CK Vault: “James Bond in a Sea Kayak”

Paul Caffyn dodges military lasers, amorous sea turtles, and hurricanes Down Under (1983)

Caffyn

By Paul Hoobyar, Oregon Bureau Chief

Merlin, Ore. — Ever heard of a sea turtle making sexual advances at a dome tent? How about lighthouse keepers making a pet out of a 17-foot crocodile? What about dodging laser beams fired from the bluffs of a military range while touring the coast in a sea kayak? Strange stuff, eh? Probably out of an Ian Flemming novel. Right?

Wrong. These are actual experiences of Paul Caffyn, a sea kayaker from "Down Under" who has the ocean paddling community’s eyebrows semi-permanently raised over what he’s going to do next.

Caffyn is a shy, reticent New Zealander who has been doing extraordinary things in a sea kayak, but doesn’t much care for the publicity they create. Take, for instance, his most recent circumnavigation of the Australian continent, a distance of 9,200 miles in 257 actual paddling days. Caffyn paddled the trip alone, partly because finding people who can maintain his pace is difficult, and partly (you get the feeling while talking to him) because he just likes being out there all by himself.

During Caffyn’s Australian trip, he was caught by Cyclone Dominique in the Coral Sea, had his dome tent approached by huge sea turtles, who made what he calls "amorous gesticulations," was afraid to step out of his boat in the mangrove swamps along the northern side of the continent for fear of stepping on a crocodile, and had his kayak hit by tiger sharks while he paddled. Hey, but what’s the big deal? All in a day’s travel, right?

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When he paddled around the British Isles, he says his biggest fear was being mistaken for a moving target by the British military when he and his partner paddled past a testing ground. Laser beams and other experimental weaponry were being tested, and Caffyn was told he should wear something bright to let the troops know he wasn’t their mark! But otherwise, he says, it was the most relaxing trip he’s done so far. I mean, he didn’t have to negotiate big surf like he does Down Under, and besides, it was "only" a 2,200-mile trip, knocked off in two-and-a-half months.

Caffyn’s idea of "big surf" is different from other people’s. When asked for his definition, he replied, "Oh, roughly 15-foot-high breakers," and, as the crowd at the recently held Sea Kayak Symposium West went ape [upload and link this one?], he quickly added that he finds it much harder to get in through big surf than to get out, you understand, and he does look for the lulls between waves and paddles parallel to the waves between the shore break and the outlying breaks looking for an opening, ya see.

While making his way along Australia’s exposed edges, Caffyn did his first really extended paddle: 36 hours in one stretch, 25 hours in another, 32 hours in a third. During these marathons, he is usually trying to cover 120 to 140 miles in a "hit," as he calls them. Having a support crew or food caches makes the going a lot faster (he has averaged over 5 mph in a hit). For many, Caffyn’s speed and stamina are awesome feats of endurance (he mentioned at one point that he can maintain 55-to-60-mile days for a week at a time before he gets "tattered"), but to the man himself, it’s all very mundane, really.

What do you eat when you’re paddling for 32 hours and trying to cover more than 130 miles at a shot? Not much. Mostly an orange-glucose drink, a lot of vitamin C and multiples, Lomotil to keep the bowels dormant while in the saddle, and No-Doz to stay awake. The World Health Organization probably wouldn’t endorse it, but it obviously works for this unique individual.

In his very quiet and polite way, Paul Caffyn is his own man. Whether he’s dealing with aggressive media types or putting a rudder on a sea kayak that was designed not to need one, the man goes his own route. He takes what looks good, modifies it for his particular needs, and stays clear of the rest.

And, just so those eyebrows in the paddling community don’t go spastic from long-term arching, what is your next trip going to be, Paul? "Oh, I can’t say, really," he replies with a quick smile. Rumors abound that he is looking to circumnavigate New Guinea as his next expedition. Well, why not some stories about head-hunters to go with gesticulating turtles and pet crocs?

This story first appeared in the August 1983 issue of Canoe Magazine. Visit the CK Vault to relive more than 45 years of amazing paddling stories.

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