The Problem with Transitioning

22 10 2012

To start this oddly – I could of course, be wrong… but it has worked for me. You best stop reading right now and go to the end of my wordpress to start at the start. This article addresses what makes it easier for others and by extension easier for yourself. It does not change what happens or the time it takes to happen; just how it is done. Fair warning – this article is a bit more ‘scattered’ than others, it meanders a bit to get to the true course.

The real challenge in life is when we feel things have be wrong for a long time and we now have the ability, power, money, confidence, support to make positive change for ourselves that we think everybody else will just ‘go along with it’.

If you are in transition, how many hours do you spend in therapy talking about being the new you vs the struggles of getting others to see that person? Over the years I have become better and stronger, but it cost me nearly everything I had known (and that too is a familiar story). I wrote this article in 2009 about the Losses – Coming Out Transgender. I said in that article that 25% of your past friends, family and the like remain. Even with the title of my wordpress, Amy is long gone.

The truth is now, that there were no survivors that crossed the barrier with me. My very best friend, best man; he could not walk the last bit with me when he saw how happy I am and how everything had turned out for me. He was there for me every step while I was struggling. He was there for me over a decade ago when I came out to him and told him about my childhood and hormones for the past 15 years. He was the last of my long past to fall away, lost when all has been going great these past years. He knew how to be with me as a struggling transgender friend, we separated when it looked like I had worked it all out and was content with where I was and about myself.

Also, the truth is, if you have been true to yourself and in your actions, then only when others lie to themselves while with you would that leave them unaware. Sometimes, the people you out yourself to cannot imagine what is happening.

I am going to swing out on a limb here and say that transitioning, the way it is set up through modern society and modern medicine is wrong. There, I did it, I used that word; when I think very few things can be labelled ‘wrong’.

I have watched countless people struggle in this are, so here is some advice. Please read through and tell me where the flaw might be. We live in a society where we now think that making some kind of grand social announcement then proceeding on course is the way to go with transitioning. Pretend with me if you will…

Pretend that you are a machinist, working down at the local shipyard, living in the town you were born in. You decide, based on figuring out who you are, that you are moving to Prague to study classic piano.  Now imagine the reaction (and noted lack of encouragement) that you are likely to receive at work, with your family, your close friends if you just come out and say “I am now a composer, and will be living in Prague”. Sure some of them would be supportive, but behind your back they would laugh and say ‘nice dream’. Now try it a different way.

Instead of making this grand announcement after you have figured out who you really are… you start taking piano lessons. In fact, at lunch you practice on a small electric keyboard, every day out in your car. You spend a couple years learning, that way, when you are in Prague you can concentrate on what you know you really want to do, composition. While you are doing these lessons, you play at every opportunity.  You have now practiced enough Czech that you great coworkers with “Dobrý den!”, every day. When asked about the the language, you comment that you are learning a new language. Finally, you start selling off all the things that you will not be taking with you on the move.

It is about then that others will ask you what is going on. When you explain that you do not see yourself as a machinist living in this town forever, they go ok… now it is making sense. When they think about it, they have noticed that you are proficient at the piano and have been speaking that other language. There is little question in their minds that you are serious about this, that what is coming has been well planned and that this is something you really want.

Now try it the other way…the way it sounds to most people when you come out as transgender or transitioning.

Come out to your family, friends and coworkers and announce that you now want to be called Bronco Billy the Cowboy and you are going to be a Rodeo Star. “Can you ride a horse” they ask – “No, not yet, but I am going to learn”. “Have you even practiced roping?”. “Well, I am going to buy a real rope soon”. So, they ask, “You want us to call you by just Bronco or Bronco Billy”. You respond “My name is now Bronco and I am a Rodeo Star – please make sure you get all that correct and never refer to me as my past” And, just like anyone you know that would make this announcement to you, it sounds a bit crazy. There is no doubt that some would think you lost your mind!

I have chosen the ‘change before announcement’ course every time, in every instance; the one of doing it myself first, then others get to see the plan. I was the person who said “No, I can’t do that this weekend, I have to do 30 hours more work on my boat”. I said “I am going out sailing for practice” when asked about going out in winter weather. When I talked about the watermaker installed or the solar panels, people nodded. All this was while living on the boat. When it was finally announced that we were going off cruising, people said “It looked like that” – not “Are you crazy, you are going to die”. Now I tell you I have sailed 16,000 nautical miles and lived in many different life conditions. I tell you I have backpacked, bussed and hitchhiked in several countries. Now, when I tell you that I am going to Columbia this winter and Vietnam next summer to trek around – you say “sure, that sounds about right”. Those things are all true. When I tell you I am building a vehicle for long distance road travel… you might say you would not BUT that looks exactly like what you would expect from me. In fact, if you have read this blog, the outdoors part and vehicles does not surprise you.

The journey of Transition is no different than following your heart, desire and beliefs for anything else. The pathway chosen is often made harder because what you are asking is for other people to accept that you are something that, up until then, never occurred to them about you. No one is surprised about a change when they can see the work towards it. In fact, once they notice the work, they often go along and support it very easily.

So, my advice is two fold. What not to do:

Change your name first and announce that you are now to be a woman to all your friends, family and coworkers (usually in that order as you build confidence). Making such a strong tack seems like a right of passage with transitioning BUT, like Bronco Billy and the rodeo, it is asking a lot of your support and social structure to make the leap with you.

What to do:

Start soft, like learning to play the piano (which I also do).  Start by changing your clothes slightly, grow your hair, fem up. All this takes time and you would have to do it anyways after making the “grand announcement”. Get fem, go on HRT then when you make the name change and ‘come out’, most people will already have figured it out OR at least be able to see that the course you are on is happening already.

Now before you beat me up, I am not saying do not become who you really are, just that you consider others as well as yourself when you transition. It should make it easier to take the same journey as others. Although I have, through sailing, bussed and backpacked through my earth journeys; the road, as always, less travelled.

Make it easy on yourself by thinking what makes it easier for others to understand. Otherwise, coming out as the new “Bronco Billy” the (now decided) rodeo star is an easier stretch than coming out as Sarah the woman. I am out.

10 Greatest Sea Kayak Expeditions – Paddler Magazine

23 08 2008


Paddler Magazines article on great Kayak Trips. I had the pleasure of meeting John Dowd, Derek Hutchinson and Ed Gillet over the years – all great, humble men.



The 10 All-time Greatest Sea Kayaking Expeditions

By Dexter Mahaffey
To take to the sea in a kayak is to know humility. To cross the sea in a kayak alone is to know God. It’s no wonder then, that sea kayak expeditioners are, by and large, a modest bunch. They’ve been there and back, and are a different sort from the rest of us. Undoubtedly that’s why so little is known about the great sea kayak expeditions: The practitioners aren’t all self-promoters. But the tales bear telling: surviving for months on cans of condensed milk or staving off starvation by eating toothpaste; crossing the ocean alone with no radio; facing a heaving slurry of sea ice in the surf zone. The greatest sea kayak expeditions brush up against the limits of human endurance and mark the frontiers of the human experience. 

We’ve put together a list of what we feel are the 10 greatest modern sea kayaking expeditions. Some made it for their contributions to the sport, some because they were impressive feats of organization and skill, and some because they’re incredible tales of survival and willpower. We’ve ranked them in reverse order, saving the greatest for last. Let us know what you think. Fire off your disagreements with our rankings and let us know about those trips we’ve never heard of. But most of all, enjoy: far safer for most of us to be armchair adventurers than to emulate the hare-brained brilliance that follows.




10. Jon Turk’s Japan to Alaska Expedition, 2000

These days folks are pulling off expeditions that were unheard of 20 years ago, mostly due to technological improvements. As long as there’s a route through the ice—and sometimes even when there isn’t—paddlers are pushing through. One of the gutsiest of these explorers is Jon Turk, who, along with friends, has paddled some remarkable expeditions in the North. “The trouble with such high-latitude passages is navigation: Your compasses and other equipment don’t really work,” says renowned expeditioner Ed Gillet, about Turk’s 1984 paddle from Ellsmere Island to Greenland. “You’re working through routes of ice. It’s just a much more extreme environment for paddling than anywhere else. Being in your tent for a week with 50-knot winds, when it’s 20 below outside, is impressive. That really works on you mentally.” 

Turk’s crowning achievement was his trip from Japan to Alaska from May to September in 2000. He and his team paddled and sailed their 17-foot Prijon Kodiaks, outfitted with FastYak sail rigs and outriggers, along the Kuril Islands up to Kamchatka. From there they journeyed north to Siberia and made their crossing to St. Lawrence Island. “In northeast Siberia we saw a few people on the land, but rescue was unthinkable and food hard to find,” Turk says. “Our longest crossing in the Kurils was 180 miles (three nights at sea) and altogether, we spent nine nights at sea making crossings.”


Facing zero-visibility fog for days at a time, several days of sea ice crashing in the surf, 20-foot breaking waves, little cover from bays and no coastal islands whatsoever, Turk and his team eventually made their way across the Bering Sea and into Alaskan territory, completing over 2,000 miles of paddling in just over 100 days.




9. John Dowd’s Indonesian Journey, 1969

Few people know the stories of Operations Jaywick and Rimau, WWII missions of Australian Z-Group commandos who paddled into Singapore to blow up Japanese ships. John Dowd, the New Zealand-born founder of Sea Kayaker magazine and author of the classic instructional Sea Kayaking, not only knew about these strangest of all kayak expeditions, he retraced the escape route of some of Operation Rimau. While Dowd only made it 500 of his target 3,000 miles in the six weeks of his expedition before becoming side tracked by other adventures, it remains an important trip for its effect on subsequent paddlers. “Dowd’s trip was one of the early long trips,” says Gillet. “He started doing this before anybody else. That whole world was opening up and Dowd’s book was really influential to a lot of us who were just discovering kayaking for the first time. It was a seminal time.” 

As for the trip itself, Dowd and a friend paddled a Klepper across the South China and Java seas and down the Sumatran coast in the wake of those early fugitives. Jaywick was a completely successful raid (from the perspective of the Allies), but because there were no survivors of Operation Rimau, the route’s details were sketchy and based upon Japanese interrogation reports. Nevertheless, following the account in Ronald McKie’s book The Heroes, Dowd was able to locate a cache of the group’s corroded limpet mines in a cave on Pulau Panjang, Z-group’s base for attacking Singapore. It was the trip’s highlight. “We were eventually run out of Indonesia at gunpoint,” says Dowd. “It was quite an adventure.” Adding to the adventure was the fact that Dowd was scouting the Indonesian coastline at the behest of the Royal Marines. The name’s Dowd, John Dowd.




8. Peter Bray’s North Atlantic Crossing, 2001

While the Atlantic had already been crossed in sea kayaks twice, Englishman Peter Bray was the first to paddle west to east, without the tropical trade winds to ease his passage, and without the safety of the southerly east-to-west route’s warm waters. “It’s one of only a handful of transoceanic crossings by kayak,” says Chris Cunningham, editor of Sea Kayaker. “He’s in very good company. When I first looked at it I thought it was a strange idea: lots of times these transoceanic things turn out to be just drifting events, riding the currents. Bray actually set out to paddle…I think it’s a remarkable achievement.” 

Bray compensated for traveling the treacherous North Atlantic by constructing a mammoth kayak with sleeping compartment and ultra-high tech systems, including satellite phone and tracking system, GPS, desalinization units and electric bilge pump, all powered by solar panels. Fall out on a North Atlantic paddle and your days, or more accurately, your hours, are numbered, so Bray made his vessel self-righting. He stowed food for 100 days aboard and launched in St. Johns, Newfoundland, in June 2000, made fair headway, and then bedded down for the night. But when Bray awoke, he found his cockpit three-quarters filled with water and his pumping systems inoperable. Forced to use the hand pump, he was unable to get ahead and was washed out into the open water twice. Seeing that the boat was lost, he inflated an emergency raft, which was torn by the foundering kayak upon inflation. Bray survived 32 hours submerged in 36-degree seas. After being picked up by the Coast Guard, the former British Special Forces soldier spent the next four months learning to walk again.


A year later, Bray launched again from St. Johns on June 22. This time, he encountered a storm that pushed him 60 miles off course, a broken rudder, a broken hatch, insufficient sun to charge his solar panels, a close call with a killer whale and an Icelandic current that swept him so far north that he risked missing Ireland altogether. But after 76 continuous days of paddling, Bray dodged the scattered boats of the Irish fishing fleet and made land at Beldereg, Ireland, on Sept. 3.


“He certainly took a technological advantage wherever possible-which is really the only smart thing to do,” Cunningham says. “It may seem easy to discount his trip in comparison to earlier open boat trips, but it shouldn’t downplay the achievement, which is a remarkable one that only two or three other people have ever attempted.”




7. Frank Goodman et al., First Circumnavigation of Cape Horn, 1977

The first successful circumnavigation of Cape Horn was made by British boat designer Frank Goodman, who led three others on a successful 1977 mission. The first trick was getting to the tip of South America with their boats. Goodman and crew shipped their Nordkapps and then made it from the U.K. only to find their kayaks damaged. Patching the kayaks and drying the fiberglass over a stove, Goodman then waited out a two-day gale before starting out from Hershal Island at 5 a.m. on Dec. 22, 1977. 

Despite 16-foot swells and 50-foot-high spray blocking visibility, Goodman became the first to paddle one of the most infamous and feared stretches of water on the planet. Ironically, it was his discovery of Cape Horn Island’s unrecorded lake—which had not appeared on any of the maps or charts the team used in their planning-that proved to be the most cherished element of the voyage for Goodman.


The detractors of this route abound. “The most difficult part of the Cape Horn trip is the logistics of getting there,” says Derek Hutchinson. “Actually paddling around is nothing. If you can paddle in high wind, you can do it. The longest paddle you’ve got for Cape Horn is 10 miles. And it’s an inland paddle.” Nonetheless, Cape Horn remains a sought-after expedition. “It’s not that tough,” says Gillet, “but in the context of the time-like Yvon Chouinard doing some 5.7 climb for the first time up some big face—it’s a big deal.”




6. Derek Hutchinson’s North Sea Crossings, 1975, 1976

Ask expedition paddler Olaf Malver about Derek Hutchinson’s North Sea crossing and he says, “You’ve got to include it!” Preceding Goodman’s rounding of Cape Horn but historically significant for the same reasons, this expedition remains one of the great sea kayaking trips for its pioneering effect on the sport. 

In 1975, Derek Hutchinson and a crew of friends made a first-and failed-attempt to cross the North Sea between England and Belgium. “It was 100 miles of the most unpredictable sea in the world,” explains Hutchinson. “No part of it’s more than 100 fathoms deep, so the slightest barometric alterations give huge seas, and the winds are dreadful.” Without electronic navigating equipment, Hutchinson and his team got so lost they ended up eight miles off the coast of Dunkirk, France, rather than the small coastal town they had originally targeted in Belgium. After 34 hours of open-sea paddling, they faced hallucinations, vomiting, nausea, hypothermia and dehydration. After tying themselves together to keep from capsizing in an exhausted stupor, they finally sent up a signal flare and were retrieved by a passing ferry.


Hutchinson, who pioneered many of the designs, materials and techniques modern sea kayakers take for granted, wasn’t deterred. The next year, with better planning and experience, he and a new team successfully made the crossing in 31 hours. “The North Sea crossing was a milestone,” reflects Hutchinson. “It took the kayak out of the toy boat class and put it into the serious deep-sea craft category.”




5. John MacGregor’s Rob Roy Expeditions, 1860s

While John MacGregor is also claimed by the canoe crowd, he was the first to take the traditional form of a native kayak and turn it into a recreation tool. And while MacGregor navigated his famed craft Rob Roy down rivers and open waters alike, the boat’s form influenced modern sea kayaks and their use as a recreational craft. 

MacGregor made several journeys in his custom-built, cedar-and-oak kayaks in the 1860s. In 1865 he began by paddling down the Thames, ferrying across the English Channel, and then paddling the rivers and lakes of Europe. In 1868 one of his most famous expeditions took him through the Middle East. Despite several modifications to his boat’s design, such as sail riggings and a canopy that opened to a mosquito net-covered sleeping bay, the Rob Roy bore measurements common to modern-day sea kayaks: 15 feet long, 28 inches wide, nine inches deep, and 80 pounds in weight. MacGregor was a hundred years ahead of his time. While he and his trips were not of the ilk of Turk or Caffyn, were it not for MacGregor and his Rob Roy, it might not have occurred to anyone to pick up traditionally structured boats and paddle them for fun.




4. Ed Gillet’s California to Hawaii Crossing, 1987

On June 25, 1987, Ed Gillet departed from Monterey, Calif., with the intention of mostly sailing his way to Hawaii. However, it was an El Nino year and the anticipated trade winds and currents failed him. Gillet spent less time using his parafoil sail than actually paddling the Bananafish, his Necky Tofino double laden with 600 pounds of food and gear. “His paddle to Hawaii was a real classic,” says Jon Turk. “A lot of modern transoceanic ‘kayak’ expeditions are done in very expensive non-production boats. I discount these because the boats aren’t real kayaks…Ed Gillet paddled a production boat.” 

Gillet was no ascetic, however: He carried desalinization equipment to ensure a fresh water supply. But when he lost his radio on week two, with it went all contact with the outside world for the remaining eight weeks. When Gillet failed to appear by his predicted arrival window his family flew into a frenzy. They unsuccessfully lobbied the Coast Guard to search for him. Sixty-three days after his departure and four days after he ran out of food, suffering from 40 hours of sleep deprivation and subject to winds and currents driving him north, past the islands, Gillet steered in a hallucinatory dawn into Kahului Harbor and landed on Maui Beach.


“He did it solo, and it’s the biggest crossing of all, the longest non-assisted crossing basically,” says Malver. “It’s longer than the one from Africa. And he’s humble about it.” Gillet lost a mere 25 pounds-as opposed to the 50 or so lost on the following two epics-but most of that occurred in the last week. Legend has it he survived at least partially on toothpaste.


Gillet calls it “A life raft experience. It amazes me, when I think back on it, that I didn’t die,” he says. “It doesn’t amaze me that I paddled to Hawaii—that’s more or less a straightforward thing to do. You make the mileage, you paddle your boat, you get there. It’s benign at that time of year: You don’t have hurricanes at the latitudes I was traveling at. But physically, I’m still amazed I was able to withstand that kind of punishment.” Despite advances in technology, Gillet’s 2,200-mile Pacific journey remains so epic none have ever tried to match it. A few kayakers have achieved greater mileage, but not on an open-water crossing of the Pacific.




3. Paul Caffyn’s Australia Circumnavigation, 1981

John Dowd calls Paul Caffyn the most important sea kayaker alive. He’s circumnavigated Iceland, Japan and New Zealand, but those trips don’t hold a candle to his masterpiece, the Australia circumnavigation. Over a 360-day period, the New Zealander logged 9,420 miles circumnavigating Australia. Setting out in December from Queenscliff near Melbourne, Caffyn’s expedition was no casual trek of paralleling a coastline-Australian waters host some of the most fearsome sea conditions found anywhere. Caffyn faced the expected sharks, which consistently bumped his 17’10″ Nordkapp Isadora, but also a tropical cyclone, crocodiles, sea snakes, mangrove swamps and Australia’s legendary surf. 

Perhaps most daunting were the hundred-mile stretches of sheer unbroken cliffs, particularly the west coast’s Zuytdorp Cliffs. Caffyn couldn’t pull in to meet with the support vehicle that paralleled his voyage, much less break for the night. He survived by popping No-Doz and paddling 30-hour-long stretches. On three occasions Caffyn logged 69-mile segments in 24-hours. He logged 24-hour, 50-mile segments 20 times, and the four months of his trek around the northern coast of the continent were completed entirely solo. That Caffyn could land at times is balanced by the pure length of his trek—360 days—and by the fact that he never sailed. “The problem,” says Dowd, “is the sustained grind of it. Every day he could have quit and he didn’t. His trip is in another league.”




2. Hannes Lindemann’s Atlantic Crossing, 1956

This is the legendary trip by which all open-water explorers measure themselves. While he wasn’t the first to cross the Atlantic by kayak, Germany’s Hannes Lindemann has gained the greatest notoriety among contemporary paddlers because he published a written record of his epic crossing, Alone at Sea. Lasting over 72 days, from Oct. 20 to Dec. 30, 1956, Lindemann’s crossing defines the modern sea kayak expedition. He traveled between Las Palmas in the Canary Islands and St. Martin’s, the Bahamas, in a 17’1″ folding Klepper, the Liberia III. 

Lindemann subsisted mostly on evaporated milk, cans of beer, rainwater and the sea life he could spear from his seat. Being a physician helped him anticipate and treat his ailments, and he approached them with mainstream medicine and a sort of pre-New Age philosophy mind training. Nonetheless, Lindemann suffered from atrophy in the legs, skin boils and infections from alternating dry and wet conditions, and sleep deprivation. He had to eat his way through his supplies before he could stretch out comfortably for a reasonable four-hour’s sleep. Ironically, by the time he created enough sleeping room, the weather turned so sour that he had to remain largely awake.


Lindemann made use of a double sail rig and an outrigger constructed of half an automobile tire tube. The journey was surprisingly smooth for the first month, and Lindemann took advantage of the warming trade winds. But in late November things grew tumultuous, and in mid-December he spent a day and a half clinging to the side of his capsized boat. On several occasions, he climbed onto his kayak’s overturned hull, but the air temperature was so much colder, and his drenched wax-cloth attire so un-insulating, that he slipped back into the water to wait out the storm. He confesses that his mantra kept him alive: “West…Never give up, never give up, I’ll make it.”




1. Franz Romer’s Atlantic Crossing, Portugal to Puerto Rico, 1928

On March 31, 1928, German-born Franz Romer set out alone from Lisbon, Portugal, to make the first recorded crossing of the Atlantic in a sea kayak. The 29-year-old World War I veteran traveled almost 4,000 miles and spent 58 unbroken days at sea between the Canary Islands and St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, before finally making land in Puerto Rico. 

Like Lindemann, Romer filled Deutscher Sport, his 21’6″ modified Klepper, end-to-end with food and slept in his seated position under a homemade spray skirt that covered everything except for a small breathing tube. He progressed with his paddle as needed, but mostly moved under a deck-mounted sail to which he attached a guide line that held his rudder true regardless of whether he was awake, asleep, taking latitude and longitude readings or simply hallucinating. Like Lindemann, he had to eat his way through his food stores before he could stretch out, and similarly suffered from boils and atrophy. But unlike Lindemann, Bray or Gillet, Romer had no one else’s experiences to call upon. And in 1928, the only navigation technology available included his compass, sextant, binoculars and a barometer.


In mid-September, after about six weeks’ recovery on St. Thomas and then a brief sail over to San Juan Harbor in Puerto Rico, Romer again took to sea with the goal of making his way up the American coastline to New York. Having survived one hurricane after his departure from Lisbon and another after departing from Las Palmas, he met his fate at the outset of the third and final leg. Romer missed a hurricane warning by one hour and steered straight into the storm. No trace of him was ever found. Despite his death, and despite no written record of his experience, Franz Romer’s Atlantic crossing remains inarguably the greatest sea kayaking expedition of the modern era




Ed Gillet and Kayaking

23 08 2008

Time and experience changes everyone. Here is a humbling story, from a humble man.

Ed Gillet has been one of my personal modern heros for nearly three decades. I did my first solo paddling on the West Coast of Canada while he was preparing for this trip. I read about him two years later.

Ed was 36 in 1987 when he did this. These are his own words.

Pacific Journey – from California to Hawaii
Ed Gillet’s account of his paddle

When I said that I was planning to paddle across 2200 miles of open ocean in a twenty foot kayak, people looked at me as though I had told them I was going to commit suicide. My listeners projected their deepest fears on my trip. Wasn’t I afraid of losing my way on the trackless ocean, starvation, thirst, going mad from lack of human contact, or being eaten by sharks? They were seldom reassured when I told them of my thirty thousand miles of sailing experience and ten thousand miles of kayaking along the most formidable coastlines in the world. But I was confident that my kayak and I would arrive safely in Hawaii. Most people think large vessels are the most seaworthy ones. But this is not always true.

Survival at sea depends on preparation, experience, and prudence – not on boat size. I turned my kayak into one of the most seaworthy little boats in the world. I did not need to carry a life raft – I paddled a life raft. Inside my kayak, I crammed 60 days food and 25 gallons of fresh water. With my reverse osmosis pumps, I could make unlimited amounts of additional drinking water from sea water. I carried fishing gear, tools, and spare parts. In a waterproof bag I had, a compact VHF radio to contact passing ships, and an emergency radio beacon to alert aircraft flying overhead in case I needed to be rescued. Flares, sig-nal mirrors, a strobe-light, and a radar reflector ensured that I would be seen.

My kayak was as stoutly built as any fibreglass sailboat. I wanted to paddle a true kayak across the ocean – not a specialized sailboat masquerading as a kayak. I used a stock Necky Tofino double kayak with no mast, sail, centerboard, or keel. My boat had a foot-operated rudder and a wooden floor inside so that I could sleep a few inches above the water sloshing back and forth in the bottom of the boat. To stabilize my kayak while I slept, I inflated pontoons which I lashed to both sides of the boat. When the pontoons were deployed I could move around in my kayak with-out fear of capsize. A sailor’s safety harness fastened me securely to my boat.

To find my way at sea I used a sextant and a small calculator programmed to work out navigation sights. I could figure my position to within a few miles – when I could see the sun. I chose the crossing to Hawaii because the summer weather patterns are stable and the winds and currents are almost always favourable. The trip seemed to me to be the kayaking equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. It was the most difficult trip I could conceive of surviving.

On a cold, foggy morning three kayaks glided out of the harbour at Monterey. My wife Katie paddled one of the boats. At the one mile buoy off Lover’s point, we said goodbye, embracing from the kayaks. Pointing my kayak west and heading out to sea was the hardest thing I have ever done. Tears rolled down my face and I could hear Katie crying. I looked back from fifty yards away and I knew that we were thinking the same thought: that we might never see each other again.

I felt foolish attempting to paddle to Hawaii. Who did I think I was to attempt such an improbable feat?

Despite extensive preparation, my confidence was soon shattered by the relentless pounding swell of the Pacific Ocean. I had underestimated the abuse my body – especially my hands – would take on the 63 day crossing. After only a few days at sea, my butt was covered with saltwater sores and I could find no comfortable positions for sitting or sleeping. Within a week, the skin on the backs of my hands was so cracked and chapped that I took painkillers to make paddling bearable.

Running downwind off California, I wore several layers of synthetic pile and polypropylene clothing – the type of clothing which is touted to be warm when it is wet. I stayed warm as long as I wore everything I had, but I was certainly wet.

I was miserable but I spurred myself on with the thought that when I reached the southern trade wind latitudes, warm, sunny weather awaited…

Sailors can have two distinct waking nightmares: too much wind and too little wind. Heading south from Monterey, California, I lived through the first bad dream. The howling grey northwesterlies nearly devoured me. For two weeks I headed southwest before thirty knot winds, surfing down fifteen foot high breaking swells. The seas snapped my half-inch thick rudder blades as easily as you might break a saltine cracker. I needed every bit of skill and strength just to stay upright.

The nights were unspeakably grim. I set out two sea anchors and stretched out on the floor of my kayak. Tortured by salt water sores, I snatched a few moments of sleep while green waves crashed over my kayak, forcing themselves into the cockpit. As the ocean slowly filled my boat, I tried to ignore the cold water soaking through my sleeping bag until the rising tide forced me to sit up and pump out the kayak. Then I settled into the bilge and the miserable cycle repeated.

The cold wind was relentless. When I poked my head out in the mornings I screamed into the wind, “I don’t want to die!” I felt as exposed and as stressed as I had on long rock climbs. I relied on my skill and equipment for survival – even a small mistake could prove fatal.

“This can’t be!” I shouted at the empty blue sky. For about the fiftieth time, I looked at my pilot chart. Sitting motionless in my kayak in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles from land, I cursed the winds that had abandoned me. There was no swell, no wind – no sound. Without the boisterous trade winds and the westward current they spawn, it would take me two more months to reach the Hawaiian Islands. I did not think that I could survive that long. I had been at sea in my twenty foot kayak for thirty days.

A thousand miles southwest of my starting point I found the flip side of the nightmare – calm weather. In the calm conditions, I dried my sleeping bag and clothing and my skin lesions healed, but my progress slowed dramatically.

As night overtook me, I snapped a lightstick and placed it over my compass. However slowly, I had to keep my kayak moving towards Hawaii. Where were the trade winds? The night was so still that the bowl of bright stars over my head shimmered and danced in the calm sea. I felt as though I was paddling off the edge of the earth and into space.

For two weeks I pushed my kayak westward, until I reached longitude 140 west. Nine hundred miles from my goal, the trade winds blew strongly enough to launch my parafoil kite. This colourful flying sail did not replace paddling, but the kite’s pull doubled my speed and I averaged fifty miles a day.

A school of blue and gold mahi-mahi fish played about my boat, frolicking and jumping in my bow wave. Catching them was easy since they always seemed voraciously hungry fighting each other to be first to bite the lures which I trailed behind on a hand-line. I even trained them to gather close to my boat when I knocked on my hull by feeding them cut up pieces of bait. Once a day I slipped a fish hook into a piece of bait and another mahi-mahi became sashimi.

Those days were the best of the trip. The strong trade winds were ideal for paddling. The royal blue surging swells were no more than six feet high and my yellow bow skipped over the waves as if my kayak knew the way to the islands.

Three hundred miles from the islands, I was caught up in a northerly current. The wind shifted from northeast to southeast and the strong current set me north at the rate of thirty miles a day. If that current had not changed, I would have landed in Japan, missing the islands by hundreds of miles.

I thought that if I was soon to become a life raft, I ought to prepare my life raft equipment. I rummaged through my storage compartments, collecting my emergency radio beacon, flares, and signal mirrors. If I were going to miss the islands, my best chance for rescue would come when I crossed the shipping lanes fifty miles north of me.

On my sixtieth day at sea, I ran out of food. My school of mahi-mahi had left me a week before. I had eaten my toothpaste two days earlier. There was nothing edible left in the boat, and no fish were biting my lures. Looking up, I watched a line of jet airplanes heading for Hawaii. I thought about the passengers eating from their plastic trays. My food fantasies were so real and so complete that I could recreate every detail of every restaurant I had ever visited. I could remember the taste, texture and smell of meals I had eaten several years ago. I thought about how I should have gone to a grocery store in Monterey and bought fifty cans of Spam, or chili, and stuffed the cans into my boat.

I had nearly completed the world’s longest open ocean crossing, but I did not feel any closer to land. I had been scribbling different latitude and longitude numbers on the side of my boat, but I had no sense of progress. My kayak trip seemed as though it would last forever. In my 63rd day at sea, I was taking my usual noon latitude sight. When I swung my sextant to look at the southern horizon, I was annoyed by the mountain filling my sextant viewfinder and fouling up my view of the horizon line. “That damned mountain…” I thought. Seconds later, I realised I was looking at land! That dark mountain had to be Mauna Kea, 80 miles away on the ‘big island’ of Hawaii. The island of Maui 40 miles ahead was hidden under a blanket of squally clouds. As the clouds cleared, Haleakala reared its head and I knew I was almost home.

I whooped for joy when I saw land. I had only been pretending to be a sea creature. I was a land creature travelling through a hostile environment. My survival depended on the life support system I carried in my kayak and my support system was exhausted. Nearing land, I felt as though a weight was being lifted from my shoulders.

After paddling and kite sailing all night, I brought my kayak into the calm lee of Maui outside Kahului harbour. The scents of rainwashed soils and lush tropical plants washed over me like waves of perfume. No one greeted me when my bow dug a fur-row into the sandy beach. Stepping onto the beach for the first time in more than two months, I could not make my legs obey me. They crumpled underneath me and I sat down heavily in the shallow water. A local character staggering down the beach asked me where I had come from. When I told him that I had paddled my kayak from California, he whistled. “That’s a long way,” he said. “Must’ve taken you two or three days, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said.

I talked him into helping me drag my kayak up the beach, then he wandered off. Reeling like a drunken Popeye, I lurched off in search of a junk food breakfast.

By Ed Gillet