25 May 2022

Paul Caffyn: A sea kayaking legend

From Nine To Noon, 11:26 am on 25 May 2022

Paul Caffyn is an absolute legend of sea kayaking, notching up over 40,000 miles in his single West Greenland style kayaks to see some of the most remote places in the world from the vantage point of the sea.

He has circumnavigated the North Island, Britain, Australia (that took a whole year), Japan, Alaska, New Caledonia and voyaged from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to and around the island of Phuket in Thailand.

He has also written four different books on his various expeditions, and has now released a second edition of Dark Side of the Wave.

In 2011, Caffyn was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to sea kayaking and water safety.

Paul Caffyn - sea kayaker

On the very northern tip of Alaska, Paul’s paddling progress was stymied when he met a solid barrier of the last winter's ice. Photo: supplied

Caffyn’s first big trip was in 1977 with co-paddler Max Reynolds, departing from Southland and arriving at the southern West Coast 27 days later.

“Max and I came from a background of caving and mountaineering expeditions, and we had a pretty solid background of white water experience,” Caffyn tells Kathryn Ryan.

“But boy it was a learning experience, Kathryn, we both got upended and capsized, I got flipped over … in a big breaking swell off the south coast.”

He carried on solo to complete the first kayak circumnavigation of the South Island, which was the subject of his first book Obscured by Waves.

“It just became such a beautiful way of life, just to travel and seeing bits of history and the fauna and flora, that was really the genesis or where my interest really started in this area of sea kayaking.”

Paul Caffyn - sea kayaker

Paul Caffyn and Max Reynolds in Blaketown Lagoon, Greymouth, preparing for a training paddle out over the Grey River bar, prior to their Stewart Island expedition. Photo: supplied

But that was just the start of Caffyn’s adventures.

“After I finished the South Island, and my mates in Greymouth were saying ‘well you finished the South Island, when are you going to the North Island?’

“That sowed the seed for doing the North Island trip and then after that … these buggers in Greymouth were saying ‘you’ve paddled New Zealand, when are you going to do Australia?’

“I thought, come off it, it’s too big and the big issue over there is there’s three sets of limestone cliffs that are all over 120 miles long, and in the kayak, you really need to be landing every day and I just couldn’t really see a way how to get over those long distances.”

After an 85-day expedition in the UK, a solution to take on Australia’s waters dawned on him.

“I had this brainwave of overcoming the cliffs in Australia, of latching two kayaks side by side and unravelling a fibre-glass flat onto the deck so you had a primitive voyaging kayak, so you could get out on to the deck there, have a pee and a cup of tea, so that was the breakthrough.”

Paul Caffyn - sea kayaker

Two big brown bears on the northern coast of Alaska, during Paul's solo circumnavigation. Photo: supplied

Caffyn says he prides himself on the substantive research and planning that goes into each trip, which includes visualisation of life-threatening scenarios.

“If you work it through all in your mind and what you’re going to do, when it actually happens you’ve been there already and so you don’t go into a panic mode.”

And this was what helped save him during a bear invasion in Alaska one time, he says.

“This big brown bear had been wandering along the beach and because the wind had been blowing so hard that night, silly bugger, I’d moved my cooker which was ready for the instant porridge, and the brew in the morning, I’d moved that just under the tent fly.

“So silly bugger, partly my fault, the bear had been just cruising along the beach … got a bit of a whiff, not of me but of the cooker, and just ripped open the front of the tent, missed my head by millimetres.

“I knew what it was having done the visualisation, so I did the Fred Dagg imitation of ‘get out!’ And the bear fell over the kayak, did a big galloping turn and up into the dunes.”

It led to one of the most memorable days of his trip, he says, as he got to see stunning sights of the region after meeting a Piper Cub pilot who took him onboard and helped him repair his shredded tent.

He says it’s hard to fully encapsulate the grandeur of going out on water, leaving all worries behind, the enchanting trance of nature, and the dramas that unfold on his voyages.

“Like when I got that big orca cruising down towards me in Chatham Strait, in southeast Alaska and it’s a big bull orca and his dorsal fin, it looked like one of those big nuclear submarines cruising down towards me, and he was so old and so big the top of his fin had started to droop down. 

“[Or] being amongst the walrus in Alaska or having muskox charge me up on the tundra in Alaska ... it’s a hell of a range of emotions experienced.”