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Kayaker Finds Fear, Faith on 24-Week Trip

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

All the ingredients of a Hemingway novel were there. The hurricane was ferocious. The waves were gigantic. The shark was hungry. The days were lonely, and the ride was 6,100 miles long. But the man was undeterred.

Ben Wade said he completed the treacherous kayaking feat to prove to the world that nothing is impossible and that he has enough stamina to conquer extreme challenges.

“I was at the mercy of the ocean,” said Wade, who quit his job as a machinist to make the trip. “It was an incredible high, facing death, being in a hurricane, thinking that you’re going to die. . . . And it was very, very humbling.”

Wade said he paddled his one-person kayak from San Felipe, at the northern tip of the Gulf of California, to Punta Charambia, Colombia, in 24 weeks.

And the 25-year-old novice kayaker has brought back photographs and articles from Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, Panamanian and Colombian newspapers, all of which wrote stories about him as he landed there, to document his adventure.

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“It takes a very special person to complete an expedition like that,” said Peter Kaupat, president of Easy Rider Canoe and Kayak Co. in Seattle, whose company made Wade’s kayak for the trip. “It’s tough, but apparently he has done it, and that’s very admirable.”

Wade traveled alone from Sept. 13, 1996, to Feb. 27, 1997, he said, seeing beautiful sunsets and friendly dolphins along with the life-threatening elements of nature.

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The shark fight occurred in mid-October, he said, about 20 miles off the shore of Isla Tiburon (Shark Island in Spanish). “The water was shallow and murky,” he recalled. “I was paddling when I felt a jolt under my kayak. I kept paddling, and there was another sharp jolt. Then I saw this 8-foot tiger shark heading straight for my waist.”

Wade said he struck the giant fish in the mouth with his paddle. The oar split, and the shark swam away, leaving a piece of tooth lodged in the crack of the paddle.

Seven days later, Wade reached Mazatlan, where he had the tooth strung on a silver hoop earring that he proudly wears.

Then there was an uncharted strip in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, off the southern coast of Mexico, in November.

“I didn’t know very much about this area because all the boats avoid it,” Wade said. “As I’m paddling through, I’m talking to the sailors, who all told me to be very careful because it is a very dangerous area.”

Indeed it was, he testified.

“It was about noon and I was about 50 yards from the shore when these howling winds came out of the mountains,” he said. “I remembered what everyone told me about these winds: that if I got caught in them, I probably wouldn’t survive.”

As the winds began violently tossing the water in different directions, Wade said, he managed to get to shore. There, the sand started whipping his legs, and he quickly took cover underneath his kayak for nearly two hours.

“It was like this giant had gotten under the water and started throwing it,” he said. “It was just crazy.”

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Now Wade is hoping to get his accomplishment published in the Guinness Book of Records.

It may take up to a year to find out if Wade qualifies for the listing. He said he wants to be entered under the longest-solo-kayaking-journey category, which does not exist, although there is a listing for a 12,000-mile canoe trip by a father and son in the 1980s.

Guinness officials said that new records rarely get introduced unless they are considered likely to become popular competitions. They have not yet decided whether long-distance kayaking is such a sport. In addition, Wade must provide enough independent documentation, such as letters and his newspaper clippings, to verify that he actually accomplished the trip.

Regardless of the outcome, Wade said, he is working on a book of his own.

During his trip, he wrote about his experiences in several journals. Now he’s shopping for a publisher for the 300-page diary. He also is offering to speak about his trip at schools, sports centers and churches.

But Wade said that all that isn’t why he took his trip. He discovered the true reason in October during a hurricane.

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For four grueling hours, the hurricane, which was headed for La Paz, caused 20- to 25-foot waves to break under, over and around him, he said. He lost his radio and most of his food supplies.

“I thought I was a dead man,” he said. “I raced down wave after wave. One wave broke behind me, spilled onto my back, and the ropes on my kayak were whipping me. I kept rolling over. I was thoroughly, completely exhausted when it finally got calm, and I started praying.”

The near-death ordeal, he said, made him a stronger person and a more devout believer in God.

“Before I went on this trip, I was focused on my goals and myself,” he added. “But after the hurricane, the trip stopped being about me and my record and became his story.”


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