I dipped my paddle into the crystal-clear water, and my kayak glided over branches of brilliant red, purple and orange coral. Schools of shimmering fish darted out from under my bow. The transparency of the aqua water made it seem as if my kayak was floating on air, hovering over the reef. I was surrounded by dozens of tropical islands, their brilliant green foliage rising from white sand beaches to jagged peaks. Suddenly, just off my bow, I spotted a scurry of activity in a tidal pool on the shoreline of a large island. A band of wild monkeys was “fishing,” flipping rocks in their search for food. They hadn’t noticed my approach. As I glided silently along, it seemed as if I would be able to slip in close to them, but then I was spotted. With splashing and a flurry of motion, the monkeys raced for the cover of the jungle. While I couldn’t see them in the thick foliage of the trees, the monkeys’ chattering seemed to indicate their displeasure at being so rudely interrupted. I retreated so that they could resume their tidal feast.
Paddling away, I was gripped by a sense of awe that I was actually here.

It had been only a few short months ago that Myanmar was just a place I happened to notice on a globe. One of my favorite pastimes is poring over a globe and maps, searching out new places for adventure. One night, I happened to notice a cluster of islands off the coast of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The island grouping is called the Mergui Archipelago. My interest was piqued but, when I began researching the islands, there was little information to be found. The Burmese government had banned tourism for almost 50 years, and the ban had been lifted for only the past four years. The few pictures I managed to find looked very inviting but, in my reading, I kept coming across fascinating descriptions of a unique indigenous nomadic people who live in this area—sea gypsies. Like characters out of “Water World,” they live out at sea on thatched-roofed boats up to ten months out of the year. They come in to land only during the monsoon season to wait out the harsh weather. That was all I needed to know to be hooked—mysterious people, enchanting, remote islands cut off from the tourist boom—it sounded perfect! I began making plans to paddle in the Mergui Archipelago.

After partnering up with fellow photographer Jeremy Reyes and buying non-refundable airline tickets, our little-known destination made the cover of newspapers worldwide: Some Burmese students had attacked the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, taking several hostages to negotiate their escape into the jungle. This left us with a major problem as we boarded the airplane for Phuket, Thailand: The border between Thailand and Myanmar was closed.

Our dreams of remote, untouched islands were quickly shattered. We figured that Thailand’s nearby Phi Phi islands and Phang Nga Bay would have to serve as our Plan B. Both were beautiful places that were easily accessible. When we talked with a local tour company, however, our hopes fell. He said that both places were tourist-saturated, with up to 300 kayaks a day. The next day, I whooped with joy when I saw the front page of a newspaper reporting that the Myanmar boarder had reopened.

Back on track with our original plan, we immediately moved into high gear and arranged a 30-minute boat ride across a narrow bay from Ranong, Thailand to the village of Kawthoung, Myanmar. As we neared the village, we could see old, three- to four-story cement buildings and storm-weathered wooden houses lining the beach. The surrounding hills were decorated with golden-roofed Buddhist temples. Dozens of long-tail boats buzzed about the docks, carrying fish and cargo in all directions.

Hefting our folding kayaks and gear, we made our way down the main street to the government offices. Although the 50-year ban on tourism had been lifted, the officials seemed cautious and wary of our intentions. We learned that Myanmar requires that government officials accompany all visitors to their country, both to keep an eye on you and to keep you out of trouble with the military. We explained our desire to travel and camp in the Mergui Archipelago, but we slowly realized that our desire to travel unescorted was hopeless. We dragged our gear down several blocks to a tour company. There, we learned that it had taken them five years of negotiating with the government to gain permission to camp on the islands. The company said that we could independently explore the archipelago as long as one of their guides accompanied us. With their assistance, we finally reached a satisfactory compromise with the government officials. Our guide, Aung Kyi, couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds. He had a bright, sunny smile and a seemingly endless supply of enthusiasm. We asked about his paddling experience, and he said that he and most of his Burmese countrymen were good paddlers, having mastered the art of paddling dugout canoes.

The last stretch of our long journey to reach the Mergui Archipelago was an overnight ride on one of the company’s boats. The sun set as we motored along. Soon the light faded, and lone fishing boats began to light up like scattered, bobbing lanterns in the blackness of the night. Civilization dimmed behind us, and the mysterious unknown loomed ahead.We motored through the night. At dawn, we anchored in a tiny bay in the Mergui Archipelago. As the stars faded and the morning’s light seeped over the horizon, the surrounding islands took form. Jagged peaks from dozens of islands rose high above the ocean’s surface, enclosing the waters of our anchorage. After lowering my kayak into the water, I paddled to shore. A pair of fresh leopard tracks in the sand meandered down a golden highway of beach, hemmed in on the left by a towering rainforest, and to the right by crashing waves. The tracks stopped at a creek and then disappeared into a swampy marsh. The beach ended abruptly at a rocky ledge with a cragged, rocky shoreline stretching onward from there. At the end of the beach was a sandy-bottomed cave. Inside, a few bats fluttered in the long shadows of early morning.

As I stood, contemplating the phantom leopard, I heard a strange singing noise coming from the high canopy. It sounded eerily human, although I quickly dismissed that as a possibility. It didn’t seem as if it could be made by a bird, either. Stranger, still, was that the song seemed to be a duet, with two distinct voices rising and falling with a slow, rhythmic tempo. As corny as it sounds, the melody sounded like a love song. I climbed a rocky ledge near the cave to try to get closer to the singing, but I couldn’t spot the singers, so I had to be content just to sit and listen to the beautiful and enchanting voices. The lyrical notes, lingering in the warm air, seemed to be in perfect harmony with the beauty and tranquility of my surroundings.

Later that morning, as we motored farther north into the islands, Aung Kyi told me that the mysterious singing had come from gibbons. Members of the monkey family, gibbons have long, almost spider-like arms and legs that enable them to spend their entire lives in the high rainforest canopy. Aung Kyi explained to me that gibbons mate for life, and they sing to establish their territory and strengthen their mating relationships.

As the boat droned northward, we kept a watch out for the floating thatched boats of the sea gypsies. Unfortunately, all that we came across were Burmese fishing boats. The sheer size of the Mergui Archipelago was beginning to overwhelm us. At over 300 miles long and more than 50 miles wide, and with more than 800 islands, we quickly realized that, despite having three weeks to explore, we were only going to see a tiny part of the whole archipelago. In order to see as much as possible, we decided to spend the first week covering long distances onboard the boat, and doing day paddles. We spent the next three days boating and paddling northward, deeper into the archipelago.
The mangrove swamps were amazingly clear.Our two inflatable kayaks could easily be used as singles or doubles, so Aung Kyi took turns paddling in the front of each of our boats. We especially appreciated the extra paddle strength in the heat of each day, when the scorching sun forced us to seek refuge under the towering trees that lined the beaches. In the dappled shade of the jungle, we dove into the cool, refreshing water to explore the undersea world.
On December 1, the boat dropped us off on the northern part of Lampi Island to make a base camp. At over 20 miles long and five miles wide, Lampi Island is one of the archipelago’s larger islands. We would spend the next two weeks at this base camp, making day trips out in different directions.

The next morning Aung Kyi stayed in camp, assuring us that we would be all right for the day without him. Paddling around the northern tip of Lampi Island, the intensity of the sun and the humid air felt as if they were bearing down on us. Eager for a break, we donned our masks and fins and dove down and tied off our kayaks. The water was amazingly clear—we could see more than a hundred feet. Boulders covered the sea floor, along with blue and red branch corals; yellow and orange soft corals filled in the gaps, while schools of multi-colored fish hung like confetti, gently rising and falling with each swell that passed over them. A black-tipped reef shark rose to the surface near Jeremy, its fin slicing the water before it once again submerged into the depths. We entered an underwater forest of sharp rock pinnacles, and had to be careful not to get impaled on one in the waves. Purple-and-aqua-colored parrot fish grazed on the coral, and brightly spotted groupers took refuge in the reef’s dark holes and crevices. Jeremy flipped over a rock and cornered a spiny lobster the size of his forearm before letting it get away. Time escaped us, and when we finally made the dive to untie our kayaks, the tide had gone out.

We continued paddling, weaving between the hilly emerald islands. As we cruised along the shoreline of a small, unnamed island north of Lampi Island, I noticed something moving at the low-tide line. Maneuvering our kayaks closer, we saw that it was a large monkey. It didn’t see us as it climbed a rocky point and disappeared over the other side. Gaining momentum with a few hard paddle strokes, I let my kayak glide through a narrow opening in the rocks with Jeremy following. Suddenly, the monkey appeared within just a few feet of my kayak. I hadn’t expected such a close encounter, and neither did the monkey! Startled, he dropped the oyster he’d been eating, spun around, and bolted up the rocks toward the trees. Instantly, the surrounding rocks exploded with other retreating monkeys that I hadn’t noticed. An entire band of about ten adults and several more young took refuge in the nearby trees that overhung the beach. The treetops above us shook with the commotion. Aung Kyi told us later that these were macaque monkeys, which are numerous in this area. They come out in large groups at low tide to search for crabs and crustaceans. He said that their shy behavior can be attributed to their many enemies, namely crocodiles, leopards and tigers.

We made our way back to base camp, where we had dinner on the beach as the sun sank like a giant ball of fire into the dark ocean. In moments, the jungle at our backs began to come alive with strange sounds and the screeches of a legion of insects. Jeremy and I realized that we were on the opposite schedule of the surrounding rainforest: We were trying to go to sleep, while all around us the forest creatures were rising from their slumber to go about their nightly routines. We slept fitfully as the cacophany continued throughout the night.

With the sunrise, all of the noises vanished. In the early light of morning, the only evidence left from the night creatures’ wanderings were their tracks left on the sandy beach, and along the muddy edge of a river that ran near our camp. We found tracks of the hunter and the hunted: A lone set of large cat tracks trailed tracks from a band of monkeys. Tail marks from several monitor lizards meandered along the sand, and hoof marks with divots showed where a herd of wild boar had used their snouts to rut in the sand. At the other end of the spectrum, tiny paw prints left by mouse deer skittered about the sandy bank. Farther up the beach, on the riverbank, we found a huge dug-up area that Aung Kyi said was likely the work of wild elephants. Each mark told a small part of a larger story that had unfolded in the night while we slept.

As we ventured a short way into the jungle, the gibbons reminded us of their unseen presence with an early morning serenade. Long strands of black hair ripped from the coat of a passing Asiatic black bear hung from a thorny vine; a nearby tree sported deep scratch marks from a bear or tiger. We headed back to camp, unnerved at realizing that we were surrounded by wild animals that were hidden in the thickness of the jungle. As we ate breakfast, it struck us as ironic that the most mysterious of all the islands’ unseen inhabitants were the sea gypsies. Despite our searching for them, their watery world had shown us no evidence of their existence.

After breakfast, we launched our kayaks and paddled south. Aung Kyi rode in the front of Jeremy’s kayak. After about an hour of paddling, we came to a river. Rows of squatty mangrove trees hunkered over both sides of the river, giving the appearance of a gate. Paddling upstream, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t very swamp-like. While the water in mangrove swamps is typically muddy, this water was clear, and the vegetation was spread out, making for easy paddling.

Even though the environs didn’t suggest a need for caution, we were well aware that we were paddling in the habitat of Indo-Pacific crocodiles, also known as sea crocodiles. The largest reptiles in the world, sea crocodiles reach lengths of up to 25 feet. They are responsible for over a thousand deaths in the waters of Southeast Asia each year. We were quiet as we paddled deeper into the swamp, suspiciously scanning our surroundings for danger. Every piece of driftwood, log, stump or other swamp debris seemed to perfectly resemble the shape of various parts of crocodiles. As we wove our way through the maze of mangrove trees, we became a little less jumpy. We were grateful for the lack of mosquitoes.

After a couple of miles, the mangroves gave way to towering walls of rainforest on either side of us. The treetops ahead began to shake. We paddled closer, looking for monkeys, and found a pair of great hornbills searching the high limbs for fruit. The black-and-white birds were the size of turkeys, but they had long, goose-like necks, and massive yellow beaks. Several brightly colored green-and-blue bee-eaters swarmed around the limbs of a dead tree standing at the water’s edge, and a flock of peculiar parrots with black bodies and red heads moved upriver along the canopy. White-bellied sea eagles surveyed us as we paddled underneath their high perches; one dove directly in front of us and snatched a fish out of the river with its large talons, then flew back up to its perch with its catch.

It was nice, for a change, to be on flat water without the constant motion of ocean swells. The current grew swifter and the vegetation thicker as we continued pushing upstream until our path became a narrow, winding tunnel of vegetation. We were hemmed in on either side by an intricate web of mangrove roots. Dense walls of branches and leaves compressed us, while larger tree branches tangled with vines made up a ceiling. A three-and-a-half-foot tree monitor lizard ran down the trunk of a leaning tree and splashed beneath the water’s surface only a few feet away. Like reflections of a rainbow, a cloud of multi-colored butterflies flew through the air over the river. Ruddering our 18-foot kayaks through the narrowing passageway had become nearly impossible when we emerged at the end of the river. A creek came splashing its way down from the mountains, forming deep holes filled with clear water. Jeremy and I hopped out of our kayaks to enjoy the water’s cool refreshment. I was floating, lost in thought about the idyllic setting, when Jeremy yelled, “LEECHES!”

Horrified, I dove into my kayak as Jeremy dove into his. A half-dozen slimy black three- to four-inch-long leeches attached to my legs were convulsing and growing as they drank my blood. I hastily ripped them off. Jeremy’s legs were also covered with the disgusting freeloaders. Once we were free of them, they left behind tiny bites that bled profusely. Aung Kyi told us that leeches inject their victims with a serum that thins the blood so that they can drink it more easily. We gave him a hard time about not having informed us of the possibility before our dip in the leech-infested pool.

While paddling back downstream, Aung Kyi spotted a 15-foot reticulated python. Its brown body slithered across the surface of the water with its head raised in search of a victim. This one was small in comparison to some reticulated pythons, which are the largest snakes in the world, sometimes exceeding lengths of over 30 feet.

Paddling back toward the beach, we left the jungle behind as we entered the maze of mangroves. I donned my snorkeling gear and flipped backwards into the cool water. Rows of mangrove root systems marched across a white, sandy bottom just five feet beneath the surface. A cloud of silver minnows hovering around the roots bravely ventured out in the safety of numbers to investigate my presence. Small stingrays glided effortlessly across the sand. Even in the serenity of this underwater scene, the sunken logs surrounding me looked enough like crocodiles to constantly remind me of where I was.

After our swim, we dried off in the sun and let the outgoing tide slowly suck us out of the swamp. Ahead of us, a resplendent ruddy kingfisher sat on a limb hunting minnows. Its wings and head were rust-colored with a tinge of violet, and its bill was a deep crimson. Its breast was a bright ginger, and its rump was splashed with a bluish-white patch. For several minutes it fluttered from branch to branch as our drifting kayaks kept pushing it farther ahead of us.

The sun faded, painting the surface of the water with an orange tint. A hundred feet in front of us, I noticed a dark object moving through the water, producing a “V”-shaped ripple in its wake. Sitting up for a better look, I saw a six-foot crocodile meandering across the swamp. So much for leisurely drifting; it was time to paddle back to camp!

While our base camp was the only legal place that we could stay onshore overnight, there were plenty of islands, sea caves, mangroves and reefs in the nearby area to keep us busy exploring. Each day held something new and different, but it wasn’t until the morning of December 10, after more than two weeks in the archipelago, that we found our first evidence of sea gypsies.

As Jeremy and I were taking a stroll down the beach, exploring the debris washed up by the morning high tide, we found an empty turtle shell with the head still attached. Aung Kyi told us that the sea gypsies use the turtle shell as a natural pot to cook the turtle meat over fires that they make in their boats. Our hope of finding these elusive peoples was renewed.

Two days later, we were six miles west of our camp, paddling past a couple of islands called the Nine Pins. The islands’ shorelines were riddled with two-story-high entrances to sea caves. While the openings tempted us to explore, rising swells smashing into their ceilings echoed warnings for us to keep our distance.

While paddling out from one of the island’s beaches, I noticed a fishing boat ahead of Jeremy and Aung Kyi. The engine on the 45-foot wooden boat was screaming at full power as it seemed to be making a run for shore. The stressed-motor sound drowned out suddenly as the bow rose skyward like a miniature Titanic, and the boat’s crew spilled out into the sea. Stunned, we watched the boat sink until only the tip of the bow remained above water.

A nearby fishing boat motored over and collected all but two of the eight-person crew from the water. The remaining two crewmen climbed up onto the wreckage. The rescue boat threw them a line, which they tied off to the bow. The rescue boat towed the wreck as close to shore as possible, until the sunken stern hit bottom. We paddled over to help the two exhausted crewmen who were still clinging to the wreckage. As we approached, they dove underwater in an attempt to salvage some of the boat’s cargo. They surfaced and dove several times, until they were out of breath. Without masks, their attempts at salvage dives were fruitless. Aung Kyi watched the kayaks while Jeremy and I put on our snorkeling gear to help out.

The scene below was eerie, as I dove down the 40-foot length of the boat that had just minutes before entered its watery grave. Nets fanned out from the now vertical deck like ghostly hands, spreading out and closing back up as each wave pushed against the bow. The outline of the boat grew darker and creepier the deeper I swam. Fuel and oil from the engine room shadowed the reef below like a dark, viscous cloud. Deep in the shadows of the ship’s hull, the whitish forms of dead fish, the day’s catch, floated aimlessly about the wooden interior. The sight of the dead fish added to my growing feeling of discomfort. It seemed likely that sharks would soon be on their way. A mournful screeching noise filled the water as the tide slowly dragged the stern over the top of the reef. As I made my way up along the creaking panels of boards to the surface, waving nets threatened my escape, forcing me to dodge and maneuver around them. A few light bulbs were all we could find to salvage and, after several more dives, we gave the men a ride in to the nearby beach.

Although none of the fishermen spoke English, we were able to gather from their gestures that they had run aground on a reef and ripped a hole in the bottom of their boat. Figuring that they would get a ride with the two boats that had helped them and were still anchored in the small bay, we bid them farewell and paddled off.

Three days later, we were hanging out at our base camp when an odd object started floating toward us from the open sea. The shadowy form appeared to be constantly changing shape. As it grew closer, we were able to make out the silhouette of a group of men paddling on something that was too low in the water to see. We waded out into the breakers to help the eight men beach what turned out to be a makeshift raft. When the ragged men scrambled up onto the beach, we immediately recognized them as the crew of the boat that we had witnessed sink three days earlier. As if things weren’t bad enough for these shipwreck victims, it started to rain, drenching their clothes. We led them to a nearby cave to help them get a fire started so they could dry out. As we entered, the ceiling of the cave exploded with the wing beats of thousands of horseshoe bats. Once the fire got going enough to light up our surroundings, Aung Kyi pointed out the white shape of a six-foot cave racer snake curled in a crevice above us. He assured us that these snakes are not poisonous, and live almost exclusively on bats; we weren’t very relieved.

We cooked some rice for the stranded men and helped them get as comfortable as possible. The next day, we paddled Aung Kyi to a protected bay where fishing boats anchor each afternoon. There he arranged a ride for our shipwrecked friends back to Kawthoung, some 50 miles to the south.

Two days later, late in the afternoon of December 17, we were paddling south along Lampi Island when we spotted a seven-foot giant water monitor lizard scavenging along the low-tide line. It waddled its dinosaur-like body on short, stout legs, dragging its massive tail behind it. In the lizard family, only the Komodo dragons are larger. Although we were no threat to the creature, once it sensed our presence, it made a remarkably fast retreat into the cover of rainforest. As we continued our paddle, we came across three large bands of monkeys that were also taking advantage of the low tide, but it was what we found around the next point that we had long been anticipating.

As we rounded a rocky shoal, the distinct shape of the thatched roof of a hut came into view, rising and falling in the deep blue swells. Beyond the floating hut was a shallow reef where a half-dozen dugout canoes of various sizes were being paddled by women. We knew at once that we had finally stumbled upon a band of sea gypsies. These people live like no others on earth. They don’t plant coconut trees or grow greens in gardens on land and, amazingly, they don’t fish. They are harvesters, living afloat over their “gardens,” where each day they wait patiently to be lowered to their food sources of crustaceans and other sea creatures that are exposed by the outgoing tide. We had happened upon them just as they were beginning to harvest the day’s catch.

We watched from our kayaks as the women worked feverishly, each with her own task, to take full advantage of the narrow window of opportunity with the sinking tide. We paddled closer to a group of gatherers and asked Aung Kyi to greet them for us. The women answered Aung Kyi’s questions with single words or a head nod, and acknowledged Jeremy and I with several quick glances and a few shy smiles as they went about their work.

An older woman with a weathered face stood with graceful balance in the middle of one of the dugouts as three young women crouched at the front of the craft. When the elder put her weight into the oars crisscrossed in front of her, the canoe glided quickly across the surface. Lifting the carved paddle blades free from the water, she leaned back, setting up for another push. She paddled through the swells to within a few feet of the top of a boulder exposed by the tide, where the three younger women scampered out onto the rock. There, they began striking the mass of rock oysters with stones and collecting the tiny portions of meat into baskets with astonishing speed and efficiency.

Nearby, a man’s legs sprang up into the air as he disappeared beneath the surface. He remained underwater for so long that if Jeremy or I had done so, it would have drowned us twice over. The woman who stood at the oars of their canoe looked unconcerned. After what had to be over four minutes, he finally emerged from the deeper regions of their “garden” with a couple of sea cucumbers stuck to the end of a bamboo spear. As the crabs, oysters, sea cucumbers, sea worms and other food stuffs were collected, the dugouts began to make runs to the main boat for unloading. Smoke rose from the thatched roof of the boat, where several women and children were busy cooking the harvested food over a fire. The man at the stern kept a close watch over where the boat was drifting along the rocky shoreline.

We observed the families for a couple of hours. Finally, with the setting sun and rising tide, activities slowed. Some of the couples stayed aboard their dugouts to eat their portion of the meal given to them by the cooks on the main boat. We paddled up to the main boat. With the day’s work done, the sea gypsies finally took the time to contemplate the two fascinated kayakers and their guide. Aung Kyi tried to speak with one of the men who knew some Burmese. Their mannerisms were reserved and shy. They didn’t ask us questions, like Burmese fishermen had done when we stopped for a visit earlier in our trip. They answered our questions in as few words as possible. “Where are you going?” we asked. “Wherever,” was the man’s reply. As I gazed into the weathered faces of these sea wanderers, I sensed a lifetime of experience that made me feel like a greenhorn. In their presence, everything seemed turned around—as though the water was really the land and the land was really the water. For them, the water is their home, while the land is just a place to explore from time to time. With so much of our world covered by water, maybe they have it right. For them it is a “water world”—they hold secrets about the sea that the rest of us will never know.

After our encounter with the sea gypsies, the islands and reefs that surrounded us took on a new feel. 
For us, it was a place to enjoy for only a short time more, and that time was quickly coming to an end. On December 18, the boat that we had arranged for picked us up at camp and motored us back to Kawthoung, where we said a sad goodbye to Aung Kyi. As we boarded the longtail boat that would take us across the border back to Thailand, we waved to him. He folded his hands in front of his always smiling face and made several bows. His form grew smaller as we raced out to sea.

All too soon we were back in the chaos of streets lined with tour companies and hagglers, back to a place where the true personalities of people lay hidden behind an aggressive pursuit to make money. In our last four days at Patong Beach on Phuket Island, while we waited for our flight, it became obvious to me that the seemingly unchanging solitude of the Mergui Archipelago is in grave danger. Until now, it has remained mostly untouched, but at the alarming rate at which tourism spreads, now that the borders have opened, my advice to those interested in visiting these isolated islands is to go now—for change is at their doorstep.

Breaking the Ice: Winter Paddling

It’s a perfect winter day. With the previous night’s low of –15°C/5°F, I know there will be lots of ice in the St. Lawrence River in Montreal Harbor in the Canadian province of Quebec. The sky is clear, the air is still and the temperature will rise during the day, making the cold milder. For me, these are ideal conditions for a day of sea kayaking.

In the winter, even going for a single-day outing involves careful and methodical preparation. I don’t go out if I feel tired. For winter paddling to be safe and enjoyable, it requires being completely rested, and this morning, I am. With all the layers and gaskets I have to put on, getting dressed takes even longer than bundling up a toddler for the snow. The kettle whistles, and I fill my insulated bottle with hot water.

At Charron Island, my usual take-out (located midway down the St. Lawrence River, south-east of Montreal’s harbor), conditions are not good. A ribbon of ice chunks mixed with slush is drifting against the ice edge. The ribbon is uninterrupted—there is no place to launch from. At this distance, I am unable to tell whether I can cross the ice ribbon to reach open water. Furthermore, coming back across the ribbon might be impossible if the density of the floating ice increases during the day. I decide to continue my scouting.

I head back to the car to move a little farther upstream. There is another put-in at Longueuil. I don’t often launch from this area because the current is faster; however, today it may be my best option.

In Longueuil, I drop the kayak from the car rooftop directly to the snow and drag the kayak like a sled toward the water. Today, Montreal’s harbor is a complex world of ice; a majestic ribbon of moving colors and reflections, alive and whispering.

Before setting foot on ice, I dress for immersion in frigid water (in the range of 3°C to –2°C/37°F to 28°F). At this temperature, water is cold enough to cause pain to bare hands. I zip my dry suit, tighten my boot gaskets and put on a neoprene hood and a pair of neoprene gloves. With the paddle in my left hand and the bow of the kayak in my right, I step onto the ice. Even after a few winters of doing this, I am always a bit nervous when first setting foot on an icy surface. Holding onto a 17-foot kayak and a 7-foot paddle and wearing proper immersion gear and a PFD makes this activity safe, but it still feels weird. Today, the ice cracks and squeaks. It is slippery, too. A few people ashore watch me slip and fall. Ouch! How can water be so hard?

As I continue my scouting, I notice a large area of water free of ice. Currents push the ice north of this area. By launching here, I will be able to get closer to the moving ice to assess its density. If it turns out to be too dense to paddle in, I can return to my point of departure. Because there is no wind, only the current affects the movement of the ice. I must pay close attention to the air surrounding me—if a breeze begins to blow, I must be aware of it and assess its influence on the movement of ice and on my planned route.

I walk 300 meters to yesterday’s ice edge. The demarcation between yesterday’s and today’s edge is sharp and clear. I can see pieces of ice pointing up in the air, frozen in place after being pushed up by the current, then clear translucent ice beyond. The final 30 meters consists of ice formed over the last 12 hours: a bizarre patchwork of white ice chunks called shuga (so named because of its resemblance to powdered sugar). The shuga drifted, aggregated and, surrounded by a thin, transparent layer of newly formed ice called nilas, froze in place. The nilas, approximately one or two inches thick, flexes under my bodyweight.

Walking on nilas gives me chills, especially when it’s brand new and still elastic, like today. Bending down, I drag the kayak by the coaming, ready to lie down on the kayak should the ice give way. When possible, I hop from one chunk of shuga to the next, avoiding the nilas as much as possible. I see little bubbles moving underneath the ice. Water finally! With the kayak resting on a piece of shuga, I get in, secure the spray skirt and push myself into the water.

From where I sit, it looks unlikely that I’ll be able to paddle at all today. There are traces of water in my immediate surroundings, but in the distance, there seems to be only ice. It looks like I would need snowshoes to get anywhere. As I proceed, however, one channel opens up to another, and lines of frazil (small plates of ice just under the surface of the water) are easy to cross. Frazil gives the water a slick, oily feel. When it hardens, it turns into slush or semi-solid snow. Slush can be paddled, but doing so can become very tedious. Today it isn’t. The ice that looked too dense actually has enough water to be paddled.

Little ponds among the ice fields grow and shrink here andthere.In spite of the –5°C/23°F air temperature, the warm sun and still air make for comfortable paddling conditions. I decide to go toward the Old Port of Montreal, where I might grab a hot drink. I hope that the floating ice I see will continue to look more packed than it really is.

After some hit-and-miss route-finding through the ice, a few chunks of which hit the kayak, I reach the Old Port. A couple of ducks sit on the thin ice of the still-water basin. At first, the ice is like paper, then it thickens very progressively. I break over five kayak lengths of it until I find ice too strong to be broken by the paddle, but not strong enough to support the kayak’s weight. Unable to dig my paddle in, I can’t exert enough force to advance. Because the kayak itself is not supported by the ice, I can’t stand or even crawl on it. It looks like my planned stop won’t be possible today. This is yet another reminder that, in the winter, you don’t always get to do what you’d like, so you can only take advantage of what the conditions allow. Flexibility is a must.

In the summer, navigating your way out of the Old Port is hellish because the area is overrun with powerboats and jet skis. High speeds, drunk drivers and powerful currents make the area unpleasant, if not outright hostile, to sea kayakers. But today, thanks to the cold, there is absolutely no one in sight. The river is all mine. On my way back, I drift down along the frazil. It is like being on a magic carpet ride. Sitting in frazil, the kayak is surprisingly stable. I change gloves and drink a little warm water. I realize that I need to start making my way back. The sun is getting lower and I will eventually become tired if I stay out too long. It is wiser and safer to stop before fatigue sets in.

Practical Aspects
This article addresses the specifics of paddling in below-freezing temperatures with ice and frigid water, but it does not cover the basics of safe sea kayaking in cold water. Knowledge about self-rescue and proper clothing for immersion in cold water is a prerequisite. Extending your paddling season to include the winter months should be done only after you have developed strong safety skills during the regular season. Be aware that rescue potential is different for winter conditions than for summer. The Coast Guard probably expects outdoor enthusiasts to be on skis rather than in kayaks at this time of the year. Their ability to travel by boat will either be significantly reduced or made impossible by ice, so assume that you are on your own. Last winter, two ice fishermen near Montreal had gone on an unplanned “cruise” when the ice they were fishing on broke loose from shore. A helicopter had to fly in from Ontario to rescue them. Assistance can take several hours if it’s available at all.
Being Dry
For winter paddling, the usual cold-outdoor-activity wisdom applies: Avoid sweating, and stay dry. This is especially difficult to achieve when enveloped in a dry suit, Gore-Tex or not. Gore-Tex breathes, but may not be able to allow body condensation to evaporate entirely during even moderate exertion. Being wet in winter is perilous. Even winter-sports amateurs are generally aware of the importance of staying dry in subfreezing temperatures. When your winter sport is sea kayaking, the challenge of being dry is even greater. A good dry suit, waterproof gloves and neoprene boots make it possible to stay close to a state of dryness. Using a wetsuit, river shoes and pogies is a mistake in subfreezing conditions: They won’t keep you warm enough while you’re paddling and will be dangerously ineffective if you wind up in the water. Aside from the danger of paddling with improper equipment, you’ll be so cold, it won’t be any fun.
I regularly go out for five- to eight-hour intervals in temperatures as low as –15°C/5°F, and even if there is a breeze adding a wind-chill factor, I’m comfortable most of the time. I can’t stress enough how important a dry suit and waterproof gloves are to safe winter paddling.

For my outings, I start by layering synthetic fleece. The amount of fleece I put on depends on temperature and wind speed. For conditions below –5°C/23°F, I start with a base of four layers. The first layer is moisture-wicking fleece long underwear, which covers my legs, torso, arms and the bottom of my neck, in the area just below the dry-suit gasket. The second layer is an expedition-weight fleece top. The third layer is a farmer john fleece garment, covering my legs and torso but not my shoulders and arms. This one-piece farmer john is especially useful for covering my back and waist comfortably, preventing cold gaps in clothing. The fourth and final base layer is a big, heavy, thick fleece top. Over all four layers, I put on my dry suit. The last step in putting on the dry suit is to expel air from it. With an inch of the zipper left to close, I crouch, round my back and try to squeeze out as much air as I can, then close the zipper. Standing up, I can feel the outside air pressure pushing the fabric against my skin. The spray skirt and PFD form a final layer. My legs have a little less fleece coverage than my upper body, but the closed kayak provides a means of protection from the cold.
The golden rule for staying dry is to adjust the intensity level of the activity to the current heat needed by the body. If you’re feeling cold, paddle a little more vigorously until you warm up a bit. Don’t overdo it and reach the point of sweating. If you are too warm, slow down. The goal is to be as dry as possible. I recently switched to a Greenland paddle and found that it lets me more finely tune my paddling pace, especially in light cadences, allowing better temperature control. When it is below freezing, you’ll feel drier than you will at near or above freezing. The condensation that builds up inside a dry suit will ice up the inside of the fabric. At a break, simply turn your dry suit inside out, reversing it down to the knee, and brush off the icy buildup.

If your hands, feet and head are cold, your core is probably not warm enough. Warm waterproof gloves are a must. I find that fleece-lined neoprene gloves work best (see SK review, June 2001). Make sure the seams are glued and watertight. Good neoprene gloves are expensive and can also wear quickly, but they are reparable. I take two pairs on each outing and alternate them throughout the day as one pair gets damp, usually every two to four hours. At home, I test for leaks regularly and repair them as needed with Aquaseal neoprene sealant.

Even with perfect gloves, your hands will eventually become humid, either from water infiltrating the wrist areaor from perspiration. Your hands are very vulnerable to low temperatures. Cold and humidity can affect tendons and finger articulations, making them stiff and painful for several hours after paddling. According to professional divers working on the maintenance of a low-temperature aquarium in Montreal, frequent and repeated exposure of the hands to cold water can lead to arthritis. Do not wear damp gloves for too long. Your hands will thank you for frequent glove changes.
Another good practice to adopt is to wiggle your fingers while paddling, which will keep them loose and keep your blood circulating. Use very light pressure when pushing the paddle shaft so you can wiggle your fingers at the same time. The increased blood circulation in your hands will keep them warm.
Neoprene boots and wool socks keep feet warm and dry. I use neoprene mukluks and find them to be very warm. Allowing wiggle space for your toes is very important. A common mistake is to wear boots that are too tight, which hinders blood circulation and causes cold feet even if your core temperature is ideal. The same is true with too-tight gloves.
A skull cap will keep your head warm. Properly adjusted, it will even prevent water from entering your ears during immersion. I use a neoprene shell lined with Lycra fleece that fits snugly around my face. Finally, a scarf or facemask is nice if the wind is blowing. The mountaineering-style neoprene facemask covers from the nose down and secures around the neck, protecting it as well. Under some conditions, small splashes and wind can cause blisters on your face quicker than you can say “freeze!” A good facemask will let you fully enjoy the beauty of a snowstorm from an unusual setting. Are we warm enough now?

Before Ice
Maybe the biggest mistake you can make in sea kayaking is overconfidence. Don’t assume that just because you can reliably roll or do a recovery in cold water on a fall day that you will be able to do the same among chunks of ice in February. Gradual preparation and practice are essential. How will your body react to frigid water? Is your equipment up to the task? Failures that might be annoying in warmer conditions are likely to become catastrophic in the winter. There is only one way to find out if you are ready: Go for a swim. Observe the local conditions regularly for the area you want to paddle over the course of fall and early winter. When a little ice begins to form in the area, paddle out on the water (appropriately dressed, of course), exit the kayak and swim. This exercise should be done near shore, in chest-deep water with a partner nearby. Take a look around to see if anyone might see you capsize. It is wise to warn passersby about your drill. They might think that the situation requires an emergency call and take action. 

Once in the water, observe the effect of the cold on your body, but come ashore before you get hypothermic. Be aware that poor judgment is one of the early symptoms of hypothermia. Other deceptive symptoms include apathy, confusion, inability to solve problems, unawareness of a dangerous situation and making no effort to protect yourself. Your partner should be reliable, dressed for immersion and able to drag you out of the water. In all cases, be very cautious and try to recognize the early symptoms of hypothermia, and have your partner closely involved in keeping you safe.
When you are done swimming, remove your gloves and immerse your bare hands in the water. If the water is frigid, it should convince you to keep your gloves on at all times. Frigid water can render your hands useless in less than 30 seconds. Furthermore, taking bare hands out of the water into subfreezing air temperatures is also very painful. It’s essential to wear gloves at all times when walking on ice or when paddling where the water is cold, especially when ice is present. At near-freezing water temperatures, even with a dry suit, you can actually feel your body heat quickly draining out. It can’t be stressed enough how deadly frigid water is. Experience it in a controlled manner before committing yourself to the challenge of winter paddling.
Practice swimming and reentry in cold water close to a beach, even if your roll is bombproof. At some point, you will fall in the water while walking on ice. If you paddle in icy conditions, assume you will regularly wind up in the water, whether you want to or not. This is especially true in late winter or under conditions where breaking through the ice will be either more frequent or certain.

A Little Extra Advice
Your kayak must stay afloat no matter what happens. Use float bags in the forward and aft compartments and place all your cargo in dry bags. Should a watertight hatch fail, the float bags will ensure proper flotation of the kayak. Taking extra warm clothes and food is a good idea. In dry bags, carry a complete change of dry fleece, a winter coat, dry mitts, a hat, extra gloves, boots and a warm sleeping bag if you are in an area that is even a little remote. Besides adding flotation, these items can be very useful in case of an emergency situation. 

One extra piece of equipment specific to winter paddling is a set of ice claws, or any other object sharp enough to bite the ice, enabling you to get a grip in it. On my first outing on ice, I was paranoid enough to take along an ice axe. Although an impressive prop to display on the deck of your kayak, the ice axe is bulky, rusts easily and sinks quickly. A paddler’s knife, either a sheath knife or a folder with a locking blade, can be a useful tool to get a grip in the ice, but make sure the tip is not filed off, as is sometimes the case. A blunt tip will make it more difficult to get a secure grip in the ice. The fact that knives do not float also reduces their utility. In this sense, ice claws are a better choice. They are easy-to-make, effective tools used to drag yourself out of the water over slippery ice.
To make your own, cut a 1-foot long, 1 1/4-inch thick dowel in half. Drive a 2-inch-long screw about an inch into the center of the end of each stick (or farther if using a longer screw). Use a hacksaw to cut off the head of each screw and file the tip to a point sharp enough to dig into ice. (The important thing is that the screw is firmly embedded in the dowel and will resist pulling. It shouldn’t move at all or break away from the dowel under some force. If you try to pull yourself over a lawn with it, you should damage the lawn, not loosen the screw. Force exerted on the dowel will be less on ice, where there is less friction than on a lawn.) On the other end, drill a hole through the dowel approximately an inch from the end, and thread a 4-foot piece of small rope through the hole to tie the claws together. Carry them in a convenient, accessible location. Ice claws cost almost nothing to make and can be truly useful.

Portable Heat
A warm water bottle is another excellent way to stay in the comfort zone. It is a surprisingly effective, portable heating device. Use a Thermos or MSR bottle parka that you can carry under a deck bungee cord. You can also wrap a hot water bottle in several layers of fleece and carry it inside the kayak. Fleece is an excellent insulator. Feeling cold? Sip a little hot water. Be careful not to overuse it, however. If you become  hot and sweaty, your clothes will dampen, and shortly thereafter, you will be cold and miserable unless you stop to dry out in the wind and change your damp clothes. Even if you don’t feel damp, it’s always nice to stop for a dry out. I try to do it every four hours or so. At these times, the warm water bottle plays an essential role. When you remove the dry suit and roll it down to expose the fleece to the wind to dry it out, your body experiences a tremendous heat loss. Typically, I try to stand in the windiest place possible with my arms raised, turning to expose my back, torso and legs. This makes even the most hardened northerners shiver unless they drink warm liquid!

In subfreezing temperatures, ice will eventually form on the kayak and paddle shaft. This glaze is pretty at first, but can build up and become heavy. Use something hard to break it, such as the ice claw handles, which are very effective. Gently tap the kayak and paddle shaft with the ice claw handle to break the ice. Dipping the paddle shaft in water will make breaking the ice easier. Cold as it is, water is still warmer than ice. It will weaken the ice, especially the bond between the paddle shaft and ice. As the owner of a plastic kayak, I can bend my boat in soft spots to help break the ice buildup. The type of plastic used in my kayak remains flexible without breaking well below freezing. A flexible skin-on-frame kayak is very easy to de-ice. Of course, using a rudder or skeg is impossible under freezing conditions, as they become jammed with ice. My advice is to retract or remove them.

Scouting for Open Water

As with any kayak trip, a day of winter paddling starts at the water’s edge. In summer, getting to the water is usually straightforward: drive to the water, park, unload and launch. In winter, it’s not always as simple.A weak ice edge, where ice meets water, can complicate entering the water or make it impossible. Drifting ice, at the mercy of wind and current, can alter course during the day, and rapidly evolving ice conditions can hinder landing. Thus, scouting is essential to get to open water and to note places to take out if the ice shifts.

Finding an acceptable put-in is part of the joy of winter kayaking, particularly if it involves a bit of a hunt. Changing conditions are also a large part of the fun: In winter, no two days of paddling are ever the same. When winter conditions are warmer, such as early and late in the season, searching for places with the most floating ice is often a good reason to drive around. When ice is scarcer, I tend to paddle in the areas where it is more concentrated, usually channels with less current.

Snow coverage may mean I have to park in places more distant from the river, but it is easy to pull a kayak across the snow—even a one- or two-mile walk is manageable if the snow is compact or if I use snowshoes. My waterproof kayaking footwear is warm and sturdy enough to allow for walks of this distance.

Not Ice, Not Water
Probably the worst thing a kayaker can encounter while winter paddling is the combination of ice and water that’s too firm to paddle through, but not solid enough to 

walk on. Conditions can change every day, every hour. Most of the time, it’s no problem to put in and get out. I’ll walk to a solid ice edge, sit, secure my spray skirt and push myself in. To make a landing on the ice, I’ll paddle fast, aiming the kayak directly at the ice edge. If I have enough momentum, the kayak can even slide far enough to get me over solid ice.

Sometimes it’s possible to get around some fairly strange mixtures of ice by crawling, jumping and swimming. These types of endeavors can actually be fun—sometimes more enjoyable than paddling itself. Jumping from one piece of ice to the other, discovering which ones are large enough to support you and which ones are not, even feeling the ice move under your foot and sink slowly is very enjoyable. Crawling in slush is also enjoyable. These are experiences I like very much. It is always so new, I feel like a child discovering the world.

Finally, beware of current going under the ice edge. On May 16, 1999, two river kayakers on the Copper River, in the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, Alaska, were dragged under the edge by the current. Fortunately, they lived to tell their tale, which involved being under an ice edge for a full minute. Under the right circumstances, even a weak current can be strong enough to drag someone under the edge.

Cheated by Time
Somehow, time moves faster when I paddle in the winter than in the summer. Maybe this is an indication that paddling is more fun in the winter! Maybe it is the solitude or the wonderful spectacle of ice, its colors and sounds. Whatever the reason, I get the most thrill and satisfaction out of sea kayaking in the winter. With adequate preparation, the right equipment and the proper skills, you might also discover that the snowy months of the year are the best for paddling.
Winter paddling can be contemplative, even a little magic. Dazzling as it is, however, this is a hostile environment. There is no such thing as safe ice. Thin or not, it can always be treacherous. Each winter in Quebec, there are casualties when people break through ice. The formation and transformation of ice is a constant evolution, every moment a wonder. But equipment and procedure are essential to paddling safely in the winter. The beauty of the setting must not take precedence over pragmatism and awareness of danger.
I’ll leave you with my main piece of advice on paddling in the winter: Don’t do it unless you are totally confident about it. It’s better to be prepared and safe so that you have plenty of winter paddling experiences ahead of you.

Swimming Against the Odds: An Account of Hypothermia

ICold water is a threat not only to kayakers but to other boaters. Two sea kayakers come to the assistance of a fisherman whose luck was not measured by the size of a fish.

IJeanelle and I live on Discovery Bay, near Sequim, Washington. Several years ago, Jeanelle’s Midwest-based mother, Vera, after learning that we frequently boat on these vast, cold waters, asked, “What do you do if you fall in?” I replied, “We don’t.”
Well, Vera—I fell in.

ILast fall, after seven or eight seasons of using an inflatable boat to haul up and gather the contents of shrimp and crab pots, I decided, “Enough.” The boat’s rounded sides and tight crevices made it difficult to clean and provided limited space for carrying gear, so I bought an old shallow-draft 12-foot aluminum skiff from a neighbor. Its smooth sides and flat bottom were easy to clean; however, I soon learned that this boat was much less stable than the inflatable. Jeanelle and I tried it out a couple of times and realized that we had to be careful using it when hauling for crab and shrimp pots. I decided I would use it only in calm weather and would stick with the inflatable for rough-water work.

I began using the aluminum boat in the spring just before the end of crab season and used it two or three times. Winter storms wash up large logs and gravel each year, and the old aluminum boat was easy to carry over to the water when the launching ramp was blocked with debris. I pulled crab pots with a neighbor, although I made sure he knew to be careful when moving about in the boat. A couple of times I was so stern with him about keeping the boat safely on an even keel, that I fear I hurt his feelings. After the crab season was over, I decided to fish for flounder. I considered getting out the inflatable, but the old aluminum boat was already on the trailer, so I headed to the beach with it. Although the logs had been removed from the ramp, a bank of gravel, three or four feet deep, remained. Jeanelle helped me carry the motor, then the boat, up and over the gravel to the water’s edge. I carried a small two-way radio and told Jeanelle that I would call her soon to check in. 

The day was cool, only 55˚F, but the sun was bright. The water was calm, with a slight chop pushing to the south. As I headed south, running with the chop, the boat rode well and felt smooth and stable. I headed a mile or so south of the launch, intending to fish at a depth of around 140 feet, offshore from a huge landslide that had occurred a few years ago. I found the area where I’d caught flounder before, shut down the motor and tossed a bell anchor with a long rode overboard. Although I had no depth finder, I figured I was probably too shallow because the anchor didn’t take enough of the line. Nonetheless, I decided to bait up and try fishing. As it turned out, the anchor didn’t hold fully. The boat slowly drifted south, bobbing along with the wind and the chop. The anchor was probably in sand and was being dragged at a slow rate. Perfect! I could let the boat drift slowly and cover the whole bar.

A man and a woman in single sea kayaks paddled south up the bay toward me. They paused near me, and we drifted along together. They said they were new to the area, and the man wanted to know what I was fishing for and what I used for bait. I welcomed them to the community and asked about their boats. While I had only paddled a kayak a few times, they have always interested me, and I enjoyed seeing them on Discovery Bay. We spoke a little more, and I told them to have a good paddle. They continued on their way south. I fished and watched them as they paddled a mile or so past me and out of sight.

About 45 minutes later, I called Jeanelle on the radio and told her everything was OK. I drifted across the entire bar without a bite. I pulled the anchor, started the motor and headed back north to the beginning of the bar. I also went farther out to find deeper water. When I was between 100 and 200 yards offshore, I dropped anchor again, and found that it took more line. I figured I had found the roughly 140 feet of water I was looking for. I began fishing again.

Because of the wind and chop, I was concerned about the boat, although not really afraid. I thought about the fact that I always wore a life jacket, and although I knew it would keep me afloat, it wouldn’t protect me from the cold water. The chop increased to gentle waves. They nudged from the north, lapping against the port side of the boat where I had tied the anchor to the oarlock. I knew I shouldn’t do this because it sets the boat to take current and waves on the beam instead of the bow, but the water wasn’t so rough that I thought it would be a problem. Beyond taking my normal precautions, I didn’t give it much thought—I was just fishing in conditions that I’d fished in many times before.

Quite abruptly, things went very wrong. It happened so quickly that it was almost impossible for me to register exactly what happened. A lot of water poured into the boat. I seem to remember it coming over the starboard gunwale, although logic would indicate that water would have come in on the port side, where the anchor was tied and where the waves were striking. The 10 inches of water in the bottom of the boat sloshed back and forth. I scrambled to keep the boat level, but it didn’t work. The boat flipped over, and suddenly, I was in the water. I was amazed at how quickly it happened.

I felt no panic. Instead, I immediately and clearly understood several things: The situation was very bad; I was fully immersed in the water; in these cold waters hypothermia would steal my ability to function in a matter of minutes; my chances for survival were slim.

I could bear it for the moment. I remembered reading some time ago, “There is no good way to die.” I thought about William Colby, the former CIA director who had arteriosclerosis and made the decision to launch his canoe into a strong breeze from the shore of a Potomac River tributary. He didn’t come back. I’ve always had admiration for him because, at 76 and in poor health, he chose his way to die. I thought about myself at 70 years old, and how I had a plan to make it 10 more years, still being able to enjoy life. I’d shared this plan with Jeanelle. Like Colby, I may decide to die sometime, but this was not the time.

I had to figure out what to do. I had choices. I could stay with the boat. Flotation material under the seats was keeping it afloat. My life jacket was keeping me afloat without my having to tread water. I could stay with the boat or let go and swim for shore. The waters were vast, and that little upside-down boat and I weren’t likely to be seen by anyone who could initiate a rescue. I knew that my chances for survival would be worse if I stayed with the boat. I had to get out of the cold water. All of these thoughts happened within a matter of moments. I decided to swim for shore.

I wore boots that covered me up to the hips. They had filled with water and were weighing me down. I had to get them off. The right one came off rather easily, but the left one was difficult, requiring maybe 30 seconds of struggle for me to get it off. I knew I didn’t have 30 seconds to waste, much less the energy, but the boots came off. I checked the straps and clips on my life jacket to make sure they were well fastened, then pushed off from the boat.

After swimming a few strokes, I seemed to be moving through the water, but I realized that my bulky life jacket was slowing my progress. While I realized I could swim faster without it, I also knew that without its buoyancy, all would be lost. I pressed on.

I remembered that hypothermia would take effect within 15 minutes in these waters. Given my slow pace, I realized it wasn’t likely that I’d make it to shore in that time. Yet still, I felt no panic. I knew that the wind and perhaps a slight current were moving south, parallel to the shore, and I thought about swimming with the current, headed for a more distant point but reaching it more quickly. I had done this type of swimming in riptides in waters off the East Coast. However, I decided to try for the shortest route.

I didn’t think the wind would affect what little there was of me that was out of the water, and I wasn’t really sure the current was moving south, even though I had noted the current earlier when the boat had been dragging the anchor south across the bar. I swam directly at the shore. I could see to my left (south) and behind me better than I could see ahead. I looked back and I saw the shoes I’d carried in the boat, perhaps 20 feet apart, floating upright, nicely bobbing on top of the chop and riding the waves. In this remote area, with no development along the shore, I always took a good pair of athletic shoes with me so if the motor died, I could row to the nearest shore and walk for help. The shoes were now out ahead of the boat, which seemed to continue drifting south, no doubt still dragging the anchor. I thought that the shoes looked so perfect, little ships, requiring no draft at all. I realized that I had been swimming for probably five minutes and was only a very short distance from the boat and the shoes. I knew they weren’t going in my direction, which told me it was going to take longer than I’d hoped to make shore. I looked at the shore. It seemed the same distance as when I began swimming. No panic. I told myself to keep swimming. But I knew that the odds I’d make it were growing slimmer.

Determination and adrenaline still powered my swimming. I didn’t feel cold and wondered how that could be. Despite the absence of feeling cold, I knew not to be fooled. The water here was always close to 47˚F, whether winter or summer. I had to reach shore quickly. From my angle, it looked at least a half-mile away, although I’d hoped I had closed the gap to no more than 100 yards. I knew this probably wasn’t true, though. A hundred yards was only a fraction of the distance I had to swim, but as I swam, I needed to believe that I had only that far to go.

I was actually rather comfortable. The small waves of the chop were unchanged and didn’t pose a significant problem, and there wasn’t even any saltwater in my mouth. I decided to guess how many strokes it would take to make shore. I set the goal at a thousand. No, too high. I guessed 700 or 800. I decided that if I could make 800 strokes, I would make it to shore.

I began to count the scissor kicks of my legs. I got to 200 and kept counting. I lost track. Was it 200 or 300? I decided it was 200. I made it to 300, then 360. Then 360 again. I had made it to 360 twice. Had any of my counting been right? I knew what was happening. I was cold. I was really cold, although I didn’t feel it. I wondered if I was experiencing the effects of hypothermia. I didn’t know. I thought about my son-in-law, a doctor. He would probably know. I wondered if he would think I should know, too. I tried to keep the count going, but I couldn’t concentrate on it. I could tell that shore was closer. I felt like shouting for joy. It was closer. It was working. I couldn’t keep the count, but the shore part was working. I kept swimming, making myself swim reasonably, sort of timed, deliberate, repetitive and hard strokes. I decided that my 15 minutes were up. I’d been in the water at least that long, but I was doing fine. I hadn’t decided that I would make it. It was too far yet. I guessed that I was more than halfway, but it still seemed so far.

As I swam, I began to realize that my legs weren’t working right. No panic. I knew that was part of the deal. I spoke to them aloud and told them to work right and I concentrated on their motion. They did better. I think. My arms were working OK, but my fingers were very cold. They didn’t seem to be right. I raised my right hand out of the water to look. For the first time, I realized I was wearing brown jersey gloves. My fingers were spread wide apart. I forced them together, but somehow, they wanted to be spread. I knew that wasn’t good. If I could keep my fingers together, I’d have a better pull. An extra half-inch each stroke. A half-inch was important. I kept swimming. My legs were acting up, sort of fuzzy or rubbery, but I told them to work right. At least they worked. My fingers were not so good. They were colder. Numb? I didn’t take a hand out of the water to look. I couldn’t afford the lost stroke.

The shore was close—no more than 50 or 100 feet. I was going to make it. But maybe not. I thought my thinking was clear. I knew this water. At that spot, the bottom was partially covered with grass and partially covered with white sand. I looked. I saw it. I could see the bottom! I didn’t know if I could touch it. I didn’t try. I knew I had only a tiny bit of energy left, and if I tried to touch the bottom and failed, that could be all I had. I swam a little more. I was sure I could touch the bottom. I did. I looked down and saw my blue jeans and double pair of white socks. It was sort of a shock. I hadn’t thought about what I was wearing. Suddenly, I was walking.

Actually, I was only sort of walking. The water was still waist deep, and my PFD was partly supporting me. I moved toward shore and, as the water shallowed, I realized that my legs wouldn’t hold me. I crawled out on all fours, getting my first mouthful of saltwater. The beach was part sand and part barnacle-covered rocks. It was a low tide, but I really didn’t connect the presence of the barnacles with the state of the tide. Even with my jeans, gloves and socks, the barnacles were sharp—but it was so wonderful. The sun was strong, but I quickly realized that I was so cold. I couldn’t function normally—maybe, not at all.

I thought that the kayakers I had met were down the beach somewhere, but I knew that even if they were, they’d never see me while I was down on all fours. There were rocks on the beach as big as I am. I took a couple of minutes to try to regain myself, then tried to stand. I made it, wobbly, but I made it. I realized that wet blue jeans hold a lot of water. It was streaming off me.

Hunched over with fatigue and cold, I could see one powerboat going south out in the middle of the bay. It was fast and small—very far away. A mile, a mile and a half? No chance. I thought I could see the kayakers way down the beach. I shouted, “Help!” as loudly as I could. I was surprised to have had that much voice; it seemed pretty loud. I was also surprised that I got a reaction from down the beach. I could tell that they heard me the first time. Sound over water carries well. Also I was upwind of them. I didn’t think about that at the time, though. At that moment, I just knew that they heard me. They seemed like little mannequins, but at my shout, they moved. They were too far away for me to see them well, but I could tell they changed whatever they were doing when I shouted. I shouted again. They looked around, searching for the source of the sound. I could see the light shine on their faces. I shouted again and they spotted me. I could tell that one of them was looking toward the upside-down boat that had continued to drift south nearer them. I was farther away. One of them began running toward me, which felt nearly as good to me as the moment I had touched the beach.

I didn’t think about whether or not they would know how to treat my hypothermia. Later, I realized that they probably knew as much, if not more, about cold water and its dangers as I did. I began trying to stumble in the direction of the kayakers, making it up the 100-foot-wide rock and sand beach over huge drift logs. As the gap closed between the running kayaker and me, I stopped to sit on a log and tried to get out of my wet clothes. The life jacket came off, and I spent considerable time trying to place it on the log just right, which somehow seemed important at the time. It took me a while, and I knew that I should get out of my wet clothes, but everything seemed to move in slow motion—except the person running toward me. Soon I could tell that she was a woman. She told me to get out of my clothes. I kept trying, but I was doing a poor job, so she helped me. She said, “Don’t look—I’m going to give you my clothes.” A big, dry, sweatshirt came down over my head. No million-dollar piece of clothing could ever feel so good. Ever. I realized she had put on my wet jacket. I also realized that this woman knew what she was doing. She was taking charge.

Her partner paddled up in one of the kayaks after having apparently gone by way of my boat to check for other people. By this time, my jeans and socks were off but I was still wearing wet undershorts. As I got them off, he took his pants off and helped me get them on. They felt good, too, but nothing could compare to that dry sweatshirt. The sun remained bright, but there was a bit of wind out of the north. I was a little more coherent, so I snuggled down behind my log out of the wind, exposing as much of my body to the sun as I could.

The woman had gone to the water and set off in her kayak for help. I shouted that she needed to know who I was. She flipped up the large pouch of fishing licenses attached to my wet jacket that she was wearing and said, “I know who you are.” It was sort of funny. As she paddled away, I realized that I was feeling better. Not only did she know what to do, she could really paddle. The man remained on the beach, his legs bare. They had told me their names, George and Vicki, but everything was a little fuzzy, and it took a while before I could remember the names. I remained down in my nest of drift logs.

It occurred to me that I had been wearing sunglasses all the time I was swimming. I remembered their getting tangled as my clothes came off. At this point, I was wearing George’s pants, Vicki’s sweatshirt and a woolen pullover cap from—who knows. The pants were short and my feet were bare. I noticed how brown my legs were from having spent the winter in the south and how white my feet were from wearing shoes and socks. All these little things seemed interesting. George and I talked, but I couldn’t concentrate on what we talked about. I couldn’t stop shaking, and my teeth were chattering. But I felt reasonably warm. I was aware that it was my upper body warmth that counted, and with that wonderful sweatshirt, I was pretty well covered.

Around 45 minutes later, George spotted a boat coming south along our shore. After a while I could see that it was my neighbor Tom’s boat, but he went cruising by at full throttle. He was only about 50 yards offshore, but George, who was waving his arms as much as he could, says Tom was looking away from shore, out over the water. Obviously, he was chasing after my upside-down boat, which by this time was a mile or so farther south. At my boat, he slowed, then continued toward Gardiner. After three or four miles, he was lost from sight.

He returned a little while later, this time looking toward shore. He spotted George at the water’s edge waving his hands. Tom had brought some clothing. I was feeling some extra stiffness, but I got them on with only a little difficulty. I got in Tom’s boat and we headed north toward home. The boat was shallow, and we traveled into the wind. I was cold. The trip was only five minutes, but I was really cold.

There were several people waiting as we arrived at the beach. Someone made me put some boots on my bare feet to help in walking across the gravelly beach. The boots were so small, I couldn’t get my feet into them, but I got them on far enough to walk. Three women helped me walk the 60 feet to a waiting car. I could probably have made it with one or two of them, but it would have been difficult alone. I felt colder than when I was in my log nest on the beach. I was encouraged to get checked out by a doctor, but I insisted that I was fine. Our neighbor Jean drove me home.

Jeanelle wasn’t there, but knowing I must get warm, I headed for the shower. It felt great. I could function a little better, and after a while, I realized that the water from the tap was getting cold. That had never happened before, and it took me a little time to realize I’d used all the hot water in the tank. I toweled off and dressed. Jeanelle arrived, and after I told her what had happened, we went back to the beach to talk with whoever was still there. One of them said my words were still slurred. I returned to the house hoping the water heater had recovered. It had. I ran water into the tub and got in. I stayed a long time, adding hot water as much and as often as I could stand it. When I finally got out, I was really warm—too warm. It felt good, though.

I knew I was going to be fine. I thought about a lot of things, including sea kayakers Vicki and George, without whose help I wouldn’t be fine.

Chuck Johnson is retired from a career of teaching and lecturing on EQ (Emotional Quotient). He lives in Sequim, Washington, and Venice, Florida.


The Sea Kayaker’s Library—Easy-to-Find Books

You know, kayaking can be a real drag sometimes. From the packing, to the planning, to the weather watching, I usually end up spending more time thinking about it than actually doing it. But once you get out on that water—oh, yeah. The downtime, the preparation and the wait are all worth it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get that feeling whenever and wherever you wanted?
Below, you’ll find a list of books listed chronologically by most recent printing that, in my opinion, help you do just that. These are adventure stories, travel essays and assorted explorations from the sea kayaker’s perspective. From paddling the Arctic Circle to exploring the interior of New Guinea, you’re sure to find something here to stir the explorer in you. And in the hands of talented paddlers/writers like Paul Theroux, Chris Duff and Don Starkel, you’re getting more than just an entertaining yarn; this is a whole new breed of high-quality, exciting, sea kayaking literature. As of press time, all of these books were in print and easy to obtain through local bookstores or online shops.

Paddling My Own Canoe
by Audrey Sutherland
(University of Hawaii Press, 1980)
Once Sutherland moved to Hawaii in 1952, it didn’t take long before the rugged coastline of Molokai Island lured her out to explore. What started as an after-work pastime eventually grew into a lifelong obsession that has taken Sutherland all over the world in her inflatable kayak, and today the 83-year-old is considered the authority on Hawaiian kayaking. She has written some well-received books on Hawaii, but this one, which focuses on her first years in the cockpit, really hits home with its descriptions of the land and the author’s newfound love of the sport.


The Starship and the Canoe
by Kenneth Brower
(HarperCollins, 1983)
By far the most unusual book on this list, The Starship and the Canoe is an intriguing double biography of a father and son: one a renowned astrophysicist with dreams of a homemade spaceship, the other a tree-dwelling genius out to build the world’s greatest ocean kayak. It’s an unusual premise, but Kenneth Brower makes it work by exposing the force in our lives that drives us to explore the unknown: What one man finds in the heavens, another finds in the world around his kayak. Is it a travel book? Not really. A guidebook? No. Worth reading? I say yes.


The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific
by Paul Theroux
(Ballantine Books; reissue edition, 1993)
In the wake of the dissolution of his marriage, Paul Theroux headed for the islands of the Pacific Ocean. His meandering 1992 travelogue, The Happy Isles of Oceania, reads like the voyage of exploration that it is. As “the green islands shimmered into view,” he writes, “it was another experience of the Pacific being like the night sky, like outer space, and of island-hopping in that ocean being something like interplanetary travel.” Theroux spent 18 months poking around Australia, New Guinea, the Soloman Islands, Samoa, Tahiti and other locations in his trusty folding kayak, encountering people and places that, to the vast majority of his readers, seem very “otherworldly” indeed.


Wind, Water, Sun: A Solo Kayak Journey Along Baja California’s Desert Coastline
by Ed Darack
(Poudre Canyon Press, 1998)
The Baja California Peninsula is a truly unique place: naked peaks stabbing at the skyline, hardscrabble cactus dotting the horizon and a piercing silence that comes with 700 miles of empty desert. But photographer/author Ed Darack brings this region to life in this trip down the Sea of Cortez coast. “This part of the globe was a desolate, worthless swath of hopelessness in the eyes of the Spaniards,” he writes. “A sea in the heart of a desert.” Dense with history and local lore, Darack’s pages explode with incredible photographs and detailed maps.

Watertrail: The Hidden Path Through Puget Sound
by Joel Rogers
(Sasquatch Books, 1998)
Photographer/author Joel Rogers makes it easy to get lost in the breathtaking scenery of Washington State’s Cascadia Marine Trail, the 400-plus mile route that took him through Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. But there’s more to the Watertrail story than just pretty pictures—there’s also some incredibly evocative writing. In fact, the first sentence in the book pretty much tells you what you’re in for: “The scenic details of Budd Inlet revealed themselves in all their early-morning glory: ragged lines of pilings from long-ago mills, the rotting keels of beached boats, and the Capitol dome rising over the town of Olympia.”


Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey Through the Northwest Passage
by Victoria Jason
(Turnstone Press, 1999)
What does it take to paddle, largely alone, from Churchill, Manitoba, to Tuktoyuktuk on the Beaufort Sea, and survive? Here’s a hint: Think Victoria Jason. She completed the 4,600-mile feat between 1991 and 1994. And the two-time stroke victim and grandmother of two had only been paddling for a year when she started. Impressed yet? Don’t be, that’s just the beginning of the courageous story detailed in Kabloona. Her observations of the landscape and the people she meets elevate this paddling memoir and make for a captivating read.


Homelands: Kayaking the Inside Passage
by Byron Ricks
(William Morrow, 1999)
Forgoing the luxury of a standard honeymoon, Ricks and his new bride spent five months paddling the Inside Passage from Canada to Seattle. What could have been a run-of-the-mill paddling book in less-skilled hands is transformed into a personal account of the couple’s attempts to build a life for themselves among the people and places of an intricate coastal waterway. But that’s not to say that the author slouches off as a travel writer—he dishes out local lore and paddling adventure with the best of them. “The very name, Inside Passage, seemed to carry an intimacy,” he writes, “a knowing. It would be a personal voyage. As much as anything, it would be a journey home.”


Paddle to the Arctic
by Don Starkel
(McClelland and Stewart, 2000)
It’s hard to talk about Victoria Jason’s book Kabloona (see earlier reference) without mentioning Starkel, who attempted the Northwest Passage trip three times (once with Jason in 1991) before finally making it, surviving conditions and setbacks that are sure to send a shiver down your spine. The resulting book, written in journal form, offers a frank look at what surviving in the Arctic is all about. “I am very ‘green’ to the Arctic,” he writes early on, “inexperienced but I don’t think arrogant or overconfident…Today was crazy and risky. Paddled through the ice fields in all directions. Only my coolness and deck compass saved my life.”

The Armchair Paddler
Cecil Kuhne, Ed.
(Menasha Ridge Press, 2000)
This is it; I’ve found it, the world’s most perfect beach/bathroom/backyard book: a compilation of classic and contemporary paddling stories from around the world. With authors such as John McPhee, Hannes Lindemann and Tim Cahill, The Armchair Paddler is the kind of book you dream about finding on your nightstand in the morning. And with more than 30 essays and book excerpts from all corners of the paddling world, this one is sure to keep any daydreaming paddler busy for a long time.


On Celtic Tides
by Chris Duff
(Griffin Trade Paperback, 2000)
Choppy North Atlantic waters? Check. Raging winds? Check. Literate paddler in the cockpit? Check. Duff is no stranger to open-water kayaking, and this journal of his 1996 circumnavigation of Ireland comes as close to re-creating the actual paddling experience as anything I’ve ever read. “There was so much speed and power in the waves that I knew if something went wrong, I would be upside-down in a second. It was a thin line to dance upon, yet it was so pure in its wildness that I would not have wanted the safety of a windy camp.”


Visions of the Wild: A Voyage by Kayak Around Vancouver Island
by Maria Coffey and Dag Goering
(Harbour Publishing Company, 2001)
Coffey and her photographer/husband, Goering, are no strangers to adventure, having by this point paddled to nearly every corner of the globe (as recorded in their numerous books). But they bring it all back home in this 2001 account of their three-month trip around Vancouver Island—bringing the region’s staggering beauty, diverse wildlife and unique charm to life with prose and beautiful color photographs. And it’s refreshing to learn about the area with Coffey and Goering—legitimate locals who live on Protection Island, B.C.—as guides.


Birthplace of the Winds: Alaska’s Islands of Fire and Ice
by Jon Bowermaster
(National Geographic, 2001)
Jon “writer first, adventurer second” Bowermaster is quick to discount his accomplishments in the cockpit, but his skills with the word processor and the paddle shine through in this riveting account of a voyage through Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in 2000. “From a distance, it doesn’t seem all bad,” he writes, “especially if you like extremes including lousy weather, tidal waves, earthquakes and volcanoes.” His group spent 25 days slogging through an area so battered and desolate that it’s come to be known as the “birthplace of the winds.” But it’s Bowermaster’s skill as a storyteller—weaving together his trip diary with historical nuggets—that really sets his book apart.


Beyond Fear: A Journey Across New Guinea
by Joel Kramer
(The Lyons Press, 2001)
The interior of New Guinea is one of the world’s last great, unexplored places: 1,700 miles of dense, impassable jungle. But that didn’t stop Joel Kramer and Aaron Lippard from diving headfirst into the region in 1998 with little more than an inflatable kayak and one overnight paddling trip to their credit. The first several chapters of Kramer’s occasionally preachy journal of the trip, not surprisingly, focus on the steady stream of villagers who tried to talk them out of it, the rest on the amazing, and ultimately successful, journey itself.


Keep Australia on Your Left
by Eric Stiller
(Forge, 2002)
The classic line from this book—“It seemed like a good idea at the time”—more or less sums up Stiller’s recollection of the arduous 10,000-mile circumnavigation of Australia that he and Tony Brown attempted in 1998. “The waves looked like 10 feet high. We paddled as hard as possible into the seas, [but] for the first time on the trip I thought we were truly paddling for our lives.” The two completed a third of the circumnavigation before breaking off the effort. At over 400 pages, this one tends to go on and on, but the nuggets of wisdom Stiller offers up about long-distance kayaking, and his “in-your-face” writing style, keep things moving along nicely.


Arctic Crossing: One Man’s 2,000-Mile Odyssey Among the Inuit
by Jonathan Waterman
(The Lyons Press, 2002)
Part travelogue, part anthropology textbook, this account of the author’s 2,200-mile journey across the Arctic Circle in 1997 offers an amazing glimpse into one of the least understood societies on the planet: the Inuit. “So much of the Earth and its Great Weather…are utterly unchangeable, so they shrug their shoulders, smile, and say, ‘Ayornamut’ (‘It cannot be otherwise’).” A talented writer, Waterman succeeds in illuminating the people and places he visits with detailed observations and impressive background research.


Tim Sprinkle is a freelance writer from Charlottesville, Virginia. He has been paddling the waters of the mid-Atlantic for 15 years.


John Dowd: Life on the Learning Curve

John Dowd is a likable Kiwi with true Bohemian sensibilities and a passion for adventure. He wrote one of sea kayaking’s classic books, Sea Kayaking: A Manual for Long-Distance Touring (Grey-stone Books). Now in its fifth edition, it was the first book to give the name “sea kayaking” to what had been known variously as blue-water paddling, sea canoeing and open-water canoeing.
Dowd left his native New Zealand in 1967 to embark on a 15-year voyage around the world, kayaking and climbing the far-flung corners of the globe. He paid his way by working as a commercial diver, an Outward Bound instructor, a freelance writer and a photographer. In 1976, during his travels through South America, he met and later married Beatrice, a Canadian who was also a traveler. Bea shared John’s passion for paddling, and in 1977, they paddled from Venezuela to Florida. They eventually settled in the mountains above Vancouver, B.C., and in 1980, founded the first specialty sea-kayaking store there. In 1981, Dowd’s magnum opus Sea Kayaking was published and introduced enthusiasts to seamanship, navigation, reading the weather and the sea, and low-impact environmental paddling.
In 1984, John became the founding editor of Sea Kayaker, the first publication dedicated to the sport. Dowd’s vision for the magazine was “to provide a forum for serious input from knowledgeable paddlers and to serve as a vehicle for the defense of the freedoms and responsibilities of sea kayaking.” He stayed at Sea Kayaker’s editorial helm for five years, moved to Vancouver and, together with Bea as managing editor, they produced the first 21 issues.
In 1989, the Dowds stepped down from their roles with Sea Kayaker, packed up their young family and headed back to the Canadian woods. John, Bea, their daughter, Olympia, and son, Dylan, lived in a log cabin. Dowd wrote a series of children’s books, served as a trustee on the board of the National Outdoor Leadership School, and temporarily chained his nomadic existence to a fence post in rural Canada. Says John of those days, “We had no electricity, we home-schooled our kids and lived an alternative lifestyle on the edge of the city.” But the nomadic impulse would not be put to rest. In the words of Dorothy Parker, “They sicken of the calm, who know the storm.” When Olympia, then 14, was invited to join the Moscow City Ballet as a principal dancer, the Dowds sold everything they owned and headed to Russia, where they lived for a year.
“It was an amazing opportunity for Olympia,” Dowd said. “It was an amazing experience for the whole family.”
Olympia wrote a book about her experiences in Russia called A Young Dancer’s Apprenticeship (Raincoast Books). The family later lived in Italy and Spain before returning to Canada, where John and Bea now make their home.

Dowd’s passion for sea kayaking, and his determination to protect the sport and maintain its freedom from restrictive regulations, forms the fundamental share of his focus these days. Education through experience and the sharing of information, he believes, are the keys to the healthy survival of the sport. While sea kayaking has been a lifelong pursuit for Dowd, he says, “My learning curve now is as steep as it has ever been.” Even now, he doesn’t think of himself as an expert: “If you think you’re an expert, you’ve got an attitude problem.” While sea kayakers can achieve a degree of competence through the acquisition of skills, Dowd believes attitude and judgement are the real keys to safe paddling. “Both can be taught,” says Dowd, “but they are much harder to assess.”

Because he believes skills alone are not a true measure of a paddler’s competence on the water, Dowd is concerned when the emphasis in training focuses on skills simply because they are easier to assess. Trends toward the certification of guides and instructors also concern Dowd. In the latest edition of his book, he writes: “Indeed, a sense of misplaced confidence frequently develops among those who have been certified to teach or guide, since curriculum content often replaces real experience.”

Certification can expand from the industry to the consumer, as it has done in SCUBA diving. He continues: “If we are not vigilant, I can foresee a time when you will need to be certified in order to rent or buy a kayak.”Dowd is presently working on a video series on seamanship for kayakers. In his opinion, educating paddlers is critical to maintaining the freedom sea kayakers now enjoy. “The regulation of sea kayaking would limit its appeal and freedoms,” he says. “Kayaking is all about freedom.”

The Sea Kayaker’s Library—Hard-to-Find Books

When you can’t be out on the water yourself, there’s nothing like curling up with a good book about sea kayaking and living vicariously through other people’s adventures. There are many books on the market to choose from, but unfortunately, some of the best kayaking stories are either no longer in print or can be very difficult to find.

My favorite hard-to-find paddling books of the past and not-so-distant past aren’t necessarily the best or most popular of the genre, but they are the stories I reach for time and time again.
Several of the following books have the word “canoe” in the title, but don’t be misled—these trips were made in what we would today call a kayak. The books are listed in chronological order by their first printing. Whatever your taste, with a little patience you should be able to find any of the books included here.


A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe (1866)
by John MacGregor
The student-turned-soldier came up with the idea of constructing a kayak in 1865. In less than 30 days, he made his dream a reality, then immediately set sail across the waterways of Europe. The original Rob Roy, preserved in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, measures 15 feet long with a 28-inch beam and was propelled with a seven-foot double-bladed paddle. MacGregor explored the rivers and lakes of France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. He set off for the entire summer with a spirit stove, a wooden fork and spoon (carved at opposite ends of the same stem), one spare button and nine pounds of luggage. In his inimitable style, he recounts the diverse adventures that befell him, never failing to display his comportment and dignity as an Englishman! MacGregor also wrote The Rob Roy on the Baltic (1868), an adventure that takes him to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Schleswig-Holstein, the North Sea and the Baltic; and The Rob Roy on the Jordan (1869), a tale about his voyages on the Jordan, the Nile, the Red Sea and Gennesareth during his kayaking cruise in Palestine and Egypt and the waters of Damascus.


An Inland Voyage (1879)
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Like MacGregor, Stevenson undertook a canoeing “voyage” across Europe in 1877, and he brings a literary skill to his narrative of the adventure that casts new light upon the subject. This book is lucid, brilliant and at times very funny. I had to re-read the first page after I started, not realizing at first that “Cigarette” was not the name of a kayak but his nickname for his paddling companion, Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson, Baronet. It only gets better!

Down the Danube (1892)
by Poultney Bigelow
America’s answer to John MacGregor! After reading MacGregor’s adventures (he includes a sketch of the first Rob Roy in this book), Bigelow undertook a similar adventure with two companions in an American sailing canoe, the Caribee. He cruised the length of the Danube, Europe’s most significant waterway besides the Rhine, from its headwaters in the Black Forest to its effluence in the Black Sea. His observations of the peoples and politics of the time are precise, and his adventures in the canoe fascinating. Bigelow’s illustrations are clever and reflective of his sense of humor, as is his writing.

Folbot Holidays (1930s)
by J. Kissner
A series of short articles about trips using Folbot’s folding kayaks. Although originally published in the 1930s as an advertisement for Folbot, this 308-page paperback gem is chock-full of vintage color photographs and articles, including “Enchanted Honeymoon Adventure,” “Folboting with the Scouts” and “Way Down Upon the Suwannee.” Looking at the pictures and reading the stories may just convince you that what you need is a folding kayak to throw in the back of your car, SUV or truck.


Canoe Errant (1935)
by Major R. Raven-Hart
Raven-Hart was one of the most prolific cruisers in the early 20th century. Canoe Errant chronicles his trip throughout Europe in a folding canoe (kayak) from 1929-1933. Let him tell it: “Canoe-cruising has occupied my summers for the past five years, giving me some 10 thousand miles—from Lubeck in the north to Les Saintes-Maries on the Mediterranean and Kotor on the Adriatic, and from Budapest in the east to Nantes; and even within this area there must be another two thousand miles of worthwhile waterways, to say nothing of Poland and Greece and Scandinavia and Finland; that canoer’s paradise. Many people like to use the canoe as an accessory; to camp somewhere, canoeing around the central fixed camp and returning there every night. Personally, I prefer to move on every day, to ‘cruise’ in fact, eating and sleeping at riverside inns rather than camping and cooking.” Canoe Errant on the Nile (1936), Raven-Hart’s second book, provides an interesting contrast/companion to MacGregor’s The Rob Roy on the Jordan. Finally, Canoe Errant on the Mississippi (1938) is about a thousand-mile trip from Hannibal to Baton Rouge along Mark Twain’s river.


Enchanted Vagabonds (1938)
by Dana Lamb
The newly married Lambs, Ginger and Dana, left San Diego in 1933 and paddled and sailed their hybrid kayak/canoe/sailboat to the Panama Canal. The Vagabond was a 16-foot vessel they had built themselves. What followed is one of the greatest adventure travel tales ever to emerge from the action-packed 1930s. The Lambs shot through mountainous surf, landed on fabled islands, lived through violent storms and weathered nearly a dozen near-fatal wrecks. They were upset in a traffic jam of whales, caught in quicksand, trapped inside an extinct volcano and lost in a shark-infested lagoon.


Kingfisher Abroad (1938)
by T. and T. Rising
In 1937, Tean and Tommy Rising took a canoeing holiday with their folding canoe Kingfisher. With very little money, they camp-cruised through Holland, Germany, Austria and Hungary. The Risings encountered many friendly Germans on their cruise, but their writing is tinted with a concern over what they saw. While they could not foresee the scope of the tragedy that would come to be known as the Holocaust, there were some ominous overtones of what lay ahead. Witness this little passage about a visit with Karl, an acquaintance in Germany: “As we walked up the mountains, we passed a swimming bath. It was made of clean white concrete, with good and effective diving boards and sparkling water. ‘Jews are not allowed to swim in this bath,’ said Karl.” The Risings have a talent for summing up a complex scene with a simple phrase, and the narrative is all the more powerful because of it.


The Danube Flows through Fascism: 900 Miles in a Fold-Boat (1938)
by William Van Til
This is really a travel book that combines social and political observation with reports of river travel in a Klepper folding kayak down the Danube through Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Van Til and his wife Bee started at Ulm, in Germany, and went all the way to Belgrade. Through sun and storm, through friendliness and suspicion, for five weeks they drifted with the timeless flow of the Danube across the ephemeral borders between nations. Among the many falt-booters—paddlers using folding kayaks—on the great river, the Van Tils found an easy fraternity that broke down the cultural barriers that had set the stage for World War I. In 1938, The Van Tils took American river trips that are chronicled in “Connecticut River Cruise” and “The Rideau Canal,” chapters of Folbot Holidays by J. Kissner (see earlier reference).


Kayaks to the Arctic (1967)
by E. B. Nickerson
The author, her husband and three sons pack five knapsacks, two duffel bags and eight canvas bags with the parts for three Klepper folding kayaks, including five sets of paddles and much more equipment, and head from San Francisco to Fort Providence in the Canadian Northwest Territories. They kayak 1,000 miles down the Mackenzie River in 10 weeks and finally take out at Inuvik. The trip is filled with sudden storms and idyllic days of fishing and rafting together. Fifty photographs grace the book depicting the Indians, Eskimos, Mounties and missionaries they meet.

Return of the Tiger (1970)
by Brian Connell
This is an account of Operation Jaywick and Rimau—both of which were World War I Anglo-Australian covert raids, led by British officer Major Ivan Lyon against Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbor. Both attacks involved the use of folding kayaks to penetrate the Japanese defenses in Singapore. It’s a good read, and Connell provides vivid descriptions of the character of those personalities involved. The photographs are also extraordinarily useful, as official records are scant, and many Jaywick participants were killed a year later during Operation Rimau.


Kayaks Down the Nile (1979)
by John Goddard
Goddard was the first man to explore the entire length of the world’s longest river, the Nile. For 6,000 years, it has been the world’s most important -watercourse, with a vital role in the -development of the human race. Two other men went with him on this 4,200-mile, 10-month trek. According to Goddard, he had yet one more traveling companion—he contracted a tapeworm that he named Rodney. Each man paddled his own folding kayak, which were built by Jean Chauveau on the banks of the Seine near Paris. They used three folding double kayaks measuring 16 feet long and 32 inches wide, each of which weighed 100 pounds empty. Taken down and strapped into their cases, they shrank into a packet six feet long by 20 inches wide. Nearly drowned in a cataract, attacked by bull hippos and vicious wild dogs, and shot at by Egyptian River pirates, the trio finally arrived safely in Rashid after dipping their paddles a million times each into the Nile. A great companion book is Andre Davy’s own version of this trip, entitled 4,000 Miles of Adventure: Down the Nile by Canoe (1958, Camelot Press, London). Davy’s kayak was put out of action almost immediately in the cataracts at Kagera, and they had to wait for replacement parts from Paris. In nine months, they traversed 3,100 miles on the river and the other 1,150 miles, being non-navigable or forbidden, mostly on foot.


Blazing Paddles: Scottish Coastal Odyssey (1988)
by Brian Wilson
This is an exciting account of an 1,800-mile, four-month kayak journey around Scotland. The reader is taken with Wilson on his voyage, experiences his highs and lows, meets all the interesting characters he encounters and joins in the hilarious situations that occur periodically. A thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable story, I have read my copy at least five times and still appreciate it. Wilson’s wonderfully detailed description of the Scottish coast brings into focus several environmental problems but still has its hilarious moments with shark hunters, nudists, gold panners and cave dwellers. Another of Wilson’s excellent nail-biting adventures, Dances with Waves (1998), chronicles his 1,200-mile voyage around the coast of Ireland. Filled with ghost galleons, pirates and the near loss of his kayak, this book provides Irish history, adventure, humility and humor all in one narrative.


Seekers of the Horizon: Sea Kayaking Voyages From Around the World (1989)
Will Nordby, Editor
A great book to take on a sea-kayak camping trip. It includes 11 compelling sea-kayaking adventure stories from Hawaii to the Arctic. Included in the anthology are stories from Hannes Lindemann, Audrey Sutherland, Christopher Cunningham, Chris Duff and Larry Rice.


The Last of the Cockleshell Heroes (1992)
by William Sparks and Michael Munn
The film Cockleshell Heroes made famous one of the most daring British commando operations of World War I. Training for the operations involved mental ingenuity as well as physical toughness, and trainees were occasionally turned loose in the English countryside to make their way back to camp as best they could, dodging British troops and police along the way. In December 1942, the Royal Marine Commandos attempted to paddle up the Gironde River at night in folding kayaks (“cockleshells” to the Royal Marines) and attach explosives to German ships at dock in Bordeaux. Inflicting some damage, only William Sparks and a Marine officer, “Blondie” Hasler, managed to escape and elude capture on a lengthy chase across southern France to neutral Spain.


The Dreamtime Voyage (1994)
by Paul Caffyn
To paddle around Australia’s 9,500-mile perimeter using muscle power alone is an unimaginable feat. There are vast areas of extremely inhospitable coast, including desert, cliffs and mangrove swamps, not to mention sharks and crocodiles. The narrative is a blend of history, hair-raising moments and descriptions of the harshness and beauty of Australia. Caffyn achieved the circumnavigation paddling for four months solo with his support vehicle–driver Lesley sharing the highs and the lows for the duration. The book is not only about the kayaker, his boat and his driver-partner—it’s about history, personal development and conflict. Illustrated with stunning full-color photography, Dreamtime Voyage is an epic. Caffyn also wrote Obscured by Waves (1979), describing his circumnavigation of New Zealand’s South Island; Cresting the Restless Waves (1987), about paddling 1,700 miles around the coast of the North Island of New Zealand; and Dark Side of the Wave (1986), a gripping account of a circumnavigation of Stewart Island—New Zealand’s southernmost island.


The Endeavor by Seaward Kayaks

Endeavor Design Statement:

The new Endeavor, designed from historical Greenland styling, is an admirable performer. This lightweight expedition kayak is nimble and responsive. The initial stability is good and the secondary is excellent, offering paddlers a smooth transition between the two. A multipurpose kayak, the Endeavor has a 28″-long, 14.5″-wide cockpit opening with 13″ of depth in front that enhances lateral support for optimal edging. Paddlers will notice that the Endeavor tracks well with or without the optional retractable skeg. With 197 liters of dry compartment space, the Endeavor is comfortable for day trips, weekends or extended touring. Standard features include two full-sized recessed hatches, a third day hatch for on-the-water convenience, a compass and an under-deck bag. Perimeter deck lines and soft nylon fittings are also available upon request at no additional cost. High-quality craftsmanship, innovative function and a lifetime product guarantee are all hallmarks at Seaward Kayaks, Ltd. 
Steve Ree

 5′ 8″, 160-pound male. Day paddle without cargo in winds to 10 knots, waves to 2 feet.
GL 5′ 11″, 165-pound male. Day trips in winds to 20 knots, wind waves to 2 feet.
TE 6′ 1″, 200-pound male. Day trips in winds to 25 miles per hour and waves to 3 feet and cresting at 4 feet.

Endeavor Review:

The Endeavor by Seaward Kayaks has “sleek lines” (TE) and a “beautiful profile” (GL). “The glasswork in the interior is smooth and the gel coat is without flaws” (TE). The seam is glassed inside and out. At 571/2 pounds, the Endeavor felt “heavier than an average fiberglass boat, but it balances well” for a solo carry (SN). The carry toggles, attached to the very ends of the boat, “have an ergonomic shape that is easy on the hands” (GL)

The Endeavor has “lots of bungies placed well for holding gear and charts. The compass is well placed and easy to read” (SN). The paddle-float self-rescue system uses webbing and buckles that “hold the paddle solidly and are quick to release” (TE). Under the foredeck there is a mesh bag for storing small items in the cockpit.

The cockpit opening was not long enough for our reviewers to get into seat first then feet. There was room enough in the cockpit for SN’s and GL’s feet, but for TE’s size 12 shoes it was a snug fit under the deck above the rudder pedals.
The seat, a fabric-covered wedge of ethafoam, was comfortable for GL, but for TE there wasn’t “enough contour to spread the pressure away from the butt bones, nor enough height forward to support my thighs.” The seat cover has a Velcro™ closure, making it easy to modify the foam pad, and a pocket and strap to affix the seat to a paddle blade for use as a paddle float. Using the seat for a paddle float would put you back in the cockpit sitting on the unpadded bottom of the boat, but with increased stability. For SN, the seat back was “one of the best that I have ever used. It provided great support and a wraparound fit.” GL also thought the backrest was very comfortable but, for TE, the largest of these reviewers, the 133/4- inch span between the sides of the backrest “provided excellent lateral stability, though it was a bit snug.”

The thigh bracing, consisting of foam padding glued to the underside of the coaming and foredeck, “worked great. Easy control with the knees” (GL). The Keepers foot braces are “very solid and easily adjusted with my feet” (SN).
The optional aluminum skeg blade was very stiff to pivot and caused the control cable to bend, rather than slide. The skeg control knob was in the area swept by TE’s hands while paddling, and he occasionally scraped his thumb across it.
With the skeg retracted, “steering was easy and predictable, and carving turns was fun” (SN). TE, 40 pounds heavier, thought the Endeavor had “a good stability profile for edged turns, but was slow to respond to an edged turn.” GL thought the Endeavor responded well to leaned turns in calm conditions, but he “never felt solidly supported while doing leaned turns in wind waves.”

“Even without the skeg the Endeavor tracks very well. It had no trouble holding a course in any direction in waves” (TE). For the lighter paddlers, holding a course without the skeg required some corrective strokes, while “tracking was excellent with a properly deployed skeg” (GL).

SN did not notice any weathercocking in the Endeavor. GL noted “with a 15- to 20-knot wind the boat weathercocked slightly, but you could trim it away with the skeg.” TE found no weathercocking in light winds and only a slight weathercocking when holding courses off the wind, which he corrected with the skeg.
SN described the initial stability as “on the low side” and remarked that the secondary stability “did not have a high spot.”

GL thought both aspects of stability were moderate and, TE, the largest of the three, found the initial stability comfortable and the secondary stability “very good. I could comfortably hold the boat well up on edge.”

The Endeavor provides a dry ride: “Waves coming over the deck stayed low. Nothing threw water up at my face” (TE).
“The boat is easily driven at a fast cruising clip. It also has sprint speed for catching waves and holding rides down the wave face. I made good progress in the wind and caught some long rides on waves” (TE). SN thought the Endeavor’s speed was “better than average.” GL thought it had “good cruising speed,” although he deployed the skeg to hold a course while sprinting to keep the kayak on a straight track.

On wind waves TE “got some good rides and had good control once I got up to speed. I could get a long ride if I had the right angle.” GL had trouble holding a line down the wave without the skeg, so he deployed the skeg to maintain a downwind course.

The Endeavor is “easy to roll. The feet and thigh braces hold you in and give plenty of support” (GL). “One of the easiest sea kayaks I have ever rolled. Not much hip snap required” (SN). A self rescue is facilitated by the straps aft of the cockpit holding the paddle outrigger solidly against the deck.

The tethered main hatches have neoprene covers and molded fiberglass lids secured with bungies. The day compartment hatch has an untethered rubber cover. Only GL reported slight leakage in the compartments. The fiberglass bulkheads are glassed in place. The Endeavor has “plenty of space for a weekend trip and adequate space for a week” (SN). GL would have preferred forgoing the day hatch and third bulkhead sothat the deepest and widest part of the hull would be available for bulky items through the larger stern hatch.

Carrying 65 pounds of cargo, GL noted that the extra weight “largely eliminated weathercocking. The kayak tracked well with a load. The kayak [then] had little tendency to broach with or without the skeg.”

“A good tracking and cruising kayak for the intermediate paddler who wants the trim control offered by the skeg, a smaller cockpit and three-hatch system. Good for multi-day trips or day use” (GL). “The strong tracking makes the Endeavor a good boat for holding courses on long hauls. It is not a nimble turner, but it can be maneuvered if you apply a strong technique. It was comfortable in rough water and has the potential to be a good cruising boat for a strong intermediate to an advanced paddler” (TE). “An excellent ocean touring boat. The skeg offers excellent tuning for the desired tracking or turning. The comfortable seat, good speed and ample storage space make it a great cruiser” (SN).

I would like to thank the test paddlers for their positive input regarding the newest kayak in the Seaward lineup. I’m pleased to report that we have completed modifications to facilitate deploying the skeg. We designed the Endeavour to offer functional features as well as solid construction. The few extra pounds of our Expedition lay-up is a good compromise when you are facing the rigours of a demanding sea. 
We rely on feedback from guides and outfitters as we approach the final design of our components. Our kayaks include proven features such as fiberglass bulkheads for strength and safety, a compass for navigation, an under-deck bag to prevent clutter, a comprehensive deck and hatch bungie system which is expedition tested and easy to use even in cold weather, a self-rescue seat as a safety backup, and a fiberglass outside seam for strength and a clean finish.
The Endeavour was designed for paddling both along ocean coastlines and on calm lakes, so your only concern is to skeg or not to skeg. I agree that the Endeavour tracks very well without the skeg, and have found that a paddler’s size and paddling style play a large role in a kayak’s maneuverability. We intend to offer a rudder as an option for paddlers who want to increase maneuverability and maximize storage in the aft compartment. We value the testers’ comments and have responded to the review by tethering the VCP hatch and making the skeg control smaller to avoid knuckle scrapes.
In closing, I have to say I admire the quality and the attention to detail of the Sea Kayaker reviews. We appreciate the opportunity to submit designs that are a result of our vision to create kayaks that will provide people with years of pleasure.

Options and Pricing 
Standard Lay-up: Fiberglass with vinylester resin, hand laid. Reinforced Nytex strips on sides and bottom, Kevlar bow reinforcement. Fiberglass seam inside and out.
Optional Lay-ups: Kevlar or Expedition (double-layer Kevlar)
Standard Features: Compass, under-deck bag, deck bungies, soft deck fittings (upon request), seat/paddle float, three hatches, three fiberglass bulkheads, cockpit cover, lifetime warranty.
Options: Skeg. High-volume model (3/4″ depth added at the sheer).
Approximate Weight: Fiberglass, 57 lbs.; Kevlar, 54 lbs.
Price: Standard U.S. $2595. Add $520 for Kevlar lay-up, $60 for skeg.
Availability: Call the manufacturer for the nearest dealer, or check online at http://www.seawardkayaks.com for dealer listings.
Manufacturer’s Address:

Seaward Kayaks, Ltd.,
Ladysmith, BC V0R 2E0
Phone: (800) 595-9755
E-mail: [email protected]

Dowd’s passion for sea kayaking, and his determination to protect the sport and maintain its freedom from restrictive regulations, forms the fundamental share of his focus these days. Education through experience and the sharing of information, he believes, are the keys to the healthy survival of the sport. While sea kayaking has been a lifelong pursuit for Dowd, he says, “My learning curve now is as steep as it has ever been.” Even now, he doesn’t think of himself as an expert: “If you think you’re an expert, you’ve got an attitude problem.” While sea kayakers can achieve a degree of competence through the acquisition of skills, Dowd believes attitude and judgement are the real keys to safe paddling. “Both can be taught,” says Dowd, “but they are much harder to assess.”

Because he believes skills alone are not a true measure of a paddler’s competence on the water, Dowd is concerned when the emphasis in training focuses on skills simply because they are easier to assess. Trends toward the certification of guides and instructors also concern Dowd. In the latest edition of his book, he writes: “Indeed, a sense of misplaced confidence frequently develops among those who have been certified to teach or guide, since curriculum content often replaces real experience.”

Certification can expand from the industry to the consumer, as it has done in SCUBA diving. He continues: “If we are not vigilant, I can foresee a time when you will need to be certified in order to rent or buy a kayak.”Dowd is presently working on a video series on seamanship for kayakers. In his opinion, educating paddlers is critical to maintaining the freedom sea kayakers now enjoy. “The regulation of sea kayaking would limit its appeal and freedoms,” he says. “Kayaking is all about freedom.”

The Fifth Paddler Kayaking Tragedy in Baja

A fatal kayaking accident in Baja brings up issues of responsibility and how to approach other paddlers when you think they may be heading into a situation beyond their abilities. 

The sun had just dropped below the horizon in a brilliant shower of red and gold, and the sky was growing dusky purple as we paddled into the cove near Punta Don Juan off the coast of Baja, Mexico. This is the last cove to the south in the expansive Bahia de Los Angeles, or L.A. Bay for short, a paddling paradise known for its great snorkeling, fishing and diving. My partner Dave and I were happy to reach shelter before dark after setting out from the town of Bahia de Los Angeles so late in the afternoon.

As we coasted around the point, pelicans dived for their dinner, dropping vertically through hundreds of feet of air to pierce the water and strike fish swimming several feet beneath the surface. Just after rounding the point, we encountered a small group of paddlers heading out toward L.A. Bay from the mouth of the cove. We were practically on a collision course, and as we drew close, all of us stopped.

“What are you doing heading out in the dark?” I asked the five college-age paddlers in a somewhat joking tone but with underlying curiosity. “We’ve been trying hard to get in before it gets dark,” I added. They laughed and shrugged and told us about some great clamming they’d found on the beach they had just left. Dave asked again what they were up to.

They said they felt like they just needed to get back to town. They said goodbye and set out across the quickly darkening L.A. Bay, singing songs and joking about clams, boats and bugs. It was going to be a moonless night, and they had a four-mile crossing ahead of them.

“Boys,” I sighed to Dave. “Only boys would set out in the dark like that.” Just after we landed, the wind started picking up—and up, and up. It was coming off the land, driving the hot, dry air of the desert toward the cooling water and out to sea. Soon we were staking out the tent’s guy lines and huddling together in our windbreakers as we cooked dinner.

“I hope they’re OK,” Dave said as we ate.

“I hope they stick together,” I added.

“I wonder if they made it to town yet with this wind. They’ve got to be going nowhere fast if they’re paddling against it. Maybe they’ll turn around and come back here,” Dave said.

“Do you think they have headlamps or wetsuits?” I asked.

The Missing Paddler

The next morning, I was clamming in the area that the boys had told us about, scooping them up by handfuls, when a boat pulled up. Miguel, who owns the campground where the boys were staying and had rented them kayaks, was out looking for one of the boys. Only four of the five had made it across the bay the previous night. Miguel had received a call that morning from a friend who had recognized one of the rental kayaks sitting on shore on the other side of the bay. 

“Really? Oh no,” Miguel had said, then headed out in his panga, a local style of motorboat, to see what was going on. He followed the shore of the bay, and soon spotted a paddle, a kayak and the paddler who had left them on the beach. The young man was one of the five paddlers. He had just started walking back toward camp when Miguel pulled his panga along shore and asked if he was OK. He said he had just reached shore and was exhausted after spending a grueling night on the water. 

“Where’s everyone else?” asked Miguel. 

“I don’t know,” the young man replied. “We got split up.”

Miguel continued along the beach and found two of the other kayakers walking down the shore toward camp and another one walking along a different spot on the beach. One kayaker was still missing. The four young men on the beach had not yet caught up with each other and didn’t realize that one of them hadn’t made it ashore yet. T

here was no sign of the fifth kayak on the beach. Miguel scanned the bay with his binoculars and saw a red kayak floating in the middle of the bay, but no one was with it. He was hoping that the fifth paddler had reached shore and had left the kayak where the rising tide could have floated the boat and carried it out from shore. If that was the case, he might find the missing boy walking down the beach like the others. 

The four kayakers who had reached shore were utterly exhausted, and were not only too tired but too inexperienced to take part in the search. They stayed at the campground, answered questions from the authorities and called the missing boy’s mother.

After listening to Miguel’s story, Dave and I spent the better part of the day paddling the bay, looking for the missing kayaker. There are no Coast Guard or search-and-rescue teams in Mexico, so Miguel, Dave and I were the only ones looking. We skirted the coastline, searching everywhere for the telltale flash of yellow or orange that might be a lifejacket. We were hoping we would see the young man—tired, wet and scared, but very much alive—washed up on shore. We spent the day monitoring the VHF radio and paddled up to fishing boats to ask if they had seen anything.

We radioed out on channel 16, the emergency station, to see if anyone knew what happened to the lost kayaker.

“Anyone, anyone. Come in, anyone. Does anyone have any information on the missing kayaker from last night?” I spoke hesitantly into the speaker.

A minute or two later a female voice answered. “Did someone out there call about the kayaker?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Who is this?” the voice on the other end asked.

“We saw his group set out last night and have been looking for him today,” I said.

“Well, they found his body over at Punta Rincon. They’re waiting for the authorities.”

There was nothing but silence for a while as Dave and I digested this.

“Thank you,” I finally said weakly, forgetting the over-and-out rules of radio contact.

Dave still held out hope, prodding me to ask the final question. Yes, they found the body but…

“So he’s not alive then,” I asked, already knowing what I was going to hear.

“That’s an affirmative.”

Later we learned that Miguel, after combing all the points and islands, had searched the bay one more time and found the missing kayaker’s body floating far from shore. Dave was wracked with guilt. “I should have stopped them,” he kept saying. “I should have told them they were being dumb and they shouldn’t go.”

“Who could have known the wind was going to pick up like that?” I asked him. “And you said just yesterday you wouldn’t mind paddling in the dark, but how could we know how much experience they had?”

At the time the group left, the conditions weren’t anything we wouldn’t have gone out in ourselves, but the rising wind quickly created conditions that they were not prepared to handle.

The group hadn’t been scheduled to return the kayaks to Miguel’s Campground until the day after we saw them heading across the bay. For some reason, they decided to head back to the campground early and make the passage across the water that night instead of waiting until morning.

Miguel told us that he’d asked why they tried to come back early instead of camping the last night and waiting for daylight to cross the bay. “They said they had been thinking about fish tacos and drinking tequila. And when they rented the kayaks, they said they had experience, but now I’ve learned only one of them had any experience, and he’s the one who died!”

The account from the four survivors was that they had stayed together for the first hour or so, but then the wind split them up—three one way and two another. Then the two got separated, and only one of them made it back to shore. The coroner who examined the body of the fifth kayaker listed hypothermia as the cause of death.

I thought about everything we could have told the group, and how all the information in the world is useless if it isn’t shared. I felt so deeply and painfully sorry for the boy’s mother who would just now be hearing she would never see her son again. I thought about a cold, dark and lonely death.

This incident raised a lot of questions for Dave and me. Should we have asked the group if everyone had a headlamp so they could keep track of each other in the dark? Should we have checked to see if they were wearing wetsuits? As the more experienced kayakers, did we have an obligation to do something?

We had questioned what they were doing but hadn’t asked them specific questions about their gear or level of skill. We chatted about superficial things in spite of our feeling that the circumstances they were setting out under were strange. Had we talked with the group about their preparedness instead of just the best place to camp in the cove, maybe we could have been more certain about their capabilities and things would have played out differently.

“It was pretty obvious right away that they didn’t have any experience,” said Dennis, a college-level outdoors professor who was camped next to the group the night before they left on their trip. “I asked them, ‘Do you have tide tables?’ They said, ‘Do we need them?’ I asked, ‘Do you have any maps?’ They said, ‘Do we need those, too?’” Dennis dropped his shoulders, shaking his head as he recalled the conversation. He too must have felt great sadness and regret that in his brief encounter with the five, he could not have found a way to get them to understand the risks they failed to see.

“The Westerlies pick up so fast around here,” Dennis said. “I’ve paddled up and down this coast in different sections, and this is the most dynamic area there is. The wind can pick up in 15 minutes and be blowing 40 miles an hour.”

The wind is always a concern for kayakers paddling in Baja in the spring. Dave and I had just finished sitting through a windstorm for three days, and it continued to be windy off and on all week. While the kind of land breeze that overtook the five is not a daily occurrence, it happens often enough to be a consideration for anyone boating in the area.

In years past, kayakers seldom crossed paths with each other—the novelty of seeing other paddlers was reason enough to go talk with them and find out where they came from and where they were going. Now, tour groups pass each other going back and forth along the same well-used strips of coastline. They don’t want their outdoor experience interrupted by seeing other people, so they don’t approach them in the first place. Groups of kayakers may camp on the same beach within a few yards of each other but remain as distant as two strangers sitting next to each other on a bus. Most groups we encounter in the wilderness don’t even make eye contact with us. And it’s not just while paddling: it can be a part of any wilderness experience.

Sharing information used to give us the benefit of other paddlers’ experience. But now with kayaking becoming ever more popular, people may take to the water with little or no knowledge of safe paddling practices. How do you approach someone when you think they may be heading into a situation beyond their abilities? How do you find out what their experience level is? How can you make sure they are prepared to deal with situations that arise without offending them? Does it matter if you offend someone if you are trying to pass along important information about risks they may not be aware of?

I decided that from that point on, I wouldn’t worry about offending kayakers if I felt their abilities were a poor match for the risks they were taking on.

The next morning, the water started out as perfect glass. It was the kind of day made for kayaking. Our route took us past tiny islets covered in saguaro cactus. As the sun blazed, a man with no hat, sunglasses or shirt paddled a bright red sit-on-top across the bay.

“He’s going to turn the same color as his boat,” I joked to Dave. Even with such hot weather, sunburn wouldn’t be the only risk he’d face. Hypothermia from an unexpected swim could also pose a threat.

Our boats were packed and we were doing a last check before shoving off when a group of three kayakers approached the beach—more college-age boys. They steered away from us and landed on the other end of the beach. They looked very much like the five paddlers who had been scattered by the wind. They were young and energetic, ready to take on the world and free from worry. I couldn’t stop thinking about everything we could have said to the first group, and decided not to make the same mistake again. I took a deep breath and walked over to introduce myself. I asked if they had heard about the incident.

Only one of them had heard of the accident, but he had decided not to tell his friends about it. He said he didn’t want to start their trip off on a down note. I thought it was absurd not to talk about the dangers you might face on a trip like this beforehand, especially in light of what happened last night.

“Yeah, but that guy wasn’t wearing his lifejacket,” he said in an offhanded sort of way.

“Yes, he was,” I said. “He didn’t drown. He died of hypothermia.” The two other boys were amazed someone could die of hypothermia here where it was so warm. “Yeah, but try swimming,” I said. “In the water, you can get really cold after about 15 or 20 minutes. It’s almost unbearable after an hour. The time for clear thinking and good strength and dexterity starts ticking away from the moment you hit the water. You need to be prepared for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Do you guys have wetsuits?” They didn’t.

“Yeah, but I guess if you fell out of your boat you could swim to shore,” said the same one who was so sure of himself. “That would keep you warm.”

I just said, “Have you ever tried swimming five miles against a headwind?” This was just the kind of a “downer” conversation he didn’t want to be involved in, so he excused himself to go fishing.

I was frustrated. Here I was, making an effort to communicate with obviously less experienced kayakers, trying to get the seriousness of what they were attempting across to them, and I was getting the big blow-off. But the other two seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. “If it gets windy out, head for a cove immediately. And no matter what, stick together,” I said.

We asked them if they had maps and showed them where the little bailout cove was on their mediocre chart. We talked to them about how to steady someone’s boat after a capsize so the paddler can crawl back in from the other side.

It was easy to see that this was their first time out in kayaks. They didn’t have any idea what to do if the wind picked up or how to plan for other emergencies. After imparting a few more words of wisdom, Dave and I wished the two boys (who didn’t mind hearing the downer information) a good journey. We told them about the excellent clamming spot and emphasized again to keep a close eye on the weather and each other, then headed out to sea.

It had been easy to open up a dialogue with the second group of kayakers because of what had happened the day before, but sometimes it’s not so easy. People generally don’t want their inexperience pointed out to them.

As we left L.A. Bay, a sheet of glass covered the ocean, rippled only by the drops falling from our paddles and the slight turbulence of our wakes. I watched Dave’s reflection on the water as he paddled alongside me. Our early start that morning let us take advantage of the tendency for Baja weather to be better in the morning. It also let us catch a free ride on the current making its way out of the Sea of Cortez, rushing past the islands on its way to the Pacific.

It was hard to imagine tragedy on a day like that. The sea was calm and clear, and you could see through 50 or 60 feet of water to the white sand and kelp-covered rocks and coral below. Another day simply made for paddling, and after all the wind and rough seas lately, I appreciated the calm that much more.


Ham radios can be used for everything from chatting with another ham operator anywhere in the world to transmitting emergency calls. And they’re a great option for kayakers.

My wife Ezzie and I were enjoying a clear, steamy day, kayaking on the Susquehanna River in eastern Pennsylvania. As we glided under an old stone bridge, the sky to the north looked ominous. Farther up the tree-lined, cold-water creek, we glimpsed dark, steel-bellied thunderheads. A supercell storm was building. “Two more hours till it gets us,” I said.Another hour of paddling left us sweat-soggy and all smiles. Nestled against a clearing in the bank under a tree, we forgot about the threatening weather and snacked on dried fruit and jerky. I pulled out my handheld ham radio and tuned in the weather channel. The weather alert had been activated, predicting intense thunderstorms. This report sent us paddling double-time back to the dock, where we loaded the kayaks.

The storm hit shortly after we got into the van. The water was whipped into a froth, and dust in the parking lot was turned into a stinging cloud. We watched more than 30 powerboats try to get into the dock at the same time. Boaters we talked to later that day described how the thunderstorm caught them unawares, sweeping suddenly across the river with winds gusting to 40 mph. At the peak of the melee came a wall of rain—a torrential downpour that soaked the dust into slippery mud.Ezzie and I were dry and cozy on the way back to our campsite. Our handheld ham radio had picked up the weather alert in spite of the thick trees and steep hills surrounding Pequea Creek and had allowed us to avoid the difficult situation so many other boaters had been caught up in.

When Ezzie and I first started kayaking together, we wanted to be sure we could keep tabs on the weather and stay in touch with each other on the water. Ezzie and I often paddle at different paces. Ezzie likes to “dawdle” and I usually enjoy a steadier pace and paddle doggedly to a destination. Suddenly, I’m around a bend and out of sight. That worries me. I’m a diabetic, and while I always try to take the proper precautions, it is especially important for me to stay in touch with Ezzie.

Ham Amateur Radios

Ham radios can be used for everything from chatting with another ham operator anywhere in the world to transmitting emergency calls. To abbreviate commonly exchanged information, hams use a system of calling procedures such as the phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, etc.) and “Q” codes (see “Useful Ham Codes and Calling Procedures,” p. 56). The codes are not necessary, except when making sure people understand a word that sounds similar to other words. For instance, “This is KB3EZZ, kilo bravo 3 echo zulu zulu, transmitting from the middle of the Transquaking River.”

Ham radios operate on a dozen or so frequency ranges, called “bands.” The 2-meter band is the most popular for hams to use because radios with this frequency range can be found at very reasonable prices.

While the term “ham radios” may conjure up images of huge antennas and a clutter of bulky electronics, much has changed in the 95 years since the use of airwaves by amateurs first became popular. Modern handheld two-way ham radios (or HTs, for handheld transceivers) are as compact as modern marine VHFs and FRS (Family Radio Service) walkie-talkies. Although VHF and FRS are both very useful systems, they both have their limitations, many of which are addressed by ham radio.


While most waterways traveled by commercial vessels are well covered and served by marine VHF radio, many of the inland waterways that attract kayakers have no network of vessels and relay facilities for marine VHF radios. The U.S. Coast Guard coordinates all emergency services provided to marine radios, and they monitor the ocean coasts, the Great Lakes, and the navigable Western rivers, such as the Mississippi and Columbia. However, no one monitors marine VHF bands on the rivers, lakes or streams that are popular inland kayaking areas. The range of a marine VHF radio is similar to a 2-meter ham HT and is useful for kayak-to-kayak communication, but there are no marine VHF repeaters—powerful automatic relay stations that retransmit your signal over a wide area.

Regulations prohibit the use of a marine VHF radio while on land, so if I have to go ashore, technically I would not be allowed to call Ezzie using a marine VHF. In most cases, the Coast Guard will simply tell you to call the local police on a land line and to get off the marine bands if you are on land. The VHF radio network, in areas where it is used, works well in situations where lives or boats are threatened, but the Coast Guard will not relay a message except in emergencies. If you’re lucky, you may find a boater willing to relay a message, but you shouldn’t count on using the VHF network this way.

FRS, GMRS and Other Options

Ezzie’s experience with two-way radios began a few years ago with the small FRS (Family Radio Service) radios. Ezzie had bought FRS radios when we first started kayaking, and it took very little time to discover their limitations. Terrain, weather and even trees could cause interference and loss of signal. If one of us went around a bend in a river and there was a high bank between us, we couldn’t hear each other. Although our FRS radios had the standard NOAA weather channels, there were many times we couldn’t get them to come in. These radios are advertised to a range of “up to two miles,” but we were lucky to get much more than a half-mile apart before we lost contact.

The other frustrating problem was that FRS radios are very popular, especially near heavily used campgrounds, lakes and streams. The result is busy airwaves and unwanted messages in spite of numerous channels and privacy codes.

GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios are on the same UHF band as FRS and share some of the same frequencies. They have greater transmitting power than FRS—about five miles—but like FRS, that range is diminished by weather and terrain.

The FRS and GMRS systems are set up for interpersonal communications, and they aren’t monitored for emergency calls or services.

Ham Handheld Transceiver (HT) Radios

Ham radios have several advantages. You can use a ham HT to contact any other ham operator whether on land or on the water. With a ham HT, you can report emergencies, check in with family or friends about changes in your paddling plans or communicate about other important matters.

It’s very seldom that a ham HT is unable to pick up the weather reports, and most radios can be programmed to automatically switch to the weather station if an alert is issued. In areas where powerful storms are frequent, there are usually local ham operators’ groups (known as Sky Warn) on the 2-meter band tracking the storm cells as they pass. This was the system that we tuned into to avoid the storm on the Susquehanna.

With Amateur Radio, you can tune to any frequency within a band and talk. Marine VHF, FRS and GMRS radios operate only on built-in channels to keep frequencies separated so users can’t operate off-frequency or interfere with users on other nearby frequencies. Incidentally, according to some historians, the term “ham” was a derogatory term used by early wireless operators to describe radio amateurs who jammed the airwaves with transmissions that spread across the whole array of radio frequencies. Other ham operators think the term is related more to operators talking a lot and “hamming it up.”

Ham radio users all take part in a worldwide network, and ham operators are, as a rule, garrulous and helpful. If you need to get a message to someone at home, ham radio operators are always willing to assist in times of need. Ham operators are not allowed, by law, to charge anything for making a call on behalf of someone, so to avoid long-distance charges, they usually get in touch with another ham operator who can make a local or reasonably priced phone call.

HT Specifications

All this capability comes in a compact package. My Yaesu VX-R7 ham HT is only the size of a deck of cards. It has 400 memory channels, four bands, digital selective calling (DSC) and pulse tones, automatic range testing, standard NOAA weather channels, weather alert, simultaneous dual-band operation, voice-operated transmit (VOX) and several other features.

At this time, the Yaesu VX-7R is the only ham radio that meets requirements for being labeled submersible. A few others are classified as splash resistant. In wet weather, Ezzie carries her splash-resistant Yaesu VX-5 in a cell-phone dry bag with a clear front, through which she can still hit keys and hear transmissions.

Most ham HTs use only AA alkaline batteries, which don’t last long. Our rechargeable lithium ion batteries last a full eight hours, even when we leave our radios on all day. We carry backup batteries and have chargers that we can use at home or in our vehicle.

Ham HTs on the 2-meter band are limited by line of sight and are blocked by high terrain unless you access a repeater on higher ground. Ham HTs, like marine VHFs, commonly transmit and receive frequency modulated (FM) signals, which are easy to understand and tune in. Some new portable ham radios are equipped to transmit and receive single-side-band (SSB) signals, which require more knob-twiddling than FM but pack more punch to cut through interference and therefore are capable of transmitting farther on the same bands.

Compact ham HTs working on 2-meter bands (the most popular and widely used bands) are as low as $89.99 at Ham Radio Outlet (HRO) (see “Internet Information Resources,” this page). Occasionally, you can find them for less than that if there is a club-sponsored hamfest (ham radio festival) going on—see ARRL’s web site (www.arrl.org) for information on dates, times and locations of hamfests, which should also be listed in the community calendar section of your local newspaper. (Radio Shack recently quit carrying ham radio equipment.)

Ebay lists many types of ham HTs with a wide range of prices. I would caution readers to ask if the seller is a ham operator and what his or her call sign is. Usually, ham users will be able to quote you “chapter and verse” on the features or shortcomings of their equipment, whereas other, less knowledgeable sellers may not be as familiar with these details.


To operate a ham radio, you must have a license. There is a strong technical component to ham radio, and the purpose of the licensing exams is to make sure you are familiar with those technical aspects. Even without extensive technical knowledge of ham radios, newcomers can get started with an easy multiple-choice exam for a Technician Class license.

There are many books available with all the information you need to pass the exam. For some, a class can be beneficial. Classes are given by local ham radio clubs, and most only charge for the cost of the ARRL study book, which is $19. There is a $12 fee for the test, which is administered by a volunteer examiner who is an experienced ham radio operator.

21st-Century Ham 

While we take a break from paddling our kayaks on a hot day, we often contact local ham operators in the area. These locals have passed on valuable information about tides, a change in the river, and even little known spectacularly scenic streams that we may never have found on our own. At night in camp, we tune in to radio broadcasts from around the globe, catch the latest news and check in with other kayaking hams around the area.

Ham radio continues to play a significant role in emergency situations. During the massive blackout during the summer of 2003 that hit much of the Northeast, ham radio operators were able to maintain an emergency communication network. When the search teams were looking for pieces of the space shuttle Columbia after it was destroyed during reentry, ham radio operators provided communications for search teams and central command. Another example was during the devastating fires of Southern California in the Fall of 2003—ham radio operators passed along information about the whereabouts of family and friends when cell phones were inoperative and phone lines had been destroyed by fire.

Ham radio has changed a lot since the days of reclusive neighbors chatting with strangers in the far corners of the globe. Ham radio operators are men and women, boys and girls from all age groups, in all walks of life and from every country of the world. There is no age limit—people from 10 to 100 are on the air. Now with compact and water-resistant handheld radios, kayakers can join in that group and take advantage of ham radio.

The Race to 10 Molokai World Surf-Ski Championship

The lone entrant from Brooklyn, New York, tells of competing in the Molokai World Surf-Ski Championship with some of the world’s greatest ocean paddlers. 

By Hawaiian standards, it was just another day in the Kaiwi (“kah-EE-vee”) Channel: eight-to-12 foot swell, 20-knot wind, chop and swirling currents. It was also the 27th running of the race known as Molokai—the unofficial world surf-ski championship—and nine-time winner Oscar Chalupsky, the big redhead from South Africa, was in trouble. An hour into the race, the valve on his three-liter water bladder popped open, emptying his sports drink. Now, with the island of Oahu looming large 20 miles into the 32-mile race, the anxious skipper on Oscar’s escort boat shouted to him that he was as much as 600 yards behind Australians Dean Gardiner, the premier marathon paddler in that water-crazed country, and 1992 Olympic kayaking gold medalist Clint Robinson, the greatest ocean sprinter who’s ever lived.
In his 10 previous starts at Molokai, Oscar’s lone loss was to Gardiner in 1999. It still rankled him. He was sure he had been the faster paddler—“far faster,” he insisted—but he had made a tactical error by not covering Dean, who took a better line to the finish. But there was even more at stake for Oscar than avenging that loss. Gardiner also had nine Molokai wins to his name. Each wanted to be the first to 10.
For several minutes, Oscar chased, cutting the gap in half. When he backed off, the Australians regained their comfortable cushion. As Oscar would later say, “I had my doubts that I could come through.”

Oscar Chalupsky and “doubt” are not words often used in the same sentence. He won his first Molokai World Championship in 1983 at the age of 20 and by 1989 had earned seven consecutive titles. Then, when South African athletes were banned from international competition for the country’s apartheid policies, he sat out for five years, watching as Gardiner notched win after win. In 2003, the race for 10 was on.
A 38-year-old boat captain and firefighter from Sydney, Gardiner stands in sharp contrast to Oscar. Easygoing to the point of being terminally nonchalant (he crashed on the beach the night before one Molokai win), “Deano” has never seen a wave he wouldn’t chase or met a paddler he didn’t assign a goofy nickname to—he tagged Oscar “Easter-Island Head,” a reference to the man’s large cranium. Days before the race, Gardiner said that he’d take no particular joy in beating his longtime rival, no matter how much trash he talked. “Oscar is good value,” he said, chuckling. “He’s tough, smart and adds stature to any race he does. But with all the best guys in the world here this year, winning would be huge.” 

So what was I doing in this race? If the 6-foot 4-inch, 240-pound Chalupsky was the most cocky racer in the field, I was arguably the least. The lone entrant from Brooklyn, NY, I trained in a saltwater bay called Jamaica Bay, where the “waves” can be measured with a school kid’s ruler. The channel swell, on the other hand, normally runs four to 10 feet, with small craft warnings prevailing.  The Molokai race’s web site details the pleasures of the course: “Paddlers must deal with choppy, confused water from the start, where waves and currents from both sides of Molokai converge. The troughs between the waves are deep. Roaring, breaking swells, at times as high as 15 feet, run down from the northeast. A paddler can hear the hiss of a breaking wave before it’s even seen. Escort boats can be buried in tumbling water. Gusts of wind grab raised paddle blades and make staying on the surf ski a supreme effort.

Each May as the race neared, I’d read the pre-race articles in the Online Hawaiian newspapers and, afterward, study the results, always wondering how I would have stacked up. Given my pedestrian surfing skills, inability to train in the ocean in the months leading up to the race (the Atlantic in March is unfit for mammals without blubber) and the logistics of arriving in Hawaii with enough time to gain confidence, I’d always managed to skip it. But then Oscar took matters in hand. 
I’d met Oscar Chalupsky four years earlier at a 36-mile race across the St. Lawrence Seaway in northern Quebec. Since then, we’d competed together in Thailand, Tahiti, South Africa and Florida. I’d never beaten him in a race, and our post-race consumption of beer was an even more lopsided competition. When the phone in my apartment rings at 2 A.M., it’s usually Oscar. This March, after exchanging the usual pleasantries—“Wake up, you bastard!”—Oscar informed me that he’d be in New York on business and that I would be lucky enough to have him stay at my house for a week. “I’ll bring two boats! Be prepared to have your ass kicked.” When I hung up, he was still laughing.
Two weeks later, the animated, rather out-of-shape South African arrived at my doorstep. Highly motivated to capture his 10th title, he’d begun training two weeks earlier. However, midway through our first session in Jamaica Bay, the 1992 Olympian was breathing hard enough to disturb the fishermen on the far shore. I knew that Gardiner had been racing regularly, and I thought to myself, “If Oscar wins Molokai this year, I’ll eat my spray skirt.”

While Oscar hardly sleeps, is rarely quiet and is capable of eating you out of house and home, training with him is tremendous—equal parts coaching clinic, boot camp and motivational seminar. When the bay was flat, he worked on my forward stroke. When the wind picked up during a spring snowstorm, he paddled alongside of me, shouting (cursing, actually) for me to surge here, turn there, relax now. By the end of the week, Mr. Positive had me believing that I had a legitimate shot to crack the top 15 in the world’s biggest open-ocean race.

The day before the race, we flew to Molokai, a former leper colony with no traffic lights and just 6,000 inhabitants. The wind increased in ferocity as the day heated up. The chattering palm trees along the shore outside our deserted motel (it was actually out of business) gave the place the ambiance of a ghost town. Listening to the wind howl as I watched an uncut version of Apocalypse Now on the tube, I felt as relaxed as a man about to have a tooth pulled. 
Even Oscar seemed subdued, but for a different reason. While the Molokai World Championship is the premier race in ocean paddling, this year’s field was the best ever assembled. Since Molokai became international in 1979, only five paddlers have won, and four of them were back. Add two past second-place finishers—Gardiner’s fellow Aussie Robinson and Tahiti’s top gun, Lewis Laughlin—and you began to wonder whether Oscar or Gardiner would even finish in the top three. So strong was the field of 60 that Barton, America’s best flat-water paddler ever, said he’d be pleased to crack the top 10.
 The gun sounded at 8 A.M. The Aussie trio of Gardiner, Robinson and Grant Kenny set a torrid pace, followed closely by Oscar and his brother Herman, who crossed the line first in 1997. Thirty minutes into the race, the swell grew, and my worst fears about the day were confirmed. To get from Molokai to Oahu, you must head from left to right. However, the swell, which is too fast to catch on pure paddling prowess, rolls across the ocean from right to left. The key to finishing the race in less than four hours is to catch the “small” wind-generated waves, pick up speed and turn onto and down the face of the swells, which on this day were 20 feet or more. Traveling at speeds of up to 18 mph, the top dogs scan the sea and cut back toward another “hole” up ahead, linking as many runs as possible. An Olympian like Barton can connect as many as three runs before stalling out; downwind virtuosos like Oscar, Gardiner and Kenny tied together as many as five or six—all the while maintaining their general direction.
Though I fell off my ski half a dozen times in the first 16 miles, my escort boat shouted to me that I’d reached the halfway point in two hours—just where I’d hoped to be. Up front, Oscar surged ahead of his brother Herman and trailed only Robinson and Gardiner. For the “other” Chalupsky, who’d eclipsed Oscar as South Africa’s premier ocean paddler in the last few years, it was severely disappointing. Many observers, including me, figured Herman, the sculpted 38-year-old who does his talking on the water, to be the dark horse. But, as he said afterward, “I just couldn’t get going.” Relying on what he calls BMT (“Big Match Temperament”), Oscar put the hammer down. Three-quarters of the way across the channel, Oscar caught the man he feared the most from a competitive standpoint. Sidling up to Robinson on the face of a huge swell, he said:“How you going?”
“I’m cramping,” said Robinson.
“Where’s Dean, then?”
“That’s him up front,” said Robinson, pointing toward the escort boat ahead
.“Thanks. See you later. I’m going to chase him down.”
Nearly three hours into the race, Oscar pulled even with Gardiner along the cliffs known as “Chinaman’s Wall.”
Marty Kenny (Grant’s brother), a perennial top-five finisher here, had told me that Gardiner not only has an incredible feel for the ocean, he’s a fearsome competitor. “When he has an attachment to an event such as Molokai, he will arrive ready to go to battle.” For the next few miles, the two nine-time champs took turns passing each other in the foamy white water rebounding off the cliffs.
Afterward, Gardiner described what happened next: “As I approached Oahu, my forearms started cramping. When Oscar came past, I gave it all I had for five minutes. But I didn’t have enough left to respond.” 

As Gardiner relinquished his precious lead, my time in the channel turned uglier still. While the first 16 miles were more of a one-sided whuppin’ than a graceful display of downwind paddling, I was sufficiently fit to make it halfway across in a respectable two hours. But as fatigue set in, my balance deteriorated and I swam more than I care to remember. Even more vexing were the constantly changing wave patterns and swirling currents that I encountered closer to Oahu. Roughly five miles from the cliffs on the southeast shore, the incoming swells collide with the refracted waves, turning the turbulent ocean into a turbo-charged washing machine. Head-high standing waves—the tops blown off by the cranking wind—made paddling a grim exercise in determination. My sole aim was to stay on the ski and finish. And I did, but it wasn’t pretty—my time of 5:05 put me 31st out of 60. I crossed the line just as Oscar finished his fifth beer. 
Standing in front of the press at the finish, the 40-year-old South African was overcome with emotion as he spoke about his historic 10th victory. “Given my responsibilities at home, it was difficult to prepare for this race. I had to dig deep to pull it out.” Then, as he tried to explain how it felt to win 20 years after his first race here in 1983, the man who had talked non-stop before the race suddenly ran out of words. He could only say that he was amazed that he had won his 10th title. He continued to field more questions from the reporters, but as he did, tears streamed down his cheeks.
The cameras had stopped rolling by the time I pulled up to the dock. When I learned that Oscar had prevailed, I wobbled over to the big man, who was surprisingly subdued and said, “You did it, you fat bastard!”
Oscar beamed, then shouted: “Where the hell have you been, you useless bum! Didn’t I teach you how to surf? Next year, you must get here two weeks earlier. You’ll definitely finish in the top 20.” Many hours and a bunch of beers later, I was almost ready to believe him.