Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Francis Gobinet: "larger than life"

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Yesterday news spread around the world quickly of the tragic and untimely death of Antiguan superstar Francis Gobinet. Francis had been such a big part in the lives of so many people that this news is hitting many of us very hard. Reports are that he was at work over the side cleaning the boat bottom in the BVI and didn't come up. His brother Serge was doing the same thing on Ocean Nomad at exactly the same time with me here in Antigua. Anyway, this lead many to think he suffered a shallow water blackout which seems to be more and more common these days. If you like to snorkel of free dive you should read up on it on the link above.
I first saw Francis with his brother, sister, Mom and Dad on their little boat as they pulled in close to the Lord Nelson Beach Hotel beach back in the early 90s. It was where I grew up and spend most of my time windsurfing and at that time I was running a windsurfing event there. The little boy jumped over the side of the little odd looking boat and in no time was windsurfing with some of the other tiny kids there hoping that we would see him. We all saw him. How could we miss him? Nobody could ever miss Francis. If you didn't stop to look at the handsome profile he wore so well you would stop to see the amazing feat he was in the middle of.
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There wasn't anything that he couldn't do and all who knew Francis will have almost unbelievable stories about him.
Books and books could be written about the adventures that he got up to and how he didn't get killed so many times before is a story in itself. He was an exceptionally brave man and as strong as he was brave. Growing up as a white "frenchie" in Antigua wasn't an easy thing to do and life for Francis as a young kid wasn't always easy. Some of the stories we have are not all happy ones and there was no surprise when he got into trouble while growing up.
I remember one year back when he and Stevie Mendes were 12 years old I was organizing a group of windsurfers to go down to compete in the HIHO windsurfing regatta. Andre Phillip was a year or so older. I chartered a 45 foot catamaran and loaded up all of our windsurfing gear and sailed down to the BVI. My brother Ali was there as well as my cousin David and a bunch of others. We were charged of course with looking after the youngest windsurfers. They amazed all the adults at this competition doing extremely well. Francis and Stevie managed to sail the 200 mile week long race around the BVI with no problem. One day after racing we were hosting a party on our yacht for some of the other windsurfers and were all on deck having a good time. I had to go below to grab something and caught Stevie and Francis pounding some beers. If there was trouble Francis was sure to find it back then and secretly we loved that side of him too.
I'm not sure if getting in to trouble had much to do with it, but his parents decided to send him to boarding school in the UK during his later teens.
When he came back he was a young man and I almost didn't recognize him. He worked at various places and got a job at Sunsail's "beach" watersports team where he taught sailing and entertained guests and coworkers with his amazing stunts. Sometime around then I had started Adventure Antigua and modeled the tours we do after childhood adventures that were a big part of my life and the lives of many who grew up on the water here in Antigua. After a few years Francis came to work with me. All of my guests loved him and for every teenage girl who immediately fell in love with his dazzling blue eyes there was a mother on the boat who did the same. IT was funny how many Moms would want their daughters to pose with him for photos. I loved doing the eco tour with him because he understood why we were doing it. It wasn't just a job..... it was what we did for fun. Like many of the crew who has worked with me over the years, boats and the North Sound were like second nature to him. He was tougher than most people and guests would be amazed with his barefoot antics on the sharp rocks of Hells Gate. There was never a dull week with adventures happening just as much outside of work as during work hours.
Finally Francis got a job working for a big boat in the mega yacht industry. He was in heaven on these big boats that could carry him onto bigger and more exciting adventures. Over the next few years he lived an exciting life crossing the Atlantic to work in boating hubs in various places touching the lives of many in every spot.
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The thing about Francis is that when he was with you he was part of your life and you felt a close friendship. What is more is that your life was usually uplifted in some way. He had an amazing quality to brighten spirits and give you some extra kick to what would have otherwise been just another day. When people describe someone as being larger than life they are speaking about people like Francis.
Francis came back to work with me back in 2007 for a short stint and once again touched people around me in a profound way. I wrote a short blog about him coming back to work with us then. In the water on a day off free diving are Tony and Francis and the ugly guy on the boat is me.
Over the past 24 hours that particular blog entry has been getting hundreds of hits. According to my private web tracker hundreds of search engine searches for "Francis Gobinet" were directed to the page from Italy, Germany, Holland, Spain, the UK, France, Australia, all over the US, Antigua and many other areas. People all over the world heard the very sad news and wanted to find out if it was true. My phone didn't stop ringing all day yesterday with calls from people wanting to find out if it was really true. Someone so young and so much larger than life couldn't possibly be dead could they?
When i was told that he had died I thought of the hundreds of ways that it could have happened. My immediate though was a motorcycle crash, then a car crash, and other ways flashed through my thoughts until my Dad told me he drowned. Then i thought he must have been swimming through a deep underwater cave without tanks or doing something else totally crazy which was typical of Francis. To learn that he died from what looks like a shallow water blackout was more of a surprise than anything. Passing quietly and peacefully into the afterlife while doing what you love with so many people all over the world loving you is a blessing. Francis died way to young and many of us will be angry and sad and lost now that he's gone, but he had a good life and so many our lives are better because we were lucky enough to have been touched by him.
Live every day to the fullest and be thankful for what time we all have together.