Two French Brothers Are Retracing Magellan’s Voyage to Bring Clean Water to the World

Sitting across from me in a bar, they have the look of three men who've been at sea a long time—but in the best way possible.

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Nov 7 2016, 12:00am

Photo courtesy of Sail for Water

Like the best hare-brained schemes, it germinated while the brothers were drunk.

Romain, a 30-year-old former businessman who'd spent his professional life working for a chemical company and "making money for stakeholders who were already rich," had just finished a book on Magellan. His brother Nicolas, 26, craved adventure.

Inspired by the Waves For Water initiative, set up by surf company Hurley, their idea was to circumnavigate the globe retracing the route of Portuguese explorer Magellan, installing easy-to-use water filtration devices everywhere they went.

"We wanted to do something we loved and help along the way, but it is difficult to make people believe that in France," says Nicolas. "They don't believe that if you want to help you have to be in the dirt," he says.

There was just one problem. Neither of them knew much about seafaring. Their cousin Thomas did, however. He'd just finished a marine engineering degree and was a seasoned sailor. So they waited until Christmas, got him drunk, and slipped him the proposition.

"I thought about it. Two minutes later I say, 'okay, we go" he recalls, adding, "I was living the dream; no job, no girlfriend, no attachment, nothing holding me back. So why not?"

It's now a year and a half later. Sitting across from me in a bar in Bali, the trio look like they've been at sea for 17 months—but in the best way possible. Bearded, bronzed and covered in weird knick knacks and beads from obscure Pacific and Melanesian islands, they are rock solid in friendship and ready for the most perilous leg of their journey so far—a 41 day crossing of the turbulent Indian Ocean to Africa, beginning November 6th.

"They say one day on a boat with someone is like a month in the real world," - Thomas

But it could have looked very different had they succumbed to the emotional stress and constant friction that has dogged the journey so far.

The first shock to the system came early on. After setting out from Toulon they travelled down the north-west coast of Africa, via Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and the forgotten African island of Cape Verde. They managed an Atlantic Crossing without incident arriving in disaster-ravaged Haiti to the shock of their lives.

The 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 across the country created an endless shanti town covering most of the nation. It's housing that cannot stand up to the constant tropical storms that strike the region. Just days before we spoke Hurricane Matthew pummelled Haiti killing 1,000, resulting in large scale outbreaks of Cholera.

Compounding the obvious dangers, the country has become overly dependent on foreign aid, which has hamstrung its ability to stand on its own two feet.

"When we arrive in Haiti we see something weird," says Nicolas. "All the NGOs that stayed after the earthquake in 2010, they were doing emergency in 2010 but in 2015 they were still doing emergency. They were supposed to change between emergency and development."

Demonstrating the filtration devices at a community in Haiti

According to Nicolas this failure to transition has seen the country bogged in a reactive, short-sighted way of doing things, and the people are losing out.

"It is un-motivating," he says. "The big NGOs are just waiting for another catastrophe to occur to move away and have some income and have some fundraising and have some new work in new places."

The experience made them skeptical of the way many aid agencies operate, often competing for funding and good press.

"We were having drinks and certain people who were part of this NGO start to tell us we were coming on their land, we were doing something that was not good for them because they were trying to do it for a long time and us we just arrive and we do our thing directly," says Nicolas.

"We could have worked together but they wanted to block us. We were like what the fuck, man! It was really bizarre," he says.

After Haiti it was Nicaragua, which had disaster written on it from the get-go. For starters, the buoys at the entrance to the harbour were back to front, meaning they sailed straight into rocks. It was 11pm on a moonless night and they had two hours before the tide left them dry-docked. Romain was tasked with pushing them off while Nicolas towed in the dinghy and Thomas steered the ship.

"I am trying to understand the bottom with my feet. 'Fuck, there are rocks everywhere!" - Romain

With Nicaragua entering the final stages of a federal election, the government was quick to send a message that this town was only big enough for one do-gooder, and that was the President of Nicaragua. When several of his men showed up on the doorstep of the American doctor-fixer they'd been staying with, demanding the water filtration equipment so they could install themselves, they weren't gonna argue.

They left it all behind, got their passports stamped and were out of there the next day bound for Costa Rica where they would get the repairs done. Then it was onto the island paradise home to the Kuna, Panama's native people. Six years ago the Kuna still had no words in their language for "money" or "time." Then a highway to the island was built, leading to an influx of consumer goods but still no investment in water infrastructure.

"Okay, so you have a big flatscreen and speakers, but no clean water? Can we talk about your priorities," laughs Nicolas.

Earthquake damage in Ecuador

With the filters installed and demonstrations done, news of an earthquake in Ecuador broke. They decided to depart immediately. Thus began Sail For Water's first emergency mission. They arrived to a disaster zone with many areas completely cut off from water. Once again, government officials refused to let them help, demanding they hand over the filtration equipment so they could install them. This time the men said no. Instead they concealed the tanks in trucks and travelled the country by night conducting their aid work in secret.

Now for the Pacific leg; 31 straight days on one of the world's most beautiful and treacherous oceans. The biggest test, however, would prove to be each other. With no wind and giant, methodical swells rocking the boat, nerves frayed quickly.

"You see everything he does, you see how he does it. If it irritates you, you will have some tension inside you until you talk with him. So, on the boat you have to talk but it's not easy, even you are brother and cousin," says Thomas.

"You take it on yourself. You wait, you wait, and then you blow! AHHHHHH!" - Nicolas

Today, in the restaurant, the dynamic is noticeably passive. They can finish each other's sentences, but try not to. Their default setting is one where, even if opinions and recollections do not align, they can calmly and freely correct each other with stone cold confidence there will be no blow-ups.

French Polynesia was a blast. The weather was beautiful, the waves were pumping, and the poisson cru delicious. The Waves For Water/Sail For Water philosophy of doing what you love and helping along the way had come to full fruition.

Leaving Tahiti and heading further west they weaved through the many islands of Melanesia, starting with Fiji, where they were welcomed like family. Seven hour kava sessions left them stoned as fish while Romain was asked at random to deliver a sermon at the local church.

"I have never spoken at a church in my life but ah, they ask, so I do," he says.

Heading further west it was the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and finally Bali. Here, despite all the trappings of western culture and affluence, the island continues to suffer a drastic lack of waste disposal infrastructure, resulting in rivers clogged with plastic and undrinkable water, particularly in the drier regions of the north.

And now, just days before they set out on their most harrowing leg yet—a 41 day Indian Ocean crossing finishing at Madagascar—the big question is: have they changed?

"We thought at the beginning we are going to be completely changed, different people," begins Romain. "But finally you don't change so much. I think people don't change, they just evolve in a good or bad way."

"In their way," adds Thomas. "It's just about vocabulary, either you change or you evolve."

Nicolas finishes the stream: "I think when I go back my girlfriend will recognise me. If she's still waiting for me..."

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