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 Monterey, California, to Maui, Hawaii. Not only did he arrive safely 2,200 miles from his put-in, but he also pulled off what we rank as the greatest paddling adventure in the 30-year history of Canoe & Kayak. 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. Gillet is currently working on receiving his high school teaching credentials, and working hard to stay in shape for future open-ocean solos that will rival his Monterey-to-Maui paddle. He took some time from his busy schedule to talk about the trip, future endeavors, and offer his take on the California energy crisis.
C&K: When did you first conceptualize a California-to-Hawaii paddle?
EG: I had a difficult time readjusting to ordinary life after I returned from my year paddling up the Pacific coast of South America. I decided to paddle to Hawaii because I wanted to do something even more difficult and committing than coastal paddling could offer.
C&K: What was your darkest hour?
EG: I was in very real danger of starving–that scared me. And I had an adverse psychological reaction to a sleeping tablet (Halcyon) I was taking because the pain from my saltwater sores kept me from sleeping. I didn’t know it at the time, but Halcyon has been identified as causing depression and panic attacks. I felt these symptoms but I didn’t realize that they were caused by Halcyon until much later.
C&K: What were your best days at sea like?
EG: When I finally found the trade winds, I could use my kite effectively and I started making 80-mile days. The weather was warm, the wind blew constantly at 20 knots, the sea was a frothy royal blue, and I had a school of mahi-mahi traveling with me-they hung under my boat at night and swam along with me all day, like a pack of friendly dogs.
C&K: You’ve done a lot of mountain and rock climbing, what were some of the similarities of soloing from Monterey to Maui and climbing?
EG: No similarities, really. The exposure level was relentless on my paddling trip. I never felt comfortable or stretched out or made a really good meal for the two months I spent on the Hawaii trip. It was like spending two months on a Porta-ledge hanging bivouac-in the rain.
C&K: They must’ve left that part out of the brochure. Was it more challenging than your yearlong, 4,500-mile paddle up the west coast of South America in 1984?
EG: The challenges were very different. The South America trip had lots of hairball landings through big surf at night into unknown beaches. There were myriads of opportunities to screw up. I was shot at twice (Peru) and taken prisoner once (on the southern Colombia border). Paddling Hawaii was a little like walking a three-foot plank over an abyss–I only needed to concentrate, stay healthy, and keep moving on.
C&K: You were shot at and taken prisoner? What happened there?
EG: Well, in Peru several people shot in my direction to get my attention. That worked pretty well. And then there was the time I was unknowingly camped on a firing range somewhere in Peru and a navy vessel started shelling the hills behind the beach. The rounds were landing a couple of miles away but the whole thing was disconcerting. Of course the artillery rounds didn’t rattle my cage as much as the morning in Ecuador when some guys threw sticks of dynamite into the quiet estuary I was camped next to. They were laughing when I scrambled out of my tent thinking I was under attack by a crazed army. Some drunk drug smugglers captured me at gunpoint on the Colombian border and towed me to their stinking stilt village on the edge of a mangrove swamp. They held me for half a day while 20 ugly people rooted through my gear looking for guns or money. They seemed to think I was paddling some kind of DEA surveillance vessel and that I would have some wicked secret agent weapons. As it turned out, they didn’t take anything. They weren’t interested in my rotten camping gear.
C&K: What was the nightly process you had to go through to prepare the kayak for sleeping?
EG: The pontoons took about 10 minutes to set up. I also set out sea anchors to keep the kayak headed into the wind and swell. I thought of setting out by pontoon floats as bivouacking on the ocean. I wrote in my log that each night’s campsite had a different feel-sometimes I tried to memorize the look of each of these places so I could recognize them again. This might sound crazy, but I understand that every place on the planet has its own spirit. On the ocean the markers are subtler but they are there nonetheless.
C&K: I can imagine that securing yourself under the tarp to sleep for the first time was frightening. Did you ever feel panicked or claustrophobic?
EG: Actually the tarp was an improvised solution to keeping the water out-which it did not do very well, by the way. I had designed a lid to place over the cockpit. The lid was scary and claustrophobic-it did not work at all at sea. This sounds crazy but I didn’t test it on the water before I left. The solution would have been to erect a dodger-the tent-like Contraption-like people use on sailboats.
C&K: Kind of a weird question, but how did you-how do I put this-relieve yourself of certain bodily discharges?
EG: I just hung over the side of the boat. What’s the problem?
C&K: No problem at all. Outdoors people always have to come up with unique ways to relieve themselves-and sometimes in unique places. This definitely was unique in way and place. It just seems like it must’ve been a pain in the ass to balance the boat. How did you navigate your way to Hawaii?
EG: These were the days before GPS was available to civilians. Satellite navigation, Loran, Omega systems were not rugged or portable enough to survive a kayak trip. I used a sextant and a navigation calculator to work the trig solutions to my sun sights. I took sights in the morning and afternoons to fix my longitude, a sight around noon to get latitude.
C&K: Complex stuff. Did you ever fear you were way off course?
EG: I knew exactly where I was every minute. My fear was that I was going so slowly I wouldn’t make it to the islands before I starved.
C&K: You used a parafoil kite to take advantage of the wind. Did it help as much as you thought it would? EG: Because there was a mild El Nino that year, the trade winds were not blowing very strongly. I got about 20 days use out of the kite. I was able to get the Tofino up on a plane and surfing when the kite was pulling so I could make some pretty good mileage with the kite.
C&K: What was it like to see the USS Ramsey out there in the middle of the ocean and communicate with it via radio? Did they seem impressed or at least amused when they saw you?
EG: The Ramsey was about 200 miles off San Diego when I called them on the radio. The guy I talked with was totally matter of fact about the encounter. I don’t think he really understood who he was talking to–I think he thought I was on a bigger sailboat. I told him I was paddling a kayak, flying a multicolored kite, but this made as much sense to him as if I said I was driving a purple Yugo to Hawaii. I asked him to call Katie (my wife) in San Diego and give her a message–they’d be there the next day. He never did.
C&K: What would the Ed Gillet of 2003 tell the Ed Gillet of 1987 about ocean kayaking?
EG: Go, but take more food and for God’s sake build a dodger!
C&K: Africa now is calling your name and an Atlantic crossing is in your plans. When do you plan to do it, and what route will you take?
EG: When I complete the requirements for my high school teaching credential and find a job-a prospect that looked more promising before the Texas crooks raped California and drove the country into an economic ditch–I’d like to paddle the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Once I secure a teaching position somewhere I’ll start planning the Atlantic trip. Once the advance work is done, I should be able to do the crossing–Portugal to the Caribbean–in a summer.
C&K: Texas crooks? Do you mean Bush and Cheney?
EG: I meant Bush and Ken Lay, ex-CEO of Enron. Enron and several other Texas companies ran a complex ricochet scheme to raise natural gas and electricity prices in California about 18 months ago. The California budget deficit is a direct result of their manipulations. Governor Gray Davis is suing Enron and others for about 10 billion, I think. Bush allowed the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) to put off an investigation into the rising California energy prices. To avoid blackouts, the state was forced to pay billions in inflated prices. I really don’t trust anything Bush or Cheney say about energy or oil–their actions speak for themselves. This is really a different issue, but Haliburton and Bechtel (Cheney’s old employers) stand to make billions from rebuilding Iraq. While we enter a 20-year deficit spending cycle and throw away the support and goodwill of almost the entire world pursuing (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld’s vendetta against Hussein, Bush is quietly dismantling the EPA and refusing to make the hard decisions about the Medicare and social security crises that threaten to bankrupt us all. Bush, et al., are taking this country down. While California builds more prisons and the federal government passes more unfunded mandates implementing even more silly testing in schools, real teachers are being laid off.
C&K: You used a stock Tofino double for the California-Hawaii paddle. What type of boat do you plan to use to cross the Atlantic?
EG: I’d probably use another Tofino but I’d try to supervise the construction and raise the deck a few inches and I’d put a rowing frame on the deck.
C&K: And finally, Ed, why did you do it? What compelled you to attempt this seemingly impossible California-Hawaii crossing?
EG: Crossing oceans and paddling coastlines is what I’m really good at. I kind of flounder on land.