Paul Caffyn: A legend of the ocean

An insatiable thirst for adventure and exploration has made Paul Caffyn, a man of countless firsts and plenty of tales, an Australian legend. He recounts his wildest journeys and how he faced his biggest fears.
By Chris Ord July 1, 2014 Reading Time: 11 Minutes

THE BEARDED, GAUNT, SALT-encrusted man stands atop towering cliffs. Hundreds of metres below, rollers steam in from the Indian Ocean and crash into the ancient limestone walls.

The man processes the full meaning of the scene and it makes him feel sick. He imagines someone down there nudging through the maelstrom; a man paddling furtively to move forward; a man bracing against each pyramid, fighting to stay upright, dwarfed by the waves smacking around him.

Quick mental arithmetic tells him that the imaginary man will need to stay in the fight for at least 36 hours straight. No sleep. No rest. No land ho, none approachable in a kayak, at any rate.

The next day, 35-year-old Paul Caffyn is the imaginary man realised. Keeping his kayak as light as possible he packs only the essentials: medical kit, radio, survival gear, two sandwiches and some Iced Vovos.

He stashes some No Doze caffeine pills to keep him awake and some Lomotil tablets to keep the bowels asleep. He skins into a wetsuit not worn for the past seven months of paddling. He has slit a hole in the crotch and added a Velcro flap to enable peeing during the overnighter.

Few words need to be said between the man and his two-person support crew. They all recognised the weight of danger loads the kayak much more than the gear he has turfed out ever would.

A kiss for Leslie, a handshake for Andy.

Sprayskirt on, hatches battened, net bag secured, drawstring on trademark straw hat fastened. A final suck of air in the lungs.

“Now.”

And with that, Paul Caffyn launches into the ‘slop’ of ocean in dense fog to face the menace of the Zuytdorp Cliffs, WA, a 200km-long stretch of sheer limestone wall that has until this moment never been kayaked in one stretch.

The next day and a half were to be the crux of his attempt in 1982 to become the first person to paddle around Australia, a 9420-mile (15,160km) “impossible dream”.

The mountainous effort around Australia

“The longest distance I’d paddled in one go before that moment was
58 miles (93km) in the Gulf of Carpenteria, which took me 15 hours,” says Paul, sitting surrounded by memorabilia from the now 30-year-old trip.

Mounted on a wall above him is the biggest bit of memorabilia: Lalaguli, the cherished yellow Nordkapp kayak with which he achieved the impossible, now resting on permanent display in the Queenscliff Maritime Museum in Victoria.

His feat ranks as one of the greatest small-boat ocean voyages of all time. Author of kayaking bible, Sea Kayaking, John Dowd writes: “Not only is Paul’s Australian adventure a pinnacle for sea kayaking, it should eventually be recognised as one of the great small boat voyages of recent history along with those of Slocum, Shackleton and Franz Romer.”

Speak to most stalwarts of the ocean-paddling fraternity worldwide today, and you’ll hear a familiar echo: his is specifically regarded as the greatest kayaking achievement, one likely never to be surpassed.

 “I didn’t know if I could do it, I didn’t know if I had the mental strength, or the physical strength, to paddle through the night without going to sleep. I couldn’t keep breakfast down at the time I was so anxious.”

Paul was already 6560 miles (10,560km) through his journey. He’d been dipping the paddle into the ocean for more than 242 days, faced toe-curling swells, a tropical cyclone which nearly swept him off a small offshore islet in the Coral Sea, raging surf, tiger sharks which frequently bumped into the kayak in the Gulf of Carpentaria, crocodiles, sea snakes, injury and exhaustion.

Yet in all those long hours on the open ocean, the only thing that really stuck in Paul’s mind as a potential deal breaker for the audacious journey was the Zuytdorp Cliffs.

“If I could figure out how to get past them, I knew I could complete the trip,” says Paul who attributes jibes from mates back in his adopted country of New Zealand as sparking the idea to attempt the impossible.

“I’d already paddled around New Zealand’s South and North islands and Stewart Island, and in 1980 I kayaked around Britain. Back home, a lot of my mates were joking about when I was going to paddle around Australia. That sowed the seed.”

His mates weren’t serious, the laugh for them being that no-one would ever consider the undertaking. Indeed, until Paul’s lightbulb went on, no-one had.

Imagining the impossible trip around Australia

“I had this brainwave of how you could cope with the three sets of big cliffs that made the paddle seemingly impossible.

Each set is up to 200km long – there’s no show of landing and passing them involves at least one overnight where you have to paddle right through with no sleep.

“But with two kayaks – I always thought those sections had to be done with two kayaks – you could raft up. I had visions of venetian blind–like slats of fibreglass that you’d unroll across the top of the rafted kayaks to use as a platform.

So you could stop, have a pee and a sleep without capsizing. That was the key to the go ahead for me. In my mind, I now had a way to cope with the excessive cliffs.”

Paul’s plan set in motion an undertaking that would see him backed by little more than a small, grassroots – but intensely loyal – crew, some of who paddled sections with him, and an old Holden panel van they dubbed Uludulla operating as the support car.

Sponsorship? “I tried and got little further than $100 off the price of the beaten-up Holden.”

The idea of getting other people to pay for his expeditions has grated on Paul ever since. “My sponsors are me, myself and I. I work hard, I save, I go and do the trip. I’m not reliant on anyone else, I’m not putting a hand out. My rationale is that I want to do the trip, I’m going to get the satisfaction of the achievement out of it, so it should be me that’s coughing up for the adventure.”

Australia may have been the biggest and riskiest undertaking to that point, but Paul had plenty of sea miles under his spray skirt before he departed Queenscliff, in Victoria, on 28 December 1981.

The love affair began in Canadian canoes before branching out into other outdoor adventure pursuits.

“As kids, we used to holiday on the Gold Coast and on the way there were these six penny rides in canoes – little wooden things about 2m long. I used to get in a big stink if we ever drove past without getting in them and going for a bit of circuit. I must have been about six or seven years old.”

Starting a lifelong passion for sea-kayaking

The blooding into paddle sports continued at the Indooroopilly Small Craft and Canoe Club, a social group that did long trips in Canadians along the Brisbane and Clarence rivers.

“I was lucky to get that guidance and mentorship from those more experienced in the Club. Being out there, camping and just loading everything up and exploring and not knowing where you’re going to go or end up, that struck a bit of a chord with me.”

The balance and core strength so crucial to any paddler dealing with wild seas was further developed by Paul’s introduction to K1s – the long, highly unstable but extremely fast boats seen in the Olympic-style competitions.

Yet even masters have to begin somewhere and like every other paddler under the sun, Paul’s journey started upside down.

 “Back then I was cocky, so I jump in this K1 off the bat and push off and immediately over I go. I came back to the jetty, got in, tried again, one paddle straight in and, bang, over again.”

That experience also honed another of Paul’s traits that would see him through over and again on the high seas: straightforward determination and doggedness, mixed with a sense of the absurd. “Within a couple of months training I was out there, staying upright, racing against the Lone Pine Ferry trying to catch its wake. That integral balance is like learning to ride a bike – that basic skill has to be mastered.”

At 63, Paul still occasionally paddles a K1. “It keeps me honest.”

A passion for adventure

Studying geology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Paul found kindred spirits in outdoors clubs. Paddling time gave way to rockclimbing, mountaineering and caving – the latter becoming an obsession that had him on the search for many years for the “world’s deepest hole”, leading speleological expeditions.

“I was really into rockclimbing and caving. I was into all those non-competitive outdoor sports. What got me excited was that when I did a new ascent I had a feeling I’d achieved and accomplished something.

For that fact alone, my university years were special.

I met all these other people out there doing big trips that inspired me,” he says. “That period also introduced me to the literature of adventurers like Bill Tilman (English mountaineer, explorer and sailor) and Lionel Terray (Conquistadors of the Useless), so I was swimming in information about people who had been out adventuring. In a sense, that was a reason why I have been able to go on and do my big trips, because I had this background in the school of adventure.”

The making of a legend

It wasn’t until 1977 that Paul took up serious ocean kayaking, the seaward move prompted by a midwinter whitewater trip on NZ’s west coast (Paul had crossed the Tasman to work as a geologist in the coal mines).

Standing shivering on a riverbank, he and his co-paddlers discussed an epic 63-day rowing trip across the Tasman by Kiwi Colin Quincey. Collective thoughts turned to the plausibility of making the crossing in a kayak; this a good 30 years before Andrew McAuley would perish attempting just that.

Although Paul would go on to make two aborted attempts to conquer the Tasman – 10 years after he and his mates first joked about it and 20 years before Andrew – at the time the paddling crew dismissed the mission as impossible. Instead, Paul and one of the paddlers, Max Reynolds, had a crack at the South Island of New Zealand.

Five hundred and sixty four kilometres later, Fiordland was ticked off but not before the pair had faced harrowing conditions including night capsizes and breakers crashing over them – enough drama for them both to agree that their next trip would be across the Sahara Desert, as far away from open seas as possible.

While Max felt the lure of a paying job, Paul felt the pull of a challenge left undone. He was soon back on the ocean successfully paddling around the remainder of the South Island followed by a 2700km North Island loop in the summer.

Seized by the passion for sea kayaking

Then, in the winter of 1979, Paul teamed up with Max Reynolds again to cross Foveaux Strait and a gripping first kayak circumnavigation of Stewart Island, a completion of the New Zealand trilogy.

The bug had bitten Paul at the right time in kayaking history.

“Paul was pretty well there at the start of what I call ‘modern recreational sea kayaking’ and as such he was doing things – trips – that had never been done before,” says David Winkworth, a renowned Australian paddler and kayak designer who met Paul in the 90s, post Paul’s defining Australian paddle.

“Klepper kayaks and other similar models had been around since the ’30s but it was always, in the Southern Hemisphere at least, a fringe activity. With the advent of fibreglass and a little while later, plastic kayaks, sea kayaking was picking up.”

Like many in the annals of adventure, Paul was punching out through the waves of history at precisely the right time to create history. Although he pushed the envelope, it was still with a 1.5kg wooden shafted paddle with a fairly rudimentary blade, rather than the super light – at about half the weight – carbon-fibre paddles of today.

Times the weight difference by the number of times Paul would have pulled the blade through saltwater and you see why the achievements of those following in his wake (Freya Hoffmeister and Stuart Trueman in the case of the Australian circumnavigation), while impressive, remain steadfastly in said wake.

They benefited from more than 20 years of kayak technology development, not to mention advances in safety gear and communications technology.

The equipment for sea kayaking

“When Paul started, the list was: camping gear, repair kit, paddle and a kayak,” says David. “Today it is a huge list of safety and navigational gear and camping gear of top quality design and fabrics. For almost all of Paul’s trips, there were no radios, poor weather forecasting, no GPS units or EPIRBS, all items we now take for granted and items we take because they are mandated by governments worldwide.”

Even today, Paul remains a minimalist. “The technology has changed but I am still using traditional navigation techniques. I don’t take a GPS or satellite phone,” says Paul.
It’s a surprising admission from the man who is regarded as New Zealand’s top sea kayaking safety expert and who is regularly called in to give advice and evidence into kayaking death inquests, including that of Andrew McAuley.

“When you’re talking about the risk I have the philosophy that if I’m undertaking an outrageous kayaking adventure, and if I get in the shit, I don’t expect or want anyone else to come and rescue me,” says Paul.

“I don’t want to put anyone else’s life at risk.If I’m setting the challenge for myself, I have to be able to deal with whatever comes up until I finish the trip. And if I do get in the shit and topple off my perch, that’s fine. It means my judgement, risk assessment and decision-making processes were at fault. If I did not believe that I had 100 per cent certainty of completing a trip, it would be like a broken pencil – pointless.”

Clocking up the hours in a sea kayak

Prior to the Australian trip, in 1980, Paul joined novice English paddler Nigel Dennis, to complete another kayak circumnavigation: the first of Great Britain, a 3540km trip taking 85 days.

Then, battling “the black dog” of post-trip depression following the Australian journey, Paul found solace the only way he knew how: by planning more trips, the first of which was a 4400-mile (7081km), 112-day paddle around the four main islands of Japan, another first.

Then came two aborted attempts to kayak across the treacherous Tasman Sea.
A 4700-mile (7564km) solo kayak trip along the entire coastline of Alaska soon redeemed his sense of accomplishment before he eyed up the North West Passage in 1994.

It wasn’t to be. Paddling with Conrad Edwards for the first time, Paul’s confidence – mental and physical – following abdominal surgery, failed him. He cut short the journey after only two weeks.

Joining Conrad again, Paul completed a 885km, first kayak circumnavigation of New Caledonia before venturing north to kayaking’s spiritual homeland: Greenland.

A string of expeditions up north followed, most with a link to the great Gino Watkins, a polar and paddling pioneer of the early 1930s and a man Paul (and many learned others in the kayaking fraternity) has great reverence for. In 2007 Paul paddled the wild icy East Greenland coast to the fiord where Gino Watkins drowned in 1932, and also to the 1930–31 British Arctic Air Route Expedition base.

“The one that really had the fire in my belly was our 2008 expedition: a 691-mile paddle with Conrad following the seventh journey of the 1930-31 British Air Route Expedition, which expedition leader Gino Watkins made in a small boat with August Courtauld and Percy Lemon.

This was the first time that the arduous journey had been completed by Westerners in single kayaks. I’m pretty proud of that one.”

“Put simply he was a pioneer,” says David Golightly from the Victorian Sea Kayaking Club, the leading force in ensuring the Caffyn legacy is long remembered through his efforts to help establish the Queenscliff Maritime Museum displays.

“He was out there doing things and achieving significant sea-kayak voyages when no-one else could either keep up or indeed could conceive that such exploration was possible.”

“He just goes on and on, completing voyages on the edge of survival. Paul’s single-minded focus and willingness to suffer any hardship to succeed sets him alongside the iconic explorers such as Mawson,” says Golightly.

Dave Winkworth agrees with the sentiment: “When he circumnavigated Australia, no expedition paddler had ever sat in their boat for a day and half paddling along hundreds of kilometres of unending cliffs. Paul did it several times on that trip and, in the process, raised the bar for future sea kayakers. He is unquestionably the Hillary of sea kayaking. No-one can say he’s not, and no-one can take that mantle away from him. It’s his forever…no question.”

Paul Caffyn did what every great adventurer of note did before him: he made the impossible possible.

Mental determination the key to kayak success

According to long time paddling partner Conrad Edwards, Paul’s success rests heavily on his absolute tunnel vision.

“His strength is not so much the physical, impressive though his distances are, it’s in his unsurpassed mental vision and drive,” Conrad says.”He has 100 per cent focus on achieving a goal – often goals that no-one else will even entertain.

“Many think of Australia as his crowning achievement, but I regard the (1989–91, 7560km) Alaska trip as his pinnacle.

It was even more into the unknown and untried – I don’t think Paul had paddled in serious ice before committing to that trip – and it was entirely unsupported on the ground. Paul took no means of communication with him. It was total commitment to his own skill and judgment.”

So what drives such immense energy?

“I think Paul truly is one of the great explorers. He was already an accomplished mountaineer and caver with an impressive list of ‘firsts’. He saw in the sea kayak (which in his early days had just appeared in its modern fibreglass form) a new vehicle for exploration and immediately started pushing the boundaries of its use and then inventing and demonstrating new boundaries.”

For his part, Paul remains ever humble in the face of such commentary. “I have always considered myself as having modest ability, but better than average motivation. And I feel so exceedingly bloody lucky that I was there at the right time to kick off this golden age of expedition sea kayaking.”