On June 25, 1987, Ed Gillet launched from California’s Monterey Bay in a 20-foot Tofino tandem sea kayak stuffed with 600 pounds of gear and provisions. The weight nearly converted his kayak to a submersible, but 36-year-old Gillet, who had already accumulated more than 10,000 miles of paddling experience that included long trips along the Inside Passage and the Pacific coast of South America, managed to keep it afloat. A small sendoff party including his wife, Katie Kampe, stood witness to his departure; Gillet would later come to regret taking only a handful of the bagels she offered him at the slip. But for now, his only thoughts were of the ocean.
Gillet spent the next 64 days paddling solo across the Pacific. Despite nearly calling the trip a week in, after drifting off-course and being forced to improvise a rudder when his broke, Gillet remained committed, recognizing that this would likely be his only attempt at the crossing. Relying on celestial navigation to stay on route, he kept paddling, even as crucial gear spilled overboard and a constellation of open sores, aggravated by the constant spray of saltwater, spread across his body.
“I’m writing about a guy who is starving to death and has these crazy sores from being exposed to open water. He can’t sleep, he’s taking this medication that’s giving him anxiety, he’s getting blown the wrong direction, and all he does is limit his horizon: What do I need to do today to just keep moving forward?” – Dave Shively
When he finally landed at Maui’s Kahului Harbor, almost three weeks later than anticipated, there was no Katie, no crowd, no fanfare whatsoever, not that he’d been expecting the latter. Unbeknownst to Gillet, his communications equipment was compromised early into the trip, so no one back home had been able to track his progress for quite some time. A bit perplexed—and extraordinarily hungry after subsisting on dabs of toothpaste near his journey’s end, Gillet wobbled onto an empty beach with legs no longer accustomed to stretching upright. He had become the first person to complete an unsupported solo kayak crossing of the Pacific.
Even though he undertook the trip for purely personal reasons, to test his own mettle, Gillet’s endeavor earned him a place in the record books, one that hasn’t been matched since—although, of course, that doesn’t mean others haven’t made attempts. While reporting on one of these failed expeditions, Dave Shively, then managing editor of Canoe & Kayak Magazine, began to consider that the real story might not rest with these imitators. He reached out to Gillet to see if he was willing to talk.
Despite receiving some media fanfare after returning from Hawaii, including an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Gillet had grown reluctant to speak of the experience in the decades since. But he found a kindred spirit in Shively, a fellow kayaker who understood the more intrinsic motivations for such a feat. During their first call—which Gillet answered from the hospital, where Kampe was undergoing treatment for cancer—the two spoke for an hour and a half.
Gillet invited Shively to his home, where eased by the “psychological distance” that had elapsed since the trip, he willingly unearthed his journal from the Hawaii crossing and shared his story. Their continued correspondence resulted in a 6,000-word piece for Canoe & Kayak—and eventually, a book, The Pacific Alone, a compelling, blow-by-blow account of Gillet’s Hawaii crossing, along with details of his predecessors and imitators.
Shively was both struck by Gillet’s humility about his accomplishment (“He still kind of sandbags it, you know”) and inspired by it. “I’m writing about a guy who’s starving to death and has these crazy sores from being exposed to open water. He can’t sleep, he’s taking this medication that’s giving him anxiety, he’s getting blown the wrong direction, and all he does is limit his horizon: What do I need to do today to just keep moving forward?” says Shively. “When I think about the book, one of the things that I got out of all these conversations with Ed is that there’s something about the grind of just sort of putting your head down and taking the next step forward.”
We recently caught up with Ed, who reflected on his incredible journey to Hawaii, the concept of aesthetics in sport, and the unique character of the ocean.
On His Introduction to Kayaking
I grew up in Miami, Florida, so I was always close to the ocean. While I was in grad school [in San Diego], I met some students who were getting involved in climbing. I was never—and still am not—a very good climber, but I enjoy the commitment of being on the rock. When Ray Jardine invited me on that first kayak trip [in 1981, along the Sea of Cortez], I remember one of the things he said was, “Well, it’s going to be really switched on.” I was a complete neophyte and I was using really crude equipment, but everything clicked for me. It was the commitment and the little bit of risk that is involved in climbing, being sort of out there, but also the ocean, which I knew very well. The ambitions that I had with climbing, that I was never talented enough to actually engage in—I could realize those ambitions in sea kayaking.
On Big Wall Climbing as an Analogy
A long climb is just a series of stages between bivouacs, between camps, and that’s the way I felt about that Hawaii trip—when I stopped for the day, I was bivouacking on the ocean. It was like being on a ledge, in a hammock, or in a campsite on a hike, where no matter how terrible you feel at the end of the day, how wasted you are, a good night’s sleep and a hot meal will almost always restore your spirits. You know that old saying, “It’s long days of boredom punctuated by moments of terror?” That’s really what a lot of hiking, climbing, and paddling can be. The psychological aspects of the trip were not that daunting because it breaks down into 64 days that are rather independent; there are good days, bad days, hard days.
On the Importance of Style
In climbing, there’s style. I mean, you can be the mad bolter, putting up bolts and chopping holds, or you can do things free and clean. For me, personally, it was to do something that had that sort of—to make the analogy with climbing—Alpine style, rather than a big expedition with Sherpas and support. I mean, theoretically, I could have built an electrical system and had solar panels and a satellite phone. All those things existed in ’87; they were just not so miniaturized and not so reliable. I just wanted to do it as much in that minimalist style as possible. That idea that you can be simplistic, stripped down, self-supported is something that has a kind of beauty to it. That’s why I think of that trip more in the conceptual sense than I do as a big sort of feat.
On His Advice to Others Who Want to Recreate the Crossing
Someone who was an ex-student of mine came back and said, “Hey, I want you to autograph this book.” I said, This is one crossing and everyone needs to find their own crossing, and it will be different for everybody. I wished her luck in finding safe passage to her own shore. If you want to paddle to Hawaii, go for it, but I think everyone has, I hate to be corny, but this kind of personal set of challenges, a kind of destiny that is unique. That was mine and you know, it may be right for you, but probably not. So, don’t worry about doing what someone else did. Do what you want to do.
On His Plans for the Future
I want to be out in the middle of the ocean again. I had this fantasy—not really a fantasy, but a business plan that we never did. It was to buy a big enough sailboat that people could comfortably sleep on and have a fleet of folding boats, then sail to places like the Seychelles or Thailand or Croatia, get to know them pretty well, then invite people over and use the folding boats to do coastal touring. I don’t know how the economy’s going to go, but that’s something that I’m still kicking around as a business idea. I’d [also] like to do some writing, but more environmental, activist-type writing because I’m pretty appalled by what I see going on. The big climate change story now is the effect it has on real people. I’d like to go around the world, especially the South Pacific, and really talk to people who are suffering from what these industrialized countries are putting into the atmosphere.
On What He’s Learned About the Ocean
The Pacific navigators, the people navigating from star positions, wave patterns, and all of the subtleties of the ocean, able to cross long distances without any kind of electronic navigation or so-called “compasses,” they had a completely non-Western approach to being on the ocean. You can only get there by sort of having the same relationship with the ocean as, say, the Bedouins have with the desert. [During the Hawaii crossing], I had this really strong, almost hallucinatory vision that every place on the ocean was a place. It was as unique as the places that are more obviously marked on land with roads, signs, sentinel trees, or mountains. The ocean is that same sort of place that we just don’t have the subtle perception to actually sort of appreciate. A lot of other people think about the middle of the ocean as a kind of—maybe this is why we mistreat it so much—as a kind of sort of empty place. And it wasn’t empty at all.
On the Deeper Meaning of Survival
We need to remember what it means to take a kind of committed, risky trip in nature. It used to be done all the time. We need to get back to that sort of ground-level reality, because only then will we appreciate how we’re destroying the very venue that we need to survive. I mean, I don’t want to get all Thoreau on you, but he said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world,” and I think he got it half right; it’s “In wilderness is the preservation of the self.”
All photos courtesy Ed Gillet