Unfiltered: Paul Caffyn – Expedition Kayaker
Photograph by KYLE GEORGE
Paul Caffyn cemented his legend as one of history’s greatest sea paddlers in 1982, when he completed the first kayak circumnavigation of Australia, a 360-day, 9,420-mile journey in which he overcame raging surf, a tropical cyclone and three sections of sheer limestone cliffs more than 100 miles long. The exploit set the standard for modern expedition kayaking, but it didn’t soothe his wanderlust. The 62-year-old has paddled nearly 50,000 miles, including circumnavigations of his native New Zealand, as well as Great Britain, Japan and the entire 4,700-mile coastline of Alaska. A tireless promoter (and fan) of sea kayaking, he has produced a 200-page safety manual and run support on the South Island for visiting paddlers, among them filmmaker Justine Curgenven and adventurer Freya Hoffmeister who at press time was nearing the end of her own Australian circumnavigation. We spoke to him after his most recent epic, a 691-mile trip along the southeast coast of Greenland that he called “maybe the hardest trip I’ve done.” – Jeff Moag
Freya’s motivation’s were slightly different from mine because from the outset she has called it a race. And I thought, well, if she can pull it off and survive, then she’s achieved it. She’ll be days ahead of my time, but who gives a stuff?
In the end it was really rewarding to be able to tackle something like Australia and pull it off. It wasn’t for any bloody media attention.
I admire Freya’s drive, her determination. I’ll be there on the beach to meet her if everything works out.
Lovely story. Justine and Barry [Shaw] were just about to finish their South Island circumnavigation. I had a big day planned, and when Justine rang up the night before and said, ‘Oh, look, we’re gonna finish tomorrow in Christchurch, can you be there about three o’clock?’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ Well, there was a catch in her voice, a little sob when she answered. So I had to reschedule everything.
The way I saw it, so many people have helped out on my trips in various countries, this is my putting back a little bit into it.
I’d driven pretty much all night down to Milford to meet Andrew [McAuley]. He’d paddled all the way from Tasmania and oh, he was so close. I’d slept in the back of the car and just got my MSR cooker out to make a brew when a bloody television crew stuck a camera in my face and said, ‘What do you think of the fact that Andrew’s missing?’ I was shocked and stunned. I just … I told them to go away for a while.
A lot of people tell me these trips are suicidal, but if I thought there was less than 100 percent chance of survival, I wouldn’t do it.
I’d worked as a geologist in Western Australia and I’d seen those cliffs, each more than 100 or 120 miles long, and the huge seas with the prevailing headwinds. Because of that I didn’t think it was at all possible to circumnavigate Australia. The breakthrough was this cunning plan to raft two kayaks together and get a little rest. And of course, when Tom dropped out I just carried on solo.
I knew I’d have to paddle 36 hours continuously, and I had absolutely no idea whether I was up for it. Physically? Yeah, probably. But mentally, could I deal with it?
I nearly got smashed into the cliffs by a breaker in the dark at one stage. But at the dawn I finally could see houses at the river mouth. It was 25-30 knots directly on the nose and 2-meter breaking seas. But I could see the little tiny specks of houses in the distance and even though I was at 30 hours or so, I felt I was unstoppable.
Having kayaked through the Bering Sea in Alaska, and five trips to Greenland now, it’s been a marvelous opportunity to just look at the conditions as to why these kayaks evolved, why various techniques evolved.
In Greenland the last time, we had big breaking seas. The backwash off the cliffs and the icebergs made these pointy seas. There was no regularity to it. For me it was just 60 hours of terror, when we went out and had to go around the big headlands. Every paddle stroke was just crucial to staying upright.
It’s not like it’s a rock climb, it’s not like it’s a river. The weather and the sea conditions, everything you do is different. So much thinking goes into sea kayaking; so much more comes into play. I reckon that’s why I like that challenge.
A Greenlandic man, old gray-haired fellow, was walking on the beach and he said something to our Danish friend, who translated. He said, ‘Your kayaks look like Greenland kayaks.’ That made the trip for me.
I’ve been very lucky. The kayak has been like my passport.
This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.