Sea Kayaking / Touring
Vancouver Island, BC, Canada - May 27 - June 11 2016
Kokatat ambassador David Horkan and Joe Leach took on a speed circumnavigation of Vancouver Island by kayak in pursuit of an incredible record of less than 13 days. Over 700 miles in tough weather, paddling huge distances daily and a punishing schedule pushed the pair to the limit in pursuit of the record.
Boomers exploded all around as they threaded a path along the rugged shore"
David calls out, “Joe, I think we are floating!” Out of a deep slumber Joe replies, “What?” David again shouts out “I think we are floating, let me check Navionics to see what way we are going!” It’s 1 AM on the fifth night, with over 400 km of the 1100 km marathon done, and David had just woken from a dream convinced that himself and expedition partner Joe Leach were floating down the Johnson Straits in their tent. Amidst this bizarre situation, David’s main concern was to check the Navionics app on his phone to make sure they are floating in the right direction! Once Joe woke up properly, he jumped out of the tent to confirm they are still on dry land. Then reality sinks in, it’s just a dream. Sleep deprivation, fatigue and a relentless schedule have started to reveal the stress that the duo had been under. Moments like this confirm the absolute commitment to the task, the incredible drive of both athletes, and the punishing nature of their endeavor.
Setting out from Pedder Bay, just west of the Island capital – Victoria, on May 27th at 2 PM, their pace and daily distances were phenomenal. Paddling two fully laden expedition kayaks and averaging 80 km a day, they were well on track for the record. To make best use of the tides, they paddled for 10 hours a day, some mornings starting out as early as 2:30 AM. Both acutely aware that to break this record not only needs incredible endurance, seamanship and speed, but also requires a huge slice of luck with the weather; which until this point had been mostly in their favor.
The following morning after their night terrors, a 37 km paddle brought them into Telegraph Cove at 10 AM. This brief respite allowed them to get an updated weather forecast and check in with their growing number of followers on Facebook. Unfortunately the forecast was not what they were hoping for. A strong southerly system was due two days later, just as they were scheduled to reach the most northerly point on the Island, and one of the most exposed – Cape Scott. This meant that they were going to have to hold back rounding the Cape and hope that the prevailing North Westerly winds would help them on the West Coast.
Leaving Telegraph Cove that afternoon the record was still within sight, but the next few days were going to put it further and further out of reach. A headwind and torrential rain that afternoon brought them to a halt near Port McNeil, after covering a disappointing 55 km for the day. The physical price of the first week was also now beginning to take its toll on both paddlers, with David suffering badly from blisters on his hands, which required antibiotics to fight a worsening infection.
The next day paddling past Port Hardy, the pair were back on form covering 65 km with the prospect of reaching a good camp site. Referred to now as ‘Hell Harbor’ by the pair, they were eaten by mosquitoes as they prepared dinner and made camp for the night. As David finally got to bed around 11 PM, he informed Joe of his concern about the rising tide. An exhausted Joe didn’t give much response, but 30 minutes later he got Joe’s full attention as he let a shout out - they were surrounded by water. David’s premonition from a few nights earlier had come to pass!!! A frantic dash to get their tent and gear to higher ground forced them to put the tent in a bear scat covered piece of ground. Sleep was elusive for the rest of the night and they broke camp at 3:30 AM.
Following the restless night, they were keen to get on the water and put in as much distance as possible between themselves and ‘Hell Harbor’. The following day they paddled 45 km to reach Cape Scott, at times battling a very strong southerly wind. Unable to go any further until the next day, this left them a mere 5 days to kayak the whole West Coast. Not impossible, but some serious downwind conditions were going to have to materialize for the record to be broken.
On Saturday June 4th, the pair hit the water early to round Cape Scott in a blanket of dense fog. Boomers exploded all around as they threaded a path along the rugged shore. By late morning the sun broke through, much to the relief of the paddlers. Three days of rain had all their kit soaking wet and covered in sand. Finding a landing was difficult, and after a 6 hour shift and facing a surf landing in two meter swell, their luck was appearing to change for the better. Approaching a beach along a rocky wave hammered shore, a small opening appeared leading to a river and one of the most beautiful landing spots on the trip. Unmarked on the map, this was a 5 star find and allowed for a full kit dry out and fresh water swim.
With the clock ticking and the finish line still over 400 km away, this was the last day they could go without solid downwind conditions. So far the forecast had been accurate, and the following day wind was due to build from mid-morning. Tearing themselves away from their secret fantasy camp site, Joe and David paddled on a further 35 km to position themselves close to Lawn Point for the next crux of the West Coast - Brooks Peninsula. Despite its fearsome reputation, they passed without any issue in the early morning and had a taste of the forecasted wind as they rounded the headland. During a quick lunch break on the south side of Brooks, whitecaps could be seen developing, and excitement grew with the prospect of a good downwind afternoon and evening to pull back some miles.
Paddling out to deep water from their lunch spot, Joe had an amazing encounter with two grey whales, nearly paddling straight into them! After that excitement, the wind was blowing and the runners building. Could this be the break they needed to get back on the record? Their luck was short lived, 25 minutes later the sea was oily calm. The wind had completely dropped, and the 30 km crossing to Spring Island now looked like a long slog, with an un-surfable following swell.
This setback did not dampen spirits as they continued on to cover over 75 km. The following days did not deliver any usable wind either, and the realization that the record was definitely off had to be overcome. Now the focus was to enjoy the remainder of the expedition and finish in less than 15 days if possible. Completing the expedition was top priority for the UK and Irish paddlers, as no record attempt had managed to complete the circumnavigation since Kokatat ambassador Russell Henry set the bar so high in 2014 with a record of 12 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes.
Having consumed all 12 days of food they had carried from the start, and the relief of not chasing the record any longer, a brief stop in Tofino was allowed. Paddling 2 hours against the tide from their sand spit camp spot, they reached Tofino and internet connection. Unknown to David and Joe, their SPOT tracker had failed to go off for a couple of days, and there were a lot of concerned people wondering where they were. A quick Facebook update to confirm they were safe and well settled the frayed nerves of family and followers.
An incredible breakfast of fried bacon and eggs, with unlimited coffee refills, made hanging around Tofino far too tempting, and a post lunch exit was committed to. There was still over 250 km to paddle. By 10 PM that night, the pair had reached Clarke Island in the Broken Island Group. This was the routine of the West Coast – 5 hours paddling in the morning, 5 hours in the afternoon, and 2 hours after dinner to reach a camp site around dark.
Clarke Island was a real treat; with camping under the trees off the sand, a compost toilet, and even a small deer walking around the camp in the morning. A lone kayaker arrived as Joe and David packed for a late morning start of 9 AM, and wished them farewell as they set off towards the Juan De Fuca Strait.
Two more solid days of 70 km plus were required to position themselves for a relatively easy last day of 40 km, and a sub 15 day finish. The second last night was spent at yet another disappointing campsite in pouring rain. Waking the following morning, the soggy conditions were soon forgotten as they realized their last full day of paddling was about to begin. After 75 km along the coast, they reached French Beach at 8 PM, discovering a fantastic campsite. Spirits were high and the mood positive. A trip to the local store resulted in a meeting with an eccentric owner, who provided an unusual combination of a groan inducing back stretch for the two weary expeditioners, and fresh cow’s milk. What a finish to the expedition!
A big fire and lots of goodies from the store kept the lads up until near midnight, reminiscing about their amazing adventure. But a fear of sleeping-in had David awake at 5:15 AM, and they were on the water within the hour. Now the kayaks felt light, and the tide and wind finally seemed to be working with them. They steamed along the Juan De Fuca Straits, passed Sooke, and now tantalizingly close to the finish.
At 10:51 AM, the relieved paddlers returned to the beach they had left 14 days 20 hours and 51 minutes previous. This made their circumnavigation the second fastest on record, and the fastest overseas paddlers to take on the challenge. On completion of their circumnavigation, both Horkan and Leach commented on the toughness of the expedition, but noted the incredible wildlife and scenery they had encountered along the coast.
”It seems ridiculous to be racing past some of the most amazing kayaking locations in the world, but we did see more of the Island then most people ever will,” stated Leach.
Both paddlers agreed that they gained a lot from the expedition and did not rule out any future attempts.
Boomers exploded all around as they threaded a path along the rugged shore"