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Russell and Graham Henry complete 4,000-mile sea kayak from Brazil to Florida


by Johnie Gall

Russell and Graham Henry are the first to paddle from the Caribbean to Florida since 1979. Photo courtesy of Russell and Graham Henry

Russell and Graham Henry are the first to paddle from the Caribbean to Florida since 1979. Photo courtesy of Russell and Graham Henry

When kayaking is in your blood, sometimes you just can’t help but go big—at least, that’s the case for Canadian brothers Russell and Graham Henry, who just wrapped up a 4,000-mile expedition paddling from South America across the Caribbean and to Florida on sea kayaks, making them the first to paddle across the Caribbean since 1979, when John Dowd made the journey. The trip was the brainchild of Russell, 21, who came up with the idea for a university project and was quickly encouraged by his father, Current Designs kayaks founder Brian Henry, and joined by Graham, 22.

“We just didn’t really think twice about it,” says Russell. “We both grew up paddling, tripping, and in the outdoors, so it just seemed like the right next step.” The adventure consisted of two parts: a South American push through isolated wilderness, and a series of crossings through the Caribbean islands. The duo, who launched in July of 2013, landed in Florida this past Sunday, and we caught up with them to talk about the challenges of such a long trek—and staying on Sir Richard Branson’s private island.

You guys are the first to paddle across the Caribbean since 1979—what makes this trek difficult (besides the sheer distance)?

Russell: The challenges of paddling across the Caribbean were all about exposure. We had 20 crossings over 20 miles each and on those the risk of something going wrong could have been drastic; on loads of those crossings we were setting off into the unknown not being able to see land on the other side at first, and on a few of those crossing we had to paddle through the night. The longest one took us 27 hours of straight paddling. On top of this there were the sea conditions with big swell and sometimes very high winds.

High winds and exposure made some legs of Russell and Graham Henry's trip challenging. Photo courtesy of Russell and Graham Henry

High winds and exposure made some legs of Russell and Graham Henry’s trip challenging. Photo courtesy of Russell and Graham Henry

But you got to camp on Sir Richard Branson’s private island, so that’s a perk.

Graham: Yeah, after camping on the beach in Anguilla outside the customs office for a few nights we then had a big crossing over to the British Virgin Islands. We arrived pretty damn tired and through a friend of a previous contact we were introduced to Ian, one of the head engineers on Branson’s new private island. This is Moskito Island (facing Necker Island, his current home and more well-known island), which is being developed into Branson’s new home. Ian was the only person living on the island at the time and we stayed with him, so during the days we just got to stroll around Ricky B’s island hanging out. Unfortunately we didn’t meet the man himself.

How did you plan for food and supplies on such a long trip?

Graham: The trip ended up being a whole bunch of little kayak trips stacked on top of each other back to back. We would resupply food and water whenever we could, which would be every other day in the Caribbean but once every week or so in South America. As for gear, we really had the best stuff on the market. Current Designs kayaks, Werner paddles, Kokatat jackets and PFDs, Sea to Summit dry bags, and loads more of good stuff. I think at first everything seemed too compact, like we had very little gear and supplies to work with, but eventually we got used to it, and by the end it seemed like we almost had too much stuff. Now that we’re back home we’re overloading on things to do and stuff to play with.

Russell and Graham Henry

“A few of those crossing we had to paddle through the night. The longest one took us 27 hours of straight paddling.” Photo courtesy of Russell and Graham Henry

Kayaking is sort of in your blood. What did your dad have to say about your trip? Did he give you any advice before you left?

Russell: We have a very proud father. When we first told him about the trip a year ago he was (unlike our mother) totally gung-ho about it, but in the week leading up to our departure he started to show his worry. While on the trip and especially during some of the big crossings, both our folks were definitely a bit stressed. They came down to Florida to see us at our arrival and were definitely happy to have us back. I think since our dad is so involved in the paddling community he is going to be bragging about us for a long time. It feels good to make your parents proud.

How do you plan on celebrating now that you’re home?

Graham: For the next month we’re going to be awkwardly trying to get back into real life while also doing trip presentations around North America. Today we’re having a welcome back party at Ocean River Sports in Victoria, where we’ll be doing a slideshow and full presentation. There will also be a keg. On March 23, we’re presenting in Calgary at the Outdoor Adventure and Travel Show, and then we’ll be headed to present in New Jersey at Paddlesports 2014 on the last weekend of March. We’re also trying to arrange some talks at schools throughout the next month. I think other than that, we both want and need to get out skiing ASAP.

Russell and Graham Henry's 4,000-mile journey took seven months to complete. Photo courtesy of Russell and Graham Henry

Russell and Graham Henry’s 4,000-mile journey took seven months to complete. Photo courtesy of Russell and Graham Henry

Are you planning on another trip or do you need a break from paddling?

Russell: Graham will most likely be sea kayak guiding for work this summer either in Victoria or up in Alaska. I’m not quite as keen on paddling for work this summer but do have plans to try to beat the circumnavigation record of Vancouver Island in June. I will have to paddle 620 miles in less than 15 days, 11 hours. So, I guess to answer your question, no, we’re not sick of it just yet.

And what about each other?

Russell: I don’t think we need a break from each other. I mean some space would be nice—it’s certainly nice to not be sleeping in a three-foot-wide tent with him every night. I think the trip created a sort of bond between us that we’ll always have now—something in common that we can always relate back too. I think there will definitely be another Henry Brother expedition in the future.