Paddling from California to Hawaii
by Ed Gillette

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 ocean 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 the size of your boat. I had 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, signal mirrors, a strobe-light, and a radar reflector all helped to ensur that I would be seen.

My kayak was as stoutly built as any fiberglass sailboat. I wanted to paddle a true kayak across the ocean -- not a specialized sailboat masquerading as a kayak. I used a stock 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 without 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 favorable.

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 harbor at Monterey. My wife, Katie, paddled one of the boats. At the one mile buoy off Lover's point, we said good-bye, embracing each other 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: we might never see each other again.

I felt utterly foolish attempting to paddle to Hawaii. Who was I 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 salt water sores and I could find no comfortable position 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, I would find warm, sunny weather ....

Sailors can have two distinct waking nightmares: too much wind and too little wind. Heading south from Monterey, California, I lived through the first nightmare. The howling gray 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 the skill and strength I had acquired from years of kayaking 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 great waves crashed over my kayak, forcing themselves into the cockpit. As the ocean slowly tilled my boat, I tried to ignore the cold water soaking through my wet sleeping bag until the rising tide forced me to sit up and pump out the kayak. When the kayak was dry I settled into the bilge
and the miserable cycle repeated itself over and over.

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.

A thousand miles southwest of my starting point I found the other nightmare -- not enough wind. I was becalmed. In these conditions, I dried my sleeping bag and clothing and my skin lesions healed, but my progress slowed dramatically.

"This can t be!" I shouted at the empty blue sky. For about the 50th 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 steady, boisterous trade winds and the westward current they spawned, it would take me two additional months to reach the Hawaiian Islands. I did not think that I could survive that long. I had been at sea in my 20-foot kayak for 30 days. I was much thinner and weaker than when I began my trip.

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 long weeks I paddled my kayak slowly westward, until I reached longitude 140 west. 900 miles from my goal, the trade winds finally blew strongly enough to launch my parafoil kite. This colorful flying sail did not replace paddling, but the kite's pull doubled my speed, and I averaged fifty miles a day, paddling under sail.

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 handline. 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.

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 30 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 60th day at sea, I ran out of food. My school of mahi-mahi had left me a week before. I had eaten my tooth paste 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 realized 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 piling up on its windward shore. As the clouds cleared, Haleakala reared its head and I knew I was almost there.

I whooped for joy when I saw land. I had only been pretending to be a sea creature. I was again a land creature traveling 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 harbor. The scents of rainwashed soils and lush tropical plants washed over me like waves of sweet perfume. No one greeted me when my bow dug a furrow 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.

"Wow. 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 marched off in the other direction, in search of junk food.