Alone at sea

Aleksander Doba, trailblazing wilderness expeditioner and 67-year-old Polish adventurer, proved age is just a number by kayaking solo 6,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

Doba set off in October 2014 from Lisbon, shored in Florida six months later and, on his arrival, was greeted offshore by a flotilla of sea kayakers who joined him for his last leg in. It was the longest open-water kayaking expedition ever across the Atlantic and was voted by National Geographic as the 2015 People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year.

Kayaking world first

The Polish explorer departed from Lisbon in 5 October 2013 with the plan to paddle 5,400 miles across the Atlantic‘s widest point to arrive in Florida mid-February 2014. By the time he had finished he had traveled a 7,716-mile transatlantic journey, in his 23-foot kayak called Olo. Unexpected weather and equipment failure forced Doba to add an extra 1,300 miles and two extra months onto his journey. No one had ever kayaked across open sea for this length of time or distance.

Fighting the elements

Doba averaged about 30 miles per day and, when the temperatures were too high, he paddled at night. Indeed, once he was out of sight of shore, he found paddling more comfortable naked.

Loopy lupe

Doba fought with 30-foot waves and wrestled winds and currents that pushed him in loops around Bermuda adding 40 days to the crossing. Three times, Doba paddled hundreds of miles, only to get pushed back by winds and currents, he beat off a shark with his paddle and he ate flying fish landing in his boat.

Maverick expeditioner

Not bad for a man who considers himself a tourist on the water and who didn’t start kayaking until the age of 34 – he did no training for the crossing.

Scorched earth policy

Of all the things sea kayakers do in the wilderness campfires can be the most destructive.

Often it is the jokes around a fire that are most recalled during an expedition into remote areas and uninhabited islands – campfires are a wonderful moral boost and, in extreme circumstances, a lifesaver. However, a campfire kills the grass and the layer of live earth beneath and the patch, apart from looking very ugly in ‘pristine’ wilderness, takes a couple of years to recover.

Some of this grassland on Hebridean coastline is a habitat unique to Scotland called machair and quite often it has protected status due to its importance as a bird breeding ground. It should never be necessary to scorch the cliff top grasslands or machair because there are methods of making campfires that cause no damage at all.

High tide mark campfire

The highest point of the high tide mark is a drier part of the beach than most and, scorched by the sun and seldom wet by the sea, it is also an ecological desert. Building a campfire here ensures that no damage to the ecology is done and all traces of fire can be removed afterwards. Build the fire as follows:

  1. Dig a 12 inch deep trench 1 foot square
  2. Line the trench floor with fist sized pebbles
  3. Line the trench parapet with a wall of pebbles
  4. Build, light and enjoy the fire
  5. Cook on hot embers and oven hot pebbles
  6. Burn scrap foods, carry out plastics
  7. Fill in the trench with sand returning to original state
  8. Drench with water
  9. One storm during high tide will flush the area

Many wilder beaches in Scotland have no fallen dead wood within miles due to the scarcity of trees. Some sea kayakers buy a sack of logs for the trip and pack them in the boat deck, they do however take up valuable space.

Grassland campfire

If building a campfire on grassland cannot be avoided there are precautions that should be always taken.

  1. Remove a circle of turf large enough for the fire
  2. Line the edges of the exposed earth area with stones
  3. Build, light and enjoy the fire
  4. Clear the ashes afterwards (wetting them first)
  5. Replace the turf and the ground will recover in a couple of weeks with rainfall

Stone ring

If it is not possible to remove the turf easily because the ground is rocky and the earth is thin build the fire as follows:

  1. Make a ring of stones
  2. Fill the ring of stones with 6 inches of sand
  3. Build, light and enjoy the fire on the heat insulating protective bed
  4. Remove the ashes and charcoal afterwards
  5. Remove the sand and ring of stones

Sensitive machair

If the area is machair grasses you should consider whether it is appropriate to have a fire at all – portable gas cookers are more suitable to this environment.

Always dampen a fire after use as, in summer, disused fires can build up a heat and spontaneously re-ignite. Never burn fence posts even if they lie abandoned – they are treated with weather protective liquids containing arsenic.

Reduced visibility padling

Creeping fog and the onset of darkness reduces visibility on the water and threatens the cohesion of a sea kayak group. Preparations should be made for the nearest suitable landing point.

The definition of fog is a visibility less than 1,000m (2,280ft) and, whilst this may be suitable for aviation, it is no use to the sea kayaker. Visibility reduced to 500m (1,650ft) at sea is probably a more useful definition.

Night paddling

There are inherent difficulties with paddling at night and often, with the onset of darkness, the most sensible course of action is to confirm the groups exact position, decide where is best to land and to make camp. If such a change in plans might delay the group’s agreed ETA contact with shore should be made informing them so.

Kayaking at night should be avoided unless a) trying to break a macho long distance record, in which case one can assume the kayaker has much experience and knows the issues involved or b) it is a clear moonlit night and the weather outlook is impossibly good.

Procedure

A kayaker with such reduced visibility imminent should double check position, move away from areas with shipping traffic, secure loose kit, attach a paddle leash, turn on lights or activate snap light sticks and, if in a group, start numbering off. Snap lights or glow sticks are a useful piece of kit in these conditions – each member can be given a different colour for ease of recognition.

Handlining from a kayak

Using a line, a hook and bare hands to catch supper can be one of the most rewarding methods of fishing, add the control required to balance your own boat in the swell and you’ve got some real fun on your hands.

But it can’t be claimed hand-lining is a dark art only revealing its secrets after years of dedication. Hand-lining is simple, so simple it’s hard not to feel six years old when doing it. The method reminds me of childhood fishing trips where adults had rods and those too small to see over the side of the boat were given hand lines – a simple bit of equipment looking a little like a reel of yarn with a hook on the end.

Tight lines

The notion of catching supper with bare hands relies on a pinch of theatrical embellishment. Most fishermen, aside those in Hemingway books, wear a pair of sturdy gloves – line cut and shredded hands aren’t a pretty site at the supper table and gloves ensure tight lines give fish no quarter.

The fish being hunted and the depth the species is expected to be found dictates the choice of rig – a few feathered hooks for the shallows and mid waters or some hooked bait for fishing the seabed. If you’re over a reef it can be fruitful to fish the bottom with some baited mackerel or rag worm and the fun is found with feeling every nibble and bite through the line many feet below.

Monster Tuna

I use a 100 ft long WaayCool kayaking hand-line which is plenty deep enough as I try to avoid wrestling with monster fish if I can.

But, with warming waters, come larger fish and, in October 2013, a monster was indeed caught in the Hebrides just off St Kilda, it was over nine feet long and weighed in at 37 stone. Scotland’s first yellow fin tuna had arrived.

If this fish had taken a hand-line bait from a kayak it would take more than a sturdy pair of gloves to pull it in.

Carbs don’t grow on trees

Octane catches some of the world’s freshest* wild caught food: lobster, crab, muscle, scallop, trout, mackerel and some mighty lean venison. However, carbs aren’t found so easily on an island with no shops and dried pasta is therefore an expedition staple.

Octane‘s expedition bothy has no oven so bread making is out and, seeing as it doesn’t last long and is prone to getting squashed in the confines of a sea kayak, it was never really in. Couscous and rice travels and stores well in a boat but something locally sourced rather than shipped from Djibouti or further is preferred by Octane‘s expedition guests who like to know their food is locally sourced. Pasta, a food that dries, stores well, is full of slow releasing energy and uses ingredients bartered or bought locally, is a good food made from home.

Bartering

The carbohydrates in pasta are a good source of slow release energy when paddling and pasta is also a great food to dry, store and transport in a sea kayak. The nearest food store is located on the Isle of Mull, a few hours away by kayak, so it is often easier to barter some fresh caught fish for eggs and milk with a local farm, the trade benefiting Octane, its guests and the farmer.

I am sure to become more adept at bartering with time but for a first attempt I get a dozen fresh eggs, a block of butter of unspecified weight (my guess is 500 grams) and two litres of milk for four well muscled mackerel and a modest sea trout.

Local carb requirements were traditionally met through crofting crop cultivation very much defined by the west coast’s wet climate , limited fertility and shorter hours sunlight. A crofter dug lazy beds for better drainage, used seaweed for manure and planted hardy crops to feed themselves and their livestock through the winter.

Pasta Ingredients

  1. Mix 200 grams flour (fine or ‘double O’, lots of gluten) with 2 eggs (beaten)
  2. Pour eggs onto flour + whisk until of a consistency that can be kneaded
  3. Knead until it forms a neat ball
  4. Wrap in cling film allowing it to rest for one hour
  5. Pass through the pasta roller until required thickness
  6. Dust with flour and cut shapes
  7. Turn shapes regularly to dry through
  8. Store in an airtight container

Dried pasta will last indefinitely when packed in airtight containers. However, when I pack pasta for a sea kayak expedition I do so with enough air to ensure the item is buoyant. I use a folding kayak without bulkheads or air bags so I must ensure each and every bag packed into the boat floats.


*The term fresh fish is of course relative. On the high-street, at supermarkets and in city restaurants fresh fish really means days old so, when patiently waiting for your number to be called at the fish-counter, be ready to ask where your fish is from and how many days ago it was likely caught. Supermarkets invent terms to suit their needs and, as a discerning consumer, it really is your right to challenge nonsense. At Octane we have therefore made a new, differentiated and entirely transparent definition – Ocean fresh. Simply put, it means caught, prepared, cooked and eaten same-day.

See ocean fresh in practice with the post ‘Drive through calamari’ – ocean fresh calamari caught, cooked and served in under an hour


Octane offers gastro wilderness expeditions and, employing Octane’s Eight** methods of sourcing wild food for the pot, we eat the world’s best food, ocean fresh*.

**Octane’s Eight is our philosophy. We believe our travelling guests, being closest to the world’s wildest fresh foods, might quite like to eat the world’s wildest fresh foods.
1. we line fish, 2. we lobster pot, 3. we spear fish, 4. we sea forage, 5. we land forage, 6. we stalk, 7. we seed the sea, 8. we seed the land. Why is it campers and ramblers feel obliged to consume biltong, baked beans and instant coffee?