Before there were well-documented and highly sponsored adventure expeditions, there was Ed Gillet, a man with an impossible idea that would spin the paddling world off its axis. It was 1987 when Gillet attempted an epic solo, self-supported, unsponsored kayak paddle from California, to Hawaii. Not only did he arrive safely 2,200 miles and 64 days later from his put-in, but he also pulled off what we rank as one of the most kickass paddling adventures ever. We’ll also put it among the greatest solo adventures of all time, any sport, because Gillet showed that for 64 days, Nature was conquerable, if unpredictable.
Below is an amazingly detailed account covering all the hardships Ed endured during this amazing trip:
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, starva-tion, 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 pru-dence – 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 thewinds 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 thekayaks. 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.