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