Greatest solo adventure in modern times


Discussion Topic

Return to Forum List
Post a Reply
Messages 1 - 20 of total 73 in this topic << First  |  < Previous  |  Show All  |  Next >  |  Last >>

Sport climber
The Big Wide Open Face
Topic Author's Original Post - Apr 12, 2013 - 06:50pm PT
Many consider this one THE one.

Credit: Largo


Ed Gillet's account of his solo kayak paddle from California to Hawaii

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 thou-sand miles of 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 boat size. I 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 fly-ing overhead in case I needed to be rescued. Flares, sig-nal mirrors, a strobe-light, and a radar reflector ensured 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 with-out 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 pat-terns 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 con-ceive of surviving.

On a cold, foggy morning three kayaks glided out of the har-bor at Monterey. My wife Katie paddled one of the boats. At the one mile buoy off Lover's point, we said goodbye, embracing 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: that we might never see each other again.

I felt foolish attempting to paddle to Hawail. Who did I think I was to attempt such an improbable feat?

Despite extensive preparation, my confidence was soon shat-tered 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 saltwater sores and I could find no comfortable positions 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, warm, sunny weather awaited...

Sailors can have two distinct waking nightmares: too much wind and too little wind. Heading south from Monterey, California, I lived through the first bad dream. The howling grey 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 skill and strength just 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 green waves crashed over my kayak, forcing themselves into the cockpit. As the ocean slowly filled my boat, I tried to ignore the cold water soaking through my sleeping bag until the rising tide forced me to sit up and pump out the kayak. Then I settled into the bilge and the miserable cycle repeated.

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 mis-take could prove fatal.

"This can't be!" I shouted at the empty blue sky. For about the fiftieth 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 boisterous trade winds and the westward current they spawn, it would take me two more months to reach the Hawaiian Islands. I did not think that I could survive that long. I had been at sea in my twenty foot kayak for thirty days.

A thousand miles southwest of my starting point I found the flip side of the nightmare - calm weather. In the calm conditions, I dried my sleeping bag and clothing and my skin lesions healed, but my progress slowed dramatically.

As night overtook me, I snapped a lightstick and placed it over my compass. However slowly, I had to keep my kayak mov-ing 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 weeks I pushed my kayak westward, until I reached longitude 140 west. Nine hundred miles from my goal, the trade winds blew strongly enough to launch my parafoil kite. This col-orful flying sail did not replace paddling, but the kite's pull doubled my speed, and I averaged fifty miles a day.

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 hand-line. 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 to the islands.

Three hundred miles from the islands, I was caught up in a northerly cur-rent. The wind shifted from northeast to southeast, and the strong current set me north at the rate of thirty miles a day. If that current had not changed, I would have landed in Japan, miss-ing 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 sixtieth day at sea, I ran out of food. My school of mahi-mahi had left me a week before. I had eaten my toothpaste 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 eat-ing 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 cross-ing, 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. As the clouds cleared, Haleakala reared its head and I knew I was almost home.

I whooped for joy when I saw land. I had only been pretending to be a sea creature. I was 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 lift-ed 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 perfume. No one greeted me when my bow dug a fur-row 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.

"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 lurched off in search of a junk food breakfast.
Captain...or Skully

Apr 12, 2013 - 06:57pm PT
There aren't words that can accurately say just how badass that was.

Trad climber
Redwood City, CA
Apr 12, 2013 - 07:03pm PT

Apr 12, 2013 - 07:08pm PT
epic to say the least. proud.

Apr 12, 2013 - 07:28pm PT
That sounds like an amazing solo, and completely horrifying. I've been in some of those waters dodging storms in the late fall, and saw the gnarliest seas I'd ever want, even aboard a 70ft steel longliner. In fact, that trip went a long way toward convincing me that I probably didn't want to be a blue water sailor.

Here's the craziest ocean solo I've ever read, albeit an unplanned excursion:

And Joshua Slocum's first solo circumnavigation also comes to mind, in a boat that he hand build himself no less. That dude seems to have been rock solid (like, later shipwrecked with family on the coast of Brazil or something, created a forge, rebuilt the boat, and then sailed back to the US). All in the late 19th century.

Deep waters!



Trad climber
minneapolis, mn
Apr 12, 2013 - 07:51pm PT
way cool.

maybe I'm too much of a climber, but Waterman on Hunter blows my mind to this day

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Apr 12, 2013 - 08:31pm PT
I can't begin to fathom that. I thought Jon Turk's row from Japan to Alaska
was badazz but this makes that pale.

Apr 12, 2013 - 08:35pm PT
Slocum, and the sailing of Kon-Tiki came to mind.

I had eaten my toothpaste two days earlier.

Jeez-um crow.

Trad climber
Auburn, CA
Apr 12, 2013 - 08:45pm PT

Trad climber
El Dorado Hills, CA
Apr 12, 2013 - 08:52pm PT
So good.
Thanks for sharing.
Ward Trotter

Trad climber
Apr 12, 2013 - 09:04pm PT
This may not fit the bill but this video says it all.


Apr 12, 2013 - 09:43pm PT
What a remarkable tale. Thanks for sharing it John. Wow!

Trad climber
Washington DC
Apr 12, 2013 - 09:48pm PT
That is just so bad ass.
McHale's Navy

Trad climber
Panorama City, California & living in Seattle
Apr 12, 2013 - 10:02pm PT
2 months sitting in a kayak in salt water? What's that guy made of? No Comprende!


Social climber
An Oil Field
Apr 12, 2013 - 10:31pm PT
Ned was Minerals' (Brian Law) uncle.

The record for the smallest boat to cross the atlantic is something crazy. Less than ten feet.

I think that Ray Jardine rowed across the Atlantic. That guy has done about everything that you can think of, and he is quite happy to share it with you at his website:

Seriously. Check out his website. He just can't stand still.

Sport climber
mammoth lakes ca
Apr 12, 2013 - 10:38pm PT
That's nuts....Something you wouldn't do a second time...And no beer...What a terrible oversight...!

Social climber
somewhere that doesnt have anything over 90'
Apr 12, 2013 - 10:42pm PT
When I told him that I had paddled my kayak from California, he whistled.

"That's a long way," he said. "Must've taken you two or three days, huh?"

"Yeah," I said.

Holy Shit!!!!

Social climber
somewhere that doesnt have anything over 90'
Apr 12, 2013 - 10:46pm PT
He made this analogy to rock climbing:
It was like spending two months on a Porta-ledge hanging bivouac-in the rain.

Big Wall climber
san jose, ca
Apr 12, 2013 - 10:55pm PT

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
Apr 12, 2013 - 10:58pm PT
Gillete had previously paddled the Pacific coast of South America in a kayak but had to cancel the trip due to some really bad characters on the beach. Gillete also pioneered the use of kites for kayak cruising. Great and unassuming man.

Couple other boats that we have run across over the years:

"Seacycle"-Pedal the Planet, here in Santa Cruz. Awesome story.
Kali in the "engine room" on Seacycle
Kali in the "engine room" on Seacycle
Credit: guido
Seacycle-Santa Cruz Harbor
Seacycle-Santa Cruz Harbor
Credit: guido

"Winds Will-Harbor in Pappeete Tahiti, boat lost at sea shortly thereafter in a gale between Tahiti and Niue. Trip began in Maine.
Winds Will-
Winds Will-
Credit: guido

"Polar Bound"-Opua, Bay of islands New Zealand. David Cowper's 4th or 5th circumnavigation. This one solo in a boat he designed and built. Met him just after he arrived from South Georgia Island and Antarctica on his way back to England via the NW passage. Very unassuming and talented man in his 70s. What an inspiration.
Polar Bound-David Cowper, solo circumnavigation via Antarctica and  NW...
Polar Bound-David Cowper, solo circumnavigation via Antarctica and NW passage.
Credit: guido
Credit: guido
Polar Bound- South Georgia Island
Polar Bound- South Georgia Island
Credit: guido

"Northern Light"- Moorea, French Polynesia-Farthest North and South in one cruise with a winter over in Antarctica on a later trip. Joshua class ketch, sister ship to Bernard Moitessier's famous boat. Rolf and Deborah were awarded the Blue Water Cruising award for their first passage.
Northern Light
Northern Light
Credit: guido

Messages 1 - 20 of total 73 in this topic << First  |  < Previous  |  Show All  |  Next >  |  Last >>
Return to Forum List
Post a Reply
Our Guidebooks
Check 'em out!
SuperTopo Guidebooks

Try a free sample topo!

SuperTopo on the Web

Recent Route Beta
Recent Gear Reviews