Justine Curgenven: ‘I love wild places’


Justine Curgenven has targeted Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, for her latest expedition kayaking project. Photo: CackleTV.com

Our ancestors had stories and theories of what lay at the ends of the earth, but Justine Curgenven would rather find out for herself. As the creator of the award-winning, internationally acclaimed This is the Sea DVD series, Curgenven has logged thousands of miles in the sea kayak saddle and is continually advancing the sport of expedition sea kayaking.
First discovered and named by Ferdinand Magellan at the southernmost tip of South America, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego translates to “The Grand Island of the Land of Fire.” The island’s circumference is roughly 1,000 miles of jagged cliffs, snow-clad mountains and rocky shore. Traversing the Strait of Magellan and the open coast of Argentina, Curgenven will be exposed to 100-mph winds, torrential rains, and ravenous seas. We caught up with Curgenven, who will be accompanied by fellow sea kayaker Barry Shaw, to talk about this challenging, world-first, expedition. — Sean Klinger


Canoe & Kayak: Where in the world is Justine Curgenven currently?
Justine Curgenven: Originally I’m from England, but I live in Wales now.


How are preparations going for your tip-of-the-world expedition?
Pretty good. The kayaks are already on their way to Chile, since we plan to start January 1. To do this trip, we’ve had to get permission from both the Chilean and Argentinean Navies. Basically they’ve said ‘Fair enough, we’ll have a look at your kit and make sure everything is in order.’ But it’s not that simple and the list of things we need to have is actually very strict. We have to have everything from a whistle and a signal mirror to an EPIRB [Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon] and a sat-phone. And they want us to call every day, and to have a course chart with where we are going to be each day, which is completely crazy because we have no idea what the weather is going to be like or anything.


Why Tierra del Fuego?
I’ve always fancied paddling in Patagonia. Seeing huge mountains and sliding glaciers, rugged nature, and penguins. I love wild places. Once I found out that the tip of South America was an island, I had to do it. There is something really satisfying about paddling completely around something so big. And it’s a good length trip at about 1,000 miles. The contrast of this trip is really intriguing. On the open coast of the island there be tidal changes and winds, and surf. And on the other side there’s still a lot of wind but a whole different feel with glaciers and mountains.
The weather is notoriously bad down there and we’ll be weather-bound a fair bit, but that’s part of the experience. Even though you’re not paddling at the time, you learn a lot more about a place when you’re stuck there rather than just paddling through it. You learn more about the place and yourself. Since the weather is unpredictable, we’ve allotted two and half months to complete the trip.


On your blog you talk about paying tribute to the Yagan Spirit, the native people of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. What does that mean to you?
These days, there is a lot of hype about being the first to do this or that, and even though we might be the first to go all the way around the island, the Yagan people (who died out following European settlement of the area) navigated these waters with practically no technology for thousands of years. They hadn’t gone completely around the island, but why would they? They were busy living life and taking care of themselves, out in these waters in their simple canoes doing the same thing that we’re now doing with our fiberglass kayaks and navigational equipment. They were far more skilled and brave than us. We’re not living off the land like them, but it’s an experience to survive in that same environment.


Curgenven is in her element… in the elements. Photo: CackleTV.com

How did you get into this kind of expedition kayaking?
As long as I can remember I’ve loved to be outside. I always loved exploring, and getting places under my own power. What really appealed to me about sea kayaking was that you can throw all your gear into the boat and go. You can access places that you normally couldn’t. There’s a huge sense of satisfaction going across a body of water using just your own power. Once I started sea kayaking I slowly started challenging myself and gaining more skills, and that how I got to where I am today.


Any future expeditions in the works afterward?
No, not really. I still want to see if we make it all the way round! It’s funny; it’s taken three years to want to do another big expedition. Our last trip was [2007’s 2,400 km circumnavigation of] New Zealand’s South Island. Every trip is a challenge, and comes with a mix of good and bad experiences. Slowly, you start to forget all the exhaustion and pain and boring parts of trip. You start to just remember the excitement, exploring and sense of accomplishment. I’m at that point where time has dulled those bad things and I want to have another adventure.


Do you think about inspiring people while you do these trips?
That is secondary, really. I do these trips because I want to and I find it a bit pretentious to assume that what you’re doing is inspirational. But when I talk to people, it does feel good to hear that they were inspired by what I love to do. I would encourage everyone to push themselves. Don’t let irrational fear get in the way of doing something amazing.


Which expedition stands out most to you?
Two trips stand out, actually. New Zealand because it was the most challenging, and to actually finish was intensely gratifying. The other was paddling up the coast of Kamchatka, Russia. It was 400 miles, and very beautiful country, but it was the people that were most memorable. It was so interesting to meet the locals and see their way of life and how different it was from my own. Plus we got arrested by a tank—


Wait, what?! What did you do?
Well (laughing), we were camped on the beach for the night. I was with another paddler, Hadas Feldman, and we had to have a Russian with us the whole time, who, do to his lack of kayak skills, swam most of the time. All of a sudden a tank rolls up to our tents and eight armed military guys come running up to us. They said that we had to pack everything up, put our kayaks on the tank and go with them. I actually said no, even though I was really scared. I didn’t want to end up in some dark room for god knows how long and have to pay some bogus $5,000 fine. Well, we did end up going with them back to their base, but we were only there for four hours and they took us back to the exact spot where we were. So, everything turned out okay.


All right, good luck with the trip.
Thank you. And where possible, we will be uploading our location and pictures throughout the trip to my blog. Check my expedition site for more information on the trip. I’ll be filming the expedition as well. The (yet to be named) DVD will most likely be available Fall 2011.

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