R.W. Hand’s latest attempt to paddle from the U.S. mainland to the Hawaiian Islands came to an immediate and near-fatal end recently. On the afternoon of April 30, Hand started what was to be a 2,400-mile expedition in the style of Ed Gillet — the only paddler to have completed the Hawaii crossing, in 1987 — using a stock tandem sea kayak stuffed with over two months’ worth of food and gear, alone from the same launch in Monterey Harbor.
Approximately 17 hours after Hand’s launch, early on the morning of Tuesday, May 1, local surfer Jon Kramer was scouting the ocean conditions at Spanish Bay — located in Pebble Beach, Calif, on the exposed western side of the Monterey Peninsula opposite from the harbor. Through choppy surf, Kramer spotted a large kayak floating in the distance outside the surf zone.
According to the Monterey County Weekly, Kramer called 911 after sighting the unoccupied kayak in tumultuous waters. Though the story states how he “saw a free-floating life jacket with a sunglasses case, satellite beacon and dive knife attached to it,” Kramer stayed on the line with the emergency dispatchers as a fellow surfing friend decided to paddle out to the kayak to investigate. Kramer then spotted an “orange parka” before seeing a person in it, face-down, being pushed into the rocky shallows.
“I was sure he was dead. He was blue, he looked dead as dead can be,” Kramer told KSBW 8 after making contact. “But you never give up hope.”
While his friend retrieved the kayak, Kramer stuck with the body — one he quickly discovered was a large body. He struggled to lift Hand (a towering 61-year-old Colorado volunteer wildland firefighter) up on shore until the arrival of first responders, who, according to the story, immediately performed CPR and successfully returned Hand’s pulse.
Since his emergency transfer to a Monterey hospital, Hand has been in critical but now stable condition on life support. The father of two’s family has set up a YouCaring crowdfunding campaign to help cover some of his medical, and their travel expenses, providing support and updates on his improved levels of responsiveness. (C&K will update this story as more information becomes available.)
This was Hand’s fourth attempt at the crossing to Hawaii.
In June 2013, Hand had originally launched with Clay Biles — a friend during their tenure working together at the Federal Air Marshal Service — intending to make the crossing together, in separate tandem sea kayaks, rafting up to rest. After experiencing an early collision that left both their kayaks damaged, Biles returned to Monterey eight hours after launch via a Coast Guard assist, followed by Hand paddling his kayak back to the harbor.
Hand repaired the cracks in his red Necky Nootka Plus and relaunched in May 2014, again from Monterey, for a solo bid which turned into a trying 12-day experience in which he capsized four times during the first few days of stormy paddling marked by what he estimated were 30-foot waves. During the fourth flip, Hand got caught up in the line anchoring him to his kayak, which he vowed to never use thereafter. After losing the ability to charge his GPS, with cryptic messages being relayed via a waterlogged inReach messenger device, plus a storm on the horizon, concerned ground support called in the Coast Guard, and Hand accepted a ride in. As they crew hauled his loaded 22-foot kayak up and over the side of the USCGC ASPEN, the hull cracked.
After patching the kayak together back in the mountains of southern-central Colorado, Hand launched again solo in April 2015. Though calm launch conditions favored this third attempt, Hand’s hull was still compromised and began leaking in water, causing him to return to the harbor after 37 hours.
This summer, Hand bought a new 22.5-foot, 96-pound Synergy Safari from B.C.’s Atlantis Kayaks, customized with a Kevlar-reinforced bow and paint job, featuring a red deck with white on the twin-keel hull marked by irregular black stripes designed to deter sharks. Hand also built out a solar-charging system to charge his navigation and communication devices.
“It’s never been in the water yet, so I’m not sure how it’s going to handle,” Hand told C&K the day before to his original planned departure date of April 23. “That’s going to be something to figure out.”
Despite the new kayak, Hand was still confident. “I’m better prepared this time than I’ve ever been,” he said. “So there shouldn’t be any reason not to get it done this year.” Though he mentioned an added degree of comfort and storage space in the larger rear cockpit area of the Safari from which he planned to paddle, Hand did note that it was still not large enough for him to lie flat to sleep at night, and that the area could potentially become a liability should it fill it with water upon a flip; he planned to pack additional flotation accordingly.
“I’m pretty excited about getting it in the water,” Hand said.
Hand delayed the initial launch, citing heavy ‘pineapple express’ rains in Northern California, moving it to the end of month to coincide with dropoff plans with his ground support Mark Ford, who also helped Hand build out a crowdfunding page for the expedition to function as awareness-raising mechanism for the following organizations: Wildland Firefighter Foundation, Army Ranger Lead The Way Fund, Semper Fi Fund, Police Benevolent Foundation, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
Hand also mentioned conferring with Ford to develop a different initial routing strategy in getting his kayak offshore. In previous attempts, due to prevailing late-spring conditions, Hand had “no choice but west,” going directly into the heavy on-shore wind and waves. Hand said he was looking to head south “as far and quick as possible,” sticking generally closer to the sailing route that Gillet roughly followed — that is, dealing with persistent onshore conditions near coastal California while heading down to the 30-degree parallel north, where prevailing easterly tradewinds then provide more favorable tailwinds west to the Hawaiian Islands. Unfortunately, Hand ended up south far too soon, into an volatile area Kramer said that locals’ refer to as Satan’s. The local news coverage said Hand’s last communication was a 5 a.m. text to his ground support that he had paddled all night, “struggling to make it out of Monterey Bay.”
Until Hand’s condition improves or other witness accounts emerge, the circumstances leading to Hand’s drowning, and how he became separated from both his life jacket and kayak, will remain unknown. (We will update this story as more information becomes available.)