- Buyer's Guide
Cuba, Kayaks and Carry :: Cotopaxi Challenge 113 (Part I)
“Gear for Good” is stitched into every bag Cotopaxi makes – but the desire to do good is also woven into the very fabric of the team behind this young Salt Lake City-based company. Their goal? Mesh the adventures they design their bags for with the social missions they seek to pursue. They give 2% of sales to empowering livelihoods through entrepreneurship, young child health initiatives, and literacy causes worldwide. But they’re also not afraid to put their bodies on the line to further their goal. So when it was recently announced that the US-Cuba embargo would be lifted, Cuba beckoned as a prime setting for Cotopaxi to merge altruism with adventure. Challenge 113 was born.
The expedition works out like this. First, rendezvous with a team in Key West, Florida and set sail to Havana, Cuba. Once in Cuba meet with local Cuban entrepreneurs and see through their eyes a country that’s poised to be permanently changed with the ending of the US-Cuba embargo. With these entrepreneurs they’ll be strategizing ways to position their businesses towards a new US market. Then rather than simply sail back to the States, kayak back. 113 miles across the open ocean, a journey taking anywhere from 25-48 hours. We’ve given writer Frank Sedlar a list of things not to say in Spanish, a YouTube list of how to kayak videos, and a crash course in the finer points of Cuban rum and sent him packing to Key West.
As the last of the kayaks are hoisted onto the cantilevered hull of the Mirage, one of our two support boats for the crossing, an eager group of people gather around Davis Smith, the CEO of Cotopaxi. With a still dripping paddle in one hand and the other quickly flicking through emails on his phone, the full grin beneath his thick beard remains apparent. After months of planning and thousands of emails, seeing the team comprising Challenge 113 glancing back at him with Cuba somewhere off on the horizon is an exciting feeling.
The people that Davis has assembled are an eccentric bunch. First are Cotopaxi’s top brass, a group of bearded 30-somethings who have started more businesses than we have beers in our cooler. Giving the kayaks a once-over is the world record holder for distance traveled in a kayak over 24 hours. He’s spent more time in kayaks than is considered sane, though his lively face and quick laugh give away no signs of permanent insanity. The sea worn hair and sun bathed clothes of the two ship captains are easy to spot as their wearers are already pacing, debating the finer points of a Cuba-Florida crossing, of which they have had success in the past. Off to the side there’s a gruff Olympic gold medalist kayaker animatedly talking on the phone with ESPN. The click-click of a number of cameras belonging to the cohort of journalists can be heard throughout the dockside commotion. Finally there are the friends of Cotopaxi. Rather than have professional or sponsored athletes, Cotopaxi extended an invitation to supporters of the company to join the expedition. Chosen for this year’s expedition is a girl from landlocked Iowa who appears quite at home in an ocean kayak. All told it’s a vibrant 22-person expedition of altruistic adventurers.
In the cramped pale white plastic enclave of the ship’s dining quarters a tireless Davis introduces the team and runs over the never-ending logistics of this crossing. Abruptly the crescendoing ring of a captain’s iPhone halts Davis mid-sentence. By the shocked look on the captain’s face and the stammering of his words it’s immediately apparent there’s a problem. While the US embargo and travel restrictions have not yet been lifted on Cuba, it’s still possible to sail from the US with the proper permits, three to be exact. Though this trip had been in the works for half a year we were suddenly being informed that a formality with one of the permits was now jeopardizing the entire expedition. To get to Cuba yet another mountain of bureaucratic paperwork would have to be summited. And fast.
“Though this trip had been in the works for half a year we were suddenly being informed that a formality with one of the permits was now jeopardizing the entire expedition.”
As if the ship was sinking, people dash to the dock to start those bureaucratic gears turning. Those of us remaining were left with Carter Johnson, a man whose jovial demeanor and soft face worn constantly with a grin would never give away that he delights in pushing his body to near breaking point by paddling in a kayak for days at a time. With the remaining members of the expedition crammed sunburned shoulder to sunburned shoulder in the now dreary cabin of the ship, Carter decides to matter-of-factly give us a rundown of the unfortunate realities of endurance kayaking.
“I once did a race across Missouri where I only ate McDonald’s hamburgers”
The food required to fuel two days of continuous physical exercise is rather ridiculous. Luckily we will not need to carry every last calorie on our kayaks but instead refuel every three hours via the support boats. The food we have on us will be whatever the hell sounds good. Seriously, the prospect of eating PowerBars for two days straight is enough to make you want to roll off your boat into the ocean. Instead we’re talking beef jerky, zebra cakes, and the odd banana for good measure.
“It smells like a cat pissed on my face”
Despite eating regularly, at some point after hour-24 of continuous exercise the human body simply can’t replenish its stores faster than they are being depleted. At this point rather than burning fat and other sources of calories your body instead starts digesting muscle. You can be sure this process has started when your body begins emitting a nauseating ammonia smell. Carter’s advice? Do your best to avoid this point at all costs.
Along with a regular schedule of feedings we’ll be rotating through a regular schedule of over the counter drugs. The piles of Tums, Imodium, Pepto, and ibuprofen that we’ll be shoving down our throats every two hours will be our best bet at dealing with some of the pain and other bodily functions that in any other situation let us know it’s time to call it quits.
The biggest source of discomfort this trip will be from chafing. The solution? Every drugstore in Key West has been emptied of their supplies of baby powder. We’ll also be lining every inch of the kayak that we’ll be in contact with with numerous layers of plastic garbage bags. For long-distance kayaking, slippage is the name of the game.
“The graveyard shift”
Lots of people stay up ‘til 2 am. Even more people wake up at 5 am. But very few people are up for the graveyard shift from 2 – 5 am. And we may be paddling through this darkest part of the night twice. Aside from being outfitted with enough lights and glow sticks to make any rave-goer jealous, we’ll be introducing caffeine into our already highly abnormal diet. Sounds potent.
“When you see a mermaid in front of your boat talking to your partner”
When you see a mermaid in front of your boat talking to your partner, shut your eyes. There’s two types of hallucinations that we’ll be experiencing. The first round of hallucinations will be those that we know are hallucinations. The second round of hallucinations, likely in our second night at sea, will be those that don’t register for us as hallucinations but instead reality. I’m hoping that my second round of hallucinations involves lots of Japanese bags.
“This is the stupidest thing I have ever done”
The minute we push off from Cuba we’ll be fighting a losing battle, a leaking boat if you will. The only way for success will be to perform constant maintenance and self-preservation. No matter what we do, whether concocting mixtures of coffee, Tums, and zebra cakes in our stomach, or singing Bob Seger, we’ve got to be doing some sort of maintenance at all times because once we sink we’re sunk.
This crossing is 100% dependent upon finding a good weather window (i.e. no hurricanes). If we are able to sail to Cuba we face the very real possibility of having to turn around the next day just to stay ahead of any storms. Mother Nature just reminding us who really is in charge.
“When you see a mermaid in front of your boat talking to your partner, shut your eyes. There’s two types of hallucinations that we’ll be experiencing.”
That night as we drifted off into restless sleep it was difficult to tell if we were more troubled by the realities of kayaking for 48 hours or the possibility of not getting to kayak for 48 hours. But given the humanitarian nature of this expedition perhaps we had karma on our side, for the next morning soon after the scorching Key West sun rose, a US government plated Jeep pulled up in front of our boats. Stepping out was a burly, stone-faced Coast Guard officer donning a pair of sunglasses straight from Top Gun. His right hand tipped his hat. His left hand held our permit. Challenge 113 was a go. Next stop Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba.
*Follow Frank’s adventures on Instagram!