“Going Solo” – Expedition Sea Kayaking for social recluses
The definition of ‘solo’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is “unaccompanied, alone”. A fairly straightforward definition you would think but it is interesting how many claimed soloists actually had company for significant parts of their journey. Truly going solo presents some unique challenges; not least how to get a fully laden kayak above the high water mark on a rocky or soft sandy shore. For most tasks associated with expedition sea kayaking working in pairs is so much easier than struggling on your own. Yet is not the arduous nature of a solo expedition more the perceived foolhardiness of venturing out on the sea alone that many observers remark upon.
Any activity on the sea presents a risk both to the participant and to those who may be asked to perform a rescue should that become necessary. It is therefore imperative that every effort is made by the participant to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. I fully recognise and accept this principle. The British Canoe Union mantra of “Less than three there should never be” advises a minimum of three paddlers for any journey by kayak. Whilst I accept this advice is based on sound principles of safety, it would make any solo expedition impossible. Historically there have been many successful solo expeditions. The key to their success has been the expertise and experience of the paddler, combined with sound planning and judgement. Expedition sea kayaking with all the vagaries of weather and sea conditions, often combined with remoteness of location, make such a pastime inherently hazardous. It could be argued that going alone inevitably increases that risk: No-one to tow you when you get tired, no-one to help you back in your boat if you happen to capsize. At times there may be no-one able to see a flare or receive a distress call from a handheld VHF radio with limited range. However I believe that by having the right skill set, a solid base of experience, by planning thoroughly, using sound judgment and having the very best equipment, it is possible to reduce the risk factor to an acceptable level.
Indeed I would argue that on a personal level, I am safer on my own. I only have myself to worry about. I know my own ability and whilst I might want to push my comfort zone from time to time, I can control when I do that so that I always have an escape plan. It is often when we are egged on by others, when we let our egos affect our judgment, that we place ourselves in danger. By learning to be self-reliant and taking personal responsibility for your decision making, you become a complete unit – you and your kayak and there is great satisfaction to be had from overcoming challenges on your own.
These days technology has made going it alone even safer. During my circumnavigation of the UK and Irelandin 2004 I carried a Personal Location Beacon (PLB) which featured a built-in GPS combined with a 406MHz transmitter and a 121.5MHz homing signal. In the event of emergency an alert signal is transmitted to Cospas-Sarsat satellites and forwarded to a rescue co-ordination centre typically within 3 minutes. The built-in GPS receiver will provide latitude and longitude co-ordinates to give a position to approximately 30 metres anywhere in the world.
The SPOT Satellite Messenger is a newer and more affordable alternative to a PLB and whilst it does not have a homing signal, it does plot your position and allow family and friends (or the emergency services) to track your position using Google Earth. It has three levels of signal that it will transmit: “OK”, “Help” and “911”. By pressing “OK”, your position gets plotted on Google and everyone knows you are alive. The “Help” facility is useful for example when you are ready to be picked up at the end of your trip (or from the pub). Let’s hope you never have to press “911” but if you do the receiving facility will activate the appropriate response depending whether you are at sea or on land.
(NB. The latest SPOT system allows you to send text messages by link with your Smartphone)
Of course both these electronic systems require you to activate the call for help and thus rely on you to at least be conscious at the beginning of the emergency.
Whilst their usefulness in truly remote locations is clearly limited, it is a good idea to carry the following flares which should be immediately available: 2 red parachute rockets, 2 red handheld, 2 orange smokes and 2 white collision warning. I like to carry a combination red handheld/orange smoke in the pocket of my life vest in case I become separated from my kayak. My life vest has a strobe light fixed to it and has reflective strips. I always chose a bright colour for my kayak and place reflective strips on my bow and stern and on the tips of my paddle blades.
Being separated from your kayak in the event of a swim is the most life threatening situation you might encounter. You will not be able to swim after your kayak in even a moderate wind and sea. Consider a paddle leash which might allow the paddle to act as a drogue and help slow down an empty kayak’s drift.
The golden rule, which I have broken several times to my regret, is to always dress for immersion. It is vital to factor in the water temperature as well as the weather when considering what clothing to wear. That said the risk of hypothermia as a result of a swim has to be balanced against the risk of dehydration by wearing too much clothing whilst paddling. It is a judgement call but I would encourage you to be conservative and wear enough thermal protection to at least give you a chance of being rescued, should the worst happen and you lose your kayak.
Make sure you have a reliable hydration system. One of my most uncomfortable experiences was losing the bite valve from my hydration bladder mid-crossing and subsequently to find that my precious fresh water had dumped into the sea without me realising. By the time I reached land the other side I had a screaming headache from dehydration.
Discuss your plans in detail with the local Coastguard Agency and ensure that each Rescue Centre through whose area you plan to travel has been briefed. Inform them daily of your intended route and safe arrival. Agree a protocol that should they not receive notification of your safe arrival, they will not launch a Search and Rescue mission until requested to do so by your shore contact, unless you have activated your PLB or SPOT. That way you have a bit of ‘slack’. I once got stormbound on the Isle of Rhum, off the west coast of Scotland without access to cell phone, landline or a VHF radio signal. I was stuck there for two days and feared that because I had been unable to inform the Coastguard that I was ‘okay’, they would initiate a search. My shore contact knew I was heading into bad weather and that I would be able to find shelter and made sure no-one panicked. The “OK” facility on the SPOT Satellite Messenger overcomes this problem.
You should carry a VHF handheld radio with which to monitor Ch16 or other relevant shipping channels when appropriate and have a recharging capability perhaps by using a solar panel. Be aware that the maximum range of a hand held radio is likely to be no more that three to four miles or line of sight and be ready to use passing ships to relay any message to the Coastguard. Be aware that you will not be detected on any Radar system and that the likelihood of being seen by passing ships is remote. Be extremely mindful of this when crossing shipping lanes and always pass astern of approaching ships. I am always amazed at how quickly a ship on the horizon suddenly appears close by and on a collision course.
Navigation is a separate topic, suffice to say that having a GPS with a recharging capability is useful but be sure to have a deck-mounted compass which is backlit for use at night. For each crossing you should calculate a Course to Steer (CTS) in advance and then be mindful of the significant effect that the wind and waves have on your Speed over the Ground (SOG) as well as any leeway and make suitable allowances in your headings. Use your GPS to assist in this process but don’t rely on it! Remember a GPS doesn’t know anything about tide or wind. Always follow waypoints with appropriate reciprocals should you have to abort the crossing.
Of course there is a psychological side to going solo and it is certainly not for everyone. I have been asked many times what do I think about during a long crossing on a solo expedition. For me I tend to focus on what I will write in my journal that night. Of course thinking of these literary gems whilst you gaze at nature’s majesty is one thing. Remembering how it was you were going to describe what you saw when you are tired at end of a thirteen hour day on the water is another thing entirely. I have ruined several pages of prose by falling asleep mid sentence and waking to find an ink scrawl fall off the edge of the page. During a 2008 trip around Vancouver Island I kept myself occupied by developing an idea for a children’s story in my head to write for my daughter when I got home. I’m a terrible singer so having the opportunity to sing as loud as I want with no chance of offending anyone is wonderful!
But let’s be honest here. If you are looking to have fun, then paddle with a friend or in a group. I love going for a social paddle, having a natter and a bit of banter. My most memorable journeys have always been with others. Sharing a good time is so much sweeter than experiencing it on your own. Going solo is not fun. In fact going solo can often be a miserable experience. I have cried, sulked and screamed out loud. I have ached with loneliness, and been saddened by all too brief and superficial contact with fellow travellers or local residents. You need to be comfortable within your own headspace. Because even though you may be able to see for ever, your mind’s eye will peer back into parts of your past that you might have thought were long forgotten. I have found I become increasingly introverted to a point were I actively avoid human contact, going out of my way to camp in selfish isolation.
I become compulsively orderly in my routines. My dry bags are set down under the awning of my tent in a specific way, I unpack them in order of need and they are placed strategically so that I can find exactly what I need in the dark without wasting the precious battery life of my head torch. My systems become so refined that I can have my tent up and have water on the boil within 30 minutes of coming ashore. The same routine in reverse helps me tackle the hardest part of the day: leaving the sanctuary of my sleeping bag and tent and swapping dry warm clothes for smelly, cold, wet polypropylene. I will swear and curse as I struggle to put on my kayaking gear before a falling tide exposes yet more seaweed covered rock. I will grunt as the first few strokes of another 40 plus mile day tug at tired muscles and aching ligaments. My teeth grind as I contemplate the distance to my next stop.
But I have laughed too: Sometimes a scary, manic laugh in the face of danger; sometimes a chuckle at the antics of some clockwork puffin bouncing over the waves in an effort to get airborne; sometimes a delighted giggle as a whale surfaces or a dolphin leaps skywards.
Believe me, when you overcome that impossible challenge, when you reach your goal, on your own, using your wits, your instincts, your determination – the satisfaction is huge and whilst you may not be able to share it then and there, the knowledge that you achieved it on your own will surely make you smile for a long time to come.
Supported by Kokatat Watersports Wear, P&H Sea Kayaks and Werner Paddles