In Praise of Journeys on Water

Whether you choose a canoe or kayak, build yourself a raft, or simply set out to swim, heading to the water guarantees an interesting journey. Pick a river, any river on Earth, follow it from source to sea, and you have found yourself an exciting and fulfilling journey. This applies whether you are paddling a river, swimming a river, or walking the length of one. When I walked the length of a holy river in India, I loved the way the landscapes and the people changed as I followed its meandering course.

As much as I loved cycling around the world, I was aware that virtually the entire journey, even in the wildest places, was done on a man-made road or track. Rivers, on the other hand, are wild and natural and ageless. Whether you follow a frozen river on skis in mid-winter, or paddle along it in the summertime, a river is perhaps the best, and certainly most natural sort of road to travel along.

For sheer happiness of days, I reckon nothing can top drifting down a big river in a cheap little canoe, catching your supper, and sleeping by campfires on the riverbank each evening.

One of my favorite times during my ride around the world was when forest fires forced me off the road and on to water. There was no way to continue by road so instead, I had to canoe 500 miles down the Yukon River. My memories of being properly in the wild, of drifting peacefully even when I wasn’t paddling, of camping on islands in the middle of the river, are some of my happiest travel memories. For day after day there was no sign of human life. There were just grizzly bears, salmon, millions of trees, and the quiet lapping of the river in motion.

Paddling a river can be cheap and logistically simple. You can build your own raft and paddle the great rivers of Europe or South America as two of the interviewees in my book, Grand Adventures, did, or you can buy a dugout canoe, emulating my friend Olly Whittle as he set out to paddle the Mekong in search of something more life-affirming than his normal office job.

For many river journeys, however, kit, logistics, and cash loom large on the horizon. I crossed Iceland paddling rivers using a packraft – an inflatable boat that overcomes some of the logistical hurdles of paddling (see pic above). It was one of the most exciting adventures of my life. Packrafts are like an adult’s rubber dinghy. They are brilliant fun, a super passport to the wilderness, and enable really creative journey planning. But they are not cheap, and the hike to get to the beginning of the paddle phase tends to be longer than the river part of the journey.

Journeys that require kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, or canoes will typically begin and end with a tedious shuttling of large, cumbersome boats between your home and the river. That is not to say it is not worth it – far from it. Paddling a long river is an enriching, brilliant way to experience a landscape. And I, for one, have a dream to return to the Yukon and paddle that great river all the way to the sea.

At the end of every river lies the sea. I love using an ocean to bookmark the beginning or end of a trip. There is a great finality to arriving at the sea, unless, of course, you come up with the crackers idea of trying to get across that ocean and seeing what lies on the other side.

Oceans beguile us with their scale, their mood swings, their unyielding and unchanging presence, and their power. Other than Poppa Neutrino who crossed the Atlantic on a raft made of junk, or Thor Heyerdahl’s legendary balsa wood raft named Kon-Tiki with which he crossed the Pacific, ocean adventures are going to cost you. As well as a good chunk of cash, you’ll also need time, patience, persistence, courage and a sense of humor. What you do not need is to be an expert yachtsman or rower.

None of the adventurers I chatted to for my book knew a thing about the sea when they began their long journey to the start line.

One interviewee advocated the importance of asking people for help, of being willing to learn. Another shared the pain of trying to raise sponsorship for such an expensive journey. And there is much to learn: out at sea you (or your crew mates) must be able to fix everything on the boat, to navigate through the doldrums, to safely weather a storm. It is not a type of expedition to undertake lightly, and the preparation phase will certainly take longer than the ocean crossing itself.

It is for this reason that I never harbored any ambitions to row an ocean. I love adventures but I hate preparing for them. I am too lazy, disorganized, short-sighted and generally incompetent to prepare to row an ocean by myself. I would love to row an ocean solo, but I know I am not up to the task of getting to the start line.

And that is why, when I received an invitation to join a crew to row the Atlantic with just six weeks’ notice, I jumped at the chance. The timing was tight and inconvenient. I had little time to prepare physically or mentally. I had no time to bond with my new teammates. But in life, you will never simultaneously have lots of time and lots of money and lots of energy. So if you want a great adventure you must shoehorn it into life and make whatever compromises are necessary to make it happen.

I skipped the long and laborious (yet undeniably rewarding) preparation phase and just embarked on the rowing. Consequently, I was less competent than my teammates and I was less invested in the whole long journey. I believe that they will have got more from the overall project than I did. But what I did experience was the ludicrous feat of rowing all the way across an ocean.

So if you want a great adventure you must shoehorn it into life and make whatever compromises are necessary to make it happen.

I had already sailed across the Atlantic before I rowed it so I was interested to compare the two experiences. Rowing the Atlantic felt like a more visceral experience to me. Four of us, crammed into an 8-meter boat, little space, zero privacy, crazy sleep deprivation, every small task a hassle, such as locating a spare part in tiny, awkward hatches, boiling water on a wildly swinging stove, crapping into a bucket, changing from storm-soaked clothes in a cabin the size of a coffin, then putting back on those same cold wet clothes after the cruellest of short sleeps to return to the oars once more.

They were hard times. Yet they are a price worth paying for the lunatic thrill of rowing down steep, fast waves in pitch darkness as tropical rainstorms lash down upon you; for the sunrise that signals the end of another long, hard night and the ritual checking of the GPS to see how many miles we covered in the last 24 hours; for the treat of a sliver of salami every 100 miles, food so appreciated that it actually made me cry. For the calm sea and sunshine after a frightening night of storms. For sitting on the cabin roof at sunset and chattering about the huge fish we caught that day. For laughing more than I have ever laughed in my life with these three strangers who became great friends. And for that first cold, crisp beer back on dry land after 45 days at sea. Life is rich on an ocean adventure.

Would I row another ocean? No. Am I glad I have rowed one? Absolutely. But for sheer happiness of days, I reckon nothing can top drifting down a big river in a cheap little canoe, catching your supper, and sleeping by campfires on the riverbank each evening.



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