Kayaker says, ‘Just add water’

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Sequim Gazette

Legendary local rower Chris Duff has enjoyed some amazing adventures — and is looking forward to another epic feat this summer.


Duff will share his stories and his plans for his next adventure at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 21, at Sequim High School’s cafeteria, 601 N. Sequim Ave. He’ll provide details of his upcoming solo rowing excursion from Scotland all the way to Iceland — across 600 miles of open sea.


The talk and slide show is also a fundraiser — and the last speaking engagement for Duff before he heads off to Europe.

Preparation is key

Duff has spent the past few months preparing for this trip. His new boat, a custom design, is ready. Duff purchased the hull from an outfit in Anacortes, then completed it himself. “Everything is my design,” he said.  


The boat, called Northern Reach, is built of marine-grade plywood encased in fiberglass. It’s 19 feet long and weighs about 200 pounds empty. “It has a cruising speed of 4.5 knots,” he said.


Duff had high praise for Ancient Auto Works, the Port Angeles firm that painted the boat its current bright orange. Visibility is vital, he said, “particularly during the day. This is how I make sure I’m not run over.”

He said that’s an important consideration because he’ll be traveling through busy shipping lanes, with commercial freighters and ferries plying the waters night and day.


During the brief summer nights of that northern latitude, Duff will switch on his “Alarm Signal Indication” beacon. Every two minutes the device sends out an encrypted radio burst that identifies Duff and his craft to every ship within range. “Every modern ship must have one,” Duff said.


If a ship approaches too closely, alarms go off. While a rowboat theoretically has the right of way, “Quite often it’s the job of the kayaker to avoid the bigger boat,” Duff said.


He called it “prudent seamanship.”


Duff’s tiny boat will be crammed with additional electronic and old-fashioned gear to ensure his safety and to ensure he’s heading in the right direction.


That includes a satellite phone that he’ll use to call a meteorologist for weather data, as needed.


He will have a VHF Radio for ship-to-ship communications, two Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) devices and two analog compasses. The compasses are used to ensure he doesn’t run down the batteries in the GPS devices.


If all else goes wrong, he’ll fire up his “Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon,” which sends a distress signal via satellite to those who can “come and save you.”


Duff also will carry all of his fresh water and food with him. The water serves two purposes, also acting as ballast. As he empties the bottles, he’ll refill them with sea water. If his boat tips over — “It probably will” — the ballast will automatically right it.


The boat includes a tiny waterproof cabin that’s padded to retain heat, deaden outside noise and protect Duff from harm when he’s bounced about.


Duff and his boat should both arrive in Edinburgh by May 30. They’ll then travel together 200 miles north to a tiny village called John O’Groats, where Duff will go to sea.


The first stop is the Orkney Islands, where he plans to spend perhaps two weeks. The next stop is the Shetland Islands.


The next step is a doozy. He’ll be heading for the Faroe Islands — 220 miles of open sea from the Shetlands. He’ll stay there for three to four weeks, then head out to Iceland — 270 miles.


Duff says when everything is going well, he travels about 40 miles a day. That means the last leg of the trip will take at least a full week.

An old salt

Duff isn’t a newcomer to the sport or to adventurous sea kayaking. Since 1983 he’s logged an estimated 18,000 miles, including circumnavigations of England, Scotland and Wales, and, on another trip, Ireland. He also rowed around the northern U.S. and Canada, and another time circled the southern island of New Zealand.


Regarding his new plans, he said, “I feel like I have challenged myself with the past expeditions and I just want to go further offshore.”


Duff plans to write a book about this adventure, his third literary effort.


“On Celtic Tides” tells of his Irish circumnavigation, while “Southern Exposure” is the story of his New Zealand trip. “Celtic” won the 2000 National Outdoor Book Award, while “Southern Exposure” picked up the same award in 2003. Both are found on the shelves of local bookstores or online.


For more information, call Duff at 452-6052.

Reach Mark Couhig at


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