By now there’s a pretty good roadmap for how to do a groundbreaking expedition. You start with your high-profile endorsements, line up your big-money sponsors, formulate a media plan. And then you do the expedition.
Not Ryan and Casey Higginbotham. The 25-year-old twin brothers started with the trip, paddling 2,200 miles from Southeast Alaska to the Mexican border in 2016. Last fall they added another 1,100 miles to the tip of Baja California.
Now they’re raising money for a feature-length film about the expedition, with the help of some of the biggest names in the surf and adventure filmmaking worlds. Surfing legend Kelly Slater makes an appearance, commenting on the preponderance of white sharks along their route, but Jimmy Chin, the Oscar-winning director of Free Solo, brings the money quote: “The cutting edge of adventure means doing things that no other humans have done before.”
“The cutting edge of adventure means doing things that no other humans have done before.”
Exactly. A handful of kayakers have paddled from Alaska to Mexico. Canoeing legend Verlen Kruger did too, though it almost killed him. But they used paddles. The brothers had only their hands for propulsion.
The boys originally planned to use lifeguard rescue boards, but those craft were simply too small to carry the necessary gear and provisions. So they used 18-foot prone paddleboards, kneeling or lying flat on their bellies but always paddling by hand. Hence By Hand, the name of their film project with director Kellen Keene and their Instagram handle, @byhandproject.
I messaged them and they called back within the hour, both of them on a speakerphone, talking over each other, finishing sentences, interjecting details. They told me they’d reached out to a few potential sponsors, but that was long before the likes of Slater and Chin were singing their praises.
“We would e-mail companies and look for sponsorship and they would ask what have you done before, and we’re like ‘Well, nothing,’” Ryan said.
“No one would touch us,” Casey added. “They’d be like, ‘It sounds really dangerous but you guys haven’t done anything like this. You’re going to fail.’”
So they saved their money from lifeguarding, sold off most of their worldly goods and drove to Alaska with a pair of paddleboards on their truck. They each stowed 70 pounds of gear into drybags, strapped them to their decks, and started south from Ketchikan in March, 2016.
Did anyone believe they’d pull it off?
“A couple of friends,” Ryan said. “People that knew us pretty well. Those are the people that thought we were going to make it.”
What about family?
“I don’t think they knew,” Casey answered. “I don’t think they really understood what it was going to be like.”
In fairness, no one knew what to expect, not even Ryan and Casey. That, after all, was the point. The brothers wanted to do something no one else ever had, and they had to do it on wages from lifeguarding and Ryan’s seasonal fishing work. Paddleboarding from Alaska to Mexico was the only thing they could think of that checked all those boxes.
“It’s such a small world with the technology we have now,” Ryan said. “But you can still find places off the grid that push you to your limit.”
“We were just committed to this insane idea, and not quitting,” Casey added.
“At first we were worried about bears, but that’s the least of your worries out there,” his brother added. The boys carried a 12-gauge shotgun and box of extra shells, but quickly found the real challenge was on the water, and in their own minds.
“There’s this constant physical beat down, but the body is amazing. You do something for 10 days in a row and your body adapts and it becomes a norm for you. So the toughest part is just the daily mental grind,” Ryan said.
The first 1,000 miles or so were in the Inside Passage, a seemingly interminable stretch of temperate coastal rain forest in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, most of which is sheltered from the brunt of the North Pacific swell. They thought about a shorter route along the exposed west coast of Vancouver Island, but reconsidered on the advice of a salty commercial fisherman. “He said if you stay inside you might make it, but if you go outside you’re guaranteed to die,” Ryan said.
The brothers stayed in the island’s lee, but once they passed its southern tip they confronted conditions on Washington’s open coast that, for the most part, were indistinguishable from those the old fisherman prophesied would kill them.
Each morning they punched out through heavy surf, and each afternoon faced an even more precarious landing with gear on their decks and fatigue in their shoulders. In such conditions surfing ashore is out of the question, they said.
“You have to time it and come and in between the waves,” Casey said.
“We’re both lifeguards. We spend a lot of time watching the ocean, and grew up surfing and being in the water all the time,” Ryan said. “So you’ve just got to time it. You watch the water and wait for your chance.”
“And no matter what you’re eventually going to get caught,” Casey added. “A wave took me one time off of Washington when we had that first big swell. I felt like I was hanging onto a 100-pound torpedo. I just had to go off one breath and just hold until I hit the sand.”
I asked if they broke anything.
“We broke everything,” Casey answered. “We broke the first two boards in half. We broke the racks we mounted on top for the drybags. Fins break off, rudders bend and break. And that’s all entering and exiting surf.”
The drive to climb higher in a tree, jump from a bigger cliff, do the most pushups, run faster and farther—has never gone away. The trip has merely channeled it in a new direction.
The boards broke somewhere on the Oregon coast, but I didn’t press for details. I was more interested in the brothers’ metaphorical journey. The trailer hints at a sibling rivalry on permanent high-simmer. I asked if it ever boils over, and the brothers launched into stories of childhood wrestling matches, blood on the kitchen floor, and the time in high school when Ryan popped his chest at Casey. Hands flew, and one of them (I didn’t ask which) ended up with a concussion.
“We’re smarter than that now,” says Casey, but that sense of competition—the drive to climb higher in a tree, jump from a bigger cliff, do the most pushups, run faster and farther—has never gone away. The trip has merely channeled it in a new direction.
That is the coming-of-age story that filmmaker Kellen Keene has layered with the adventure tale. Keene was one of those few friends who never doubted them. He grew up surfing with Ryan and Casey in Pismo Beach, California and has been working on the film as long as they have. He already has a rough cut, including those interviews with Kelly, Chin, and 10-time world paddleboard champion Jamie Mitchell.
Keene made those connections through his film work (“they’re friends of friends,” Ryan said) and the boys still seem a bit overwhelmed by the attention of such legends. “From the outside it’s great validation, but internally it’s really neat because all those guys are masters in what they do,” Ryan said.
Mitchell was taken with the combination of endurance and commitment their expedition demanded—elements he’s grown to appreciate in his dual careers as paddleboard racer and big-wave charger. If the Kickstarter makes its goal Keene will be able to polish the film to a high sheen, fund a festival campaign and perhaps broker a theatrical release. Those who kick in now will get their own copy of the film, an invitation to ride along on an adventure that Chin calls “one of the most difficult trips of any kind,” and punch their ticket for the metaphorical journey as well.
“The film dives into the character growth that evolved from this idea. We start out young and green and we’re just kind of learning to work as a team through the adversity of the trip,” Ryan said. “I think people will really be able to relate to that when they see the film. I think people are going to be blown away.”