Like a hooked marlin, twisting and trashing as it explodes through the frothy ocean surface trying desperately to throw the hook, the bow of my solo-paddled double surged skyward, headlong over and through the crest of yet another countless wave. Several of the gallon water jugs idly placed as ballast on the floor of the front cockpit slid back and slammed into the seatback. One rebounded off the underside of the sprayskirt being used as a cockpit cover with such force that it popped the elastic band along the starboard coaming. I let the wave slide under me and then back paddled so the next crest washed over the boat's prow.
We were an hour into a "pick-out-a-kayak" afternoon shakedown cruise off the island of Roatan, Honduras. I was on a "sweet deal" kind of kayak tour offered by a friend and associate in the kayak trade. Part of my preparation had been to affirm that, because of my size, there would be suitable gear down here in tropical Central America that would fit. I didn't expect "comfort" fit, only marginal "minimum safety requirements" fit.
My first concern had been the kinds of kayaks available and what I would have to painfully "wear" for my weeklong adventure. I knew boats so when the list was forwarded to me it looked do-able. At least there was a rotomold that I could squeeze into without much sacrifice. Unfortunately, upon a test paddle I discovered that either the boat has shrunk or I had gained a few centimeters on my hypothermia layer. The single was much too restrictive so I opted for a double - one with foot pegs way too short to be of any utility while paddling
Tip #1 - If there are any restrictions that prevent you from paddling a wide range of kayaks (long legs, broad of beam, etc.), make doubly sure that your outfitter will have a boat that will work for you. The outfitter's "Oh, I'm sure my Bearing Zephyr will fit you" will probably come back to haunt you.
Luckily I had anticipated such a situation and had psyched myself into being accommodating towards any solution my friend offered. The obvious choice, of course, was to get a paddling partner to forsake the freedom of a single, and join me in the double. We did try the obvious tactic of trimming down the bow with all our gear but when you are doing a series of day trips from a base, you just can't bring that much stuff along. The partner in paddling worked out just fine!
Tip #2 - Prepare yourself mentally. You will be part of a group. No place to be a Prima Donna or a lackey when it comes to cooperating collectively to make things work out. Actually that should be a preamble for any group traveler's tip list!
In the excitement to leave on my trip to blue Caribbean waters, I thought about other specific needs that I probably would not find once I landed. Sure, carrying your own life jacket can be a pain, but NOT as much as you'll truly suffer if there isn't a jacket on site to fit! That seems pretty straightforward, but again, assumptions are made and the results can literally rub you to the raw.
The issue stems from various manufacturers using different sizing ranges when they label their garments. One company's "large" may be another's "extra large". Don't go by generic sizes; make sure the chest measurement is one that will be comfortable and safe. One popular, top-of-the-line US PFD maker's XL is about four inches smaller in the chest than another, equally respected company's product.
Tip #3 - Try to verify actual measurements in critical gear, if possible. Those "long sleeve" jackets that barely cover your arm past your elbow are another case in point.
Short of being physically limiting, most of these misfits are inconveniences soon lost in the overwhelming experience around you. For me the incredibly clear, warm, pure, Caribbean blue-colored waters more that made up for any short-term discomforts. I had anticipated capturing every aspect of this tropical adventure on film. I made sure that I'd have an ample supply. Anyone who's had to fork out a ten-dollar bill for a roll of film knows the importance of bringing an entire cartridge belt of film along. I compromised a bit on film because I also had a digital camera on this trip. Still things can go FUBAR quickly.
I lost a film camera during a rafting adventure on the mainland. I quickly turned to my digital for back up. The problem was, I didn't have enough batteries for the additional shooting. No, I didn't bring a re-charger, either (but good, make that an item on your Tip list).
Tip #4 - An obvious one… anticipate spare batteries for all your mini appliances. Anticipate perhaps offering batteries as a gesture of sharing. Also anticipate not being able to buy film (at least the type you prefer) or if so, plan on taking a small loan out when you get back home.
The waters off Roatan are mesmerizing. The bottom is a patchwork of tall undulating blades of sea grass that gives form to the currents flowing across the pure white sandy bottom. Interspersed between the reefs of coral (part of the second largest coral reef in the world) are bald spots on this grassy carpet. Even without polarizing lenses you can find these "clearings". They are great spots to roll over and swim a bit.
It's not just about paddling in paradise, either. On most kayaks a snorkel rides as a bedfellow to the bilge pump stowed under a deck bungee. Most tropical kayak outfitters will supply masks and snorkeling gear. Usually they have better equipment than those brought by most gringos. However, if you do have good equipment, by all means bring it along.
Tip #5 - Decide between what gear you should/must rent and that which you have broken in and are confident and comfortable using. I might seriously consider bringing my own paddle if I was concerned that I'd be trying to finesse a plastic bladed, discount special each day. Check with your trustworthy outfitter.
Paddling past the waterfronts of houses and shops, all on stilts along the causeways and channels between bays, was an ongoing "National Geographic Moment" each time we took a cruise through our home base community of Oak Ridge on Roatan's southern coast. Walls awash in various pastel hues on single and two-story homes were backdropped by the coastal jungle of thick, vine-entwined foliage and towering trees growing up the slopes.
We paddled our kayak convoy along with the locals motoring along in their long, sleek wooden run-abouts, sharing the channels and interconnecting mangrove tunnels. Oak Ridge was a simple, unassuming village on stilts where uniformed school kids waited at the end of wooden planked docks to climb into small "school bus" launches that took them to and from school each day.
On another note: It's not always bright and cheery in paradise. Caca occurs! Losing one's credit cards - or having it stolen -- while abroad can be a frustrating ordeal. It's never advisable to travel with a lot of money, at least not in currency form, and therefore if the plastic is missing, things can get stressful.
Tip #6 - One way to be prepared for reporting a card that is lost/stolen is to make a photocopy of all your vital documents and leave them with someone back home. Should you have one stolen or lost, you can contact them to know what number to report. A bit risky, but also a backup is to have that list with you, separately in luggage but still with you. There are also numbers you can call to report lost cards. Keep these and other vital numbers someplace separate and safe.
I could bathe you in more tropical images and suggest another dozen tips, most of which you'd know if you're even an infrequent traveler. Perhaps the most important tip is one I learned early on in the jungles of Honduras: The only difference between an ordeal and an adventure - is attitude! Let these tips guide you, and may you all enjoy at least one uncommon adventure in a paradise of your choosing. Safe paddling.
Tom Watson, an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer is also the author of "How to Think Like A Survivor" available on Amazon.com and most major bookstores.