In this age of information technology and social networking, the desire to get off-grid has never been greater. What better way to do that than to leave our digital lives behind and head off in a sea kayak to places beyond cell phone coverage, where the sun and moon determine your schedule and the wind is your only boss. Here are some of my thoughts on getting started with planning your first sea kayak expedition.
An expedition is “a journey with a purpose.” Arguably any sea kayak voyage that has a specific goal; be it to circumnavigate a land mass or traverse a section of coastline could be classed as an expedition, especially if there is something about the journey that makes it unique or extraordinary and more than just a vacation. It could be that your goal is to be first to do something, to get your name in the record books. As time goes on there are fewer truly remarkable ‘firsts’ that have yet to be achieved and increasingly it seems there is the desire to go faster or do it solo or contrive some other unique way to market your idea. It is important to be accurate about what you are trying to achieve and be sure that you have done your research before claiming any such record. Just because you can’t find it in a Google search, doesn’t mean someone has already done it.
Breaking a speed record may well detract from or entirely eliminate the pleasure of journeying through a remote wilderness. Perceiving the environment purely as an obstacle to overcome and its resources merely as things to exploit can leave you feeling less than satisfied, especially if you fail to achieve the original goal or when the record you set is eventually and inevitably broken.
Teaming up with one or more individuals who share your goals or deciding to go solo is a major decision with huge implications. There are many pros and cons for going solo or building a team and ultimately the decision is a personal one that should be made having taken into consideration all the relevant factors specific to your goal.
It might be that you want to raise money for a good cause. The more notable the journey the more you are likely to inspire folk to put their hands in their pockets and donate. Often attracting pledges and the expedition itself are easy in comparison with collecting the money afterwards. There is a danger that the pressure to complete the expedition to secure those funds for your cause will become overwhelming and encourage you to take greater risks or spoil your enjoyment of the journey itself.
Conducting scientific research is certainly possible during a sea kayak expedition. There is the obvious limitation of storage space in the kayak for large quantities of research equipment or scientific samples. Thus observation-based research and record-keeping is perhaps the most practicable and can be extremely valuable if conducted in areas infrequently visited due to remoteness or inaccessibility. That said, it is important to establish the goals of the expedition very clearly and not allow such research to compromise the success of the entire undertaking.
Understand what motivated you to begin planning the journey in the first place and stay true to that desire to give yourself the best chance of success and being happy with the result even if not all your goals are achieved.
Speaking as someone who worked as a manufacturer’s representative, it seems that for some the main motivation to undertake an expedition is simply to get ‘free’ kit. Well take it from me, you will need to compete with many hundreds of wannabe sponsored paddlers and if you are successful in gaining the support of a manufacturer, expect to work hard producing media content on return for the sponsorship. The more unique the challenge and the more plausible your pedigree is, the more likely you will find someone willing to trade discounted gear for media content.
Being able to demonstrate the ability to produce high quality images and video will be key to a successful pitch so start by producing a short video about the Who, What, Where & Why of your idea. Develop a relationship with your local paddlesports retailer. Suggest a trade to help them with future marketing, if they will advocate on your behalf.
Setting out unsponsored is incredibly liberating. It allows you to choose the best gear for the task, not waste valuable time and energy with staged photography and videography, and to really embrace the experience of the journey without any external pressures.
Crowdfunding as a way of sourcing funding for an expedition is a relatively recent development.Cynics will scoff at the thought of helping you to pay for your vacation, but the more captivating and worthy your idea is; the more chance you have that people will donate to your project. Coming up with some genuine benefits to significant donors may help folks to dig a little deeper into their pockets. Be careful when choosing the crowdfunding platform and expect to give up around 5% of your fund total in fees. Donors can be hit with credit card processing fees too.
For me this is almost as much fun as the expedition itself! Give yourself a realistic time-frame to come up with a solid plan. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Start macro, then go micro. Google Earth is a powerful tool for scouting all but the most remote of places on the planet. Do a rough calculation of the distance to be paddled to provide a basic time-frame. Do you need a week, a month, or more? Plan for travel delays, especially if your idea requires a kayak being shipped to a foreign port. Accounts of such expeditions always seem to begin with frustratingly long delays caused by customs or repairs to damaged kayaks.
Start doing the research: has anyone paddled there before? Google searches, Sea Kayaker Magazine back issues, online forums, local clubs or national governing bodies. You will find the sea kayaking community extremely generous and willing to share knowledge and expertise.
Do maps or charts exist, is there a coastal pilot? Private yachts have sailed most of the worlds coastlines and whilst they look at the coastline with a very different set of eyes, much of the information that can be gleaned from cruising guides and coastal pilots is useful to the sea kayaker. Will you need a permit from the local authorities to be there? What infrastructure is available to you? Will you need to fly in to the put in? Three piece and folding kayaks are serious options these days for the expedition sea kayaker.
Formulating a risk assessment is a good way to start getting into the minutiae of the planning phase. Will you be hand railing the shoreline or undertaking open crossings? What tidal and current information is available? These are constants and allow you to plan months in advance. Set common sense parameters for wind, both in terms of strength and direction. These will help you make good decisions when emotion and fatigue may cloud good judgment during the ups and downs of the expedition.
Deciding on what technology you will need to navigate and record your experiences, and figuring out how to keep everything functioning, will consume many hours of your planning phase. The quality of equipment available to the modern expedition paddler is simply staggering and can be overwhelming. Keeping it simple may be the best approach, but there is certainly the opportunity to create broadcast quality video with relatively little expense and effort these days. Keeping a journal may seem old school now, but for me the discipline of writing about each day’s events was rewarding and I spent much of my time during the long days on the water thinking about what I would write that evening.
How much on and off the water training you will need to do before your expedition largely depends on the style of expedition and whether you are looking to set or break a speed record or are just looking to complete the journey. How many miles a week do you normally paddle? When preparing for my six month 4,500-mile journey around the British Isles, I found I had very little time to train before I set out but I did have several decades as a kayak racer to fall back on. I knew my body and could read the telltale signs of fatigue and avoid overuse injuries. I started slow and built up the mileage steadily over the first few weeks until I was able to complete 50+-mile days without my body breaking down.
Do not underestimate the difference between paddling a sea kayak with just your day gear and one that is fully loaded with two weeks’ worth of food or more. The strain on your muscles, ligaments and tendons is so much greater. Just getting the boat in and out of the water takes a huge effort and risks injury. Training with a kayak loaded with sand bags is a good idea but be sure that whatever artificial weight you use cannot shift if you capsize. Practicing rolling a fully loaded kayak is another essential skill and will likely require modification to your rolling technique.
The key thing is to start healthy. I know of a friend who trained hard for the Vancouver Island circumnavigation record attempt but suffered from tendinitis due to over training and had to call a halt to his attempt after just a few days.
There are so many electronic navigational assets available to the modern day explorer it hardly seems fair but if you rely on any of them you are risking your safety and the success of project. Being comfortable using simple (non-electronic) navigational tools in all weather from the cockpit of your kayak is a fundamental skill that requires considerable practice and planning ahead of time so that you have the information you need easily accessible in an easily read format.
Fatigue and dehydration increases the likelihood of sea sickness and confusion so minimize the necessity to make on-the-water navigational decisions by planning for contingencies. Relying on others to navigate for you is foolish and significantly increases the risk to you and your team. Everyone should be fully conversant both with the plan and any alternatives. There are many paddling schools that offer kayak navigation classes. Be wary of getting to deep into the minutiae of navigation. There is significant error built into kayak navigation simply because with every paddle stroke our kayak will veer slightly off course. Keep it simple and plan conservatively.
Your first expedition might seem to be such a daunting prospect that you keep putting it off for the ‘perfect time.’ The reality is that time will never come and there will always be reasons why you should not do something. Pulling the trigger and announcing publicly that you are going to do something takes guts. Actually taking that brilliant idea all the way to the first paddle stroke takes tremendous determination. Completing your goal requires careful planning and a good deal of luck. Your first expedition will change the way you think about the world and the rewards are lifelong.
Your first expedition need not be a daring, headline grabbing feat of physical endurance. Start with an expedition in your own backyard. You will learn so much from spending just a few days living out of your kayak. There is no better mode of travel and even when life conspires to keep you on land for what seems like an eternity, you will find yourself daydreaming about your next adventure.
"Start with an expedition in your own backyard. You will learn so much from spending just a few days living out of your kayak."