Seal vs. Sea Kayak

What to do if a two-ton seal crushes your sea kayak

Need to fix this... Photo credit: Simen Havig-Gjelseth

Conor Mihell

Norwegian sea kayaker Simen Havig-Gjelseth is accustomed to experiencing worst-case scenarios. He and a partner were attempting to circumnavigate the Arctic island of Spitsbergen in 1999 when a hungry polar bear destroyed their kayaks, robbed their provisions and precipitated a helicopter rescue. Last November, while leading a four-member team in the first unsupported trip around Antarctica’s South Georgia Island, Havig-Gjelseth was jolted awake by the sound of cracking fiberglass in a startling case of déjà vu.

A 4,000-pound elephant seal had dragged itself over expedition mate Sigrid Henjum’s kayak, shearing a 5-foot section of deck from the hull and crushing the front bulkhead. Fortunately, the team had more than a quart of fiberglass resin and several large pieces of fiberglass matting, and their cavernous four-person tunnel tent became a makeshift workshop on one of the world’s most remote and desolate beaches.

Using gas-powered cook-stoves and resin to fix the boat and continue the journey. Photo credit: Simen Havig-Gjelseth

The first order of duty in any fiberglass repair is to dry the damaged area and create a warm environment to allow the resin to cure, explains Havig-Gjelseth, so they fired up two gas-powered cook-stoves inside the tent. Applying fiberglass patches on the inside of the hull yields more professional results that can be finished with gel coat, but in the Norwegians’ case, the goal was purely functional. Using just enough resin to saturate the cloth, they pieced the boat back together like paper mâché—reattaching deck to hull on the port and starboard seams, and rebuilding the bulkhead.

The repair wasn’t pretty, but it worked. “We were on the water kayaking by 1 p.m. and covered 18 nautical miles that day,” recalls Havig-Gjelseth. “So I reckon it was a very good effort, and a very good day.” The repair held for the remainder of the trip, through towering 25-foot seas at Cape Disappointment, bits of icebergs and crash landings on South Georgia’s rugged south coast.

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