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Dancing With Death

© 2019 Jean-Philippe Soulé

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A tale of adventure, sacrifice & physical endurance.

 

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The CASKE 2000 Expedition

Central American
Sea Kayak Expedition 2000

Paddle into the Past with an Eye to the Future!

An idea brought to life…

E-mail sent to John “Caveman” Gray from Sapporo, Japan, November 20, 1997:

Dear Caveman,


I have been a silent member of the sea kayaking mailing list for eight months and it is clear that you are one of the most knowledgeable people on the list, as well as the one everybody turns to with seamanship questions.  I’d like to seek your guidance.


For the last two years, I have been planning the Central American Sea Kayak Expedition 2000 (CASKE2000), a three-year, 3000-mile paddle that will take us across seven countries from Baja California to Panama, alternating between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.  


It is a two-man expedition, and both Luke and I are world-class athletes who have competed at the highest levels—Luke in cross-country skiing and myself in mountaineering.  We really need your help because I have never even sat in a kayak and Luke has only had a half-dozen experiences on the Great Lakes.  Currently working in Japan, we cannot afford kayak lessons, but we need the skills and expertise to survive whatever the ocean might throw at us.  You seem to be the most qualified experienced instructor and we are keen students.  We hope to stay in Thailand for training from April 1st until the end of June, then launch on October 1st, 1998.


We have a marginal budget and would like to ask you to be our first sponsor.  Because you are a leader in ecotourism and conservation, I know that you will find the mission behind our expedition compelling.  


The CASKE2000 goal is to experience and write about the culture and lifestyle of the native peoples we will meet.  We know that the lifestyles and skills of indigenous peoples are one of the keys to the preservation of our earth’s precious ecosystems so, as we learn how they live from the land and the sea, we’ll become self-sufficient ourselves.  We plan to document the way they live and the influence of development on their environments and lives, and then use a variety of media to make people aware of their humanitarian, environmental and cultural preservation issues.


We chose sea kayaking as a low-impact way to penetrate untouched jungles and their inhabitants without disturbing them.  We won't meet indigenous people as high-tech tourists, but as people like them, living from the land and sea.
I believe that our expedition would be a perfect way to promote your kayak ecotours while furthering a cause important to you.  We realize all the dangers we will be facing, but are very determined and hope that you will provide us with the training and experience we need in kayaking and seamanship to lead this expedition safely and successfully.

Yours truly,
Jean-Philippe Soulé
Expedition Leader, CASKE2000

John “Caveman” Gray is often described in the same breath as a “brilliant pioneer of ecotourism, environmental preservation and kayaking” and as a “caustic, enigmatic bully on a power-trip.”  Nevertheless he impressed Jean-Philippe as someone who possessed both a penchant for brutal honesty and a wealth of indisputable knowledge.  Perhaps more than anyone else on the list, his commentary demonstrated a profound understanding of the ocean (we would later learn that he was a former lifeguard and experienced seaman).  His tour company, Sea Canoe, was also a highly touted model for responsible ecotourism.  However, the true deciding factor was the company’s location.  We needed a place where the costs of food and lodging wouldn’t drain our coffers prior to the expedition.  Training in the States or Japan, we would burn through our money.  The southern islands of Thailand are breathtakingly beautiful and extremely cost effective.  It sounded perfect, so Jean-Philippe contacted him out of the blue and proposed a training sponsorship.


We were taken aback by Caveman’s response.  He called our plan suicidal and foolish and was unwilling to endorse it by training us.  In so many words, he told us that during his 30 years of experience in and around the ocean he had rescued more than his fair share of idiots and unprepared, gung-ho yahoos.  It would be irresponsible for him to give two more the tacit approval to go get into trouble.  Combining courage and skills is one thing.  Going on courage alone is insane.  And in his mind, setting off into the blustery, unpredictable waters off Baja after only six months of training was lunacy, not to mention the three-year itinerary all the way to Panama.  Even with world-class skills, he doubted that we could handle everything that the ocean would throw at us over such a long period.  


Jean-Philippe sent a very strong reply and insisted that Caveman take us seriously.  I remember standing behind him as he typed the e-mail.


“We’re going with or without your endorsement.  We’d like to go with some of your knowledge.  We’re not just a couple of jokers with zero experience in the wilderness.  We may not have any kayak experience but we are top-level athletes and we will learn.” 


And then he bluffed and told Caveman that we had lined up major media coverage for our “big-time sponsored expedition” and that we could give Sea Canoe excellent exposure on our website.  At that point, the website had received a total of a couple of dozen hits from friends and family and our only sponsorship was a wholesale discount from Feathercraft.  He then closed the mail with a little flattery, hoping that it would seal the deal.  “You have years of experience on the water and you are an esteemed authority on ecotourism and sustainable development; our website will promote much of the same ideology throughout Central America and our kayaking expedition is the only way we can make that happen.  We need to learn what we will be up against.  Nobody can teach us better than you.  We would hate to go without your knowledge.”
Caveman didn’t bite.  He responded again with an ultimatum: “Go check out the book We Survived Yesterday.  I don’t want to receive any more mails from you until you’ve read it.” 


Minutes after reading Caveman’s email, Jean-Philippe ordered the book online.  Three days later he had it in his hands and, over a 24-hour period, he read and dissected it.  The story was about a group of experienced middle-aged paddlers who waged war against the elements in a month-long, record-setting dash down the wave-strewn Pacific coast of the Baja peninsula.  All had been star athletes and/or adventurers through their teens and twenties.  One was a former Navy Seal.  One was a body-builder who spent his days in the gym.  All of them were tough guys in some capacity.  They decided to challenge the record for paddling the Baja peninsula from California to Cabo San Lucas.  The four of them stuffed basic gear into two double kayaks and set out.  They put in marathon 35-mile days, ate their meals while paddling and only took two break days during the entire 1,000-mile traverse.  They nearly died in the waves on multiple occasions.  In their book, they recounted in provocative detail their daily battles with the elements, questioned their own sanity and discussed their survival methods and the fine points of the most difficult maneuvers in sea kayaking: launching and landing in huge surf.  


Jean-Philippe prepared a book report for Caveman along with a numbered list of reasons why we would succeed where they had nearly failed.  The first reason, which he explained very clearly, was that the nature of our expedition was completely different.  We weren’t racing.  Our purpose was not to set a record.  On days with wild weather, we could choose to rest on the beach rather than risk our lives on the water.  There was no pressure on us.  The second reason was that we were not planning to paddle the Pacific Coast (at least not until Costa Rica and Panama, a year and a half into the itinerary).  The interior shore of Baja is much calmer.  The third reason was that we had prepared for any and all contingencies.  Jean-Philippe had researched the weather patterns, gear requirements and navigational difficulties.  We would have everything necessary to survive for weeks if we got stranded or injured.  The guys from We Survived Yesterday ran into surprises almost every day, as if they had just decided to go and do it without any detailed planning.  


Eventually Jean-Philippe filled up a couple of pages with points and counterpoints and sent them off with another brash statement, “Our plans won’t change.  We’re still going with or without your help.”


Caveman capitulated a little and agreed to train us on one condition.  He expressed serious doubt that we would be able to bring our kayaking skills to a high enough level to handle all the rough conditions along the way.  So, we should be prepared to swim out of anything.  His challenge was simple: if we could pass the Hawaiian lifeguard open-water swim test, he would train us.  On the day we arrived in Thailand, he would take us out to an unprotected beach and we would have to swim 1000 meters in the open surf without breaking stroke, in less than 14 minutes.  He was sure that his ultimatum would cause us to give up…

The adventure has only just begun. Check out the rest of Dancing with Death, now on Amazon!

 

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