A look from the rear cockpit paddling seat of John Craig's modified stock expedition kayak. Photo: Zaleski

[Eds. Note: The following story originally ran in C&K‘s May issue. In late March, less than a month prior to the originally projected April 20 launch, the team postponed the trip until April 20, 2014. Yesterday, John Craig, aka Clay Biles, announced that the expedition will launch early on Saturday, June 8 from Monterey, Calif., following Hiles’ leave from the Federal Air Marshal Service this spring. Hiles’ book on the service also published yesterday. C&K will be following the expedition launch and journey as it unfolds. Check the expedition Facebook page for more details.]

Two vets set sights on Ed Gillet's untouched Hawaii crossing

By Dave Shively

When most paddlers consider Ed Gillet's historic 1987 California-to-Maui crossing, they ask one question: "Why would anyone do that?"

John Craig doesn't think like most paddlers. His question: "Why hasn’t anyone else?"

The 37-year-old security professional hopes to recreate the grueling 2,200-mile crossing, leaving from Monterey on April 20, with his flight scheduled out of Maui and right back to work on June 4. And true to the spirit of Gillet's 63-day crossing in 1987, Craig will go low-profile, without sponsors and using stock gear—with a few key pieces of technology unavailable 26 years ago. The twist? Craig plans to paddle with a partner, RW Hand, in separate kayaks, rafting up to rest. Since December 2011, the pair have rigged separately, accumulating gear, vacuum-sealing meals in 5,400-calorie packages, and until recently, exercising heavily. Since early this year, Craig has been packing on pounds, estimating his 60-mile-per-day pace will melt 20 pounds off his frame.

With Craig retired from active Naval duty in special warfare, and Hand a retired Army Ranger, the expedition aims to raise awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project and the Navy Seal Foundation. The military background explains Craig's no-failure, can-do mindset, and detailed planning. Craig talks of risk mitigation, redundancies, contingencies for contingencies. He guesses there's a 50-50 chance he and Hand will become separated at sea. Contingency plan? "We’ll just press on," he says. "We can sustain ourselves individually."

Craig's respect for Gillet runs deep, and he has an encyclopedic catalog of lessons learned from the trip that nearly killed Gillet. He's also analyzed Wave Vidmar's ill-fated solo California-to-Hawaii attempt, which began on Christmas Eve and ended 15 hours later with a Coast Guard rescue. "I could tread water for 15 hours," Craig says. (Vidmar declined to comment.)

Hand and Craig also followed Gillet's lead in buying a pair stock Necky tandem kayaks. Craig removed the seats and rear-center bulkheads from his 22-foot Nootka Plus model, leaving a 6-foot-long rear cockpit cavity to sleep in. Other notable modifications include molding over the front cockpit with a Pelican box lid—crucial to storing a 12-volt battery to power an inverter and an AIS ship ID system—plus installing two three-gallon ballast tanks in the bow. Finally, he'll use a hand-pump reverse-osmosis desalinator. Craig's telling view on the manual desalinator? "It’s military, so you know it works."

The hardest part of the preparation thus far, Craig says, was getting his wife's approval. "This is a final bucket list thing, then I can go relax in suburbia-land," says Craig, a father of three. "I’ve got a family. I’m not suicidal. I know I’ll get it done.

"It’s just a major endurance test, but anybody is capable of that."

A view inside the rear 6-foot-long cockpit space configured for Hand to sleep in over the 2,200-mile journey. Photo: Zaleski