Kayaking from Miami to Montreal
“My life is spent in the long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.” – A. Conan Doyle
Destinations are overrated
Some may believe that adventure travelling is the domain of the highly focused, motivated and experienced. If any of those qualities were necessary I would not have written this book. The truth is that I often wander in my apartment trying to decide if I should go to the pool, the pub, the library, go hiking or visit my mother. Sometime my indecisiveness lasts long enough to limit my options which makes my decision easier but leaves me feeling a bit lousy about my sense of direction.
It certainly does nothing to comfort me about my ability to move forward toward larger life goals. Not that I would know exactly what proper goals would be. You know how working towards objectives like career, family and good old general wholesomeness really inspires you and makes you go beyond yourself and helps you reach contentment and happiness? Well that’s not working for me either.
I was quite aware that kayaking up the coast would not provide an answer to existential angst but I believed that the project would focus me for a while and refresh my outlook on life. If nothing else, it would be fun as hell and it would beat wasting away at the office, drifting from café to café and dating hordes of girls. I’m kidding about the girls.
At the beginning of the summer of 2010, I when I first mentioned the idea of following the Atlantic coast to my dive buddy. The plan was to travel from Montreal to Miami. I foresaw leaving Montreal in September and arriving in Miami well after the hurricanes. The craft I wanted to use was a normal sit on top kayak with a kite propulsion system that would have to be devised.
I swiftly changed my mind about the kite idea after I tried the Hobie Adventure Island sailing kayak (AI for short). The AI is a sailing kayak with a quick furling sail, tow small outrigger, a centerboard and a pedal drive system. The pedal drive was a major selling point since I can pedal for 12 hours while I get tired of paddling in about 1 hour. I could have used a traditional kayak but I worried about a trip ending shoulder injury. For all of its advantages, the AI remained a compromise. As it is the case for all multihull sailing vessels, the AI lost much of its speed and sea worthiness once it was loaded. Frankly, it was not a good choice for the open ocean but it made intracoastal navigation very easy. I knew that if I was willing put the hours and conditions were somewhat adequate, the AI was going to be a mile munching machine.
I had rented the AI at Hybrid Marine in Ontario. That’s when I met Blair, the owner and soon to be coconspirator, on a cold and windy September day. I sailed the AI in full winter gear until my feet were too numb to carry on. I thawed them on shore and sailed again until sunset. Blair must have thought I was insane. To his credit, when I told him about my project his face and body language revealed nothing but enthusiasm.
Trying the Adventure Island made my project tangible. I had been sitting in the boat I was going to use. In my mind all that needed to be done was loading it with gear, perhaps water my plants and leave. Alas, I did not leave immediately but I was quite obsessed. By January, everything about my initial vision was turned around:
- I was set on a northbound course that would take me from Miami to Montreal.
- I knew I was going to use the AI sailing kayak instead of the sit on top kayak propelled by a kite.
- I was going solo. A friend had showed some interest but bailed once the trip materialized.
Some knowledgeable people most likely think I chose to leave from Miami and follow a northern course because of prevailing winds, but I never thought of that. I chose to leave from Miami for two reasons. The most pressing motive, to be honest, was that it meant not spending the depressing part of winter in Montreal. I simply cannot stand months of no light, cold and dirty snow ruining my pants and my mind. The second, more respectable motive, was that I wanted to escape the comfortable life that I believed was slowly castrating me before the damage became irreversible. In a sense, this trip was not pure escapism, it was therapeutic, a way to resist social forces that were molding me into something I felt was inappropriate for me. I didn’t want to become another agreeable wuss, thank you very much.
Defining the trip
The trip from Miami to Montreal had never been done in the tiny boat I intended to use. Actually, no one had travelled such a long distance with a sailing kayak before, but it was not a particularly long distance in the realm of the modern long distance adventures. My trip would not be far from civilization and there would always be some form of almost safe route. I had no reason to do anything really dangerous in the name of completing an uninterrupted route or bragging rights. I was going to follow the coast very closely or use the Intracoastal Waterway.
From the start, I knew I had to find purpose outside the normal expedition exploit driven rationalizations. Not that it was entirely clear to me but I think I initially set out with the intention of experiencing something truly exceptional, documenting the coast and getting a damn good story out of it.
Obviously, I did not assume that everything would go smoothly but I never imagined how far from safe and comfortable I was going to travel.
The East Coast of the United States was particularly suitable for my project. It offered plenty of sheltered routes, including the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW or ICW for short), the Hudson River and the lock systems that lead to Lake Champlain.
If you look at satellite images of the East Coast, you will notice that the entire coast has a layer of islands that protect the mainland from the Ocean. Behind those islands are waterways. Not all the water behind the coast is navigable or convenient but enough of it was to build the ICW. The ICW uses mainly natural routes but a lot of dredging was necessary to enable boats to pass through much of the shallow waters that follow the coast, much of which is swamp. A great number of canals had to be dug to join the different sections and hundreds of drawbridges built to allow boats to circulate. The ICW provides a reasonably safe passage for boaters heading south to the Bahamas for the winter or North to get away from the summer’s hurricanes. It’s also used by commercial boats and barges. Most of my trip followed the ICW.
As my project took shape, it overtook all my thoughts. I often wondered when I would finally pass the point of no return. Not so slowly, the need to get it done became quite pressing.
Commitment can take many shapes and, in my opinion, the level of commitment can be measured by how difficult it is to turn back once you take the plunge. For instance, jumping out of an airplane is more definitive than announcing that you will attend an event on social media. In this case, I knew I was committed when I started telling people that I was doing this trip. I even had a going away party.
While telling people did not move me any closer to Miami, the risk of ridicule provided a new source of motivation. Matthew Mohkle who followed Martin Strel as he swam down the Amazon, figured that Martin would rather die than face the shame of not going through with his project. Honestly, ridicule would be daunting but I think it’s the self loathing that I feared most.
Material expenditures and contractual arrangements followed my announcement. Subletting my apartment for four months and investing money on equipment were the concrete steps that would make this trip real.
I ordered the chart books for the Intracoastal (ICW) from Miami to Norfolk as well as the guide for the Hudson River from Lake Champlain to New York. I was missing the New Jersey section but I figured that it was futile to try to prepare everything at once. I gambled that with good maps for the first thousand miles, I would have time to seek out the information required to navigate beyond Norfolk. This was not faulty or lazy logic; I believed the experience gained in the first thousand miles would probably help me plan the rest of my trip. After all, I was not going to remote areas of the world. I could make do with what was available on the way.
As soon as they got to my door, the marine charts of the ICW became a permanent feature of my life. Consulting them, I saw a great amount of bridges and structures and the notes mentioned the busy boat traffic. The more I looked at the ICW the more Ocean passages became appealing, especially in Georgia where the Intracoastal turns into an ever ending sinuous puzzle.
At the local outdoors stores, I bought my first pieces of equipment: the Konata kayaking dry pants, dry top as well as dry bags.
The day after purchasing the dry clothing, I acquired a Hennessey hammock. It has a mosquito net and a rain cover. That hammock was used by a few AI owners to sleep near shores patrolled by nasty sheriffs and Park Rangers.
For all its advantages, I worried about my capacity to sleep in a hammock so I had to do a trial. I used four clamps to tie the hammock on one door frame and the partial wall next to my washing machine. The first night I got cold even though I was using a really warm sleeping bag. I learned that heat escapes quite fast when you sleep on air. The second night I used a standard foam sleeping mat inside the hammock and that settled the heat loss problem but not the “not sleeping” problem.
Outdoors stores became my second home. Only a decade ago those stores were meant for prospector type people with beards and an aversion for soap. Now, most of the floor is filled with designer clothing better suited for a trip to yoga class in an Audi than the outdoors. I found that the reduced selection of equipment they offer consists of anything their distributors push. There is nothing more disheartening than seeing items that you know don’t work such as colorful plastic Sporks that break so easily that I’ve never had one last me more than a day. I found that the total satisfaction and replacement policies of those stores are not especially convenient when the darn Spork quits miles from civilization, days from the next general store and you have to hold what’s left of your Spork with the tip of your fingers. That said, I still don’t think you should spend 20$ for a titanium Spork. Nothing says “yuppie idiot” like a titanium Spork.
I tend to avoid interactions with the outdoor store’s staff. You are truly blessed if you encounter the odd knowledgeable outdoor enthusiast that’s willing to waste away under the artificial lighting for minimum wage. False positive identifiers of competent staff include a beard, sandals and climbing garments. There is no real positive identifier. I find that a reasonable level of outrage at some of the store’s products is reassuring. In a bind, look for the person with the crushed soul that looks like he or she will break down if they spend another minute in the branded yoga pant forest.
Using what I had as much as possible
As a general rule, I had no intention of replacing the equipment I already owned. I lacked sponsorship and there was no reason to spend anymore than necessary. The expenses in clothing and charts alone were in the hundreds of dollars.
Fortunately, I owned a lot of electronic devices. I already had a camera with an underwater casing and strobes (Canon G10, Canon underwater casing WP38, two Olympus UFL1 underwater strobes), an SLR for land shots (Olympus E520 with a 40 to 150 mm as well as a 14 to 42 mm lens), a netbook (an 11 inch Acer with an Athlon processor and 2 Go of ram, with enough processing power to run Lightroom, my picture processing software) as well as three GPS units (Garmin 60cx, an old Magellan and a truly ancient Blazer 12 from Garmin).
I had most of the camping equipment required. My battered 5 years old tent had about 20 patches from my last trip to Porto Rico where the ants bore through the tent material on a daily basis. My severely crushed 10 year old $12 blue sleeping mat was still the lightest and most reliable the market had to offer. My alcohol stove was very efficient. I purchased a new -5 Celsius synthetic sleeping bag since my old ones were either too heavy or too old. I chose synthetic lining because it remains warm when wet while the more expensive natural alternatives will feel like wet toilet paper in similar moisture conditions.
I had some waterproof containers but ultimately many dry bags were purchased for this trip:
- One 10 liter bag for the stove;
- Tree 20 liter bags for food, normal clothing, the wetsuit and sailing dry clothing;
- One 30 liter bag for food.
- A large 75 liter dry backpack would hold my camping equipment as well as the dry bags with my electronics. I hoped that the double dry bagging would keep my electronics dry. That bag would remain on top of the kayak since it held the gear I would need to carry away from the boat every evening.
waiting and COUGHING
I had heard that if you ever wanted to get anything done, you should not wait for the perfect conditions. Nevertheless, I truly wondered if health issues were the sort of thing I should shrug off. Not that I like to worry for nothing but I was now coughing for the fourth straight month. The doctor put me on nasal saline solution and local Cortisone. According to him, I had a chronic sinus infection and fierce inflammation.
As expected the saline solution, cortisone and antibiotic did not do much. The infection and inflammation were not receding. My sinuses were just as infected and I coughed as much as before. I noticed that my cough stopped as soon as got away from Montreal, so I decided to visit my mother in St-Boniface to investigate.
My mother lives in the remote reaches of civilization where time is stuck in the 1950s. While the pretty much entire province of Quebec is strongly secular, on the way to St-Boniface you’ll see a lot of Virgin Mary icons. They install the statues on blue pedestals that make the Virgin look like she’s standing in a bath. In French, we call them the “vierges dans le bain” which translates to “bathing Virgins”.
As expected, I did not cough at all the entire time I was in St-Boniface. That either meant that the Virgins cured me or that my mother lives far enough from Montreal to get away from the pollution. Personally, I stood by the power of the plaster icons.
In any case, it was good news if leaving Montreal was going to make me better. I did not want to investigate any further in case I had something serious enough to keep me in Montreal. Tumors and tuberculosis would have to wait.
At the end of January, I still had to purchase the boat. I met Blair at Hybrid Marine. I inspected the kayak with him. It was the same kayak I had rented earlier and it was in perfect condition. The parts were taken out of their little bags and I put most of the kayak together in the confines of the store away from the resolutely winterish weather.
We worked on a price and checked if there is any sort of workable agreement towards a sponsorship from him or Hobie.
The kayak seemed awfully small for my task. That toy had to get me back home. On the positive side, I figured that the kayak would easily fit on my car and that the outriggers would go inside my car to cut drag.
Blair and I settled on a price for the kayak. Later Blair decided to sponsor my trip. He gave me hundreds of dollars worth of replacement parts as well as the so very important side nets and the best set of wheels he had.
I received my boat behind a warehouse in Lachine. Blair drove through the snow from Lancaster Ontario to deliver the kayak. His minivan was full of boxes he had to deliver in Lachine but he found a way to fit the kayak, the outrigger, the arms, the mast, sail, and everything else. As I transferred the equipment on top of my truck, my trip started to feel real.
I planned to sublet my apartment to someone I met freediving, but he flaked on me like my prom date had done back when pastel color leather ties were cool. The “would be subletter” decided he would rather save the money and stay with his parents. This left me only a few days to find someone.
Fortunately my place happens to be in a highly attractive part of town and I found nice girls at the last moment. The down side was that unlike the arrangement with the freediver, I had to empty most of my apartment. This included disassembling the CNC machine I built in my kitchen, packing up my workshop and taking close to 50 spearguns off the walls.
Lies, drive and dives
Since I don’t plan too far ahead, I had to find a place to stay in Florida while I was emptying my apartment, finalizing paperwork and buying equipment.
A friend of mine suggested that I call a man that was purchasing foreclosed condos in Florida since he often had empty apartments. The guy not only had an apartment for me, he also needed a lift to Florida.
I met the man on Sunday at one those huge suburban malls that simply obliterates any positive suggestion about human kind’s ability to manage its surroundings. Some evil twit created a mall so large that you need to use your car to go from one store to the next. Even with the three lane roads and miles and miles of parking space, congestion is such a permanent feature that it can take 15 minutes to drive from one store to the next. People endure this for the privilege of buying discounted Chinese products in the sort of large chain stores that killed all other form of sustainable businesses and let’s face it, all the positive aspects of true capitalism. I had plenty of time to think about this while waiting in a hotel lobby situated right in the middle of the mall. I knew I would have another 30 hours to meditate but I took a head start anyway.
My partner showed up with huge and heavy luggage. He had told me that he only had a small bag but I did not mind his luggage or think much about the way he had misled me.
This guy liked to talk. The conversation went from his secret perpetual motion machine that he was setting up in Kenya to the works of the Knights of Columbus.
He insisted on doing the whole drive in one go. It took 30 hours and I never ate so much junk food.
When we got to Hollywood, he explained that unfortunately, I could not stay at the apartment in Hollywood for very long, and that he’d be staying with me. I told him that it was regrettable that he did not have time to tell me this during the 30 hour drive. The place was not clean at all, nor was it empty. There was stuff all over the place. When he suggested that I help move a sofa so that he could sleep in one of his other empty condos, I told him that it would be for the best and got to work.
My kayak and all my equipment were soon spread all over my room. The sight of the kayak jammed in my room seemed to destabilize my friend; somehow this felt strangely satisfying.
This is the introduction to my coming Ebook about my kayak trip. The blog is still online and has most of the nicest pictures. If you plan to use the intracoastal or visit the Atlantic Coast, you’ll find a lot of non standard information miami2montreal.com