FROM THE PUBLISHER (Falcon Guides) — In the summer of 1987 Ed Gillet achieved what no person has accomplished before or since, a solo crossing from California to Hawaii by kayak. Gillet, at the age of 36 an accomplished sailor and paddler, navigated by sextant and always knew his position within a few miles. Still, Gillet underestimated the abuse his body would take from the relentless, pounding swells of the Pacific, and early into his voyage he was covered with saltwater sores and found that he could find no comfort sleeping inside the stock tandem kayak he used. Along the way he endured a broken rudder, among other calamities, but at last reached Maui on his 64th day at sea, four days after his food had run out. Dave Shively brings Gillet's remarkable story to life in this gripping narrative, based on exclusive access to Gillet's logs as well as interviews with the legendary paddler himself.
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July 2, 1987—Day 8
In the morning darkness, nothing is still. Gillet's loaded twenty-foot boat pitches up and over rolling sets of fifteen-foot swell. The small pair of inflatable pontoons are doing their job stabilizing what now feels far too slender and minimal a craft.
He hasn't seen a vessel or aircraft in days. Nothing close to human contact.
Maybe there's some voice out there, some sign of life. For the sake of reassurance as much as amusement, he pulls out his VHF radio. He turns it to channel 16, the international hailing frequency, and calls out to any possible passing ships in the area. Nothing. What if I actually needed help? The questions of rescue contingencies in these empty waters start nagging. He pulls out one of his pencil signal flares for a test, unscrewing the lid and pulling the flimsy chain. POP. About as loud as a champagne cork, he thinks as the tiny red phosphorous element hisses up from his hand for two seconds before the wind bats it into the back of a cresting wave. Useless, even for a roadside car wreck.
Trying to not think about the hundred-plus miles that now separate him from the nearest road, Gillet downs another thermos lid of coffee. Time to move. He pulls in the three-strand line out to the sea anchors, popping off the fiberglass hood fixed over the front cockpit in order to stow the lines and anchors underneath. Though Gillet had intended to use this small dome to cover his own cockpit at night, it didn't take him long to abandon the system. On his first night with the rudimentary hood sealed over him, tied down from the inside, he felt entombed. There was no way to quickly unseal the claustrophobic watertight lid in the event of a flip; water pressure would lock him in the boat. He'd rather take his chances dealing incessantly at night with a spare tarp.
Before deflating the outriggers and stowing them, he prepares for the day ahead: First, filling a water bottle from the tank; stashing a drybag with food for the next few meals in the cockpit; unclipping his bibs to kneel and pee over the side; and, taking advantage of the access, rubbing an emollient combination of a Borofax ointment and hydrocortisone cream on festering sores in his armpits, plus the new ones forming around his waist. As soon as he slides into the torso tunnel of his neoprene spraydeck, pulling it over all of his foul-weather layers, he can immediately feel his damp base layers rub into these new sores. Finally, he removes that bulky life jacket—the one he's only been using as a pillow—from his seat and clips it to the radar reflector pole on the back deck. In place of the jacket, he tosses an orange nylon offshore safety harness over his head, anchoring its line through a steel padeye bolted on the deck. This boat is his floatation device and staying attached to it, all that matters. He adjusts the foam wheelchair pad on his plastic seat, frees his paddle from the deck and then grabs the stretchy outer rand of his spraydeck, reaches forward, and folds it down over the cockpit edge.
The first stroke's dip of blade to water does next to nothing. Gillet settles into the seat, scratching into the sores on his sit bones. He arches his back, straightens his arms and begins rotating his torso, repeating a series of light, short strokes into his custom carbon paddle just to get his full six hundred-pound load moving into the incessant northwest headwind. He needs this baseline momentum. The second that the strokes stop, the boat's forward progress grinds to an immediate halt.
The heavy cloud cover and the constant wind don't just stifle morale and slow progress. No sun means no sense of location. With no dawn or dusk sun sightings to fix his exact position west, celestial navigation is out of the question. The best Gillet can manage is to log distance cov-ered, estimating by dead reckoning. And that's based off a flatwater speed estimate of less than two knots an hour, guesswork based off timed intervals, as the custom spinner-powered electronic knot-meter failed almost immediately.
Not that knowing position really matters. As he drifts south, Gillet is operating by one simple directive: Get offshore. The faster he can keep getting west, the better. The goal is to claw out of that ever turbulent and hazardous lane off the California coast that sailors often refer to as "the potato patch," where the current and wind running down and toward the coast conspire to lock travelers onshore. The sooner he can break free of that orbit, at least two hundred miles out, the sooner that he'll have a chance of dealing with calmer seas and, hopefully, catching the return of friendlier trade winds at his back, shuttling him to the islands. Just get west. Point it right into the wind.
Every hour of paddling into the gray, set on a compass heading of 210 degrees southwest, Gillet relaxes his strokes. The wind pushes him south, closer to 180 degrees, straight south. He pulls his hood over his face for a moment of respite with the wind at his quarter and revels in the drier, calmer paddling. Too far south. I'm not going to Catalina Island, he reminds himself and turns back west, starting to repeat a mantra: "30-130."
That is, 30 degrees north latitude, 130 degrees west longitude, some six hundred miles offshore. It's an arbitrary point in the middle of the ocean. But to Gillet, there couldn't be a destination with more meaning. Until that point—that sweet spot on the corner of the Pacific High—the twenty-plus-knot winds will likely continue. All Gillet can do is counter. Stroke after stroke. He knows he's burning calories; too many. He's working through the final prelaunch food stocks purchased in Monterey much faster than he'd imagined.
However, he is OK with the physical exertion. In his six years of extended sea kayaking expeditions, often solo, he's learned to find comfort in his discomfort, the will to keep moving. Reliance utterly upon himself. Gillet now knows this kayak. The extra reinforced forward volume feels solid handling these conditions. He punches the rockered, bulbous bow through the top of a cresting wave and then slides down the back, momentarily exhilarated. He forgets the bleak surroundings and hones in on the boat running up and down the waves. Bracing through side-swell. Progress. Digging through the crests and easing in the troughs, his weighted kayak plows through the heaving fifteen-foot seas. He even catches himself singing as the strokes and hours pass. The exhilaration of powering through the endlessly rolling terrain makes him self-aware that he must be breaking new ground here.
Still no sun or a horizon line. He can only focus on the boat running up and down crashing waves. Side-swell wretches him back into the present. He reaches to brace and cranks on his rudder pedal to swing him farther south, with the prevailing direction of the wind and waves for a few breaths, before cranking the right rudder pedal and turning west toward his target. He can't even imagine the islands. As the rain pounds, all he can see is a compass heading while holding out hope for drier latitudes.
Digging through crests and easing in troughs. The strokes begin to slow. The fleeting distraction of rote paddling is replaced by the return of anxious nags, with each stroke reminding him of the inflamed, festering rashes on the backs of his freckled hands. Thankfully, they are starting to respond to the antibiotics Dr. Hoyt had packed. At the ends of some his strokes, as they pass within six inches of his face, he can feel heat radiating off the infection. The monochromatic canvas begins to fade as visibility diminishes to a hundred yards. Gillet keeps plugging away to the point of exhaustion. Except there's no relaxing when he finally stops.
It's a dash to set the anchors before it gets too dark. He pulls off the front cockpit cover and deploys the anchors. Waves are setting up much like the night before, in the ten- to fifteen-foot range. Gillet sets the first anchor out to 150 feet to grab the tops of the approaching swells and shortens the second to around seventy-five feet, accounting for a shorter period, in hopes that it will hold the kayak simultaneously in the waves' troughs. It works. The boat swings into the wind and catches on the waves, tugging the kayak's drift back east to minimize losing all the hard-earned ground covered.
With the boat pointed into the weather, the risk of a boat flip is reduced. Gillet stashes the paddle and grabs one of the limp rubber pontoon tubes and slides it into its webbing harness. He untwists the valve, presses in the pump hose and begins clapping the plastic bellows together. The choppy conditions add to the challenge. He's five minutes in. Starting to drift faster. Without his paddle, Gillet can only react to waves and wind trying to roll the boat: With knees braced under the deck, he absorbs the movements through loose hips and constant counterweight adjustments with his torso. Fortunately, his load of food, gear and a central reservoir of water provides enough ballast for a degree of stability, allowing him to keep jerking air feverishly into the open valve of the first, left, tube. Next, he ties the other empty right-side harness to a messenger line on one end of his paddle. Gillet then lances the tied-up blade underwater, leaning forward to slide it beneath the left side of the hull until it pops up on the right, where he pulls up tangled pile. Now ten minutes into the task he detaches the harness from the paddle, slides in the second pontoon, finishes inflation duties, and then cinches down the entire assembly to a pair of deck cleats. The routine is at least starting to feel a little more manageable.
No hope for a sundown sighting, Gillet tries to guess his mileage. In flatwater he can paddle the unloaded Tofino as fast as two knots (or 2.3 miles) per hour. Given the headwinds and swell, at ten hours of paddling, and factoring his drift with the swell south, he's likely only logged twenty miles today.
He needs a daily average of more than double that distance if he hopes to reach Hilo, the nearest point in the Hawaiian Island chain, in a projected forty days. He can't think about that distance now. Only 30-130. 30-130.
Heating up a dehydrated meal does little to slow his dejected thoughts: casting huge doubts on his food packing, his overly optimistic timeline. The rain continues, keeping Ed from pulling out his shortwave radio.
The impossible forward progress has halted and he's back to an existence more akin to his multiday climbing expeditions—stuck on the port-a-ledge between pitches on a big wall. Except now he's bivouacked alone. He pulls out his damp sleeping bag and worms inside. The sores on his side sting. Armpits itch. Almost through the hydrocortisone already, he skips his nightly application, knowing he must ration. The waves are increasing. The boat slides down the back of some of the waves, wrenching violently on the anchor line. Without the fiberglass hood, Gillet relies on the pontoons' deck-harness system to also hold down the front edge of a folded tarp that covers the rear cockpit opening. Barely. With loose sides, the tarp whaps in gusting northwest wind.
Mummified in a damp synthetic sleeping bag, Gillet wedges inside the six-foot cavity. His mind is still moving in an exhausted daze of half sleep. He goes through the same vivid fantasy that he's constructed and refined over the last few nights: Walking into the marine store in Ventura, California's, Channel Islands Harbor, at least a hundred miles to the east. He picks out the same boring beige canvas sheet, then with lucid control of the dreamlike vision, directs his sunny shore-bound self through the steps of fitting and attaching it on an aluminum-tubing frame to his kayak's stern deck. In the final frame, he watches himself pulling the finished bimini-like canopy over his exposed rear cockpit.
But instead of a drier night inside any real version of this imagined dodger, he is already dealing with contingency plans—a backup tarp to keep him from succumbing to total hypothermia. Even somewhat restful sleep, maybe just one ninety-minute REM cycle would help him to recover and to prepare for another consecutive day of marathon levels of exertion.
Focusing back into the vision of the dodger system that could've been, he imagines the canvas hood zippering snugly shut. Closed off from the elements, he would cozily pull off wet outer layers, nestling into a dry sleeping bag and falling into steady sleep with warm dreams of the pig-roast luau celebrating his arrival on the islands.
Suddenly his bow jerks up. It shifts him back in the confined space, head sliding an inch into the rear bulkhead. He's back in the cold, wet sleepless darkness of his living nightmare. As the anchor line stretches, the kayak yaws behind it, lurching the stern right. A wave breaks over the starboard edge. Water rushes over the improvised cockpit cover. Icy buckets pour under and onto the tarp as it sinks onto Gillet's right shoulder. Without opening his eyes or leaving his marine-shop vision, he elbows up the heavy pool to drain. The breach raises saltwater levels inside the coffin-like sleeping quarters just above the plywood sole that keeps Gillet an inch above the hull floor. The water seeps through his bag. The shivering is too much.
Gillet pushes off the drinking-water reservoir at his feet and wiggles up the plastic seat, pulling out an arm to push against the tarp. The wind presses it against him as he emerges from the soaked cocoon. Clouds mask any possible moon or starlight. In the pitch black, he's still wearing everything that he paddled in that day: synthetic Capilene underwear and balaclava hood, polypropylene long-john base layers, dark blue fleece-pile pants and jacket, plus waterproof bib overalls and a hooded raincoat. Nothing is dry. Grabbing the lashed-in handheld bilge pump helps to bail out the water. Each slow jerk on the T-grip handle pulls up and spits out a few ounces at a time. The shivering stops momentarily.
It's still too dark. Must sleep before tomorrow’s haul. The arm-lurching motion has given Gillet a chance to readjust body position. Once his torso fills the twelve vertical and thirty-one horizontal available inches under deck, he cannot turn over. With shoulders spanning nineteen inches across, the only way for Gillet to adjust on the hard surface, and to keep blood moving, is to undo everything, inch out of the cockpit, roll over, then stuff himself in once again. This time he tries moving his right leg under the compass, which hangs down an additional couple inches below the deck, and shimmies halfway down into the cockpit and back into his sleeping bag. As he slides onto his left side, he grimaces as the plastic seat rubs the now burning saltwater sores along his butt and legs. He settles in again: adjusts his life-jacket pillow to prop up his head; and then stretches the tarp back down to protect him from the wind and light rain. No, this isn’t purgatory, he thinks. This is a sailor’s hell.
He passes out from the shock.
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