Richard Kohler is currently undertaking a solo paddle of epic proportions! He set out in December from Cape Town, destination – Brazil. The last time Richard did something this crazy he got attacked by a shark, almost broke his back and smashed his boat in half, but he got there in the end. He became the first person to solo kayak along the entire length of the South African coastline (excluding the south Atlantic islands).
Ocean X (as the Trans-Atlantic Crossing is called) has been a long time dream of Richard’s and in December 2021, he was forced to abandon his first attempt (and go ashore at Walvis Bay), due to corrosion of the wiring that powered the solar panels.
We caught up with him just after he crossed the halfway mark of his 7000km slog across the Southern Atlantic Ocean to Salvador, Brazil.
On a journey this long do you think it’s important to count the days and track the distance or does it sometimes overwhelm to think of what still lies ahead?
On the first half of the paddle, counting up, the distance was quite painful, because it’s pretty slow. But once reaching the halfway point, you’re doing the countdown now and that’s far more exciting than the first half. So yes, I am doing a daily countdown. I have a calendar on the bulkhead that I mark with a marker pen – like a little prison calendar. So I keep track of daily runs and that. I do believe it’s quite important to reward yourself (for small milestones) and to know what’s going on.
You mentioned on your blog that the swell and wind has increased and you’re now on the Easterly ‘conveyor belt’ – this will give you a bit of an extra push, correct?
Now that I’m into the Easterly trade winds, it certainly does make a difference on the daily runs. With the wind, the swell and the current, it all adds up and its part of the journey, you can’t get into Brazil without getting into the headwinds so this is the only route you go. It does make things a bit easier, but it doesn’t distract from the fact that you’re still doing 10-12 hours of paddling. So it doesn’t change the effort that goes into it.
Talk us through your daily routine?
My daily routine changes quite a lot, but I like to get up before sunrise and get a session in and then have a cup of coffee with the sunrise and chat with the shore team. I do the ablutions and bits and pieces and after that get into my three-hour shift. I like to do three hours at a time, it seems to be just right. I have an hour break between the sessions and at about midday I hide away for two hours and on a nice night, I might get out there and do an hour or so in the dark, looking at the stars.
I have three meals a day: A meal in the morning, lots of snacks during the day, lots of energy bars, chocolate bars and junk food, biltong, droëwors and sometimes I even make bacon and eggs for breakfast (all freeze dried stuff). Dinner will usually be freeze dried chicken meals on rice or with noodles.
Have you had any major issues?
There have been some technical issues, mostly to do with the communication systems and the tracking but both have gone down and we’ve had to reboot them and find out what’s going on and have (thankfully) done so successfully. But for everything, there’s a backup, so when the communications go down I have a satellite phone as a backup and when that doesn’t work I obviously have the VHF radio to communicate with ships around me to get messages in and out. Then, on the AIS (Automatic Identification System) I can see other ships, and other ships can see me and based on that as well, you can see me via websites. There are some free websites where you can actually track my AIS and see where I am.
On Osiyeza’s side, I’ve had absolutely no issues, she is such a great craft. I think the 15 days I spent at sea on the first attempt was a massive sea trial and I learned a lot. And the few tweaks we made on this second attempt made a massive difference.
On a personal side of things and challenges, I really haven’t had too much, from the outset, I knew this is not a one-day game so there was no point in going hard and hurting yourself. I look after my hands, I’ve been wearing gloves, I actually stopped wearing gloves because my hands are fine, I haven’t had any blisters, the shoulders and neck are probably one of the issues, they get really stiff from all the paddling, but that’s part of the deal. Apart from that, I have lower back pain but have always had – I do some stretches and manage it with some medication, but funny enough, the paddling actually helps. The sun is the other bit, I just really really hate the sun. I get terribly hot and burnt so I try to cover myself up from head to toe and then apply sunscreen on my face.
What has been the hairiest moment so far?
The hairiest moments, would probably be in about week two when we had that big southeast blow that came through, we had about 40 knots of wind and five-metre swells and as it always does, it comes at night, so you can’t see anything and it was pretty hair raising, but I decided to run with it and built enough confidence in the craft’s design and it proved itself by being able to run with those conditions, instead of putting out a sea anchor. In those conditions, a sea anchor would possibly even be more dangerous. Even though it was quite terrifying, it was quite satisfying to know that all my research and effort in designing the craft has pulled through with flying colors.
Then, perhaps most importantly, why are you putting yourself through all of this?
Because it’s there, because I want to, all the standard answers…
I’ve spent my whole life on the sea, I’ve spent 20 years with professional yachtsmen sailing across the world and I’d never got to do a single-handed transatlantic race, and that’s what was always my goal and I never achieved that and I had started doing this paddling, surf skiing about 20 years ago, then I thought why don’t I make it as a challenge and see if one can paddle across the ocean because no one had done when I’d started thinking about it.
Then a Polish guy went and did it in around 2010 and since then, technology has improved, water-makers have improved and got smaller, everything got lighter, you’ve got lithium batteries that last longer and the solar panels are far more efficient and smaller and now you can do it quite easily, the technology is here and thought why not go across the Atlantic on a kayak and fulfill my dream of doing something solo and being out here for 70 days without another person to touch or talk to.
That’s quite a thing, and I’m enjoying how my mind works. Learning your limits and how far you can change your comfort zone and move is fascinating.
That’s on a personal side, and then the charity, to do this for a greater good than just my own needs, I’ve dealt with Operation Smile South Africa for some of my previous expeditions. I’d like to raise 70 smiles over the 70 days I’m going to be out here and try to change 70 people’s lives, almost instantaneously. It’s such a worthy cause.
What are you looking forward to most upon setting foot back on land?
I’m not quite sure what I want to do most when I land. When I get to Brazil, I want to spend time with new friends and see what’s up on that side. I’ve been to Brazil about five times before, but this will be different, it will be immersed with the paddling community there and I’m really really looking forward to that and then getting home, obviously seeing my loved ones – my wife and I really want to have a braai. Tan some meat, drink some beer, drink some champagne, drink some gin and just ’kuier’ with my friends. I think that’s the first thing I’m going to do when I get back to SA.
Anything you’d like to add?
People sort of look and read my blog and think, ‘oh this is so easy, he’s always laughing and there’s humor…’ It’s a lot tougher than you actually think it is being stuck in this small little craft, bouncing around, there are lots of discomforts. I just don’t find the need to talk about the discomfort, it’s boring and mundane, everyone knows it’s not easy, so why harp on it? I like to talk about what’s fun and fascinating and what I’m experiencing out here that’s making a difference. The 10 million strokes or whatever people like to count for crossings like this, to me, are pretty irrelevant and boring, so I like to talk about other things and keep people entertained otherwise.
Follow Richard’s progress on his blog, here and on via his Instagram.
Read more about paddling adventures, here.