The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Paddling (and peddaling) to near death

11 months in, 9 months to go and life is good. Killing time in Canada has been a joy. The kindness of strangers has once again left us with a warm glow, the excitement of Asia is imminent and we are still cherishing warmth and dry land after a near death kayak incident.

Before boxing up the beloved Carlos we thought we would dust off our tent, camping stove and cycling shorts and take him for a spin around Vancouver for a couple of weeks. We headed North up The Sunshine Coast where we weaved our way between forests, hippy communes, hidden coves and rocky beaches. Then we jumped on a ferry over to Vancouver Island where we rode a wetter, but much flatter terrain for a few days. Conscious of being away for the bike for 7 months we gave it our all and sprinted up and down both coasts. Never before has a fully loaded tandem been pushed so fast! All in all between old winding roads, genuine pubs, fish and chips, being back in the tent and picking blackberries we felt very at home.

We also remembered how great the world is to you when you're touring on a bike. We received free coffees on wet mornings, a free breakfast bap when asking for milk for our cereal, a free bike check up and numerous other wonderful people lifted our spirits higher and higher everyday. On our penultimate day the heavens opened. Soaked to the bone and filthy from the roads we battled the elements, lamenting the soggy night ahead. As we neared the campsite a woman in an all in one cycling suit on an old racer pulls up alongside.

'Hey there, where you guys heading?'
'Oh just up the road a bit to a campsite by Comox Lake'
'Well why don't you come and stay with me, life's short hey, its nearer and drier'
'Errrrr Hol what do you think?'
'Yeh cool'
'Great, follow me. You traveling around the world or something?'
'Yeh actually'
'Cool well I know what its like touring so you'll appreciate a dry room for the night.'

Nick turns to look at me with the face that means, 'how awesome is it when random stuff like this happens', I give him a similar look back and we pedal our way through the commuter traffic to the home of Sarah and Berend. Debates about the fate of the first nation populations, religion, middle America, home education, travel, vegetables, touring and all sorts followed a few glasses of home brewed wine before we hit our hugely appreciated dry bed for the night. In the morning books, inspirational speeches and contacts were exchanged and off we pedaled, beaming. Little did we know that we would be staring death in the face a few days later on.

In between our cycling jaunts we tried out a different kind of tandem, the double kayak. Hiring one for three days and camping in the wilderness turned out cheaper than hanging out in Vancouver, so we had no excuse not to give it a go. After a balmy and calm day kayaking in Tofino a few weeks earlier we thought it would be a walk in the park. So we cycled up to Heriot Bay on Quadra Island, part of the Discovery Islands, which make up Canada's incredibly fragmented and wild West coast. We got kitted out, advised about weather and just as we lifted the kayak into the water the renter of the kayak asks 'Oh, you guys know how to do self-rescue right?'. '(Shit), No'. Cue a few hasty phone calls as we wait to see if we can still go. We explain about sailing the Atlantic and Nick rambles on about rowing and growing up in boats... Luckily, it's a go.

The weather wasn't quite as welcoming as Tofino, but as the mist and rain swept across never ending alpine covered hills, this only added to the atmosphere of being alone on the water and in the wild. The first couple of days were awesome. We paddled within a few feet of crowded seal colonies, had bald eagles swooping just above our heads, explored starfish filled rocky coves, picnicked on deserted beaches and gave the top deck a pretty good work out. Both nights we camped on our very own tiny island, a rocky outcrop with a flat mossy patch the exact size of our tent, some rocks for a kitchen, trees for shelter and a couple of tidal beaches. We had to rig up a system of rollers out of drift wood to get the kayak high up on the rocks for the night, but this made Nick happy as gained good man points and got in touch with his inner Egyptian slave. Awaking alone on this island, with just a couple of curious seals for company was incredible.

The weather was grey, gusty and damp for the duration, but we avoided any big seas by staying in sheltered channels between smaller islands. However, on the last day we had to get back to the main island. The only route back was across two long exposed sections of water with an island in the middle, about 3 miles in. Monday dawned a grim day; we could hear the predicted winds of 30+ knots whipping the trees above the tent and spattering the canvas with noisy raindrops. When we got out and packed up the water ahead was alive with white horses.

We quietly headed out and within an hour or so we came to the end of the sheltered coast and looked up close at the rough stuff we had to cross. You could see the faint outline of Breton Island through the rain, between that and us there were rocky outcrops with huge waves smashing against them. The waves would be hitting us side on and the wind would be blowing hard in our faces. My stomach knotted itself when I realised how potentially dangerous this could be. Nick was talking a lot trying to reassure me; it was clear he was nervous to. Neither us were keen to look at it for too long and so after a quick chat about the importance of keeping a steady rhythm and not stopping halfway across we went for it. The second we rounded the headland the waves starting crashing over the boat. The first time a wave broke over me was terrifying. Nick was shouting encouragement over the sound of the wind and we crawled on into the teeth of the sea rolling precariously over the waves. The rhythm kept us going and we were so desperate just to get out of there that there was no point thinking of anything other than paddling. It felt like a long 45 minutes until we reached the slim wind-shadow of Breton Island and the seal colony we had bobbed around just two days before.

Finally touching the beach of Breton Island was a massive relief. We were both freezing and soaked to the bone, but high on the adrenaline of making it. Whilst I gulped down a pile of chocolate digestives (forever the comfort eater), Nick went to check out what lay ahead from the other side of the island. On joining him I quickly realised it was rough, if anything, rougher. We didn't know if we were lucky to have made the last leg. Maybe the kayaks can actually deal with this no problem? Or maybe we were out in something that even pros would not even consider. Sitting around in the rain getting more and more cold seemed fruitless; I started to shiver uncontrollably from a mix of being drenched and building nerves. After a quick call about the weather and on finding out it wasn't likely to change later in the day, we decided we had to just get on with it. We walked the kayak back into the choppy water, passing a beached seal skeleton (not a good omen). As we steered the kayak back into open water what we saw didn't look welcoming. The rain was coming down harder, clouds shrouded the view of land, there were no other boats out and the white horses reared up in front of us. Before we had got back in the kayak Nick turned to give me a kiss. At that point I knew it wasn't just me that was completely bricking it about what lay ahead.

The wind hit us side on as we left Breton island behind. Not being able to see land on the other side due to the rain also did nothing for our confidence. Luckily there were several buoys along the way which became good targets. We were both mustering everything that we had just to make headway against the wind, whilst keeping a close eye on the waves breaking to our side. About half way we dared to think we might make it. But, just then disaster struck. We both saw the wave coming and knew we were going in. Two huge waves came together and crested right on top of the kayak. Slowly and unavoidably we flipped over. Under water we both scrabbled holding our breath to release our skirts (waterproof cover things keeping you in the kayak), slid out from the boat and bopped up and down in the waves clinging onto the kayak. My initial reaction on coming up to air was to panic, Nick quickly told me to do the opposite and before my brain could get the better of my body I calmed everything down and we took a moment to think.

The sea was foaming around us, the low sky was filled with racing clouds, land was invisible, there were no boats in sight and waves were crashing over our drenched and freezing selves as we clung to our only way out, which was now essentially a surfboard. The vulnerability topped anything we had experienced even in the Atlantic. My priority was to get back in that boat as quickly as possible. We managed to flip it back over and examine the damage. It was completely full of water so before we could contemplate getting back in we needed to pump it out. Nick started pumping water out of my section first. Treading water with both hands trying to pump was exhausting. All the water that he pumped out just sprayed straight in my face. He tells me to move to the other end of the kayak but I can't even contemplate moving in case I lose the boat or my paddle. I also remember just wanting to stay as close to Nick as possible. Eventually, with Nick steadying the boat in the swell I manage to get in and start pumping from inside the boat. Its not easy since waves kept just crashing over us and re-filling it. I also had to try and keep the kayak facing the wind to stop us flipping in again. It took everything I had to try and move the kayak against the wind. If we flipped again I don't know if either of us would have the energy to do anything about it. As I sat in the boat Nick was still treading water at the back pumping and clinging onto his paddle.

View The day we nearly died in a larger map

At one point the boat swung with the wind and Nick lost grip. All I could see was Nick, paddle in one hand and pump in the other drifting off on the waves. He couldn't swim with his hands full, but couldn't let go of either if we were to get back. I didn't have the strength to move the kayak on my own. He's never looked so small. Somehow he got back to the boat and after 45 minutes of treading water and 3 failed attempts to get back in the boat without flipping it, we were both back in the kayak. The boat remained half full of water and rolled ominously in the 6 foot waves. But both of us were completely focused on just getting the hell out of there. I got a sudden fear about jellyfish at my feet. But they were numb pretty quickly so the worry passed as we just focussed on paddling.

90 minutes later we were battling our way through the wind into the harbour. We must have looked ridiculous. Nobody had opted to go out on the water and in comes this drenched and half sunk kayak. We instantly ditched our camping reservation and booked into a hotel room right above the pub. Perfect. It took us most of the evening to really relax and reflect on what just happened. After a few ales and a stack of chips we're high on our adventure and surviving the sea – the tale was already taking on mythical proportions. I quickly started philosophising about the importance of testing your limits to appreciate the small things in life. We both decide that that was definitely the scariest part of the trip so far. Even snapping a mast 1500 miles from shore was not as terrifying as bobbing around next to that tiny kayak with no life lines other than our own strength and effort. The next morning the water is completely still and the sun is out. Two old timers that we met on our second day rolled in after a beautiful mornings paddle, having sat out the storm the day before. I think they thought we were completely insane after recalling our exploits and then waving goodbye from the tandem. Still, at least now we know the boundaries of kayak travel, I'm not too keen to test out rough seas in one of those ever again. Maybe it was just the Pacific giving us a warning shot before we set off to cross it on Wednesday in a 282m behemoth.

We are going to be under the command of our German Captain Kruse for 11 days and some several thousand miles. We will eat 3 meals a day with the crew, we have our own cabin, a stack of books, a 5,000 press up in a week challenge and plenty to think about for when we arrive in Asia. The culture shock is going to be undeniable when we pull into Gwangyang on the southern coast of South Korea on the 31st August. From there we will plunge headfirst into a world of un-intelligible signs, noodles and temples. Good times.


Rad said...

wow! epic post. glad you guys are both safe and sound. What a story though- one for the grandchildren.

keep having fun both of you. Rad

Jan Hardy said...

Dearest Hol and Nick
This is the most incredible read! I am so exhausted! And I am not eating the bangers and mash i cooked for dinner!
Oh wow you both look so relaxed - continue to have a ball and take good care of yourselves!
Loads of love