s a small piece of ice, but there were also big chunks breaking off, like a massive building falling. And as it hits the water it creates a huge splash and ice flies everywhere. The water builds up, forming this massive wave. When it heads towards the boat you think it’s going to flip it, but the wave never breaks because there’s too much depth to it. However, it taught us that we had to be careful. You shouldn’t be closer to the glacier than it is high. If the glacier is 50m high, you shouldn’t go closer than 50m away from it as ice can land on you – but it’s a little too easy to get a bit overexcited at times!