Lessons Learned: Harvest from a 400-mile sea kayak voyage

Paul McHugh shares some takeaways from his paddle down California's rugged North Coast

Geologic upthrust near a fault zone called the Mendocino Triple Junction cause the land to shoot up at the rate of nearly half-an-inch per year, creating steep shoreline bluffs... with no beaches. This scene is just south of the Eel River

By Paul McHugh

400 miles in 40 days! I did stick an exclamation point there, yet in truth, for a veteran sea kayaker, a voyage like that shouldn't necessarily be considered a huge deal. One dose of extra challenge is added, however, if your route traverses California's rugged North Coast. My route stretched from Oregon's Winchuck River all the way to San Francisco Bay.

Another dose was added by the onslaught of seriously uncooperative weather. My two paddling companions and I had to deal with mighty big gales that blew in off the Pacific. As one commercial fisherman put it, "Y'know, this particular September has been more like a December than any other I can recall."

During my tenure as outdoors writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, that voyage was by far my biggest undertaking. Over its 40 days, I filed 36 stories in the paper and on its website, as well as make four podcasts and five videocasts. However, that output did not exhaust my trip's story-telling potential. So recently, on this voyage's tenth anniversary, I plundered my notes to write more original stories, add fresh photos, and re-publish my series both on my own website and on CanoeKayak.com too.

As I put away my notebooks and files, I realized that one more useful offering could be a list of "lessons learned." And now, here's a final digestive (a post-feast cocktail).

My list delivered with one disclaimer. No way I can top the witty, pithy wisdom of John Weed, a West Coast paddling legend. A former member of the U.S. wildwater team, Weed is an accomplished racer, solo expeditionist, and a long-time instructor/guide for Current Adventures Kayak School & Trips. I found him a benign and inspirational companion throughout my North Coast voyage.

John Weed's philosophy of paddling, in a nutshell: Just go!
John Weed’s philosophy of paddling, in a nutshell: Just go!

Here's a scatter of Weedisms:

-Indecision is the key to flexibility.
-Ignorance is the mother of adventure.
-When you paddle with others, you can immerse yourself in nature. When you paddle solo, you are nature.
-I don't have a problem. I have a situation.
-Ordinary people learn from their mistakes. Smart people learn from the mistakes of others. Then, there's me.

See? Tough to beat Weed! My tips are more pedestrian, but entirely practical.

LESSONS LEARNED:

1) The ocean changes every half-hour, and every half-mile. So if you truly hate the conditions you face, just wait a while. But if you only sorta dislike them, it could well be time to make your move.

2) Rubber strips cut out of bicycle inner-tubes make great tie-down deck straps.

3) For gear selection and packing, weight might be one enemy, but volume is another. Use compression sacks for all clothing, sleeping bag etc.

4) A full wetsuit (like a surfer wetsuit) doesn't perform well for expedition paddling because you have to fight the stretch in arms and shoulders all day long. On the other hand, a farmer-john that unzips to the crotch (for the obvious reason) is a useful alternative to a drysuit; it can also be shoved beneath your sleeping pad for extra comfort at night.

5) Energy bars are all well and good for substitute meals. But for a reward that keeps you trotting like a rottweiler chasing a kielbasa, go for a Snickers bar or peanut M&Ms.

6) Use a waterproof, solar-powered flashlight or lantern that you can recharge on your deck during the day.

7) Readjust your paddle stroke ever hour (less or more sweep, or less or more dip) in order to keep your shoulders loose and prevent RSI.

8) Readjust your grip every hour to keep your fingers from rubbing against each other, or to make them contact each other differently. This helps to prevent skin irritation, even within padded gloves.

The sea side of Bodega Head, where PG&E once wanted to build a nuclear power plant

9) To avoid boomer rocks, aim straight for them. (A boomer's an offshore rock, barely awash, which only the largest swells break on.) If you aim your bow at a boomer as soon as you spot it at a distance, you'll be able to verify its location as you draw closer. THEN you can alter course to avoid it.

10) Fresh water by far makes the best ballast. Put your main supply in the aft hold, just behind the cockpit, and wedge lighter stuff on top to hold it in place.

11) Go for big dinners, light breakfasts. Start breakfast with lots of coffee, until you empty your gut out – twice.

12) Each morning, rub a light film of triple-antibiotic gel (such as Neosporin) in your armpits. This will add lubricant to prevent friction burns, and keep your insulating layer from getting too stinky between laundry days.

13) The two-spoon rule: always carry back-ups to essential pieces of gear.

14) Alcohol stoves are the best. Simple mechanism, little stink, no worry about leaks, plenty hot enough for sea-level cooking. You can buy fuel (91 percent alcohol) at almost any drugstore, but the best stuff is at marine stores, designed for use in stoves on yachts.

15) Select adventure companions partially before you commit to them fully. Taking short runs to discover traits in a potential partner is way better than being trapped on a long voyage with a person who can prove unpleasant or unreliable.

16) To live by your skill and your wits out in the maritime wilderness is a thing of great value. Because adventure awakens the soul.

— Read dozens of posts from Paul McHugh’s NORTH COAST SERIES on CanoeKayak.com