I am often asked why I prefer going on long sea kayaking trips by myself. Concerns are usually stated in terms such as; “Aren’t you scared to be alone, what if you get hurt, or what if you get lost?”
Some people reference the dangers from bears or other wild animals, or just the basic human need for companionship. These are all legitimate questions particularly from those unfamiliar with solo wilderness travel.
Solo sea kayaking is not for everyone particularly beginners. Those new to the sport should take advantage of the learning opportunities that can only be had by traveling with a group. Paddling clubs, outfitters, and experienced friends are all good sources of valuable knowledge that can only be obtained from those with many miles of water under their hulls. Before heading out solo, all paddlers should take the time to learn from others the techniques necessary for safe wilderness travel.
Modern technology has increased the safety of solo wilderness travel to a level that was impossible in the not so distant past. Cell phones, satellite phones, SPOT and DeLorme satellite messengers, EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and GPS devices such as the PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) produced by ACR electronics all offer options for rescue assistance. Most of these devices are waterproof and can be used on and off the water while devices like cell phones can only be used while on shore. Cell phones can also not be depended on for communications while in the field due to their limited range. Devices that communicate with satellites are the only ones that can be counted on in really remote areas. These products require some practice to use properly and paddlers should master their controls before leaving home. The last thing that you want is to signal authorities for an emergency rescue when all is well. Doing this could result in an embarrassing and expensive rescue attempt.
Both solo and group travel has its pros and cons but for me I’ll take solo travel for long trips every time. I have been paddling since the early 1970’s and have had wonderful experiences both paddling with groups and paddling solo. Paddling with friends on day or overnight trips it a typically enjoyable pursuit, but even close friends can begin to encounter friction after only a few days in the field. On long trips you may begin to anxiously anticipate reaching the end just to get some space between you and your old friend. Those little personal quirks that were so easy to overlook back home while downing a few cold ones can become annoying idiosyncrasies after multiple days of hard paddling in the rain and cold. The distances between friends may not only play out figuratively on shore but literally during the day while on the water. To keep my friends close I find it best to leave them back home and just fill them in on my exploits when I return from a trip.
The old adage about safety in numbers is often just an illusion providing only a false sense of security. More experienced paddlers may be comfortable paddling in rough conditions and may have a tendency to push less experienced paddlers into situations that they are not ready take on. You would be much safer sitting out bad weather on shore alone and waiting for conditions to improve than to launch into a storm with a group of experienced paddlers. Just because your paddling partners are experienced doesn’t mean that they will be there to help you in a time of need. Stronger paddlers may leave slower ones in their wakes with barely a glance over their shoulders to see how their companions are faring in rough conditions. They also may not have the skills or inclination to help a fellow paddler in distress. For that matter they may not even know you are in need of assistance because they have left you so far behind.
From the experienced paddlers point of view they may be putting themselves into a dangerous situation just by having a less experienced paddler along on the trip. A paddler out of their boat and in the water in rough seas presents a situation that puts both the paddler in distress and the rescuer in danger. The longer the trip in both distance and time the harder it is to keep everyone together in all weather conditions. The only way to avoid these situations is if all paddlers in a group understand and agree to certain conventions on staying together, rescues, and conditions for paddling. Or you can paddle solo.
Solo sea kayaking trips produce an amazing feeling of accomplishment at the end that is wholly different from that of a group trip. Whether paddling in a group or solo there will be hundreds of decisions that have to be made every day. All of the decisions that you make on a solo trip are yours and yours alone. Make a correct decision and the trip continues on, make a bad decision and you are left to deal with the consequences. There is no one else to take the credit or blame, it’s all yours for better or worse.
When I am paddling solo I can wake up at 4am if I want to and start paddling at 6am if that is convenient for me. I may even just decide to take the day off if the weather doesn’t suit me. If I want to take a break from paddling during the day I can stop wherever and whenever I see fit. If I decide to paddle for eight hours straight without stopping I need no one’s permission. Decide to change my route at the last minute – no problem and no questions asked.
Here are a few tips for anyone planning a solo sea kayaking adventure in a wilderness area. Carry multiple communication devices with you at all times (even on shore) such as a VHF radio, a cell or satellite phone, an EPIRB, PLB, or SPOT GPS transmitter and know how to use each of them. Leave a copy of your float plan with someone that you can depend on to notify authorities in an emergency. Send an “ALL OK” message after landing for the day using your SPOT or DeLorme satellite transmitter. This message will include the GPS coordinates of your campsite.
If stuck on shore for multiple days send a SPOT or DeLorme message daily to let everyone following your trip know that you are OK. Allow plenty of time to complete the trip so that you won’t feel compelled to launch in bad weather. Have plenty of food available to be able to sit out a storm on shore for a few days without feeling rushed to get going. Practice camping by yourself for a few nights in a familiar area before heading out into nknown wilderness. Have all your bear avoidance tactics practiced and implement them at every campsite. Have the equipment and skills necessary to re-enter your cockpit in rough water if your roll fails. Have a well stocked first aid kit along with the knowledge of how to use the contents.
Paddlers that want to expand their travel options should consider giving solo paddling a try. Start off taking small short trips learning as you go then gradually progress to longer trips in both distance and time in the field. By taking a few general precautions, an experienced sea kayaker can safely travel hundreds of miles while paddling solo.
Denis Dwyer is a long distance solo sea kayaker who has completed the 1,300 mile Inside Passage twice, once in 2008 and again in 2012. For more information on solo sea kayaking see Denis’ book “Alone in the Passage – An Explorer’s Guide to Sea Kayaking the Inside Passage”. You can also visit his website at http://denisdwyer.blogspot.com/