Jamaica is more associated with all-inclusive beach resorts, spicy cuisine and laidback tunes than great sea kayaking. Yet the island nation in the Caribbean Sea features a diverse shoreline including towering 1,000-foot cliffs, surf beaches and quaint fishing villages. Jae Edwards, a personal trainer based in Jamaica's capital city of Kingston, didn't set out on a circumnavigation to promote his native country's sea kayak potential. Rather, he made it a challenge—for himself and his entire country—to promote active living as a means of combatting cardiovascular disease.
"If we could kayak for up to 12 hours per day, it is reasonable to encourage members of our society to take only 30 minutes daily to exercise," Edwards told the Jamaica Gleaner. "That would go a long way in improving and preserving overall health for a healthier lifestyle."
Edwards, who had only just learned to sea kayak, started his counterclockwise journey on November 2. Along the way, he was joined by Jamaican adventure athlete Dwayne Fields and Isaiah Brown, a local kayak instructor and guide. The 370-mile journey took a little over three weeks and included one very close call, when Edwards capsized while paddling solo along a particularly harsh section of coast. A few days later, he completed his circle on November 24.
In an interview with Canoe & Kayak, Edwards enthused about seeing a pod of dolphins just on the outskirts of Negril, on the western tip of Jamaica. He highlighted Port Antonio in Portland, on the northeast coast, with its "deep clear blue seas and is a very tourist friendly area," as perhaps the best destination to get a taste of sea kayaking in Jamaica.
Here is our full conversation.
CanoeKayak.com: What came first: the cause or the kayak expedition? When did you first get the idea to paddle around Jamaica?
Jae Edwards: The cause came first. I wanted to raise awareness of lifestyle illness. According to the World Health Organization, high blood pressure was the number one cause of death. The Idea of kayaking around the island of Jamaica came to me in 2016. My only experience in boating came when I was in the Sea Cadet Corps (Royal Navy) 20 years ago. I started investigating different rowing boats, realizing it would be more effective to kayak rather than to row as the paddles are shorter and allow greater maneuverability. I found an instructor on the north coast of Jamaica to familiarize me with kayaking four weeks prior to the expedition.
What is your connection to conditions like heart disease?
Heart disease has not only taken the lives of family members, but working as a performance expert I’ve realized human performance is been limited by lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
Is there much of a kayaking scene in Jamaica?
Not really. At the moment the majority of the kayaking done at tourist resorts on sit-on-top kayaks. There isn’t much sea kayaking in Jamaica—even though the country is surrounded by water.
Tell me more about the logistics of the expedition. Were you camping at night?
We had a shore support vehicle, which would follow along our planned route and meet us at our planned stops with food and a spare kayak if needed. At night we would sleep on beaches in a sleeping bag; once in awhile a good samaritan would put us up in a hut or give us a bed at their hotel.
Can you walk me through the capsize incident off of St. Elizabeth?
We left from Treasure Beach on the southwest coast at 7 a.m. on a Monday. We would normally leave at 5:45 a.m. in order to take advantage of calmer sea conditions, however because we were in the last 100 miles of the journey, we'd started lacking discipline in our departure times.
At about 9:30 a.m. we were approximately three miles out at sea, with high, 1,000-foot cliffs at our left on the shore. The winds picked up from eight knots to about 20 knots and the waves went from a foot to six feet, forcing us to paddle towards land. About a half-mile from land a six-foot wave filled my kayak with water. As I struggled to get closer to shore, my kayak tipped over. I grabbed my fins and abandoned the kayak.
I swam the remaining quarter-mile to the base of the cliffs, where I ditched my fins for Crocs to attempt to scale the reef, which was sharp and about 20 feet high. The waves pulled me off the reef and slammed me back against them multiple times; I thought I was going to die or become seriously injured. Finally, I timed the waves and was able to grab unto a section of the reef in order to start my ascent. I was 200-feet up when I realized the terrain was too difficult and dangerous, so I started to climb back down. The rain started falling, forcing me to sit under a tree for shelter. I was falling asleep because I was dehydrated and hungry. At one point I was awoken by the sound of a passing boat, so I jumped up and tried to use my skirt as signal, however I was too high within the canopy of trees and they couldn’t see or hear me. I attempted to reach the bottom of the cliff so I could be more visible. Once I descended the boat was gone. At this point I had choose between jumping back in the water and swimming three miles to nearest the port or staying on the cliff and hoping another boat would pass.
I jumped off a 50-foot cliff I into the sea. I timed the waves so I wouldn't be thrown back into the reef. I swam as hard as I could but into the wind, I was moving at a snail's pace. It was getting dark and I was at least 1.5 miles from the port. I carried on, swimming and praying and hoping I would make it. Thoughts of my partner and daughter motivated me to keep going. I got to the port at 6:37 p.m. in pitch black. My legs could hardly move when I climbed out the water. I staggered towards a passing vehicle that stopped and took me to the medical bay. My oxygen levels were severely low and I was tremendously dehydrated.
Why did you keep going after this?
I continued because I am not the kind of person to quit. I also had tons of support from friends, family and clients that encouraged me to push on for the last 100 miles.
What’s next? Any more paddling trips for you?
After this trip I am contemplating kayaking from Jamaica to Florida.
More Caribbean kayaking at CanoeKayak.com:
— Paddling across the Caribbean in 94 days
— Unfiltered: An interview with sea kayak legend (and Caribbean sea paddler) John Dowd
— Destination guide: Kayaking the Cayman Islands