A Paddle into the Past with an Eye to the Future
As this journey unfolded, it became an experience that we just couldn’t keep to ourselves, so both Luke and I regularly wrote journal entries and stories that we posted on our website. To share the essence of this expedition and to better illustrate our different personalities, experiences and opinions, we’ve opted to weave Luke’s best entries intermittently with mine in the order that the events unfolded. Here, the journals are presented to you in the present tense, while some special feature stories are written in the past tense. This co-authored approach represents our finishing this expedition together as partners—a critical challenge from the moment of our very first paddle strokes in Baja California.
Email sent to John “Caveman” Gray from Sapporo, Japan, November 20, 1997:
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, 3,000-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.
Expedition Leader, CASKE2000
I knew this letter was a long shot; I didn’t expect John “Caveman” Gray to instantly lay down a red carpet all the way to Thailand. After spending eight months as a silent observer on the paddling mailing list, I knew of only two people who would be able to train us in the time frame we had: Caveman, nicknamed for his extensive kayak explorations and tour guiding through the numerous Hawaiian sea caves, and Ed Gillet, a living legend of sea kayaking. In 1985, Ed had paddled sixty-four days, solo and unassisted, from Monterey, California, to Hawaii, an exploit unmatched to this day. We were hoping that Ed, owner of a kayaking operation in San Diego, would help us fine-tune our skills just prior to our departure, but we couldn’t afford to live six months in the U.S. prior to the expedition. Because we had a lot of gear to buy and our savings had to last the three years of the expedition, I hoped that we could do the bulk of our training with Caveman in Thailand, but I knew that I’d have to do some fast talking to get him to take us under his wing.
My childhood fascination with the jungle cast a permanent spell over me, leading me on expeditions all over the world. The roots of this expedition lie in one such adventure on a remote Indonesian island in the early 1990s: I spent four months in an isolated Mentawai community, immersed in an environment and lifestyle I could not have imagined, even in my wildest dreams. Stories of Mentawai black magic first lured me to Siberut Island more than a decade ago. I was traveling on a cargo boat from the island of Nias to the port of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, Indonesia, when the ship dropped anchor about eighty miles from Padang, off the coast of Siberut, the largest of the four main islands in the Mentawai archipelago. I was peering at the dense jungle across the water when dozens of dugout canoes suddenly appeared, racing toward our vessel. Had it not been for the women and children accompanying these strong tattooed men, and their cargo of coconuts, bananas, durian fruits and rattan, I would have thought they were pirates!
Over the frenzy of excited conversation and haggling on the deck below, the boat captain told me: “These wild Mentawai live inside the jungles of Siberut. They dress only in loincloths and are feared by all Indonesians for their practice of black magic and their use of deadly poisonous arrows.” Although I was bound for the wilderness of Irian Jaya, this first encounter with the Mentawai would change my travel plans—and my life—forever.
I had faith in my physical ability and in the survival skills I had learned during my two years in the French Special Forces, but knew I needed experience in the jungle before heading back to Siberut, so I went to the rainforests of Irian Jaya (West Papua) to train with a local expert. I studied Indonesian there, although I knew that in the more remote villages, few if any people would speak the national language. There, outsiders must develop a keen instinct and perception of gestures and energy flow to communicate; I was confident that my experience in massage therapy, Chinese meridians and Thai healing techniques would serve me well. After months in Irian Jaya, I felt ready for the challenge of Siberut. I landed on the island, spent a few days acclimating in coastal communities and then headed for the interior. From there, I set off on a six-week expedition that ultimately lasted more than sixteen.
Two weeks into the trip, slogging through sticky, knee-deep mud, I was making slow progress through the dense jungle. I had to keep the river in sight at all times—it was the only guide that could lead me to the Mentawai village of Matotonan—since the village didn’t appear on my map and had seldom been visited by white outsiders since an Italian missionary first set foot on the island in the 1950s.
In Matotonan, I hoped to find a Mentawai who could guide me to the settlement of the Sakudei people, made famous by Dutch anthropologist Reimar Schefold, who, only a few years earlier, had been the first westerner to live with a traditional Mentawai clan. During my first evening in Matotonan, the primal beating of drums rising above the cacophony of the jungle’s nocturnal creatures caught my attention. I left my host and strolled along the dark trails, following the captivating music. I noticed the flickering orange blaze from a fire and I could hear deep, hypnotic chants accompanying the drums. A man came out to the trail to meet me, shook my hand and brought his hand to his heart. He was a young apprentice sikeirei (Mentawai shaman) named Martinus. A magical evening of fireside chanting followed and I thought I had found my guide to the Sakudei, but Martinus had other plans. “You don’t need to go see the Sakudeis,” Martinus told me. He invited me to move into his uma (communal long house) and live with his clan so they could teach me what I wanted to learn. I was struck as much by the incredible energy of his spirit as I was by his words. Later, Martinus told me that months ago I had appeared to him in a vision and two days earlier, knowing that the time was right, he had come to Matotonan to await my arrival. I tried to explain that I could not possibly be the man in his vision; I was just a tourist interested in the rainforest and its people and I had no special power to help the Mentawai. Martinus looked at me, paused for a few seconds and laughed. We never talked about it again. It was the beginning of a friendship that transcended all borders and a dream that would answer my childhood calling and fulfill my fantasies about jungle living and Indigenous peoples. For three and a half months I shared Martinus’ sikeirei training, experiencing a world I could never have imagined.
There, I had both time and occasion to reflect on the way we live in the “modern” world and about the people we call “primitive.” Each successive day affected me so profoundly that I could not bring myself to leave. They even offered to build me a house so I could live with them permanently. I remained undecided for weeks, but finally realized that I must return to the developed world and lend myself to the struggles of Indigenous groups trying to preserve their lands and cultures. I gained a sense of the deep harmony with which the Mentawai live in their natural surroundings—it is not what I learned about the jungle there that made the most difference to me, it is what I learned about Mentawai wisdom, life and about myself. Their unique egalitarian society, combined with their tremendous knowledge and respect for their natural environment, make them ideal role models for balanced sustainable communities.
Upon returning to the States, I experienced severe culture shock. Although my dire financial straits forced me to look for a job, I still yearned to travel and experience foreign cultures. Going to Japan offered me an excellent compromise: I was able to earn good money while studying a new language and learning about the complex Japanese culture. While working there as an English teacher, I also had time to spend researching subjects dear to me: jungles and Indigenous people. I found that the Mentawai were not the only traditional people at risk; Indigenous communities worldwide have much in common, including the multiple threats of modernization. As developed countries became more aware of wildlife and natural preservation, people still seemed unaware of the life, culture and rights of native people. I soon realized that these unknown people never receive help. They vanish as silently as they have lived. For two years, I considered the best way to bring attention to their plight.
I realized that I could not help the Mentawai effectively by returning to live on Siberut. I was neither a talented writer nor an anthropologist and had no money or connections, so I had to find another way to educate and inspire people. I realized that I needed to break into popular media. To do it, I also had to find a place closer to the States that appeared on tourist maps, and I had to link it with a trendy sport. Adventure travel and extreme expeditions were hot topics and sea kayaking was one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in North America at the time. For my purposes, it would also become a way to travel long distances, carry loads of food and equipment, and access remote jungle villages. Although I had never been in a kayak, I decided in the winter of 1996 that it would be my craft of choice and I would travel the coast of Central America from Mexico to Panama.
Thus CASKE2000, the Central American Sea Kayak Expedition 2000, was born. I envisioned a journey that would take me into the next millennium as I passed through ancient lands and lifestyles: a paddle into the past with an eye to the future.
Although originally planned as a solo expedition, my friend Luke Shullenberger joined me in the preparations in November 1997. For years, many friends and travelers have asked us how we first met and later decided to venture on such a journey together—and how we have remained friends since we seem to bicker all the time. Tired of repeating the same tale many times over, Luke put it into words.
The Genesis of a Friendship
The party line is that it was love at first sight and that, with a joint bank account, cohabitation and only another year to wait until our relationship becomes common law marriage, we squabble just like any other couple. A few people are left uncomfortably silent by this explanation but most pick up on the smirk and wink, then laugh. Whatever the reaction, it always works as a great prelude to the real story.
Prior to the expedition, until April 1998, we were both living in Japan. We each spent nearly four years there, with Jean-Philippe based out of Sapporo the entire time while I spent two years in a small town in Northern Hokkaido, followed by two more in Sapporo.
The short version is that we met on the starting line of a cross-country ski marathon. We both love winter and getting out into the mountains and woods to enjoy it. We share a love of nature and of physical challenges that both put us in the middle of it and pit us against it. However, as far as our respective involvements in cross-country skiing go, this is where the commonalities end.
The longer version starts on a clear, cold day in January of 1996. I was lined up on the starting line of the Sapporo International Cross-Country Ski Marathon and looked to my right to find two other foreigners on the front line among the thousands of Japanese entrants. It was a self-seeding start, where if you’re fast you start at the front and if you’re a weekend warrior you take your rightful place in the middle or the rear of the starting corral. I had raced at the national level in high school and college. Seeing those two on the front line, I figured they were a couple of ringers, hotshots working for a Japanese firm or something.
Bengt was from Sweden and had raced a bit as a youth, and then there was Jean-Philippe. He looked the part, with racing skis and a nice Lycra suit, but something wasn’t quite right. I first felt it when he asked me questions about his equipment: “Is my wax okay? Is there a left or a right binding? How about pole straps?” After a few minutes I came to find out that he’d started cross-country skiing only two weeks before and had signed himself up for a ski marathon after being encouraged by Bengt and some friends. I was quite surprised and a bit amused, and commented about it being a self-seeding start and that the appropriate way to line up was according to ability. But it was too late and the race was about to begin.
Jean-Philippe finished eleventh place in a field of over 2,500 on that day and we have been great friends ever since. From backcountry skiing the highest peaks in Hokkaido to kayaking in Thailand, we continue to challenge and inspire each other. Jean-Philippe usually leads the way and I try to keep up. And even though I finished ahead of him, taking the silver medal that day, it was a humbling experience. And so, with mutual respect tempered by the heat of competition and the understanding that comes from true friendship, we set off together on this odyssey.
Luke, Late 1998
I remember vividly the night that Jean-Philippe told us about his plans to paddle from Mexico to Panama. It was late in the summer of 1997 and we were enjoying our lifestyles as settled expatriates in Sapporo, Japan. We’d both been there a couple of years and had easy jobs, spoke the language and hung out with a wonderfully diverse international community. Jean-Philippe chose the weekly Friday-night dinner party in my apartment as the moment to share his proposed adventure. About twenty people were chatting away in different directions when he started. All eventually stopped and turned to listen as snippets of his plan filtered through their own conversations. A few in the group, who thought many of his other tales to be outlandish and apocryphal, assumed he was bluffing. Someone asked if he’d ever been in a kayak. He hadn’t. Someone asked if he spoke Spanish. He didn’t. I asked him if I could come along and he flat out said no. “It’s a solo expedition,” he replied. “I’ve never met anyone who can handle the way I travel and go to the places I go.” I was stunned. We were very close friends. We trained together. We raced together in ski marathons. He knew I was a hard-core endurance athlete yet he didn’t think I could hack it?
His denial nagged at me and I resolved to change his mind, but I couldn’t simply insist that I be allowed to join the expedition. I had to show him that his objectives required my input, or, better yet, come up with some of my own.
Over dinner another evening, I pried more details from him. His concept was to create a website with stunning photos and stories of extreme adventure and to add a cultural component by documenting native communities along the way. “I’m a writer,” I suggested. “I can write,” he replied. “But you’re French,” I argued. He frowned and answered curtly, “I was French! My current passport says different.”
Needless to say, my first attempt ended poorly.
Over the next few months I was persistent. He listened patiently and I thought I could see his resolve begin to fade. I presented my own goals and reasons for wanting to go. I wanted to write a cookbook on Latin cuisine. I wanted to search for a few quirky stories that would make good magazine articles. I wanted to help him polish the content on the website into a professional product. He was concerned that I would never fully commit to the expedition, that he would do all the work and pull my weight, too. He was worried that I would start strong and then drop out at the first sign of hardship. He wanted assurances from me that I would invest myself both in the website and the mission to promote cultural preservation and that I could endure the physical demands of the trip day after day. So, as is his habit, he described in a hyperbolic fashion the endless hours on the water, camping in monsoons, malarial fevers and other horrors. I ignored his scare tactics and badgered him a couple of times a week, insisting that he needed a quality partner.
One day, after a completely draining cross-country ski training session, I told him point-blank, “I can’t let you go alone on this expedition. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for me. I will never organize anything like this on my own and if I don’t go now, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. I need to go with you.”
He surprised me with his answer: “To be honest, I was already thinking about it. I wanted to test your commitment. Now that you’re on board, we’ll plan together. I’ll come to your apartment next week and we’ll work every night, really work! And when I work, I get things done!” I was very excited, but I had no idea what I was getting into: Jean-Philippe turned out to be a zealot.
That first night he showed up with a mountain of paperwork and a computer with a hard drive bursting with files and information. We immediately transformed my living room into an office. He had brochures and pamphlets on kayaks, camping gear, GPS navigational equipment, solar panels, dry bags, paddling shoes, clothing, everything you can imagine. He had done exhaustive research on each Latin American country that we planned to visit and wanted to meet and document every Indigenous community on the way. He spent eight months online joining mailing lists for survival skills, kayaking, Indigenous issues, asking questions of experienced members, establishing local contacts and creating a huge database of information to be used in constructing an itinerary. At 1:30 a.m., after four and a half hours of non-stop examination of his work, I was numb. Jean-Philippe looked at me and smiled smugly, “You look blown away.”
I grinned weakly and said, “I’d like to dry up like a leaf and blow away, anything to avoid having to dive into that pile of stuff again.”
“Welcome to my world,” he replied.
And so it was. In October of 1997 we officially became a team. We planned to leave Japan by April 1998 at the latest and we had mountains to move before then.
One of our biggest dilemmas was training: how do two guys go from zero to expert in six months? Our plan was to leave Japan in April and launch the expedition at the end of September. Jean-Philippe had calculated all the wind and current patterns and we couldn’t leave any later than that. It was already the end of November and we needed to have a destination, an instructor and a plan in place as soon as possible. So, naturally, Jean-Philippe thought of his fellow members of the sea kayaking mailing list, anticipating that they would embrace the idea of our expedition and offer support. He quickly learned, however, that novice paddlers must run the flaming gauntlet before being accepted into the community.
One debate in particular caused Jean-Philippe to reconsider using the list’s public forum altogether. A young Canadian kid named Max was in the midst of an arduous paddle through massive surf from Canada to Mexico via the Pacific Coast. At one point he even shattered the bow of his Kevlar-reinforced kayak on a surf landing. His sponsor shipped him out a new one and he continued on undeterred. In his accounts of the journey, he made the grave error of mentioning that he had taken a brief ride on a sailboat through a particularly rough stretch. It caused a shocking uproar on the list. Some said that he had irreparably compromised the validity of his expedition by boarding the boat, that there would forever be an asterisk on his claim to have paddled the Pacific border-to-border. Others defended his persistence and courage. Some called his trip a suicide mission and inferred that it was detrimental to the responsible promotion of the sport of kayaking. A few aggressively asserted Max had real “balls” for even setting out on the adventure in the first place and that all armchair-warrior naysayers should “put up or shut up.” The arguments went back and forth. Jean-Philippe sifted through all of this and decided that rather than risk being snowed with “advice” from the entire community, he would approach a few elder statesmen from the list privately. He planned initially to keep CASKE2000 under wraps and unveil it with the launch of our website and with our presence at a promotional booth at the summer TAPS Show (Trade Association of Paddle Sports) just prior to launch. And then, “come what may,” any commentary would fall on deaf ears as we paddled for two months through the empty expanses of Baja.
There was one ubiquitous presence on the list whose comments, emanating from a far-off corner of Southeast Asia, never failed to generate waves of controversy. 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 thirty 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 of 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 email.
“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 emails 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 twenty-four-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 thirty-five-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 1,000 meters in the open surf without breaking stroke, in less than fourteen minutes. He was sure that his ultimatum would cause us to give up.
I watched Jean-Philippe’s jaw drop as he read the email from Caveman. “Shit, I can’t even swim the front crawl! I don’t know how to breathe.” With only four months remaining before our planned arrival in Thailand, we had some serious work to do. It was the last week of November and an early snowfall had already blanketed Sapporo in a beautiful carpet of white. The ski conditions were nearly perfect. Sadly, we put our boots and skis in the closet and headed for daily sessions in the pool.
Jean-Philippe’s first phone call was to our buddy Steve, a former competitive swimmer. I could hear Steve roaring over the phone as he listened to Jean-Phi’s predicament. “But you’re a bloody diver! A certified diving instructor, for fuck’s sake! I’ve seen you hold your breath underwater for two minutes,” I could hear him say in his clipped British accent. “I know, I know,” Jean-Philippe replied sheepishly, “give me a pair of fins and a snorkel and I’ll kick anybody’s ass. I just don’t know how to work the arms and the breathing together. You have to help me.”
The evening after Jean-Philippe’s first swimming lesson we all got together for dinner to hear how it went. The two of them could not stop laughing.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Steve explained. “The man can swim fifty yards underwater and breaststroke like a frog but you send him off on a lap of freestyle and he’s exhausted and floundering before reaching the far wall.”
Apparently, Jean-Philippe could not grasp the concept of twisting his head and breathing under his arm in the middle of the stroke. He drank so much water and flailed so wildly that he exhausted himself by twenty-five meters. Steve was pessimistic about his chances. “Man, conditioning is one thing but proper technique is another. You should be happy to swim five hundred meters in fourteen minutes. Forget about a thousand.”
If there is one thing that Jean-Philippe hates more than anything else it’s pessimism in regard to his abilities. He gets no bigger thrill than accomplishing something someone else said was impossible and doing it in an incomprehensibly short period of time. He is proud to a fault. He may laugh along at comments like that, but inside it burns him up. And although Steve certainly had no ill intentions with his comment, as soon as he said it, I knew I’d be hearing about it from Jean-Philippe almost every day until he proved it wrong.
After three weeks and less than ten lessons with Steve, Jean-Philippe learned functional technique and he began to focus on conditioning. I joined him three days a week at a dingy pool in downtown Sapporo for lap sessions. Both of us had competed at the highest levels in other sports—I had even finished a few triathlons—and in our minds we were talented athletes. Our initial accomplishments in the water proved otherwise. Our first goal was to complete four laps of freestyle without stopping and without lapsing into breaststroke. Little swim team kids watched the two of us, the big, tall gaijin, stroll into the locker room and they cowered in the corners tittering amongst themselves: “Sugeei na, aitsu! Mechakucha tsuyoi daroo!” (“Wow, check those guys out! They must be strong!”) And then as soon as we jumped in the water and started swimming, the aura of invulnerability washed quickly away as we flailed away for four laps and then sagged into a lazy breaststroke just to keep moving. Needless to say, the tone of our former admirers quickly became one of mockery.
After the first week I completed the 1,000 meters in twenty-one minutes while Jean-Philippe struggled his way to twenty-eight minutes. Within two weeks, the two of us were keeping up with the adolescent group of the swim team. We could do six to eight laps without stopping and we’d throw in a half-lap of breaststroke now and again just to catch a breather. We even started joking around with the kids. Initially they were gun-shy when they realized that the two of us spoke Japanese and had understood all of their disparaging remarks about the “white whales” splashing about in their pool, but soon they were firing away and taking part in a rousing game of verbal one-upmanship. We soon began to taunt the fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, “We’re right behind you guys; the white whales are gonna be kickin’ your asses soon!” I suppose it could be said that it was neither fair nor right for us to be battling boys for supremacy of the pool, that we ought to have set our sights a bit higher. But we were both proud and shameless and after a month we became the alpha males of the pool.
Caveman, his lieutenant, Dave Williams, and Ed Gillet ended up training us, but nothing could have prepared us for the shark attacks, brushes with armed bandits and guerillas and the corrupt officials that lie ahead, not to mention the high drama provided by our opposing personalities. In the end, we also survived the constant heat and humidity, insect bites and storms at sea to accomplish more than we had thought possible. It turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that neither one of us have the desire or the courage to repeat! It all started with our first paddle strokes in Baja, Mexico.