A crescent of sand over 120 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia has legendary status in the Canadian Maritimes. Sable Island is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Pieces of the Andrea Gail, a fishing vessel that sunk in 1991’s “Perfect Storm,” were discovered on the island—adding to its infamy in maritime lore. Measuring around 28 miles in length, Sable is the world’s largest sandbar; for its unique ecological community of birds, wild horses, rare plants and marine mammals, it officially became Canada’s newest national park in December 2013.
Sable Island has fascinated Halifax, Nova Scotia-based sea kayak guide and recreational therapist Jan-Sebastian LaPierre since he was a child. “You hear all these fanciful tales about this remote island in the middle of the Atlantic,” says LaPierre, 30. “I started to wonder if you could paddle out there. With the right team and the right training it seemed doable.”
Putting together the team was easy. Fellow kayak guide Graham Carter first dismissed his friend’s notion of making the big crossing to Sable Island as crazy. “But we started talking about it year after year,” says Carter, 28, who works as a junior high teacher, “and I finally said I would do whatever it took to paddle out there.”
They started planning the mission last winter. First, a number of permissions had to be secured—from Transport Canada, the Coast Guard, Parks Canada and other agencies—to gain access to the island, which has long been restricted from unauthorized access by federal legislation. They decided to attempt the crossing in a tandem sea kayak. “We knew it would take 24- to 30 hours and that we’d face two- to three-metre (six- to 10-foot) seas and winds up to 30 knots,” says LaPierre. “We wanted the extra power to push through swells. The tandem ensured our safety plan was bulletproof.”
Besides LaPierre and Carter, the team also consisted of videographers Jarrett Corke and Chris Surette; kinesiologist Jeff Zahavich served as a conditioning coach. From the outset, the goal use the crossing as a conduit to raise awareness of the role of outdoor adventure in mental health and funds for nonprofits Brigadoon Village, which provides summer camps for youth with chronic illnesses, and Chisholm Services for Children, an early intervention program for children who have been exposed to trauma.
On August 14, LaPierre and Carter saw an acceptable weather window: Southwesterly winds and a “nominal” sea state, with winds forecast to switch to tailwinds partway through the crossing. They began the 120-mile crossing from Canso, Nova Scotia, at 5 a.m. “We experienced a whole spectrum of emotions” over the course of the 29-hour crossing,” says LaPierre. “At times we laughed ourselves to tears. Everything was good when the sun was out, but during the night it got creepy.”
“It’s pretty crazy how black it is after nightfall when you’re out in the middle of the ocean,” adds Carter. “There’s always a bit of ambient light on land. But there’s just nothing out there.”
LaPierre and Carter knew they were getting close when the chilly water of the east coast was replaced by the warm Gulf Stream. Sable’s sand dunes emerged from the sea and the pair negotiated the island’s perpetual surf zone to land on a seal-covered beach. LaPierre admits Sable will never be a destination for sea kayakers—the island has no easy landings and unless you’re willing (and allowed) to make the epic crossing, it costs visitors a fortune to get there by aircraft. But he says it’s a worthy setting for a national park. “As far as the eye can see it’s just one big sand dune,” says LaPierre. “There’s no shelter—no coves. It’s beautiful, but extreme.”
The pair received a hero’s welcome upon their return (by lobster boat) to the mainland. “To the local fishermen, our kayak looked like a tiny raft,” laughs LaPierre. “There was a lot of skepticism. But when we got back, all the skeptics were there to shake our hands.”
Watch a video about the Paddle2Sable campaign.