1 : Introduction (1)

I first started paddling kayaks when I was eight years old. My family had rented a small cabin for the summer on an island near Vancouver. Our neighbour, old Mrs. Sweeney, ..........

1 : Introduction (1)

Our neighbour, old Mrs. Sweeney, had two kayaks that she let me use, as long as I stayed within her sight. That was the deal, anyway, but she was near sighted and forgetful and I had more freedom to roam than she imagined. Or maybe she understood that all along and it was I who was fooled.
The kayaks had canvas skins wrapped around wood frames. When you eased into one you heard creaking sounds of wood on wood. The frame seemed like the skeleton of an animal and when it moved within the skin the whole boat came to life. I imagined I was riding some big sea mammal, following the fish and whales to far off lands. The boats moved through the water with very little effort. There was no bashing of waves against hard fiberglass or wood. Just a gentle cleaving of the water as the skin absorbed some of the energy of the sea. This was the intention of the early Inuit who developed and used these boats for their survival. They needed a stealth boat. At the time I thought that these kayaks were original Eskimo hunting kayaks. Maybe I imagined this or maybe somebody put me on. Years later I learned that they were wood and canvas kit boats from England. But I was hooked early on.
During my university years I spent summers in the Canadian Arctic, working for gippo mining exploration companies. If we found some obscure deposit our company would exaggerate and publicize the find in order to run up its share price. Things were wild in the Vancouver stock market back then. Most of the areas that we worked in had been scoured flat by glaciers that had weighed heavily on the land, forming a vast peneplane. The country has almost as much water, in the form of disconnected lakes, as land. We needed a transportable boat. It was during the long days of Arctic summer that I started thinking about folding kayak designs.


The first crude kayaks that were made by Aleuts in the Bering Strait area over 4,000 years ago were likely used just to recover seals, otters or birds speared from shore. Over time hunting kayaks were developed and their use spread across the Arctic as far as Greenland. The Aleuts and Inuits developed sophisticated models designed for various hunting tasks in different conditions and environments. Some of the very best, most beautiful designs were made in West Greenland: long, narrow, low and fast. The earliest commercial fiberglass sea kayaks were modeled after one of these remarkable crafts in the 1970s.
Folding kayaks were developed in the early 1900s. These had heavy wood frames with canvas and rubber skins, were designed for river use, and were considerably shorter and wider than the sleek Greenland boats. My interest was in the sea kayaks. I studied the drawings of Greenland kayaks and was also influenced by the burgeoning development of fiberglass sea kayaks in Britain and North America. Instead of wood I chose aluminum magnesium aircraft tubing for my framework. I had learned a little about the tubing during pilot training I had undertaken in Edmonton, Alberta. I received my first patent on the kayak design in 1977 and began making Feathercraft folding kayaks with my new partner, Larry Zecchel, in 1979, on Granville Island, Vancouver. Although the skins of our kayaks were made of rubberized nylon and later welded urethane-coated nylon, they have always shared the performance characteristics of the early Greenland boats: unlike fiberglass they are silent on the water and paddlers feel the gentle flex of frame and skin gives them a more intimate feeling for the water. Many people experience a lightness of being unattainable in any other craft.
Our timing was good and sea kayaking was starting to take off. Feathercraft Kayaks were the first folding kayaks to be designed specifically for sea touring and they became the standard by which other brands were judged. By 1990 we had a staff of about 20 and were selling our premium folding kayaks all over the world. Our main markets were in North America, Europe and Japan. We continued to make our boats and accessories on Granville Island until we shut down in 2017.
Even before we made our first kayak we had started exploring our local coast in cheap fiberglass river kayaks. We didn’t know much. The journey we took across the Strait of Georgia, across its shipping lanes in dense fog was just plain stupid.
At first we limited our paddling to the local Gulf Islands or the myriad islands just to their north between Vancouver Island and the mainland. We learned our sea lessons slowly, by osmosis. That is the best way. When we later started going to the outer coast we at least knew how to handle our kayaks and set up camp.
The eventual success of the boat business led to a problem for us: we had no time in the summer to go paddling! This led to winter paddling trips and it was during these that we really sharpened our ocean paddling skills. The seas off the west coast of B.C. are relatively benign during the summer months. In winter the Pacific High, which dominates in summer, retreats with the sun and is replaced by large low pressure systems that blow in from the Pacific. Storm winds exceeding 40 to 60 knots are not uncommon. Even hurricane force winds occur occasionally. We spent a lot of time huddled under tarps, sheltered in the forest, in the rain. Learning when to go, and when not to go became key for survival, as did paddling in challenging conditions when we eventually did set off. We rationalized this extravagance on the assumption that the kayaks we were designing and making would become stronger and more seaworthy. And they did. It was lessons learned on these crazy trips that prepared us for paddling in exotic places far from our own coast.
In this book I describe my early paddles along my local coast as I slowly began to realize the effects of humankind’s massive assault on the oceans. I describe how clear cut logging and overfishing affect the health of salmon runs. Following a chapter on our attempted Bering Strait crossing there is an outline of how indigenous people migrated from Asia across the strait and down the Americas, and why their successful maritime culture has long been underestimated by westerners. Chapters on the fishing business are followed by an expedition around Cape Horn where we found a surprising lack of fish. A chapter on sea level rise is followed by paddling trips to West and East Greenland where the ice cap is melting faster than scientists predicted even five years ago. During a crazy adventure in French Polynesia and journeys in the Bahamas and the Okinawan archipelago I witnessed the desolation of coral loss and the scourge of plastic in the near shore and on beaches. I sat through two category 4 typhoons while my partners and I were trying to paddle and sail our kayaks from Japan to Taiwan, grounded by these increasingly intense storms.
There are many things we can do to prevent and in some cases even reverse the worst effects that we have caused. I outline why we must control the great industrial fishing operations that span the globe and also protect 30% of the oceans from fishing and resource extraction. I describe how my home province of B.C. is actually a leader in plastic recycling and how this knowledge could be useful in third world countries. Ocean warming and acidification are two of the most intractable changes that we face and yet there are still things we can do to limit their effects. If we act now.
I have relished my journeys on the ocean but often understood little of the harm that I and the rest of humanity, especially in industrialized countries, have inflicted on it. This must change. Hopefully, in this book you will enjoy some of the adventures that a few friends and I have been lucky enough to experience over the past forty years. You will also learn of the threats that all marine life faces. I’ve included suggestions on how we can repair our relationship to the planet’s diminished oceans. But we cannot wait. More than anything, this book is a call to action.
Today millions of youth all over the world are demanding meaningful change. We must listen, and act. When I started writing this only a small minority of people were alarmed about the climate emergency and even fewer had concerns about the damage to life in the oceans that our actions are causing. Even now most of the talk is about issues on land. And there is still precious little action. The vast seas that cover 70% of earth sustain us. If we truly understand this we can start to heal this blue, watery orb we all call home. Because we can and we must.

Covid-19
It’s June 17, 2020. Evening, 8:40 pm, still light on D’Arcy Island. I left Victoria mid day and paddled here with the current and slight following breeze. 13 nm, just over three hours. Off to Pender Island tomorrow and feeling detached from the ongoing tragedies as I watch a big coal ship glide by the international marker that juts up like an extended finger just offshore from this bay. The global covid-19 virus has stormed humanity and BLM protests have played out mostly peacefully around the world. Most of us have been surprised about how vulnerable we and our societies are. Perhaps we can’t control the natural world after all. Yet, people are pitching in. In Victoria over 200 homeless people have been living in closely packed tents beside one of the main thoroughfares. To their credit, the city and province have bought a couple of older hotels and motels and are now helping many move in. It has taken a raging pandemic for society to finally offer these folks some dignity and a place to live. There has been much kindness and respect offered to front-line health workers and other essential service people. Volunteers are providing food and services to scores of people who have never faced financial ruin and hunger before. I have been keeping busy sewing heavy-duty cloth face masks and donating them to seniors in care homes. They really appreciate them and I have benefited from feeling useful too. It is easy to be virtuous when you have family, a full belly and a secure home.
Pundits are talking about how the economy and, indeed, life can go on from here. How people who have lost family, friends and businesses can possibly recover. Two broad views have been presented. On the one hand governments and most companies will be tapped out of cash and resources. In a classic example of disaster capitalism, corporations will push hard to lower environmental standards while attention is elsewhere. They’ll also work to source more production offshore and introduce more automation in order to cut costs. People will avoid transit and buses and drive more. Fossil fuel companies will demand even higher subsidies. Emissions will rise and the natural world, which has been given a brief respite, will suffer. Climate change will accelerate. Racism will remain unchanged.
On the other hand, people have been surprised that huge money has been found (mostly through government debt) to finance our response to the pandemic. It is likely that the role of states will become more important going forward. Historically politics have moved to the left after wars and large emergencies that required government support. There have been transformative changes in who we think essential workers are: health workers, grocery clerks, truck drivers. Not corporate executives. If these groups get together and organize a new social contract could evolve. The lobbying power of corporations might be dampened. Such a transition could lead to more concern about environmental issues, fewer cars, more bicycle and pedestrian routes, less consumption and a more inclusive society. Certainly, the shocking failure to protect vulnerable seniors in care homes (in Canada 81% of Covis-19 deaths have occurred in care homes) should lead to major changes.
Recent studies have indicated that people who breathe polluted air are more likely to be adversely affected by the virus. This applies especially to people living in poor neighborhoods, including black and indigenous people, and immigrants. These days I can look south from Victoria to Port Angeles on the U.S. Olympic peninsula and see actual buildings- which I’ve never noticed before. I’ve even been able to make out Mount Rainier, on the other side of Seattle, 212 kilometers from here. Cities are expanding cycle and e-scooter networks in order to both minimize bounce-back in air pollution and reduce the number of commuters who have to squeeze into buses and trains. The UK is proposing to invest 250 million pounds on this. Milan is transforming 35 km of road to recreational space and cycle travel, Paris is building a new cycle network, and other cities including New York, Mexico City, Bogota and Barcelona are offering car-free days and planning to open roads for recreation. “All you need is a bit of authority and paint on the road” said Prof Kim Dovey, chair of architecture and urban design at Melbourne University. Quoted in The Guardian.
This authority to slap “paint on the road” was exercised by DC’s mayor Muriel Bowser. To protest against George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police she had BLACK LIVES MATTER painted in huge yellow letters on 16th Street. His death has set off big protests in the U.S. and around the world. In Canada the RCMP’s continued overuse of force against indigenous peoples and racial minorities has set off similar protests. The tragedies seem to indicate an unraveling of Western Societies. Or could it be the beginnings of a rebirth?
The fiscal and health challenges governments are experiencing may increase humanity’s impact on the oceans. Already Canada has pulled observers from commercial fishing boats due to corona virus concerns. Having observers on the boats has been of mixed success due to the prevalence of bullying by some skippers. Now they will have a free hand. If, around the globe, governments reduce or eliminate fishing constraints due to financial and food security concerns overfishing will increase. Will strapped governments cease programs to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans every day? How about CO2: could the pandemic-induced reduction in fossil fuel demand and resulting oil glut signal peak oil and the beginning of long term reductions in emissions? These are interesting questions that will only be answered in the coming years. People are organizing on both sides of the partisan divide and it is important that those concerned about people and the environment, including our oceans, are not sitting on the sidelines. We humans are not good at looking more than five years ahead. We have to do better. Because there is no vaccine for racism. Or climate change.
Some of the locations mentioned have been indicated in decimal degrees of latitude and longitude. You can plug these into Google Maps or Google Earth to follow along.