The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Crossing the Pacific: best read in 2 sittings

The freighter was one of the first things we got really excited about when we were planning the trip. Sat in a kitchen on a rainy London Sunday in 2006 we looked at the 2 oceans we had to cross. Gambling we could crew a boat across the Atlantic, it seemed freighter travel was our best bet for the inhospitable Northern Pacific. We were about 60 years too late to work for a cheap passage, but there were companies who could arrange a passenger berth for us. But whilst we begun to get excited about the destination, we got distinctly unexcited about the prices. €100 a day before you have even added port fees. In the end we settled on Vancouver to Gwangyang in South Korea as this was the shortest crossing we could get. Our route would take us from Vancouver across the Gulf of Alaska, into the Bering Sea, between the North and South Islands of Japan and onward to the southern tip of South Korea. This is a diary of our time on board, the length is a reflection of plenty of time to kill...

TUESDAY, 18th AUGUST: Boarding the ship

Despite our plans to be ready well in advance we got a call from the port agent yesterday bringing the time we had to get on board forward by 24 hours. Enjoying our final moments in the West evaporated as we scuttled our way back and forth across Vancouver collecting rucksacks, boxing the tandem and changing dollars into won. But we made it on time to the Vanterm container terminal. 'Checking in' was bizarre. The taxi driver wove his way between the swarm of articulated lorries tearing in and out of the port and dropped us by a tiny reflective windowed booth. I craned my neck round to try and see into the letterbox sized opening and a large lady loomed out of the gloom. She checked passports and let us cheerily through the chain link fence to wait for bizarrely titled 'Bunny bus'. We sat expectantly for a few minutes, but instead of a big eared, fluffy minibus, a grizzled Canadian wearing a dirty Stetson rolled up in his pick up and offered us a lift. Sweeping away a stack of empty coffee cups, Hol and I both squeezed into the front seat. This was more like it. He took us on a quick tour and we got our first look at the Hanjin Madrid.

My first thought was, it's not that big. After seeing lots of photos I had expected to be blown away. Maybe it was the 3 giant cranes effortlessly whisking containers on and off the deck, but it didn't seem as imposing as I thought. However, drawing alongside was a different matter - it seemed to block out the sky. The truck dropped us at the gangplank and that was it. The heavy machinery and relentless port activity swirled about us unabated, but nobody was there to tell us what to do. We had been waiting for a minute or two nervously chuckling to ourselves before a small head poked out from above the gangplank. This turned out to be the steward, Adrian. Being 5 or so floors up we couldn't really hear him, but his smiling Filipino face grinned wider when we stepped onto the gangplank and so we took this as our invitation to come aboard. Our feet had left Western soil for 7 months!

Adrian showed us to our room. First impressions were that it was huge with an en-suite bathroom, a big double bed, and a lounge with desk, sofas, armchairs, a TV and a fridge. We quickly settled into unpacking and before long there was a knock on the door. In swept a large man with a spectacular amount of swept back (and up) hair that complemented a cracking bushy tash. A kind of Germanic Ron Burgundy. He was wearing socks under leather flip-flops and a cloud of cigarette smoke followed him into the room and had the look of someone who doesn't like bullshit. This was Captain Kruse. A brief welcome and he was back out of the door. We continued settling into our room before our first dinner and a quick recce of the other decks.

WEDNESDAY, 19th: Heading into the Pacific

We got up early as we were scheduled to leave port at 0800. After breakfast we stood on the top deck watching the sun glint off the tug boat as it bullied the bow round into the channel. There was a lot of activity on the bridge itself, so we figured we should check we were allowed up there. “Ze ving is fine, but not in ze bridge. OK?”, growled Captain Kruse. The front of the boat, or “the wessel” as the German crew referred to it as, inched around until it pointed to the delicate span of the Lion's Gate bridge. The engines engaged and we slowly started out of the harbour. As we headed towards Vancouver Island the boat seemed to roll slowly despite the calm weather, but nothing to worry us as we watched small boats flee out of our way. At Victoria the pilot casually disembarked down a perilous step ladder and then it was out into the open ocean past a parade of 10 or so grey whales. The sun is shining, we are on our way to Asia and all is well after Day 1.

THURSDAY, 20th: The start of the press up challenge and the food

What a night's sleep. I think the constant rumble of the engine cancels out any other sounds and I didn't even turn over until the 0700 alarm. Today was the day I would start my 5,000 press ups in a week challenge. Laid down over a few too many beers in Colorado I had been slightly nervous, but there was never going to be a better time to crack out 850 or so press ups a day. 150 before breakfast and it was underway.

Before boarding, one of my main concerns had been the food. More specifically, would there be enough. We are served 3 meals a day, but until yesterday we had no idea how big they'd be. Walking into the Officer's Mess there are three 4-person circular tables laid out. We are on one with 2 place settings which is to be ours for the duration. It is a shame not being on a shared table with the crew as this seems the obvious time to get to know them, but after seeing the massive breakfast buffet I was in no mood to complain. Laid out today were a choice of 3 breads, 4 cheeses, cold meats, various jams, honey and Nutella. There was a also fresh coffee, orange juice, yoghurt and a bowl of fruit. Along with the choice of cereal this surely should be enough, but Adrian popped his head round and asked us if we wanted the cooked option; salami cheese toast. Yes sir. This seems as if it is going to be the norm for breakfast with the hot options on the weekly menu ranging from Bacon and Eggs, Apple pancakes, Steak and even something called 'Stramer Max'! Hunger is not going to be a problem. Obesity, maybe.

Looking at the meals we have lined up, every lunch and dinner we have a starter of fresh salads, cold meats and cheese. The main courses range from roast duck with red cabbage to tenderloin steak or slow roasted pork knuckle. This is often complemented by various soups, and we even had smoked salmon and caviar for lunch. This shouldn't give you the idea that this is 5 star cooking. It is more hearty fare with a dose of flair. That said, mealtimes are going to be a definite highlight in breaking up the day. Speaking of which, we also had a fire drill this afternoon. Lifejackets and helmets on, down to the muster station and we stand around like a pair of lemons while the crew dons firefighting gear, sprays a hose over the side for 20 mins and the get in the lifeboats. Bizarre, but a change from press ups
FRIDAY, 21st: It's how big?
We arrive at breakfast to find a sign saying 'RETARD 1 HOUR TONIGHT'. Not sure what would be expected of us during this hour, but we later found out this was the instruction to set clocks back. Despite the comedy of being welcomed in by this sign whenever we enter the mess, meal times are strange affairs. The Filipino crew eat in one room and the German Officers in another. The segregation seems archaic to us, but is apparently 'essential for discipline'. Whilst the Filipino room is often buzzing with life, ours can be eerily silent. Everyone gets served up their food by Adrian, gobbles it down and then heads off with a cursory “Bis Spater”. Since we are on a table of our own, it is often hard to chat to anyone other than ourselves. We haven't worked out whether this is us being cautious or just what the crew are like. Maybe we have just been in North America for too long and amongst the constant chit chat and friendliness have forgotten North European ways? We have tried to ask Captain Kruse a few questions, but the response often seems curt:

“Good afternoon Captain.”
“So zen, are you feeling ze seasick yet?”
“No, we're doing fine actually. Do you think it is going to get any rougher though?”
"What is rough for zis ship? It is no problem. Ve can go in a Force 12 if ve have to”
“You said it was typhoon season in Japan. Are there any you are keeping an eye on?”
“Zey are typhoonz! Zey go in all directions. But I will not steer into zem OBVIOUSLY.”

With little progress on that front we decided today would be a good time to find out more about the ship and so we snooped around various charts up on the bridge:How big:278.8m long, 40.3m wide; 56.3m from the bottom of the hull to the top of the bridge.The boat weighs 60,000 tonnes and carries 5,700 containers at any one time.

The Engine: a WARTSILA NSD(!) producing 74,700hp. It can go 28.3kt at 100rpm, but spends most of it's time at 21kts at 80rpm which is the most fuel efficient speed. The WARTSILA burns bunker fuel which is so viscous it needs to be heated to around 80 degrees before it even flows into the engine. At cruising speed the engine burns 130 tonnes of it a day. With engines full astern it will take 7.6 minutes and 1.76 miles to stop meaning falling over board is a terrible idea. This engine is also widely credited in the container ship community as having the best name of any marine engine developed in the last 5 years.

Swell and weather: A force 12 is no problem for this boat. In the 50kn winds we were in today we rolled about a maximum of 3 degrees from upright, but if the swell cycles match the roll of the boat this can get up to 30 degrees.

Time on the bridge is a nice break as we check our progress on the charts, look at the forecast, chat to whoever is on watch and get some fresh air. The temperature has been dropping rapidly as we head North and thick jumpers, hats and jackets now the order of the day

SATURDAY, 22nd: The Aleutian Islands. Extra bonus!

A dim silvery light pervades the sea and I can't take my eyes off it as I sit back in a deck chair, soaking up the icy cold Alaskan wind. Excitement is high. Today we pass through the Unimak Channel – a narrow gap between two Aleutian Islands taking us out of the Gulf of Alaska and into the Bering Sea. The fact that we are going to see land on this voyage was only known to us when we got on board and checked out the charts. It now seems obvious that the ships passage would head North so to take into account the curvature of the Earth, but we hadn't really worked out that this would mean seeing land some of the way across.

By mid afternoon we can see the faint outline of land. A mass of snow shrouded in cloud shimmers off in the distance beyond a sea that is now being whipped up by 40 knot winds. It suddenly strikes me that this might be the most remote place I will ever see on Earth. As we draw closer to land over the next 2 hours huge flocks of birds fly in formation alongside the boat and the giant fins of Orcas can be seen gliding in and out of the water to our bow. As the clouds clear a huge, perfectly conical volcano peak is revealed in the distance. It is caked in snow and gleams a brilliant white as wisps of dull cloud float over its top. As we get closer huge green foothills come into focus, sweeping up from battered cliffs to rocky peaks. It feels brutal in mid-summer, the thought of this in Winter is grim. We are at the wildest extremity of Alaska and the emotion of cruising through this untouched and wild part of the world will remain for a long time. Celebrate by doing 1,000 press ups.

SUNDAY, 23rd: A Change in the weather, boredom

A long day. The weather has turned and rain is relentlessly lashing the containers outside the window. You can't see much through the rain and all sound is muted except the deep rumble of the engines and constant hum of air conditioning. Cocooned in the room you become more aware of being stuck on board. Time is marked by chapters read, press ups pressed and meals eaten. Hol has turned into a dormouse and slept away the day. As if to make the day seem even slower they have stopped the engines turning as we are ahead of schedule. We are just sat hundreds of miles from anywhere letting minutes tick by. Highlight was a steak and banana split lunch. The only downside is thinking I have to press up all the weight I'm gaining from the food each day. Not sure if my boobs are growing from the press up challenge or just gaining a layer of Bering Sea blubber.Manage to destroy 2 t-shirts in the ship's washing machine as well. Bugger.

MONDAY, 24th: The lost day

During the night we passed over 180 degrees longitude, the international dateline. Consequently we have lost a day and Monday this week doesn't exist. We're now 12 hours ahead of GMT and the furthest from home you can physically get. Each step from now on is closer to home! This does mean the week long press up challenge needs to be done in 6 days.

TUESDAY, 25th: The first foray into the Officer's Rec

Finally feel like we are getting somewhere with the crew and suddenly the drinks invitations pour in. Last night at dinner the Captain initiates conversation with us: “So you are happy just in your room?”. We reply that, we've got lots of books and have been spending lots of time on the bridge and on our deck, but this just gets a slightly disapproving grumble from Kruse. We're not too sure whether this is an invitation to spend more time out of our room or what. Luckily someone on the other table follows it up with: “Later we have drinks in the rec room so you should come along”. Hurrah! The great silence ended and we were invited to chat!

In the Rec room it became apparent that some of the crew hadn't stopped drinking since that morning, which made it an enlightening evening. After a graphic account of how best to stay faithful to a girlfriend while at sea for 4 months the conversation moved onto the excitement of having a woman on board to a muddled account of ship politics. We also found out that passengers on the boat are usually loaded; the last one was the Financial Director of Microsoft traveling with his son. It quickly became clear that the captain and crew were a bit confused to see two scruffy backpackers on board.

WEDNESDAY, 26th: Scaring ourselves on the Foc'sle

The end of the 5,000 press up challenge! It is a relief not to have to watch the carpet rise and fall 840 times every day. In pursuit of new things to do we went up to the foc'sle this morning. It is surprising how we have such a free run of the ship. Walking down to upper deck (confusingly the lowest deck) we found a thin track running up to the bow. It felt like we were a couple of kids daring each other to go further as we gingerly crept along the side of the ship. 6 layers of containers towered above us emitting a ghostly creaking and moaning with the roll of the ship. To our right a drop straight into the icy ocean as it raced past. With only a hip high safety rail you very quickly become aware of how easy it would be to topple in. Chatting to the crew they mentioned a lady who fell in without a life-jacket and was found treading water 25 hours later. However, that wasn't in the Bering Sea; 3 hours is about the limit here.

The weird thing about walking up to the bow is that with each step forward the engine vibrations and noise fade away so that by the time you reach the bow you can only hear the rush of the water and wail of the wind amongst the containers. Up at the bow we found steps going up to the prow of the boat. We were completely hidden from the bridge and so I decided to investigate and discovered giant anchor winches, mooring lines as wide as your chest and a step to look right over the bow. I tried to lean right over to see if I could see the bulb at the front. I almost crapped myself. Hanging over and looking back the sense of speed gets you. If you fall you are swept under 60,000 tonnes of speeding steel and that is before you hit the 7m tall propeller at the other end. Not a nice thought and I was back up pretty quick.

After the bonding of the previous night we thought that meal times might be a bit more lively. But alas, with the absence of alcohol everyone went back to their sullen selves. That said, we did get an invite to the Rec room again so we bought a crate of Becks from the 'slop chest' (ship's offy) and headed back down. My heart sank as we walked in and there was barely a grumble. There are no seats left at the bar and so we perch on the end. Thankfully after a while everyone warms up again and we start discussing our trip and the life of a seaman. By the sixth beer politics is thrown into the mix, 'Why do the British still support the Monarchy? Why do we still have a House of Lords? Why we haven't joined the Euro?'. It was good to be getting our teeth into some good European discussions after the cult of Obama.

THURSDAY, 27th: Touring the engine room with Chief

We have been planning to go to the engine room for the last few days, but it has been postponed each time. Today we are 30 hours ahead of schedule and so the engines have stopped to lose some time. It apparently gets a touch noisy down there and so this was deemed the best time to for a tour. We were handed some heavy duty ear defenders and the Chief Engineer opened the door into a steel cathedral. The floor dropped away to reveal a huge space about 5 stories deep and hunkering in the middle was a colossal block of oily steel, pistons and dials. I had feared it would be like a modern car engine with everything hidden away under a plastic shell. Far from it. This was a working engine and it was clear all parts had to be accessed by burly men with hammers and wrenches with the minimum of fuss. We weaved our way down between towering exhaust ducts, miles of piping, through blasts of hot air and past countless smaller generators, coolers, heaters, extractors and scrubbers. Chief had been quiet around us so far, but this was clearly his element. A broad grin spread across his face as he proceeded to point out the mind boggling array of hardware on show. Before we even got to the engine itself he had explained what 20 or so car sized chunks of metal orbiting the Wartsila did. The 2 generators that provided electricity for the ship? Both the size of a 2 story terraced house. Massive.

After 40 minutes we went into the control room which is best described as something from a late 70's Bond Villain's moon base. The ship is only 6 years old, but there are no flat-screens or touch screens, just solid functional walls of dials, chunky banks of lights and solid looking levers. Every conceivable metric is fed to the monitors on the control deck; temperatures, pressures and even down to the viscosity of the fuel. However, talking to Chief who has been working on ships since 1967, despite all the automated monitoring of every thump of the 10 cylinder monster there are also greasy thermometers sticking out of the metal and a well stocked workshop to fix it all with a bit of brute strength.

At 1600 the engines were turned on again and we ventured out onto the floor to get an idea of how loud it is when running. Loud, almost unbearably so. The vibrations when standing right next to it run right through your bones and you begin to sense the power being generated to move 60,000 tonnes of metal across the North Pacific.

FRIDAY, 28th: First sight of the mystic East

After 348 days on the road we got our first glimpse of Asia. At midday we passed through the Tsugaru strait between the North and South Islands of Japan. Hol was excited about the prospect of small fishing boats with people in straw hats on them, I was keen to see people checking into capsule hotels. Unfortunately the weather wasn't helping. We got views of mist shrouded hills rising steeply from the coast with towns and villages clustered along the shore. It seems Japan is saving it's charms for when we land on its shores in a week. We only had a glimpse of Japan, but it made us feel the freighter leg is going to be over all too soon. We need to make the most of conversations in English, big breakfasts and comfy beds! This afternoon we played with Richard's remote control helicopter on the ping-pong table and later on more beers with the crew. Feel like we are getting to know them a lot better which is cool. I even gave my copy of Pumping Iron to the Polish 2nd Engineer after an in depth discussion about body-building, Arnie and Jean Claude van Damme.

SATURDAY, 29th: The Long Awaited Party

The day dawned bright this morning, which is a relief as this is to be the day of the big party. Everyone had been going about with a certain spring in their steps the last 2 days. Even Adrian had been nervously grinning to himself in his marigolds and apron at the mention of it. At lunch Kruse outlined the plan... a whole suckling pig BBQd on deck. Holy Crap. He then proceeded to lecture Adrian in the kitchen: 'Ze ice for ze beers at seventeen certy. Ze pig must be cooking by two certy. No bullshit!' This is the first party they've had for 6 months and so we were lucky to witness it.

1530: I have just come up from the gym and happened across a bizarre scene on D deck. The aforementioned pig was being vigorously spun by one crew member while chef and another Filipino in an LA Lakers vest were slow dancing together around the BBQ. Even though I was dripping sweat in gym kit I was immediately offered a beer by Alex, a particularly friendly crew member with a head like a cannonball. This could turn into a big session...

Well it didn't disappoint. We headed out about 5 o'clock and started having a few drinks with the officers. There were excitable shouts from down below from the crew and before long a feast of biblical proportions got ferried up. Salads, breads, fruit, puddings, rice, pastas and the hog. If that wasn't enough, another BBQ gets fired up as Kruse explains that the hog is insufficient. Soon steaks, sausages and chicken are all joining the party. Everyone sat down and feasted as beers, vodka and Fundador brandy started doing the rounds. Conversation flowed, we felt very welcomed and even Kruse had a massive smile on his face all night. The music really set the tone for the night. The first CD was called 'Power Disco', to which the chef threw around some serious moves, and it just got better from there on. In the Navy by YMCA was a non ironic favourite of the Filipino contingent. Karaoke inevitably followed on, but we managed to dodge a Sonny and Cher duet. Things were wrapping up by around 12 by which time heads were beginning to droop and we made our excuses. My main concern is a hazy recollection that I was invited to play basketball sometime tomorrow with the Filipino crew? Oh dear.

SUNDAY: 30th: The Immersion suit

Hungover. Main excitement for the day was getting to try out the immersion suits we had in our room. These are thick neoprene suits you chuck on if going over the side in cold waters. You are meant to be able to survive for 24 hours in freezing water as opposed to around 24 minutes. Not much needs to be added other than a picture. I reeeeally want one of these for fancy dress parties.
MONDAY: 31st: Arrival in Kwangyang

A nervous day as we prepared to leave the comforts of the ship. We woke to find jagged cliffs and tiny islands littering the view and we gradually crept closer to land. The pilot joined and guided us between smoking steel plants and mile upon mile of container terminal. Pulling alongside we looked at the skyline of blocks of flats and wondered where we would be spending the night. As it happened a very efficient port agent whisked us away to immigration, customs and even dropped us at a hotel. He was excited to tell us we were the first passengers EVER to come through Gwangyang container terminal. However, after he left we soon realised he was the only person who spoke English in town. We just managed to order some food by pointing, but we don't even know 'thankyou' or 'noodles' yet. It feels incredibly alien with people sat cross legged on the floor in restaurants and hopelessly unintelligible signs but it is such a rush after the cocoon of the boat.

However, after all the strange moments on the ship we felt sad leaving the crew behind as they came to wave us off. It took a bit of settling down, but heading off into the unknown it felt like we had made some good friends on board and would miss the company. Oh well, onward to Busan and the hydrofoil to Japan!

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.

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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.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Canada: it's a woppa

3 mph is slow. Really slow. In fact we were recently told it is about the same as a swift walk. Before we left I remember people saying it is going to be hard getting used to that pace. However, we seem to have coped pretty well and barely noticed slowing down to our sometimes glacial progress westwards. But with the arrival of Holly's dad Andrew and sister Lucy we were strapped back into the normal holiday speed and have needed a week to recover from the whirlwind.

One or two week holidays are often a case of cramming in as much as you can in a short amount of space. The process is akin to starving yourself for months before unleashing on an eat all you can chinese buffet, rather than our trip which is more like picking a few blackberries on a woodland stroll after a nice light lunch. Don't get me wrong the eat all you can chinese buffet is up there with the film Big Trouble in Little China and the revolving Japanese loo seat as some of my favourite things to come out of the East, but all three can be a shock to the system. That said, our trip to Vancouver Island and then into the Rockies was spectacular, epic, colossal and countless other words to explain the sheer scale of the Canadian wilderness.

First stop was Tofino on the West coast of Vancouver Island. Without question this is one of the most beautiful places we have been on the whole trip. It is a land of untouched, desolate beaches, deeply wooded tidal inlets and crystal clear water alive with seals, orcas, grey whales, kelp forests and starfish. It is also home to the majority of the world's remaining old growth forests; called ancient woodland in England. Giant red cedar trees up to 1,600 years old tower 100 feet into the canopy while whole ecosystems of moss, ferns, and even whole other trees take root and grow up from their trunks. The sense of age in these wooded groves on the edge of the Pacific is overwhelming and details such as the fact these trees are stood in just 1 foot of soil confound your understanding as you crane your neck upwards to see the Ospreys and bald eagles nesting in their tops. We left after just a few days sensing we had seen somewhere unforgettable and totally different from anywhere else we had been in the world.

From here we turned the wagon East and headed back into the mountains. First stop was Whistler where we strolled through alpine meadows filled with wild flowers and watched downhill mountain bikers leap and bounce 20 feet in the air as they plummeted down the mountain. Then it was back into the car for a trip through the Okanagan desert to Wells Gray National Park and it's famous waterfalls before we really got stuck into the famous Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks of Jasper and Banff. I have to confess a nervousness of going to visit such famous tourist destinations at peak season. But I had foolishly conjured an image of a seething mass on Brighton beach and a choked A3 during summer bank holiday. The Canadian Rockies just swallow giant RVs, campers and coach tours whole without batting an eyelid. They are colossal. It is true they are not as high as the Colorado Rockies, but the effect of ancient glaciers has been to carve valleys so sweepingly broad that the road ahead just dwindles into a thread and you can drive for miles along the primary routes without seeing more than a handful of other vehicles. In the main resorts there was chat of numbers being 40% down this year but they could be 1040% up and I imagine it to feel the same.

We climbed mountains, we kayaked electric blue lakes, we weaved our way between grazing elk and our chins barely left our laps as we gaped constantly at the vistas unrolling in front of us. By the time we pulled into our final destination in Calgary we were spent. We were crammed full. We had driven through a coffee table book of the Canadian Rockies and couldn't take any more. It was an amazing couple of weeks. The scenery was astounding and the chance to spend time with both Andrew and Luce after 10 months away was worth as much as the scenery again. Stories were recounted over hand picked local wines, I witnessed the bizarre spectacle of Luce and Hol beginning their intensive lunge and squat routine and I got to properly know my future father and sister in law. Great! (That isn't even kissing ass, it really was great - which is a relief).

Since then we have spent a week in Kelowna staying at a friend Scott's house. Scott is a guy I rowed with at Oxford who then went onto win an Olympic Silver medal in Beijing, his mum is preparing to climb Cerro Aconcagua (elevation 22,826') this year, and also staying were Tracy who also got a bronze rowing in Beijing, and Mike who was a family relation in town for a reunion who is a committed Vegan and 'raw food' advocate. A pretty impressive group. It has been a great week hanging out making new friends. There have been stories of respective travels, Olympic tales and we have also learned not to throw away apricot stones as there is a kernel in the middle high in proteins and essential oils. Another highlight was being in town for the Center of Gravity festival. This was down on the shore of the lake and was a mix of pro beach volleyball, slam- dunk contests, music, wakeboarding, dirtbiking and bikini modelling. The new zoom on the camera got put to good use from both Hol and I and it seems only fair to put in a couple of shots to make sure we don't get any sympathy on our travels. Sometimes it really is easy.

We're now heading back to Vancouver, dodging the forest fires that are blackening the skies North of Kelowna, and will be back on the tandem to fill the time before we get aboard the freighter on the 19th. We are now over half way through the trip and it really feels like once we cross the Pacific we are heading home. It's still a long way to go and it will seem strange leaving the comfort of English speaking lands for Asia, but we are fired up and ready for Part 2: South Korea, Japan, China, Nepal, India, Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and the rest... Holy Jeez.