Paddling the seven seas

I tell people one of my favourite pastimes is kayaking, but I hardly ever get to kayak these days.

Back when, then and all that time ago, I didn’t kayak all that often either. So I suppose kayaking is a favourite in the sense that I remember liking it a lot when I did do it.

I like kayaking for the quiet solitude it affords, though I don’t mind having a companion kayaker who shares the same sentiment, and who might be able to help you out if you don’t execute a kayak-capsize-drill properly. I dislike any motorised water sport, which I think to be the domain of clueless landlubbers who think they love the sea. And don’t even get me started about wakeboarding. If you really love the sea, you’d love kayaking, and perhaps sailing. But…

A kayak can go almost anywhere in practically any weather. In the right hands it is probably the most adaptable and seaworthy vessel afloat. Kayaks have been paddled across the Atlantic and through the Caribbean and up the Alaskan Coast and down the Nile and the Amazon….

…There have been paddlers in kayaks at the (Cape) Horn for as long as there have been humans…. Four hundred years later the kayak is still unchanged in its basic design, because for its size it is as near as possible to being a perfect boat.

~Paul Theroux, Paddling to Plymouth, Fresh Air Fiend

I haven’t paddled even the shortest stretches of the Atlantic, the Caribbean or Alaska, but I have, with a friend, paddled from Singapore to Tioman in a double Klepper kayak, similar to the ones the British and Australian commandos used to blow up Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour. Made of maple and canvas, it is the most seaworthy craft I have ever paddled, even if I haven’t paddled many.

The trip took twelve days from Changi Beach to Pulau Tioman, and according to my kayak journal, which I fortuitously found while trying to tidy my room (and which prompted this post), we set off from Changi on Wednesday 7th of August 1991:

0700 Arrive at Changi Point. Ate breakfast. Bought water. Forgot bread.
0720 Changi Beach. Assemble Klepper. Load up.
0800 Leave Singapore.
0900 Paddle past Tekong.
1100 Arrive at Tanjung Pengerrang Immigration checkpoint.
1630 Arrive at Tanjung Datok, set up camp, dinner, rest.
Total travel 30km, 8 hours paddling. Current and wind against us.

The rest of the journal gets even more sketchy as tiredness and boredom set in:

9th August 1991:

1600 Land on unknown beach. Super seasick.

And then there’s one long journal entry about how Jason’s Bay (Telok Makhota) is extremely depressing. The whole beach is littered with cowdung. And our greatest challenge is combating boredom. , followed two days later by:

Most nervous moment of trip so far when storm blew up gale force 6 winds. Made it to Sibu after 8 hours non stop paddling.

That is a classic understatement. I remember shitting bricks when the storm hit. I remember throwing up on both sides of the kayak. I remember the sizable shark circling us after probably overdosing on the scent of my vomit. The journal ends with these entries:

Pulau Tinggi, Thursday 15th August 1991:

…Have decided to push for Tioman tomorrow. Will be toughest leg so far (>50km) and will take 12 hours or so.

Friday 16th August 1991:

Woke up late. Decided to postpone crossing till Saturday 3am or later, maybe 8am. Bored to tears. Word has gotten around the island that we’re two Japanese commandos.

Saturday 17th August 1991:

Rained heavily in the morning. Have to postpone crossing again. Decided to slot midnight as departure time. Didn’t get to sleep last night because of the wedding party on the island.
Sunday 18th August 1991:
Left Pulau Tinggi at midnight as planned. Couldn’t see anything in the dark but our slipshod navigation skills managed to see us through till dawn, when a storm broke. Got terribly seasick. Barfed twice. Sighted the island at 0745hrs but paddled like mad to arrive at Tioman at 1300hrs. Total time in the saddle 13hrs. Sore bums, hunger pangs and physical exhaustion norm for the day. Booked into cheap resort (RM15 a night), relaxed. GAME OVER.

This is the one trip I’d love to be able to do again, for whatever vainglorious reasons which I won’t admit to. Why, me and my kayaking friend even wrote the leisure article for Straits Times Life [Saturday, November 16, 1991, Leisure, Page Ten] and got paid $200 for our effort – writing and the trip. Cheap adventure. But for some fucked up reason, the editor decided to omit my name from the story, so it would sound like it was an almost solo adventure but the adventurer decided to ask a friend along.

But these days, I find that a good kayaking day consists of two hours or so of paddling through scenic waters, and the only place available with kayak rental and scenery is Pasir Ris Park, where you can rent a kayak for $15 an hour and paddle to Pulau Ubin and back. There are creeks on Ubin which are worth exploring for their flora and fauna and grumpy fishermen living in huts with big dogs that threaten to leap into the water and take a chunk out of your paddles. Forget the sharks, these marine dogs can be real mean too.

Back in Sydney, I paddled Middle Harbour , where you have to fight traffic as if you were on the road. I once paddled in the middle of the channel without knowing there was this passenger ferry bearing down behind me. The ferry pilot must’ve thought it was funny to wait till the last moment to sound his damned loud horn, startling me to the point of my bum leaving my seat. Good amusement for the 100 plus passengers on the ferry. Later that same day, a deranged seagull attacked me while the same ferry was making its return journey through the channel, so the passengers had the benefit of watching me fight off the seagull with my paddle.

I think there’s something nagging me to return to the sea. (Duh. You think??) I want to do the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Alaskan fjords and maybe the Cape. I might start off easy again and go do the Pasir Ris to Ubin leg. But please don’t leave any comments about it being a mid-life crisis thing, all youse landlubbers.

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6 thoughts on “Paddling the seven seas”

  1. hey there mr miyagi,

    happened to see this post only now!

    i am following in yr footsteps with the folding kayak and paddling around asia. Paul theroux was really an inspiring read before my very first expedition, which took me along the eastern coast of malaysia.

    It brought back some memories when I read about yr boredom, which could happen quite frequently when the end point for the day is more than 10 hours away. But there is also the peaceful solitude, the ever changing sea for which we all like to love and hate.

    the sea has this allure that won’t go away once you fall in love with it. I would liken it almost to first love… pls go back to the sea !

    cheers !

    & happy paddling…

  2. hey there mr miyagi,

    happened to see this post only now!

    i am following in yr footsteps with the folding kayak and paddling around asia. Paul theroux was really an inspiring read before my very first expedition, which took me along the eastern coast of malaysia.

    It brought back some memories when I read about yr boredom, which could happen quite frequently when the end point for the day is more than 10 hours away. But there is also the peaceful solitude, the ever changing sea for which we all like to love and hate.

    the sea has this allure that won’t go away once you fall in love with it. I would liken it almost to first love… pls go back to the sea !

    cheers !

    & happy paddling…

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