Photo: Peter Amend/Oru Kayak

Paddle diplomacy meets personal growth on the first solo kayak attempt at the 113-mile ocean crossing

This is the first in a series of stories about Cuba from ABP Media. Throughout the rest of 2017, we will continue to report on the island nation and its evolving relationship with the United States. 

On July 12, a team of paddlers from Oru Kayak set out from Havana, Cuba and pointed their bows toward Key West, 113 miles away. If everything went well, in 30, maybe 40 hours they’d make landfall in Florida—exhausted, sore, stinky and sporting epic sunburns, but they’d have completed the first solo kayak crossing between the island nation and the United States.

The journey across the Straits of Florida has been the subject of immense joy and unthinkable suffering. Tens of thousands of Cubans have taken to the sea in crowded boats, on makeshift rafts and in improvised vessels created out of cars in search of freedom and a better life. In the summer of 1994 alone more than 30,000 people ventured into the water, and over the years, many have not survived the trip.

Oru first considered attempting the crossing in 2015, when outdoor company Cotopaxi staged the first successful tandem kayak journey from Cuba to Key West.

“We circled back to it this November because candidly many people in the office were pretty frustrated with the election,” says Oru Director of Marketing Andy Cochrane. “Our team is pretty diverse. We’re only 12 people, but we’ve got folks from Mexico and Italy and Vietnam and Iran, and we take a lot of pride in inclusiveness. We want the water to be accessible. We want to include people in the outdoor world and in kayaking.”

So San Francisco-based Oru decided to revisit the Cuba trip: four paddlers outfitted with the company’s folding Coast XT kayaks, braving 113 miles of water to reach Florida and make a statement about the importance of connection between the U.S. and Cuba. In June, when President Donald Trump announced plans to reinstate travel restrictions and economic sanctions rolled back under the Obama administration, the expedition suddenly felt extremely relevant.

Fancy folding: Testing out an Oru kayak in Havana. Peter Amend/Oru Kayak

The challenges to making a successful crossing between Cuba and the U.S. are many: rough seas and intense heat, physical and mental exhaustion, and should things really go off the rails, sharks, because wherever there’s ocean there are sharks.

“We kind of framed it as there’s a physical component of training and core strength and arm strength. It’s this huge undertaking, and more than likely in the history of people trying to do this crossing, you’re going to fail,” says Cochrane. “Then arguably in my mind, the biggest challenge is mental. Regardless of how in shape you are, it’s a sufferfest of epic proportion.”

Sounds like fun, right?

The team sailed to Cuba and spent a few days prepping their boats, getting to know the National Kayak Federation, hanging with the commodore of the local yacht club and generally enjoying Havana.

“I feel really fortunate for all of it, but especially the time there,” Cochrane says.

Then on July 12, their weather window arrived. They held a small press conference, went through customs and paddled through the harbor with an escort of young canoers and kayakers.

“And then we left. We turned the corner out of the harbor and you see a lot of blue for a long time.”

Oru Director of Marketing Andy Cochrane is already considering the company's next effort at paddle diplomacy. Peter Amend/Oru Kayak

For the first few hours, they did well, getting into a rhythm, pacing themselves and hydrating in preparation for a long night ahead. But by mid-afternoon gear issues and the sweltering heat and humidity had taken their toll on half the team. Either everyone had to slow down or two of the four kayakers would quit to give the others a better shot. Within quick succession both opted to bow out.

Cochrane and support guide Wyatt Roscoe continued on. Two, three, four more hours. Then sickness hit. Pain first, followed by puking. Cochrane couldn’t hold down food and felt terrible. “So I called it, hopped on the boat and then an hour or less after that is when the diarrhea started, and it pretty much didn’t stop until now,” he says grimly over the phone five days later.

“Wyatt marched on. I was super proud of him. He pushed through for another four, five, six hours even. He is a great paddler, super fit and just mentally strong,” Cochrane says. “I honestly thought he had a shot to go a long way, if not the whole way.”

But as so many can attest, the 113 miles between the island and Florida are unpredictable and treacherous. As darkness hit, a storm built with 5-foot waves and a 20-knot headwind. The moon wasn’t up yet, so Roscoe was paddling almost blind, reacting on the fly to waves he couldn’t see gaining strength. Eventually he got sick too, and after puking five or six times and being unable to hold down vital calories, he called it: “There’s nothing left in me.”

“It just all sunk in so heavy. We were silent; we were kind of a mess for a while.”

For all the training and planning that had gone into enabling successful crossing, Cochrane says he hadn’t truly prepared for how to stop early.

“I had talked through logically what would happen, how to get boats out of the water, procedural stuff, even what I thought that would rationally mean to some people, but no. I was … shocked sounds a little extreme but humbled. I don’t know if I’ve felt that humbled in a long time. It just all sunk in so heavy. We were silent; we were kind of a mess for a while.”

Now that he’s had a few days to process the experience, to shower and catch up on sleep and tend to a still aching stomach, Cochrane has gained some perspective on the journey and the reality of not paddling into Key West in depleted, disheveled glory.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh shit, I just failed.’ And since then, I’ve totally reframed that. In some ways, us failing to paddle it meant we bring to light even more how dangerous that crossing is. We have a support boat, we have the perfect boats for it. We have a team of people watching us, supporting us and cheering us on. We have electrolyte mix,” Cochrane laughs. “All these factors are going for us. In some ways our risk is not much. We just get out. Hop in the support boat.

“It’s hard to articulate how real it made it—that people risk so much with so much less than us.”

Cochrane’s already thinking about how Oru can maintain and nurture its budding relationship with Cuba. He and the commodore have talked about developing a youth exchange program around paddling, and he’s eager to share what he’s learned from the entire deeply inspirational and humbling experience.

“That’s the takeaway,” he says. “It wasn’t truly about this crossing attempt; it was about understanding each other. So let’s keep doing that.”