The author's quest to visit every continent by kayak has given him a sea-level look at the bond between humans and the ocean
August 29, 2004

If there was a single moment that launched my quest to kayak around the world, one continent at a time over eight years, it came during an expedition in 1999 to the Aleutian Islands, on a tiny rock outcropping called Chuginadak, in the Bering Sea. We'd come--four of us, in a pair of 21-foot-long kayaks--to a region known as the Birthplace of the Winds. Constant fog, 36° water and, indeed, ripping winds that reached 60 mph had dogged us for weeks. It was the end of the trip, and we had successfully navigated among five snow-capped volcanoes and climbed to one 6,000foot peak, and now, after 30 days at sea, we were waiting to be picked up by fishing boat.

As I sat on the black volcanic sand, straining to hear the welcome putt-putt-putt of our boat through the fog, I tried to imagine what it had been like for the Aleuts, who populated these islands thousands of years before and had been among the first to use sea kayaks. Same frigid seas, same dense fog, same big winds, very different technology. Instead of Kevlar and Gore-Tex, the Aleuts had relied on whalebone and sealskin. I thought about those first kayakers, who, thanks to their skill in small boats, had eventually been enslaved by Russian seal hunters.

As I watched the cold surf pound the shore, I realized that despite the differences in our craft, those old Aleuts and I had one thing in common: a great love for being on the sea, in small boats, wandering freely, reaching hidden coves and tiny beaches inaccessible to the rest of the world. I was cold, tired and anxious to be back in civilization, yet all I could think as I sat on that beach was, Where should we go next?

The answer came quickly: the coast of Vietnam. It was a logical leap, at least to me. A voyage there would be an adventure completely different from the Aleutian expedition, during which we had seen no one and endured long days of cold but relatively short paddles in the frigid water. In Vietnam we would have long, hot days of paddling and were guaranteed to see hundreds, thousands of people each day. What's more, one third of Vietnam's 77 million people lives and depends on the sea, and I had long been fascinated by Vietnam, especially the north.

With that transition, from the cold Bering Sea to the warm South China Sea, Oceans 8 was born, so named because the goal (beginning with the Aleutian trip and to be realized sometime in 2007) is to visit each of the seven continents, plus Oceania, by sea kayak. The team rosters, which varied from trip to trip, included photographers, videographers, environmentalists and local guides. So far we've completed five of the eight expeditions and have marveled at the variety, from paddling in 12foot swells off a barely visible coral reef in the South Pacific to facing down wading hippos off the coast of Gabon. We've been inspired by the lives of the people we have met, from the commercial squid fishermen in Vietnam's Ha Long Bay to the solitary sea-urchin divers off Antofagasta in northern Chile. And the fact that the world's oceans face mounting environmental challenges, from global warming, pollution and overfishing, has added resonance to each expedition.

So far, the eight-year project (funded by grants from National Geographic's Expeditions Council and from corporations) has taken us from the Aleutians to Vietnam, to the Tuamotu Archipelago (78 coral-reef atolls in the South Pacific), to the high, arid Altiplano of South America, and most recently, on a circumnavigation of Gabon's first national park. Only Europe, Australia and Antarctica remain.

The kayaks are the key, serving as floating ambassadors. It wouldn't be the same to approach these places by Zodiac or fishing boat. In the kayaks we have been able to reach seldom-seen corners of the world, examine the health of the oceans from sea level and come face-to-bow with people whose lives are inextricably tied to those oceans. As my friend Jean-Michel Cousteau says, "Until you are truly on the seas, or beneath them, you have no idea of the vitality, the life--and the threats--that exist."

Each expedition has been an adventure unto itself. The logistical challenges are enormous, leading to the occasional snafu--such as having the boats delivered to Ho Chi Minh City rather than to Hanoi. We've struggled to navigate through ice, through fog, through stormy seas. And through politics. No one, for example, had previously sought permission to take kayaks along the coast of northern Vietnam. When I approached the Foreign Press Center in Hanoi in 2000 for an O.K., I was greeted by a director with a smile and a cloud of cigarette smoke. "That ... will ... be ... quite ... impossible," he said. The year that followed was full of tense, on-again, off-again negotiations with the government, which ultimately led to an arrangement whereby I would pay a healthy fee for a "filming permit" (read: bribe) to be allowed to bring the kayaks and team into the country. We also had to agree to take along an official monitor--a nonswimming, ocean-hating, Elvis-loving, all-Communist monitor named Linh Cua, who kept to his post for every paddle stroke down 800 miles of coastline, from the border of China to Hoi An.

While Linh was a slightly disconcerting addition to the team, Vietnamese-born translator Ngan Nguyen was a delight. I'd found Ngan, who grew up in New Orleans, through an Internet site read by resettled Vietnamese refugees. Her father had been a helicopter pilot with the South Vietnamese Air Force, and on the last day of the war in 1975 he'd helped shuttle Americans from Saigon to a waiting ship. As a reward he was allowed to bring his family aboard; Ngan was three years old. She grew up to graduate from Tulane, then receive a Master's in international relations from Tufts, and she had returned to Vietnam several times, including a trip in 2000 as part of the delegation that accompanied President Clinton.

Though Ngan admitted she wasn't an experienced kayaker, we welcomed her to our team because of her knowledge of the country. And because she was a southerner traveling for the first time in the north, each day was a revelation for her, and thus for the team, especially when we paddled the Ben Hai River, which was the dividing line between north and south. As we slipped the kayaks into the river that day, I noticed Ngan was crying and asked why. Rubbing the back of her hands across her cheeks, she said there were two reasons. One, because she had always imagined arriving in the north from the south as a victor. And because it was this man-made line, drawn in a Geneva conference room in 1954, that had in part resulted in the deaths of more than a million Vietnamese, from both sides of the tragic conflict.

By contrast, on our Oceania trip, we found the Tuamotus to be sparsely populated and remote. Twelve thousand people live among the 78 coral atolls spread over 330 square miles. Known as the Dangerous Archipelago by seafarers going back to Magellan, who first sighted the chain in 1521, the low-lying reefs have sunk countless ships. Our biggest worry, though, during our two-month exploration of paradise, was the presence of the daily companions following us through the coral: sharks.

Whether we were diving to 160 feet or just kicking through crystal shallows among the reefs, we were accompanied by sharks. Most were of the nonaggressive reef variety, but we were occasionally visited by big lemons and grays. One day, off an atoll called Rangiroa, we swam amid 300 of the 10foot-long critters as they bumped our kayaks and our legs and nibbled at paddles.

Phase four, the South American trip, began last fall, when I took a team of six--two Americans, one Kiwi, one Brit, two Chileans--on a 2,400-mile loop through South America's Altiplano (northern Chile, northern Argentina, southern Bolivia), a place where the sea used to be. We began the expedition at sea level, paddling in rough water along the 200-foot-tall limestone cliffs off the coast of Chile and ended it atop 19,409-foot Licancàbur Volcan in southern Bolivia. After leaving the water to make the climb to the peak--pulling our kayaks behind us on a portage cart--we found evidence of the prehistoric ocean everywhere, from remnants of coral and shells mixed in with the high, dry sand to the biggest salt lake in the world, Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, which measures 120 by 40 miles.

Searching for water in one of the driest places on earth, dragging kayaks into the 14,000-foot-high desert, may seem quixotic, but we were drawn by the intense beauty of the high, mineral-rich lake, as well as by the thought that every step we took had once been covered by ocean.

Each expedition has brought its own hardships. In the cold seas of the Aleutians we figured that if we capsized we had 15 minutes to live. The South Pacific, as blue and perfect as it was, delivered a nasty staph infection that spread among four of our five team members. The Altiplano was high and dry, sucking air from our lungs as we paddled and climbed. But by far the most physically exhausting of the expeditions was our fifth trip, this past February, when photographer Peter McBride, environmentalist Michael Fay and two Africans, Sophiano Etouck and Aime Jessy, joined me in Gabon.

In this small west African nation, we circumnavigated the country's first national park, Loango. The combination of unrelenting 100° heat, little food, long, long days on the ocean and a three-day jungle portage took a heavy toll. (For me, the physical challenge was heightened by the fact that I was traveling with Fay, who had gained acclaim a few years back for spending 453 straight days walking across the Congo and has recently been proclaimed by one magazine as one of the world's "toughest men.")

As always, though, there were astonishing rewards. After paddling into high winds across wide lakes, then up a 70kilometer river--spending one night sleeping in our kayaks in a flooded forest--we spent several days on the ocean. At the end of one day, with a beautiful equatorial sunset forming behind us, we sat in the surf zone, not quite ready to paddle in to the beach, even though we'd been in the kayaks for eight hours. As we back-paddled, being gently pushed toward the sandy shore by six-foot seas, first one, then another forest elephant stepped onto the beach. We bobbed and watched as a pair of hippos headed into the same surf for a swim. A moment later a small family of buffalo waded into the water.

"Damn!" said Fay. "Noah's ark, right there in front of us."

It is for those moments that we keep on paddling. Next up? Europe, spring 2005.

Writer and explorer Jon Bowermaster's most recent book is Alone Against the Sea, a collection of adventure and travel stories.

To kayak in Vietnam, we had to agree to take along a nonswimming, ocean-hating, ELVIS-LOVING, ALL-COMMUNIST monitor.

OUR KAYAKS SERVE AS FLOATING AMBASSADORS. It wouldn't be the same to approach these places by Zodiac or fishing boat.

COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER MCBRIDE CORAL ARRANGEMENT Off the island of Rangiroa in the South Pacific, million-year-old reefs lined the Oceans 8 route. COLOR PHOTOROB HOWARD (TOP) CLOSE ENCOUNTERS Over the past five years Bowermaster (bottom) has put a paddle in with the locals in (from top)Vietnam, the Tuamotus and Gabon. COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER MCBRIDE CLOSE ENCOUNTERS Over the past five years Bowermaster (bottom) has put a paddle in with the locals in (from top)Vietnam, the Tuamotus and Gabon. COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER MCBRIDE CLOSE ENCOUNTERS Over the past five years Bowermaster (bottom) has put a paddle in with the locals in (from top)Vietnam, the Tuamotus and Gabon. COLOR PHOTOJON BOWERMASTER BOAT TOTE Up the road without a creek in Hoi An, Vietnam, the kayakers hired cyclo drivers to ferry them to the sea. COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER MCBRIDE SOMEWHERE.... The author, here on a morning paddle in the Tuamotus, says his next continent will be Europe, in '05.