Nigel Foster

Nigel and comrade Geoff Hunter on the coast of Iceland in 1977. Photo: Elias Jonsson

By Paul Everitt

I had the pleasure of meeting sea kayaking legend Nigel Foster twice during my Baltic Sea kayaking experience. Just talking to him and listening to his stories inspired me to keep paddling. Here’s what he had to say during our conversation.

Paul Everitt: What made you decide that a life with a paddle was right for you and not some other sporting activity?
Nigel Foster : My parents used to encourage my brother and me to try all kinds of activities, and fed us to the Boy Scouts. As kids we cycled, went rock climbing, caving, hiking in the mountains and camping, but kayaking was really my first independent boating experience. Not being a happy swimmer, kayaking offered me a really special kind of solo freedom on an element I was not 100 percent comfortable in. I could wheel my kayak the two miles to the English Channel from home without a car, so I could be independent. Kayaking was addictive!

Who inspired you and who continues to?
I always admire people who take off to do their own thing, stretching their own limit of comfort. And there have been a lot of them! Nowadays I am really impressed by Freya Hoffmeister. Her dedication to long distance kayaking trips is phenomenal. Also Oscar Chalupsky: an amazing powerhouse with a personality and dedication to his sport.

I also really admire people like Carmen Adell, who has worked really hard for kayaking in Catalonia and Spain, especially in enabling disabled paddlers, and she has such a contagious joy for life. I also get a lot of inspiration from the paddlers I meet day to day, full of enthusiasm for the sport and doing their own thing!

What are the paddling destinations still on your list?
I’ve explored so very little of the water out there that looks inviting, and much less of it that doesn’t. My radar scans around constantly spotting cool places I’d like to see and at the same time reminding me of places I’ve already visited but would love to know better. I am always open to opportunities, so the list of places I’d like to explore next is very long!

During your Labrador trip you had some very close encounters with polar bears. What goes through your mind when you tidal sea drops behind you and a polar bear is approaching in front of you?
Our closest polar bear scare was very real. We could so easily have been a meal. I think the bear was just enough uncertain of us. We were not behaving like prey: Kristin stood and told it to go away. If she’d reacted differently maybe we wouldn’t be here. My flares had no effect even when fired from eight feet away. It’s not a comfortable feeling.

But that incident was sudden and stunning. We had plenty of other polar bear encounters that were unsettling but less life-threatening.

What are your top five bits of kit for any expedition?
1. Obviously a stove-top espresso maker with coffee, ceramic cups and the means to fire it all up! That’s one piece: coffee kit! Essential!

2. A journal and a pen with waterproof ink. Don’t expect anyone else to ever be interested in what you’ve just done, Chances are you’ll be alone with your memories, and stories you don’t tell are soon forgotten. But the words you write are like a key that can unlock the rest of the memories you have not written down. An old journal is like a time machine! Of course you can add little maps and sketches too.

3. A magnifying glass. It’s amazing how much detail there is to see in the small things that you find on the beach, or are growing at the tent entrance.

4. A small flask of single malt whisky, cask strength, or the equivalent. This is only for those special occasions when you really deserve it, not just for everyday drinking! You’ve just rounded the most terrifying headland of the trip, or faced a polar bear, made the worst landing ever, or something like that. Or it’s the best sunset, the most amazing show of the aurora, or someone special. Mete it out to make it last!

5. Maps, not just of where you are going but also of where you are from, and perhaps where you think you might go next. A small atlas!

What's next for you? Nigel 
Next? I think I deserve an espresso!

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in Paul Everitt’s Going Solo website. Check it out.

Nigel Foster

Photo: Malte Danielsson