MEET: The Brothers Who Paddled 2,200 Miles from Alaska to Mexico Without Support

Jason Lock

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Updated 25d ago

Getting bumped by sharks, making crossings people thought were going to kill you, boards breaking and a mental grind like no other. When you're prone paddling 2,200 miles from Alaska to Mexico, these are just a slither of the scenarios that'll play out on sometimes stretches of perilous sea, sometimes euphoric journey.

For brothers Ryan and Casey Higginbotham, this was a challenge that saw them sell most of their possessions to fund. Because seven months at sea isn't going to pay itself. Hell, they even moved in with their parents for 10 months to help accumulate coin for this incredible feat.

Spot guide: Alaska

Spending all that time prone paddling 18 foot boards, with nothing other than two dry bags, a camera - no support, no paddles, across the open ocean sounds like a romanticised road trip, right? But it certainly isn't a task you just get up and do. Both the brothers have worked as lifeguards in California, with Casey competing in Iron Man competitions in the past. Plus, they nailed down a specialised training programme for the epic journey, which meant they were at the top of their game before setting off from Ketchikan in Alaska.

And that's before factoring in the mind games. This paddle pushed the bros to their mental limits, though that was just another thing to overcome in the end. They only stopped for food or rest – and a few weeks off the water after breaking boards. Their journey is now being turned into a full length film, garnering $70,000+ worth of support on Kickstarter.

© 2019 - By Hand

Anyway, we caught up with Ryan to talk about the trials of the paddle, the sacrifices, the scares, shark encounters and more.

OK, whose idea was it to paddle from Alaska to Mexico and when did it become more than just a thing you’d like to do?
RH: That was my idea, we wanted to do some sort of grand adventure that would push us beyond conceived limits. I don’t think it changed from being just something we wanted to do; we just didn’t realise how impactful it would be on us as people. 

Region guide: Pacific Mexico

© 2019 - By Hand

This feat is phenomenal. And must have been one of the most intense things – did you do any training to prep for it?
We picked up a training guide for the Molokai to Oahu paddle, it’s a 32-mile ocean crossing, sort of the epicentre of paddle races. Once we completed that, we added on days of longer consecutive paddles. Some of it, there is just no way to train for – the mental grind of it...We just knew that we wouldn’t quit once we got going and had to adapt to all the challenges as they came.

No support crew either, was that a bit daunting?
Honestly, we didn’t really think of it. It would’ve been an entirely different journey. That mostly takes out the risk factor and other challenges, the cold, the hunger. When you go out and do something like this without support it forces you to places that you couldn’t normally take yourself. A hungry dog in a corner will push himself to some insane places for his next meal, but then he knows what he’s capable of...yeah, I guess that’s how I look at it.

© 2019 - By Hand

Tell us a bit about yourselves, what’s your background?
We were born and raised on the Central Coast of California. Casey and I are both California State Lifeguards, and I’ve spent the past few years working Summers as a commercial fisherman. Our lives are based around the ocean.

Perfect, and the paddle, that was a distance of around, what, 2,200 miles? What about food and sleeping?
 Yeah, 2,200 miles. We shipped our food to outposts and post offices ahead of time. We found that even in the isolated coast of B.C, there is a settlement around every 200+ miles. We shipped our food to outposts and post offices ahead of time We each took a single man tent to sleep, at certain points everything was wet, and we didn’t sleep quite as well, but when you’re exhausted you can sleep anywhere.

You mentioned the mental grind and that must have been a sustained thing. How long did this insane paddle take?
We crossed the border seven months and three days after leaving Ketchikan. There were days spent off the water for weather, and a few days for rest.

When Casey broke his board in Oregon, we got picked up by our friend Pat then drove down to Los Angeles and picked up another board, we were back on the water in a week. I broke a board in Northern California and Joe and his son Jack shaped a whole new board, it took three weeks to get back on the water. Those delays added to the total time significantly.

© 2019 - By Hand

 
How did you manage having to make coin and give up all that time to make this trip?
We worked and saved, lived with our parents for about 10 months before and thankfully they didn’t charge us rent during that time. We sold most of our stuff, swap meets, craigslist, wherever we could.

Were there ever any times when you thought, we can’t go on? This is the end.
No, times got really tough but those are the moments that define you and the shame of being a quitter was worse than dying for us. 
 
That's intense. And the what made you flip that negative mentality when it crept in?
Well when a doubt pops into your head you just have to compartmentalise each day, each minute sometimes. At certain points it was never about quitting on myself or the goal, I would never quit for my brother. 

© 2019 - By Hand

Yeah, I remember Chris Bertish crossing the Atlantic on a SUP and his mentality was second-by-second, minute-by-minute. Tell us a bit more about the boards breaking? That must have played into that mindset?
Yeah, we each broke a board. Casey’s off the Oregon coast, mine off northern California attempting to land in a big swell. We got bumped by sharks, were swept out to sea at the Columbia Bar, made crossings people thought we’d die on. Just getting to our first food drop we had to pull off on a small island a mile short of town because of strong tides and a storm.

Now, you’ve launched a Kickstarter to get a film off the ground – tell us a bit about that project.
The film is a feature length documentary directed by Kellen Keene, he’s done a number of shorter projects with companies such as Yeti, Patagonia, Clif Bar, National Geographic, but this is his feature debut.

The film follows the story from the idea to completion highlighting a number of stories and the growth it gave us as people and as a team referencing experiences during our upbringing and before the paddle. Kellen’s done an insane job, I think people will really resonate with the film and will be blown away.

© 2019 - By Hand

What would be your advice for anyone planning long haul trips, trials of the body and soul, like this?
I’d say go for it. Plan for every contingency, train hard, and be ready to suffer. Open up your mind to all the new experiences and ideas along the way. Really though just go for it. So many people have big ideas but never shoot for them. Life is so much more fulfilling when you make that leap.