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Daredevil who surfed for 9 days

African Speakers and Artists Ltd managing director George Issaias. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA
African Speakers and Artists Ltd managing director George Issaias. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA  

George Issaias just got back from a unique first-of-its-kind kite surfing expedition. Together with seven other East African boardriders, they spent nine days— and 900 kilometres of water —surfing between Lamu and Zanzibar to raise money for the Local Ocean Trust and The African Billfish Foundation.

Other boardriders included businessmen Justin Aniere, owner of Che Shale resort in Malindi and Boris Polo, owner of H2O Extreme kite school in Diani.

When George— a Greek, born in Kenya— is not dropping the gauntlet at the feet of the ocean, he runs his business African Speakers + Artists, a speaker bureau and talent agency which has a roster of over 50 dynamic thought leaders from 10 African countries.

We met at Villa Rosa Kempinski for tea.

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How was it?

The expedition? Exciting and challenging at the same time. When you are out there in the ocean and you are at the mercy of the wind gods. We had to navigate through waves of, sometimes, three meters high, sharp coral, we got grazes, burns, threats of sharks, hidden reefs and dehydration. Not to say anything of equipment failure, exhaustion, and dangerous shipping channels.

How many kilometres of ocean were you covering per day?

We probably averaged about 70 to 75 kilometres. It depends. So if you’re thinking straight line, it’s about 65 kilometres. But in terms of the distance that we’re covering, you know, having to go up and down, we were sometimes doing up to 100 or 110 kilometres. We saw some amazing coastlines here in Kenya and in Tanzania. Really beautiful coastlines.

So what was the programme like, you wake up…

You wake up, we strategise the day; we find out where we’re gonna go, we look at Google Earth for data. We had a support boat with crew who go ahead and access the beaches, take care of equipment, decide where we would be stopping for lunch, make sure there is enough water, find out about tides etc.

We would have breakfast by 9am, test our kites, fix ourselves because we would have blisters and scars from collision with reefs and then by 12pm we are in the water setting off and reach our destination for that day by 6pm. We would go long stretches of hours per day, sometimes more than six hours at a time.

What did you learn about yourself and about nature?

Always plan for the worst because that always comes up. And we had them; people losing their boats in water, people damaging themselves quite badly. We put measures to mitigate this.

I learnt never to analyse a day when you are tired or stressed. Sleep on it and wait until the next morning because otherwise you’ll end up arguing and that’s a waste of everyone’s time. We brought many people inside the experience mainly through social media.

What was the hardest part of the expedition?

{Long pause}. That’s a good question. There was the physical exhaustion. Riding three metre high waves and crazy winds, that’s really hard on the legs. Technically, it was planning our day, to make sure that we would achieve what we set out to achieve that day.

Nature also had its plans and it would change our plans. So, problem solving, and re-strategising, a lot of discipline... But in the team atmosphere, you don’t want to let your teammates down. That drove all of us.

Was it worth it? Did you achieve something substantial?

I think so. I mean, this is the first time that anything like this had ever been undertaken as part of one trip. People had done certain legs of it, but never the whole thing in one go. And for that I’m very proud.

Our charity partners, The Local Ocean Trust, and The African Gold Fish Foundation, saw a surge in interest in what they are doing and frankly, that in itself made a very successful trip for us, just to draw people’s attention to some of the work that they are doing at the coast. And equally as a metric of success, where we raised slightly over Sh1 million in the process, you know, just people being hugely charitable.

We were also able to capture great content, great pictures and great videos, which we now want to use to continue this campaign to draw attention to the Kenyan coastline. To let tourists know that’s it’s perfectly safe. You know, to let Kenyans know that sea life deserves as much attention as our wildlife in the parks. They are not as visible and they’re less emotive than a lion, elephant or a rhino.

You worked in London for 11 years and then came back to Africa. What motivated the move?

It just made sense in terms of work. I was just hearing the word Africa come up a lot in conversations, and people knew me to be born in Nairobi. So they’d keep saying, “Oh George, you know, we’re doing an event. Do you know an economist in Ghana? Do you know… do you know…? And I was coming across this ‘Africa as a country’ thing quite a lot and I thought, yeah let me go back home.

Are you spiritual?

I’d like to think I am. Yeah.

Do you pray a lot during this trip?

I think I probably pray for every 24 hours a day.

What are your fears in life?

Fears in life?

Fears. Yeah.

(Laughter) Wow. (Long pause). That’s a deep question. (Pause), Wow, I...I will need to think of that some...

What’s the best advice you ever received from someone?

“If you’re too comfortable you’re not doing enough.” You don’t ever want to be cruising. You always want to be challenging yourself. That’s my mantra, whether it’s in the work environment or outside of work, I don’t wanna ever feel comfortable. Putting yourself on the stress could be a really good thing. And frankly, you can’t really learn much about yourself unless you undertake a big challenge.

Would you say this is the most extreme thing you’ve ever done in your life?

Uhm, yeah. This got to be right up there. Yeah. I mean, you know, I lost my boat in the middle of the sea with three metre waves, got stung by a jelly fish, lost my phone in water together with my backpack...

What was in the back pack?

We had radios, we had compasses, phone in our back packs, drinking water, we had lots of safety kit.

Is this kind of thing addictive? Like when you finish the race, the expedition, do you feel like; I need to do something else, something bigger, riskier…?

I think definitely. Yeah. You know, you could start small; you climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, climb Mt. Kenya, go for long bike ride, go for a long walk or long run, and it’s pain every step of the way. But the harder it is the better the sense of achievement. I think it’s just human character to push ourselves like that.

When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he said it was because it was there. It’s an intangible thing we all have inside us. We want to push ourselves. We learn some about yourself but you also bond with the people around you.

Married? Kids?

Single. No kids.

Do you have a bucket list?

Yeah. To kitesurf in Lake Turkana.

That should be interesting! I find Lake Turkana so quaint in a deceptive way….

The crocodiles. I hope to surf where there are no crocodiles. Another thing on my bucket list is to go see gorillas at some point; in Rwanda or Congo. Uhm… and to give a TEDx talk.

You are Greek, what are you guys known for?

Living life, our hospitality. We are warm, we enjoy the simplest pleasures of life and we are generous.