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by Bill Mills
There's something about Aruba that leaves more for me to write about than just the tournament coverage. After attending a tournament in Hawaii, and two in Aruba, I have come to the definite conclusion that all major paintball tournaments should be held on tropical islands. That's just the way it should be.
Aruba is a desert island, roughly 19 miles north of the coast of Venezuela. As a true desert it only receives about 12 inches of rain per year. Year round the weather is nearly the same - low 80s, clear or partly clouded skies, and calm blue green waters all along the leeward shoreline. The economy is based mainly on tourism (roughly 70%). Most of that tourism comes from the United States (some 65%-75% depending on who you ask). With people canceling vacation plans left and right after the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11th, Arubans are concerned for the economy of their island. Even though Florin (called Guilders in normal conversation) are the official currency of the island they exchange at a fixed rate with the US dollar, and US currency is accepted pretty much everywhere, and dispensed from the ATMs.
Summer and Fall are typically the quiet season for island tourism. This isn't because of the island being too hot then (since the weather is so constant) but rather because vacationers from the north aren't escaping the cold. This makes the summer and fall a great time to go for paintball. For example, the Holiday Inn rooms in a beach front resort were about 1/3 of their normal season price - less than the cost of a similar room at a Holiday Inn in the US. The Aruba Tourism Authority, and many businesses on the island welcomed the tournament with open arms seeing it as new business not only during their quiet season - but more importantly during the uncertain time following the terrorist attacks, and before a potential war.
The Tourism Authority went out of their way to line up activities for the members of the press attending the tournament and players who were looking for more to do on their visit. My wife Dawn and I arrived a day early, to get in some SCUBA diving before we were caught up with the tournament, and to avoid concerns about decompression sickness on our flight home (decompression tables specify 24 hours time between the end of a dive and flying).
That morning the Maxim crew was busy photographing the women of Femmes Fatale. They had set up their cameras and sunshades on the beach right outside the Holiday Inn during the morning. In the afternoon, they packed up into a van to drive North to the California Lighthouse.
Dawn and I walked down the beach to the Pelican Pier and met up with the crew from Pelican Watersports and got ready to dive the Arashi reef. Max Buerba, a dive instructor served as our divemaster, while fellow instructor Ulrich Bertrand skippered the boat.
On our way out to the reef Max gave the most thorough predive briefing I have ever received, taking time to interview each diver as to their level of experience, and making sure we all understood the same hand signs. A number of guidebooks and island maps list the Arashi Reef as the location of a pair of aircraft wrecks. Max explained that the planes used to lie on the reef, but disappeared after a storm surge a few years ago. He explained that a debris field, including propellers and engines remained.
With a light surface current we had a line to grab onto aft of the boat and wait for the whole group to enter the water before following the buoy line down 45 feet to the reef where the water was not only calm, but comfortably warm at 78 degrees. Max pointed out several key sights along the dive, including an absolutely huge green moray eel that was hiding under its favorite ledge (of course we didn't see that until after I had taken the last picture on the roll of film). Dawn lingered behind the group after spotting a debris field of shells and saw the head and several tenticles of an octopus.
After circling back to our starting point, we ascended to the boat which was easy to spot in the clear water. After the ride back, we cleaned up and headed out to grab some dinner across the street at Tony Romas ahead of the barbecue scheduled for the evening - 50 minutes of diving will make you hungry! After some food and rest we met everyone for the tournament on the beach at the pre tournament barbecue. Hot Dogs, hamburgers and an open bar - it was time for stories of tournaments past, and picking who were the favorites for this year's tournament.
Friday morning, after sleeping in, and having breakfast at the hotel with paintballers (thanks KAPP!) we made good use of the beach - relaxing and swimming before the afternoon's games started. With tournament play through the night, it was update the web site time for us while a lot of people hit the nightclubs and casinos.
The next morning we again walked down to the Pelican Pier (it's only about 40 yards from the Holiday Inn) this time for a snorkeling trip. Unfortunately, some people were under the impression that the trip was canceled, so only 10 people showed up. Pelican Watersports had said they would need a group of 20 to 30 to take a private trip, but being the good sports that they were, they took us anyway.
So here we were, a group of 10 on a catamaran that could hold 65. The skipper of the Pelican Too motored out from the pier, and as soon as we were clear from the boats moored near the shore, the crew set the sails and we were underway. Sailing has an entirely different feel than cruising under motor power - the boat feels more like a part of the sea, moving steadily forward.
On our way to the wreck of the Antilla, the skipper told its story. During the second World War, German ships were ordered to leave Aruba, and the Antilla was one of them. The Antilla left late, and was caught by allied warships in the shallows. Her captain sent message that he would surrender the vessel the next morning, and sent the crew swimming to shore before scuttling the ship. When the seawater hit the charged boilers they exploded tearing through the hull, and settling the ship in about 60 feet of water. The crew spent the rest of the war in a prison camp on the island of Bonaire, where they settled and built a resort after the war. Today portions of the wreck still break the surface making it a popular destination for SCUBA divers as well as snorkelers. At over 400 feet in length it is one of the largest wrecks in the Caribbean.
We had plenty of time to explore the Antilla and the sea life that now calls it home. After another short trip on the boat, we arrived at the Arashi rocky reef - basically the shallow end of the Arashi reef.
Drinks and food (bread and fried chicken) were available in mass quantities between the two sites, keeping us hydrated and full of energy. This reef proved to be nearly as beautiful as its deeper end and had some more impressive coral formations to boot.
Saturday afternoon, the prelims of the tournament went by quickly. I got to play radio announcer, interviewing Chris LaSoya about the tournament for a local radio station, inviting islanders out to watch the games. Each day of the tournament, it got a page worth of coverage in the island paper, with pictures from the stadium. Under the stadium lights everyone got ready for the semis and finals - but what to eat? The night before I had barbecue from the concession stand. In addition to promoting the tournament, Jossy Mansur owns a number of businesses in Aruba, and one of them happens to be the Benihana restaurant. Ray is one of his managers, and with a phone call, he was able to get sushi dinners delivered right out to the field - talk about dining in style. You are the man, Ray.
At most tournaments, the awards happen after the last game, sometimes under the light of headlights if things go late - this wasn't the case in Aruba. Instead, a bus carried everyone from the hotel to a dock, where a boat ferried us to DePalm island for more snorkeling. Another barbecue lunch, this one in a dining room on the island, was followed by snorkeling the reef formations on its shore. So close to the surface the coral took quite a beating from the waves, but it was home to abundant fish life, and its shallow depths made it very inviting to the inexperienced.
Sunday night, back at the Holiday Inn a full buffet dinner awaited us, and the awards and prizes were given to the top finishing teams while steel drums beat out an island rhythm.
The tournament officially over, we had another day to spend on Aruba. In the morning, the massage therapists at the hotel spa worked the welts and knots out of our muscles in time for horseback riding in the afternoon.
In the afternoon we met up with some of the members of Team Maxim and went to Rancho Notorious. Jan, a photographer for Maxim got his first ride on a Western saddle (he was used to european riding) and found it comfortable. After saddling up our hearty crew followed the trail guide out through a desert wash and a suburban neighborhood to the shoreline where we rode though the waves as they lapped at the beach. A hitching rail next to the shore gave us a place to stop and take a break before riding back, getting a different view of the island that looked more like a desert in Arizona than what one would expect from a Caribbean island.
The beach barbeques, the day on DePalm Island, and the big dinner at the award ceremony were all included with the tournament's entry fees for everyone who went (and for non-players traveling with the teams). I would like to extend my thanks to both Jossy Mansur and the Aruba Tourism Authority for their hospitality during the Aruba Open. Despite covering a full paintball tournament, it felt far more like we had been gone on a vacation, and the same sentiment was echoed by many of the players. That is why I think we need more tournaments on tropical islands..
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