Exploring the world by kayak
Kayak for Cancer paddlers Dorian Vassallo and Albert Gambina will follow St Paul’s 600-km route to Rome next summer in their kayak to raise money for the Malta Community Chest Fund. They tell The Sunday Times about travelling the world on water.
What is your longest ever kayaking journey?
Albert: Undoubtedly, the first crossing by kayak from Africa to Europe in July 2010. We went from Mahdia in Tunisia to Malta via the Pelagic islands of Lampedusa and Linosa.
Dorian: The total distance we covered on that five-day trip was 180 nautical miles. The voyage from Mahdia to Lampedusa, a distance of 75 nautical miles, took 25 hours, 20 minutes to complete, with the wind in the final five hours reaching Beaufort force five.
Because of the weather we had to spend an extra day on Lampedusa from where we then had an eight-hour paddle to Linosa. There, we rested overnight for our final 26-hour, 75-nautical-mile paddle to Golden Bay. During the first and last stretches we never got out of our kayaks once.
How do you keep motivated during long journeys?
Albert: The fact that we do it for worthwhile causes is a good motivator. And I suppose I wouldn’t want to let my paddling buddy down. There is also the thrill of being out on the open sea, where it’s just us against the elements.
Dorian: Paddling for long hours in a kayak in the middle of nowhere can not only be dangerous but also boring.
Apart from the physical aspect, we also have to face the sea, wind, and the notion of the distance to the ocean floor below us being greater than the distance to our destination. There is also the concern of possibly sighting a large fish.
Mental preparation is undoubtedly important. But the adrenalin rush and constant need to keep watch for any traffic keeps our minds occupied.
And we talk a lot of rubbish, inventing stories which not only keep our spirits up but also provide us with hours of laughter.
Where is the most beautiful place you have paddled?
Albert: I paddled in Anglesey (Wales) in May this year and although it was cold, the scenery was beautiful in its desolation.
Filfla, albeit just a small rock, is teeming with bird life surrounded by aquamarine waters.
Dorian: Along the Maltese coast to St Paul’s Islands, Gozo, Ċirkewwa, Fomm Ir-Riħ and the cliffs up to the Freeport is spectacular. We also had a couple of lovely scenic paddles along the Sicilian coast.
What was your most difficult trip?
Albert: In May 2010 we did a circumnavigation of Malta that entailed paddling in a strong south-easterly wind for almost the entire distance. It took us close to 16 hours to complete and I sustained a strain injury that took me out for a couple of weeks.
Dorian: Last July’s attempt to paddle from Golden Sands to Linosa was the most challenging for me. We made the mistake of starting in the evening thinking that we would be fresh for the night.
In reality we were awake from 7am in the morning. The weather forecast was also inaccurate – we were told the wind would go down to force two to three in the evening but it actually increased to force four.
Another problem was that the moon did not rise till about 2.30am which meant we paddled in complete darkness for most of the night.
What was the most enjoyable trip?
Albert: The one that Dorian and I agree upon is the first ever unassisted crossing from Marfa to Punta Secca in Sicily on September 1, 2009. The challenge of being the first to paddle to the ‘other side’ unaccompanied was an enormous one. The weather conditions were mostly good although we did suffer from the heat quite a bit.
A close second are the ones from Tunisia in 2010 and to Catania last year; memorable for the friendship and camaraderie we struck up with other participants from Malta, Tunisia and Italy.
Dorian: Our first one made in 2008 when we crossed insingle-seater kayaks from Marsalforn to Pozzallo in Sicily. Being the first one makes it memorable.
Where would you never kayak again?
Albert: We try to avoid the port of Marsamxett on a late Sunday morning during the summer months.
Have you ever had a close encounter with unusual wildlife at sea?
Albert: It seems to us that the stretch of sea between the Pelagic Islands and Malta is teeming with turtles as we have encountered loads on the many trips we’ve made.
Watching a school of tuna leap a few meters ahead of us during the 2009 crossing to Sicily; swordfish leaping into the air during one of our training sessions; the hundreds of Cory shearwaters we sighted in the waters close to Filfla – they would swoop down and fly literally a few inches above our heads! We also sighted a sunfish on the same trip.
Dorian: On practically all our trips we have come across dolphins, turtles and loads of jellyfish. We have also been caught in the middle of a tuna feeding frenzy and have occasionally seen swordfish jumping out of the water. So far we have not seen any sharks.
Have you ever felt in danger while sea kayaking?
Albert: We have encountered conditions that were difficult, to say the least, but we were always prepared for them not only physically and mentally but also in terms of safety equipment.
There is sometimes an element of danger involved – we paddled Cape Murro di Porco in a very heavy swell last year but we were unable to make headway and had to seek shelter in the port of Syracuse.
Dorian: I have never felt in danger. We have, however, been in quite a few situations, such as finishing in the water during Malta’s heaviest hail storm two years ago.
Last year during our unassisted paddle from Malta to Catania, we had to paddle for four to five hours in force five winds and with four-metre waves. I must add that we take the issue of safety very, very seriously. Apart from investing heavily in the necessary equipment, we also train for such eventualities in adverse conditions and practice self-rescue drills.
What would be your dream kayaking trip?
Albert: Whale-watching from a kayak on the western coast of North America.
Dorian: Crossing the Atlantic is undoubtedly my ultimate dream.
Who is your ideal kayaking companion?
Albert: After four years paddling together, the answer is an obvious one. We work well together as a team and wouldn’t want anyone else.
Dorian: I have the ideal kayaking companion already: Captain Albert Gambina.
Mr Vassallo and Mr Gambina will embark on an unassisted 600km paddle from Malta to Rome in July 2013 to raise funds for the Malta Community Chest Fund. On arrival at Fiumicino they will paddle up the River Tiber to the Castel Sant’Angelo outside the Vatican. Italian paddlers will accompany the Maltese team along part of the way. Donations can be made by cheque, made payable to the Malta Community Chest Fund, The Palace, Valletta.