Into The Ocean
There is nothing that scares me quite like the ocean. Dark, mysterious, and inhospitable to human life; even a casual snorkeling trip can twist my stomach into knots. Swimming into deeper water, watching as the sea floor drops away into nothingness, conjures up images of creatures with unblinking eyes and slippery tentacles, just out of sight.
As human settlements spring up at even the most unlikely corners of the globe, the oceans have become earth’s final frontier. The great, unexplored depths have drawn the attention of modern explorers, far wealthier and better equipped than their bygone counterparts, but no less eager to discover what lies just out of reach. Despite my own wariness of the water, I felt the remoteness tug at me. Diving down into it was out of the question, but I could sure make an effort to cross it.
Already an avid river and sea kayaker, I began poring over maps, looking for remote stretches I could paddle. I wanted to feel my muscles screaming with exertion, I wanted to work for every drop of water I drank, I wanted something that would put me at the mercy of nature.
Paddle the coast of California? Too tame. North America? Boring! Where’s the open water? I scanned the Pacific, looking for a suitable route, and my gaze landed on Hawaii. From California, it was a distance of 2,500 miles, with no rest stops, no support, and no safety net. It was perfect.
“Absolutely not,” Tom said, when I mentioned the idea. Over a decade together, and he still hadn’t realized his words would only add fuel to the fire.
In an effort to prove that the idea wasn’t entirely insane, I sent him the story of Ed Gillet, the man who had first completed this journey in 1987. After sixty-four days of salt sores, depression, and near-starvation, he landed safely on Hawaii’s shore.
Reading through his story, Tom could only shake his head in bewilderment. “He almost died.”
“Almost, but he didn't.”
“You’re definitely not doing this.”
The following week, I was out on the water, paddling through the Santa Cruz waves, dodging otters and sea lions. With my sail raised, I caught the breeze into open ocean, paddling until the coastline was just a gray smudge against the horizon. I practiced rolling my kayak, letting my body drop into the water before righting myself, praying I hadn’t chosen to dunk myself while a Great White was passing by.
On days when the water was still, I would paddle close to the shore, training in the waves kicked up by the shallows. I delighted in the oooh and ahhhs of people strolling the beach as I expertly sailed through the breakers. As is often the case, my ego was my downfall, as I charged into one particularly large wave and misjudged my angle. Instead of gliding smoothly over the top, I rolled sideways, flipping beneath the water. So close to shore, I was dragged along the sand before being spit out in the shallows. My kayak slammed me from behind, dropping me into the sand once again. Soggy and sand-encrusted, I grabbed hold of my boat and hauled it to shore, horrified to see a beautiful young man running down the beach to ensure I was alright. Fit, tan, and handsome, he was made all the more attractive by his heavy Italian accent. He insisted on helping me back into the water, while I, completely mortified, tried to inconspicuously wipe the sand from my face and avoid eye contact.
After months of practice, I decided to take a short break from playing in the waves and focus on one aspect of kayaking I’d never tried before; sleeping inside the boat. My sea kayak is an NDK Explorer, a nearly eighteen-foot vessel. Inside the narrow cockpit, I’m able to slide down so that all but my head and one shoulder are inside the hull. While not exactly comfortable, it works as a makeshift bed. I picked a balmy summer evening, loaded up my gear, and paddled into open water.
The sun dropped below the horizon, making the water’s surface sparkle like diamonds before fading into darkness. I tossed my anchor overboard, feeling it drag along the sea floor before catching in a clump of kelp. Sea lions, the wild dogs of the ocean, slipped past, occasionally belting out one of their belch-like barks in greeting. With my hand-powered desalinator, I cranked out a half liter of water for the following morning. I then began the arduous task of relieving myself in a kayak. It involves precipitously balancing one leg on an outrigger while holding your nether regions just above a small dish. Then dumping the dish without spilling it inside the boat or in your lap. It often ends in soggy, pee-stained failure.
Business complete, I settled into the kayak, wrapping myself in multiple layers against the night breeze. The frigid water seemed to press against the fiberglass hull of the boat, chilling my lower body. The sound of waves crashing—what I had thought would be a calming noise—jerked me awake repeatedly. The thump of a large wave would have me jerking awake, suddenly terrified that a shark was about to tip me into the water. Sleep was hard to come by, but the sun eventually rose, and with it, my confidence in this plan.
The final test was my endurance. Ed Gillet’s trip highlighted the danger of starvation. Without hitting specific mileage totals every day, a paddler would need to catch a fair amount of seafood to survive. I estimated that I would need to cover at least fifty miles per day. Over the weeks, I pushed myself farther and farther out to sea, working my way toward fifty miles. My hands became hard and calloused, my hair bleached from the sun. My arm and core muscles grew hard and defined.
Finally, I announced to Tom that I was ready to paddle the full distance. Two days of fifty miles apiece. In true Tom fashion, he rolled his eyes and turned back to his iPhone. “This is so stupid,” he muttered.
Undeterred, I loaded up my gear and headed to the beach. The sun had yet to rise, and I quickly paddled out of the harbor, hoping to make decent progress before the heat of the afternoon. Fishing boats passed by, their captains waving apologies as their wake rocked me sideways. Once in open water, I lifted my sail, letting the morning breeze guide me westward.
I paddled hard, knowing the miles wouldn't come easy. The wind was already dying down, rendering my sail useless. Before dark, I would need to stop and desalinate some water. I'd also brought along my fishing gear, hoping to replicate the Ed Gillet experience as closely as possible. Thirty miles from shore, the sun was beating down on my back. Salt crusted my hands, already raw from paddling. My hair and face were splattered with seawater. I wondered how two months of this would feel; having the salt slowly eat away at your skin, sweltering in the relentless sun, only to freeze once it set. How would it feel to be alone on the open ocean, with no landmarks for reassurance and no company besides my own thoughts? Would I fall into a depression? Drift slowly into madness?
These questions were pushed to the side as a new, pressing problem made itself known. A gurgle in my stomach, the taste of bile in my throat, and then finally, a spectacular vomit over the side of the kayak. I had just enough time to wonder how many sharks this would attract before my body heaved again.
Seasickness. I have no idea why it waited so long to rear it's ugly head, but thirty miles from shore was hardly an opportune moment. My strokes became slow and labored as I took deep breaths to steady my stomach. The hours crawled by, and I finally passed the forty mile mark, exhausted, nauseous, and way behind schedule.
By now, the fishing boats were returning from their daily jaunts, and I received more than a few puzzled stares. One smaller boat, captained by a grizzled older man, pulled up right beside me.
"You okay, hon?" he asked.
"Fine," I grumbled. I'll admit, I've never been gracious in accepting someone's sympathy or assistance. It's a personal failing.
"Pretty far from shore," he remarked. "Want me to tow you in?"
The idea of being towed back to Santa Cruz, a damsel in distress, rescued by the elderly fisherman, was humiliating. I found myself wishing he hadn't come along, leaving me to my nauseous misery. At least my pride would still be intact.
As my stomach gave another rumble, my resistance crumbled. I fished through my hatch and pulled out a length of paracord, which the fisherman knotted between our two boats.
"Hold on tight," he said with a grin.
We sped through the waves, crossing them at what felt like breakneck speed--especially compared to my earlier progress. Pulling into the harbor, the fisherman flashed his friends a megawatt smile as if to say, "Look what I caught today, boys!" Embarrassing, sure, but nothing compared to Tom's smug grin when I showed up at home a day early.
"Back so soon?" he asked. "Little harder than you thought?"
I peeled off my soggy layers, fighting the urge to throw the salt-stained mess in his face. "Just need a little more practice," I said, falsely cheery. "I'll keep trying until I'm strong enough."
Satisfied to see the smile drop off his face, I promised myself that some way, somehow I'd attempt this incredible journey.