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Sea kayaker Dave Quinn on the wild outer west coast of Vancouver Island. (Bruce Kirkby/Bruce Kirkby)
Sea kayaker Dave Quinn on the wild outer west coast of Vancouver Island. (Bruce Kirkby/Bruce Kirkby)

In a kayak, there are some danger signs you can't ignore Add to ...

Less than an hour after I departed Port Hardy, B.C., on what was to be a three-week solo kayak journey down the west coast of Vancouver Island, my boat began to sink. In that moment, my adventure went from giddy euphoria to complete fiasco.

My desire to paddle the wild west coast of Vancouver Island had burned inside me for years. Books and magazines often describe, in near-spiritual wonder, the experience of these outer waters: massive ocean swells, the immensity of the Pacific on one side, soaring spruce and black rock on the other.

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Paddling alone would be a new challenge, but it felt reasonable. Good decision-making should ensure being ashore and hunkering down long before winds, currents and storms whip the water into a dangerous state. But as the departure date neared, I began to wonder: What if I make a mistake, grow exhausted or miss one of nature's subtle warnings?

Sea kayakers have invented all types of self-rescue techniques – from the roll to inflatable outriggers and paddle floats that add stability when deployed – but it is common knowledge that if the sea is rough enough to knock you over in the first place, you'll have a hard time getting back in your boat, cockpit bailed and under way again without any help.

Then the idea of a “sit-on-top” kayak hit me. Sit-on-tops have long been scorned by serious kayakers who view them as appropriate only for tropical resorts and weekend recreation. But a small band of purists has been designing and building expedition-worthy sit-on-top kayaks for decades.

The primary advantage? If you find yourself bobbing in the drink, all you have to do is crawl back on top (no bailing) and start paddling again. So I ordered a used boat from an outfitter on the East Coast. It arrived in Vancouver the day before my scheduled departure, an 18-foot-long beauty with a Greenland-style hull made from tough roto-moulded plastic.

The drive to the ferry felt sombre. For the first time in years, my wife was worried. We bid a tearful farewell, then I turned and dragged the kayak up the gangway on a pair of roller wheels, with 180 kilograms of gear and food balanced on its deck.

Rain was puking down when I arrived in Port Hardy. I discovered that I barely fit the new boat, my long legs cramping when jammed on the rudder pedals. While testing capsize and re-entry, one of my camera cases leaked, ruining two precious batteries and a lens. Back at the hotel room, several jackets and all my fishing gear mysteriously went missing. Then my mother phoned with a rare warning: She was having bad dreams about my trip.

By this point, my own commitment was wavering, but I had come so far and invested so much. What else could I do? I told myself that everything would be fine as soon I was on my way. Nature is a reliable balm. Fresh air, fresh fish, perhaps a whale sighting, and I'd be on top of the world.

Despite a forecast of near-unending gale-force northwesters, I set off after dinner, my plan to paddle just a few hours, and then set up camp on a beach beside a heart-warming fire.

After three kilometres, I rounded Duval Point and left protected waters, where the flooding tide was creating haystacks and rollers. Sticking close to shore, I hopped from eddy to eddy, moving steadily northward. Cold waves sloshed over the deck, but I was in a dry suit and felt comfortable enough.

Ten minutes later, the water in the cockpit was ankle deep, and I pulled a bilge plug, expecting it to drain quickly. Instead, the hole at my feet spouted like a geyser, and within seconds water was lapping at the gunwales.

I needed to land. Quickly.

Finding a weather-beaten dock, I crawled from the kayak and cracked open the rear hatch. Everything inside – clothes, food, gear, books – was floating in water. Same story at the front.

Exhausted and disheartened, my mind reeled. What next? As I reached for a rope to secure the leaky boat, something dark in the water brushed against my hand. It looked like one of the Cordura bags that carried my precious fresh water. How could I be so careless? Clearly I was falling apart.

Reaching for the water bag, I realized that it was something else: a waterlogged ball cap, covered in barnacles, that had floated in the open ocean for ages. The flooding tide had carried it to my hand. Emblazoned across its brim, in large white letters, was a message: “Your Village Called. Their Idiot is Missing.”

At that moment, sitting alone on a dock near the edge of infinity, there seemed little doubt that the universe was telling me something.

Two days later, I was back home, beside my wife and boys.

Of course, I continue to dream of a voyage through those magic waters. It will just have to wait until the planets align.



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