By Conor Mihell
Kiwi sea kayaker Tim Taylor was well on his way to becoming the first person to complete a continuous circumnavigation of the three islands of New Zealand when the harsh southern hemisphere winter caught up with him 500 miles from achieving his goal.
Since launching from his hometown of Tauranga and beginning the clockwise journey in late November, Taylor, 24, had survived the challenges that make New Zealand’s 9,000 miles of coastline one of the toughest places in the world to paddle. This includes the isolated and rugged coastline of Fiordland National Park on the South Island’s west side; the notorious big water of Stewart Island; countless surf beaches; and big, tide-washed headlands bearing the brunt of the Roaring Forties. Legendary expedition paddler Paul Caffyn is the only sea kayaker to have ever paddled around the North and South islands and Stewart Island—albeit in individual trips.
The rigors of Taylor’s estimated 3,400-mile expedition took their toll. By the time he reached the northwest tip of the North Island, after over 200 days on trip, Taylor was already well behind schedule. Initially, he expected the trip to last about five months, but strong winds and rough seas left him unable to paddle nearly one out of every two days. With winter approaching, Taylor was weatherbound for the better part of three weeks, watching 14- to 20-foot surf lashing the coastline leading to Cape Reinga, at the junction of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
So in mid-June, he made the tough decision to “pull the pin” on his dream of a continuous circumnavigation. And he went home, where he’s waiting on standby for better weather.
C&K: What’s it been like taking down your gear after coming home? There must be all kinds of memories in the equipment you’ve been relying on for the past seven months.
TIM TAYLOR: I’ve actually found it to be quite emotional sorting out all of my gear. For over six months I relied on every single item for my survival and nothing was superfluous. I had literally pared it down to the bare basics. In a way it was kind of sad because I felt like I was abandoning it after having relied on it for so long. On the other hand, it was good to be able to pull everything to bits and give it a good clean because some of it sure needed it [laughter]. In particular my sleeping bag is in a bit of a mess. I still haven’t decided whether I should just burn it or try and resurrect it by taking it to the drycleaner.
How has it been readjusting to life on land after 200 days on the water? Surprisingly it is has been quite easy to readjust. As I am still planning to continue when the weather finally allows, I haven’t really been able to return to a normal life. I am pretty much on the water everyday training, so things aren’t really that different. One big thing that I did notice though was when I went out to the pub with a group of mates. … I got really freaked out because of the amount of people and the claustrophobic feeling of being jammed into such a small space.
From your description in your blog, Cape Reinga sounds wild. Tell me why you’re so apprehensive of paddling this stretch of coastline after having experienced the rest of New Zealand’s notoriously rugged coastline. Cape Reinga is a nasty piece of water and it has been weighing on my mind for a long time. I found throughout my trip that any place that started with the word “Cape” meant it was going to be hard, basically because they stick out into the sea and attract bad weather. However these were only for very small distances, kind of like “crux” moves when rock climbing, and you could normally count on good conditions once around. Unlike any other place through, Cape Reinga has two bodies of water that meet head to head [the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea]. Consequently you have two different systems to deal with and where they collide it gets ugly. This is a place aptly named “Meeting of the Waters,” and unless conditions are perfect, you can pretty much count on getting smashed.
Were you expecting Cape Reinga to be the crux of your expedition? No, not really. I always figured that the Fiordland area would be the crux, and while that area was hard I now look it as just another chapter because there have been many areas that have been difficult. Thinking about it, I would say that Cape Reinga is more like the Achilles Heel of my trip.
How did you occupy your time while you were weatherbound? Some days I wonder that myself [laughter]. In instances where people had offered to look after me, I always tried to help out and do things for them, like mowing the lawns or chopping firewood. When I was in Fiordland and on a couple of boats the situation was kind of different, but basically I always tried to be useful so that I “earned my keep.” While on a crayfishing boat I worked as a deckhand, on a government research boat I was the kitchen bitch, and on a couple of yachts I kept everyone fed with fish. When I was stuck on land and on my own I did a whole range of things—lots of sleeping, repairing gear, exploring, going for runs, reading, and I was even studying and working my way through my coastal skipper’s ticket by correspondence.
I guess this is your winter, right? Is it typically windy and rough at this time of year? Yep that’s pretty much the guts of it. Where I live it doesn’t get very cold so we can paddle year-round and luckily we have a huge variety of water to go out on. If it’s rough at sea there is the harbor and if it’s rough there to there are a dozen lakes within an hour’s drive. In winter we especially look forward to the big storms because we have a huge variety of rivers and creeks that are only accessible when they are in flood and a group of us are mad keen whitewater paddlers.
What was the biggest highlight of your expedition so far? In general I would say that there was no one single highlight. I went through such a variety of landscapes, met so many different people, and experienced so many different feelings that I could never say that one was any better than the other… I just loved every day for what it was.
Did you happen to meet up with sea kayaker Paul Caffyn on your trip? Yep, I did. He came down and met me when I paddled into Greymouth and he was there to see me off the next day.
Where were you when the February earthquake happened? I was stuck in Chalky sound in Fiordland when that happened. My dad actually rang me on my satellite phone to let me know, as Christchurch is where I went to university and I still have a lot of friends there. Sadly I was the first person in that area to hear about the quake so I had to put out the message on the VHF radio to tell all the boats what had happened.
Why was it so important for you to complete the circumnavigation in one shot? Basically because it’s never been done before. Paul Caffyn is still the only person to paddle around all three of New Zealand’s islands, so I was aiming to be the first to do it in one loop.
Do you have any regrets of having to resort to Plan B? Yes and no. Obviously I can no longer claim any sort of record so finishing is now more of a personal thing. But at the same time I know that there was nothing I could do about the weather, it just is what it is and I just have to accept it.
What have you learned about yourself on this expedition? One huge thing that I learned was that in any situation, it is normally only your mind that tells you what you can and can’t do. I remember paddling around Puysegur Point when I first got into Fiordland. I had already paddled a huge distance, something like 35 nautical miles, and I still had to get around this point. Puysegur is known as about the roughest point in all of NZ, and as I got there the conditions got really nasty. For over an hour I had to push through the worst conditions that I ever kayaked in and I was mentally wrecked. However, through all of this, I found that my arms just kept going ‘round and I kept paddling. My mind was clearly saying that I couldn’t do this but my body refused to listen and I pulled through. After that, in any bad situation that I faced, I just kept remembering that day and knew when to turn off the brain… The body is such an amazing thing if we just let it do its job.
Why is it so important to complete what you set off to do last November? I want to say that I’ve paddled around New Zealand—that’s the main reason. But there is also a huge amount of people and sponsors who have committed to me and I feel I owe it to them to help repay their generosity in a small way.
What will you do until you get back on the water again? It must be tough to make plans for the future with this hanging over your head. It’s definitely tough… it sucks to be a poor athlete [laughter]. I know that I just have to keep training hard and keep everyone involved so that people will continue to support me. At the end of the day, getting to go kayaking every day isn’t a bad thing and I just have to look at the positives until life finally sorts itself out.