American Student Recounts Winter Kayaking Trip Around New Zealand’s Southernmost Island
Mathew St. Martin, AustraLearn Degree Student At AUT University, Part Of Duo That Successfully Circumnavigated Stewart IslandBy Stacey Hartmann GlobaLinks NewsWire Editor
Mathew St. Martin and his kayaking buddy, Jake Candy, knew they’d really accomplished something when a salty old fisherman motored up behind their sea kayak and delivered high praise in the form of two cold drinks and two cracked-open fresh oysters.
In the more colorful language you might expect from a longtime fisherman, “he told us we’d done a good job,” says St. Martin, an American student living in New Zealand who is midway through a two-year degree in outdoor recreation leadership and management at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand, through AustraLearn’s full-degree overseas offerings. “It meant the world to me and the other guy who did the trip.”
The kayaking duo had, in fact, done much more than just “a good job.”
They’d just circumnavigated Stewart Island, New Zealand’s southernmost island, in July – the dead of winter in that part of the world. They’d paddled for 10 days for roughly 380 miles to get around the sparsely populated island, which is about 85% national park wilderness with sparse trails and just 20 kilometers of roads.
While others had gone before them to also successfully circumnavigate the island, they achieved three “world firsts” of their own:
- The youngest team to circumnavigate.
- The first in the dead of winter.
- In a kayak they designed and built themselves.
At times, they struggled mightily.
In fact, the expedition nearly failed before it even began.
Once St. Martin hatched the idea for the excursion, he submitted his plan as a candidate for a $2,000 Adventure Philosophy Scholarship.
When he found out he’d won the scholarship, the celebration was short-lived. He and Candy now had to design and build a kayak in just seven weeks while also carrying full course loads and working part time.
In addition, their previous building experience consisted of little more than bookshelves. As the deadline for the trip approached, St. Martin and Candy spent many long days and nights rushing to finish the kayak, which they built out of thin ply covered covered in fiberglass using a circular saw.
The result was a 19-foot “monstrosity” with significant design flaws, St. Martin says.
“This expedition was dangerous enough in and of itself,” he says, “but with an untested boat was bordering insanity.”
But, when put to the test in water, it proved seaworthy – enough.
On July 1, 2009, they took a ferry over to Stewart Island and launched their kayak, which they’d named “Battles.”
Several times over, the kayak proved true to its name, carrying the duo through 40-knot headwinds and 10-foot swells. Some nights, St. Martin and Candy thought they’d never find a break in the sheer rock cliffs and densely forested shoreline to set up camp.
One night, they came to shore and started stretching and planning for their campsite when they looked out to the water and discover their kayak had disappeared.
“We had done the dumbest thing you can do as a kayaker – we actually lost our boat,” St. Martin writes in his full account of the expedition on Bigfoot Adventures Ltd., which provides outdoor adventure programs.
They hadn’t secured the kayak well enough, and the tide had taken it out to sea.
“Losing our boat was one thing, but losing all of the gear, the GPS, video camera, paddles and pogies was another,” St. Martin writes. “People had entrusted us with their gear and now in addition to the $1,200 tent (damaged earlier in the trip by fire), we had just tripled our bill.”
Stranded on the unpopulated side of the island without a radio, they caught a lucky break the next morning when St. Martin climbed over the densely covered cliffs and through the trees saw a fishing boat – it actually looked like a pirate ship – a ways off shore. He yelled and screamed until he caught the attention of the boat’s rugged crew, who’d been fishing in illegal waters and had almost boated off thinking St. Martin was a local fishery law enforcer.
Once aboard, the crew took the kayakers to a nearby cove where they spotted the waterlogged kayak sticking out just inches above the water. All of their borrowed gear was floating nearby but luckily had remained dry in waterproof sacks.
“The rudder had snapped to the side and bailing out the water took at least two hours,” St. Martin writes, “but we were in heaven.”
They left the next morning and three days later paddled into Halfmoon Bay where they’d started their journey.
“What’s really neat about that island,” St. Martin says, “is on one side you’re facing the Antarctic Ocean and other side the Pacific. When we were paddling around the south cape, the left sides of our faces were getting burned by the sun and the right sides were frozen from the Antarctic winds.”
The trip, although in many ways challenging, wasn’t scary, says St. Martin, who has enjoyed extreme adventure activities for years and is accustomed to visiting new places around the world, including Germany and the Middle East when he was serving in the U.S. Army and National Guard.
In fact, keeping a cool head under extreme conditions is one of the primary skills taught in the AUT program, which includes courses in outdoor leadership, land and aquatic skills safety, professional practice, exercise principles, event and small business management. Students are also able to learn and experience rock climbing, sea kayaking, white-water kayaking, sailing, caving and bush craft.
“You spend your entire two years taking courses leading in the outdoors and learning how to handle yourself in extreme conditions,” says St. Martin, who keeps a blog of his adventures.
After he finishes his degree at AUT, the self-described nomad hopes to join the Peace Corps.
“I just want to travel, meet new people, experience the world and make a positive difference,” he says.