On September 20, Cyril Derreumaux completed his 4,444 km solo kayak expedition from California to Hawaii. He spent 91 days and nine hours paddling across the Pacific Ocean and became the second person to make the arduous journey by kayak.
Derreumaux spoke to ExplorersWeb about his trip.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Rowing vs Kayaking
You’ve done the course before, but rowed as a team. How does this compare?
A rowing boat is much higher in the water and much safer. It is very powerful and you have a greater range, so you can have a bigger boat. There have been so many solo rowers, but only four people have done ocean crossings in kayaks. Of course, there’s Ed Gillet who rode across Monterey to Hawaii in a standard double kayak and kite. I was very inspired by Scott Donaldson, who crossed the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand. And then there are Alexander Doba and Peter Bray. It’s so rarely done that you have to learn a lot more and reinvent new things. [Note: In the 20th century, Franz Romer and Hannes Lindemann also crossed the Atlantic in kayaks.]
When I rowed, I was in a four, and we were aiming to break the Guinness Record. It was 43 days, and it was all about performance and discipline. My kayaking trip was really different. My goal was to enjoy the ride. I usually go on expeditions with other people, but with this I was pushing my own limits. It was a smaller boat. It’s only 30 inches above the water so I can touch the water on both sides of the kayak. It had a much smaller cockpit and cabin. Being alone, you need to be very aware of your mental state and be able to fix anything on the boat.
Ed Gillet: one of a kind
You followed the same path as Ed Gillet. Do you think you would be able to make the trip like he did?
It’s really easy to answer. No. He is a pioneer. He’s a bit of a maverick in some ways. If you read his book, he says himself that if he had made the trip 10 times, he would have died five times. So it’s not something I wouldn’t do. For me, success was just about getting through safely and finishing it.
He is a legend in my eyes. He inspired me and I have been in contact with him several times. I think the way he did it, sleeping in the cockpit with a tarp over himself, sailing with a sextant and no communication, he was really solo. I was solo because I was alone in the boat, but I had support on land. I could text back and forth. I could even call if there was a problem. It will never be reproduced.
Last year you had to abandon your crossing. How did you feel at the start of the second attempt?
I think the work I did between the two attempts was key. And I think the analysis of the first rescue was important. I realized that somehow I was unprepared because I failed. I upgraded the boat itself so there was better side protection, got a hand pump so I could build and get water out of the cockpit faster, and had an external antenna so I could make phone calls from inside the cabin. I spent five days on the Santa Cruz coast training against high winds and spent more time sleeping on the boat and more time training mentally.
I felt much better. I felt better prepared. There were still doubts, of course, but I felt really happy when I cast off. I felt like it was my moment, and this time I wouldn’t give up until I literally sank.
How did your family feel about you taking this trip after initial attempts resulted in your rescue?
I reassured them by really knowing what I was getting into, being really prepared, having backup plans and back-ups, and being really trained and showing that I was dedicated to it. One of the best things about my girlfriend is that she allows me to do this. I sort of said here’s the list of risks, here’s what I’ll do in those situations, and I proved that I was training to make sure I could mitigate any issues that arose.
Sleep with sardines
What was the sleeping arrangement on the boat?
Most of the time the rolling and swaying wasn’t too much so I didn’t have to strap myself in. The cabin was about the size of a single tent. If I raised my hand, I would very easily touch the roof, and then on either side, my elbows would touch. I only had the option of sleeping on my back. I had to put the pillow so my head wouldn’t swing too much and I could get some sleep. Off the coast of California there is basically a lot of tanker and boat traffic. So at night I had to wake up every hour just to check that everything was fine.
Were you sleep deprived enough?
It took two to three weeks to adjust to the new sleep pattern. The first week was all adrenaline. I pushed to do 12 hours a day. The hardest part was the first week. I was also seasick. Then the second week was really exhausting physically so I was just sleeping because I was exhausted.
It was important to practice feeling safe sleeping on the boat, and it was gradual. I built a wooden replica in my garden and spent afternoons there. Then when the boat came to California, it was on the trailer and I was sleeping on the trailer on the street. Then I put the boat on the dock and slept there. Eventually I paddled and slept in it. It was a gradual progression to the skill I wanted.
The dangers of repetitive stress
What assessment did the expedition make on your body?
Doing anything for 90 days is hard, so I trained for this repetitive motion. When kayaking, you twist your core, so there can be issues with your lower back, core, shoulder, elbow, and wrist rotation. So I worked hard on my technique and learned from other expeditions.
When Ed Gillet arrived in Hawaii after 63 days, his legs were atrophied. Sitting constantly is not healthy for the body. I wanted a way to work my lower body, so I asked Rob Pilot (the designer of the boat) to include a pedal system. I alternated between that and paddling and it helped me a lot to get really healthy upper and lower body. We rearranged the kayak so that the pedal system was between my legs in the cockpit. I could get it in and out in less than 20 seconds.
What was the hardest part of the course?
The start and the start of the coast are always difficult. A compartment flooded very early due to a leak and I had to create a drain system. Then my turn signal went really stiff for some reason. Off California, there was fog and cloud all day, so it was difficult to recharge the batteries using solar panels. The watermaker broke down so I had to use the manual. There were a lot of small issues to overcome.
I think the first two or three weeks were the hardest, but then you become more confident in your boat and your skills. After that it’s more mental and it feels like Groundhog Day. Eventually I went into a pattern where I just enjoyed the day, your mind clears and you are completely free to have new thoughts.
Was this your favorite part of the trip?
These are the magic moments. You can’t look forward to them, they just happen. I remember that after four days of very bad weather, there was a moment. It will stay in my head forever. I just woke up and got out, and the rolling swell was so gentle. There was no wind, no noise. And there was a beautiful sunrise. Its simplicity was simply overwhelming. You can’t really explain it, it just happened and then you start crying. It is magic.
You said earlier that you couldn’t really explain why you wanted to do this. Have you found any answers on water?
I really don’t have a clear answer. It sounds like an incredible adventure. To feel what it is like to be alone in the middle of the ocean and to feel the waves, the raw nature and the force of the ocean. Something in me that attracts me. I know there is something I will learn.
This time, what I learned was that I already had it in me. During the trip, I was really philosophical about life. I thought a lot about love and brotherhood; that we should all consider each other brothers and sisters. All of these values were ingrained in me, but this journey has just revealed them to me with such intensity that now I will intentionally live with these values as I go through life.
You feel a little empty afterwards
Do you have any future expedition plans?
A common thing about adventure is that when you’re done, you feel a bit empty. You think, “Now what? What should I do? What will my brain be working on? I’m trying to refrain from doing a rebound challenge right now. I need to rest and recover well. Of course, there will be adventure in my life forever.
I think next year it will be about reconnecting with real life. I already have some ideas for expeditions that I could do, but it will be for 2024, not 2023. I am 46 years old and have lost 20 pounds and a lot of muscle. So it will take me at least six months to recover and feel strong again.
Next year I would like to race in the Yukon River. It’s only three days. I did it in a six person canoe, a four person canoe and a two person canoe. So a one man canoe or kayak might be good. So maybe a big project for next year. Don’t tell my girlfriend.