Dry suits

Whilst looking through some of my old slides I came across this one, which represents an interesting time in the evolution of modern kayak equipment, in particular dry suits.

It was taken in November 1982 on the beach at Greve de Lecq in Jersey.  It was an unusually cold day, note the snow on the front of the kayak.  I am the one in the paddling equipment, if you weren’t sure.
Wind surfing was becoming popular and a number of the participants were wearing this new clothing, a dry suit, prior to this evolution the dry suits were very basic items of equipment.  We were fortunate enough to be lent a dry suit to try out.
One of the main concerns, which was doing the round of the paddling community was that in the event of a capsize, if the dry suit hadn’t been vented properly it was likely that the feet would fill with air and the kayaker would be suspended upside down.  My role, no pun intended, in this exercise was to paddle offshore, do a couple of rolls before capsizing and hopefully swimming ashore with my head above water.
As I am writing this 35 years later it is clear that being suspended upside down with your feet full of air was an urban myth.  So based on this rather unscientific experiment we ordered 6 dry suits and 7 months later flew out to Spitsbergen for a 2 month trip.  As far as I am aware we were one of the first sea kayaking trips to use the modern dry suit, an item of equipment, which today is virtually essential for any self respecting sea kayaker.

Dry suits
Typical kayaking conditions in NW Spitsbergen, just short of 80 degrees N.
Dry suit
If you are contemplating sea conditions like these a dry suit is pretty essential.
Dry suit
The sea is frozen just in front of the paddlers, wearing dry suits in conditions like this made life on the expedition bearable. It was a complete revelation to us nearly 35 years ago.


It is hard to imagine that when I was 26 years of age, in 1983, along with a few friends, we arranged a two month sea kayaking trip to Svalbard. The plan was to paddle the whole of the west coast of Spitsbergen, a distance of over 600 nautical miles, when the out and back mileage was taken into account.
This was in the days before Svalbard had hit the tourist radar. Very few people managed to visit this lonely northern archipelago, in the last 4 weeks we only saw one other person and was briefly for a few minutes when he landed his helicopter! We didn’t even see any boats or ships in the distance.
The costs were quite phenomenal for the time and without considerable support from family and friends we would never have raised the amount of money required to put on such a trip. We had to ship out our kayaks, equipment and all our food. The price of flights was astronomical, I have paid less this morning to book flights to northern Norway in July 2018 than my flights cost in 1983.
Without doubt though this was one of the defining periods in my life, we had to be totally self sufficient, there was no satellite phone, GPS etc but we did need really powerful rifles as protection against the polar bears, which inhabit the region.  One of us had tuition in how to stitch wounds, although the thought of letting somebody near us with a needle filled us with dread.
These are a few of the pictures taken in this arctic outpost over 34 years ago.  Apologies for the quality of some of the scans from my old slides.
Whilst sea kayaking off the west coast the scenery was particularly dramatic. It doesn’t matter how many photographs you see, nothing can prepare you for the first time you paddle past an ice front.
Conditions were not always co-operative. We were aiming to camp near the approaching headland. On most paddling days we spent about 8 hours on the water so it was always a pleasure to get the tents up and some warm food inside us on days like this one.
In 1926 Roald Amundsen left from this tower, in Ny Alesund, in his airship “Norge” for his flight over the North Pole. The other interesting thing about Ny Alesund is that it has the world’s most northern post office and we were able to pick up some mail.
It was rare that we were able to stand around camp without full protective clothing on, but on this particularly still morning towards the north of Spitsbergen Dave is looking at the freshly fallen snow on the mountains behind.
After a great day of sea kayaking there is nothing more risky than jumping from one ice floe to another whilst wearing fleece trousers.
In totally remote areas there is nobody to see you, when you decide to wander around on a glacier, whilst wearing wellingtons. You might not get away with this level of equipment on Mt Blanc!
Heading back into Longyearbyen towards the end of August, we had been in Svalbard for over 2 months and as the first of the winter snows fell we knew that it was time to head south to the warmer waters of Jersey.

Svalbard – 30 years on

In 1983 I was fortunate enough to spend two months sea kayaking in Spitsbergen, a truly memorable experience.  Whilst there we met a hunter who had a hut located on the northern shores of Bellsund, an area we would be kayaking through as we head towards the southern point of the archipelago.
A couple of nights in a hut, without the worry of being attacked by polar bears was a real bonus.  The hut was a haven of luxury in an otherwise remote wilderness.  During this 4 week section of the trip we didn’t see another person, in those days Svalbard was a truly remote area.
The hunter, Louis after seeing our sea kayaks, decided that this was the type of craft that he needed.  I didn’t really think much more about it until a few months later an immigration official telephoned me from Jersey Airport.  He got straight to the point, we have a man here who says that he is hunter in Spitsbergen and he has come to Jersey so that you can teach him to eskimo roll.  “Is this true”?
I wasn’t in a position to deny this and so Louis entered Jersey and I did teach him to roll.  We met again a couple of months later at the annual Crystal Palace Canoe Exhibition, I introduced Louis to Frank Goodman and he purchased a kayak from Valley Canoe Products and in February 1984 he disappeared back to Svalbard to resume his life as a hunter.
Then out of the blue, tonight Louis called from St Malo and he arrives in Jersey Thursday morning, what an opportunity to catch up on 30 years of life in the arctic.

 The hut where we spent a couple of wonderful days, making full use of the facilities.
 The view from the front door.  At certain times of the year you would need to keep a watchful eye open for roaming polar bears.
The inside of the hut had a range of modern facilities.  Using the cooker was a pleasant change from trying to coax a reluctant primus stove into life.
It wasn’t far to the nearest ice front.  In the evenings we could pass some time shooting the small ice bergs which drifted past on the tide.
Two nights later we were back in the tents.  After nearly 40 years of visiting the arctic this particular place still remains one of the bleakest places I have ever camped.
 One of the real advantages of paddling in the high arctic is that whenever the wind drops off you can go kayaking.  This is just after midnight.  I think that we were in bed by 06.00
 We didn’t always have to paddle at night.  On a couple of the days that we were in Spitsbergen the sun actually shone as we approached one of the many ice fronts.

This ice front was nearly 10 miles wide. Quite a distance to be exposed to calving ice.