If there was a single moment that launched my quest to kayak around the world, one continent at a time over eight years, it came during an expedition in 1999 to the Aleutian Islands, on a tiny rock outcropping called Chuginadak, in the Bering Sea. We'd come--four of us, in a pair of 21-foot-long kayaks--to a region known as the Birthplace of the Winds. Constant fog, 36� water and, indeed, ripping winds that reached 60 mph had dogged us for weeks. It was the end of the trip, and we had successfully navigated among five snow-capped volcanoes and climbed to one 6,000foot peak, and now, after 30 days at sea, we were waiting to be picked up by fishing boat.
As I sat on the black volcanic sand, straining to hear the welcome putt-putt-putt of our boat through the fog, I tried to imagine what it had been like for the Aleuts, who populated these islands thousands of years before and had been among the first to use sea kayaks. Same frigid seas, same dense fog, same big winds, very different technology. Instead of Kevlar and Gore-Tex, the Aleuts had relied on whalebone and sealskin. I thought about those first kayakers, who, thanks to their skill in small boats, had eventually been enslaved by Russian seal hunters.
As I watched the cold surf pound the shore, I realized that despite the differences in our craft, those old Aleuts and I had one thing in common: a great love for being on the sea, in small boats, wandering freely, reaching hidden coves and tiny beaches inaccessible to the rest of the world. I was cold, tired and anxious to be back in civilization, yet all I could think as I sat on that beach was, Where should we go next?
The answer came quickly: the coast of Vietnam. It was a logical leap, at least to me. A voyage there would be an adventure completely different from the Aleutian expedition, during which we had seen no one and endured long days of cold but relatively short paddles in the frigid water. In Vietnam we would have long, hot days of paddling and were guaranteed to see hundreds, thousands of people each day. What's more, one third of Vietnam's 77 million people lives and depends on the sea, and I had long been fascinated by Vietnam, especially the north.
With that transition, from the cold Bering Sea to the warm South China Sea, Oceans 8 was born, so named because the goal (beginning with the Aleutian trip and to be realized sometime in 2007) is to visit each of the seven continents, plus Oceania, by sea kayak. The team rosters, which varied from trip to trip, included photographers, videographers, environmentalists and local guides. So far we've completed five of the eight expeditions and have marveled at the variety, from paddling in 12foot swells off a barely visible coral reef in the South Pacific to facing down wading hippos off the coast of Gabon. We've been inspired by the lives of the people we have met, from the commercial squid fishermen in Vietnam's Ha Long Bay to the solitary sea-urchin divers off Antofagasta in northern Chile. And the fact that the world's oceans face mounting environmental challenges, from global warming, pollution and overfishing, has added resonance to each expedition.
So far, the eight-year project (funded by grants from National Geographic's Expeditions Council and from corporations) has taken us from the Aleutians to Vietnam, to the Tuamotu Archipelago (78 coral-reef atolls in the South Pacific), to the high, arid Altiplano of South America, and most recently, on a circumnavigation of Gabon's first national park. Only Europe, Australia and Antarctica remain.
The kayaks are the key, serving as floating ambassadors. It wouldn't be the same to approach these places by Zodiac or fishing boat. In the kayaks we have been able to reach seldom-seen corners of the world, examine the health of the oceans from sea level and come face-to-bow with people whose lives are inextricably tied to those oceans. As my friend Jean-Michel Cousteau says, "Until you are truly on the seas, or beneath them, you have no idea of the vitality, the life--and the threats--that exist."
Each expedition has been an adventure unto itself. The logistical challenges are enormous, leading to the occasional snafu--such as having the boats delivered to Ho Chi Minh City rather than to Hanoi. We've struggled to navigate through ice, through fog, through stormy seas. And through politics. No one, for example, had previously sought permission to take kayaks along the coast of northern Vietnam. When I approached the Foreign Press Center in Hanoi in 2000 for an O.K., I was greeted by a director with a smile and a cloud of cigarette smoke. "That ... will ... be ... quite ... impossible," he said. The year that followed was full of tense, on-again, off-again negotiations with the government, which ultimately led to an arrangement whereby I would pay a healthy fee for a "filming permit" (read: bribe) to be allowed to bring the kayaks and team into the country. We also had to agree to take along an official monitor--a nonswimming, ocean-hating, Elvis-loving, all-Communist monitor named Linh Cua, who kept to his post for every paddle stroke down 800 miles of coastline, from the border of China to Hoi An.
While Linh was a slightly disconcerting addition to the team, Vietnamese-born translator Ngan Nguyen was a delight. I'd found Ngan, who grew up in New Orleans, through an Internet site read by resettled Vietnamese refugees. Her father had been a helicopter pilot with the South Vietnamese Air Force, and on the last day of the war in 1975 he'd helped shuttle Americans from Saigon to a waiting ship. As a reward he was allowed to bring his family aboard; Ngan was three years old. She grew up to graduate from Tulane, then receive a Master's in international relations from Tufts, and she had returned to Vietnam several times, including a trip in 2000 as part of the delegation that accompanied President Clinton.
Though Ngan admitted she wasn't an experienced kayaker, we welcomed her to our team because of her knowledge of the country. And because she was a southerner traveling for the first time in the north, each day was a revelation for her, and thus for the team, especially when we paddled the Ben Hai River, which was the dividing line between north and south. As we slipped the kayaks into the river that day, I noticed Ngan was crying and asked why. Rubbing the back of her hands across her cheeks, she said there were two reasons. One, because she had always imagined arriving in the north from the south as a victor. And because it was this man-made line, drawn in a Geneva conference room in 1954, that had in part resulted in the deaths of more than a million Vietnamese, from both sides of the tragic conflict.