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Rory Wilson defeats the Pacific Ocean

With his kites in the air, Rory Wilson heads into the sunset, toward Hawaii, on his journey across the Pacific Ocean. - Rory Wilson photo
With his kites in the air, Rory Wilson heads into the sunset, toward Hawaii, on his journey across the Pacific Ocean.
— image credit: Rory Wilson photo

When Rory Wilson landed in Honolulu, Hawaii, it was the first time he had set foot on solid ground in more than six weeks.

On Thursday, Nov. 1 the Bainbridge Island math teacher completed his trip across the Pacific Ocean using only his oars, a little wind and his wits.

He was ready for a break.

“I’m siting here right across from the beach, watching the waves break thinking they look really nice from a distance,” Wilson said.

Journey’s across the Pacific have been attempted before, but none like Wilson’s, and none so fast.

Pat Quesnel took the trip to Hawaii from San Francisco in 1976. It took him 111 days.

Roz Savage also successfully braved the challenge in 2008, and made it in just over 99 days.

Wilson’s trip took only 44 days.

Science and the sea

Of course, Wilson didn’t rely solely on his oars to make the trip so fast. He brought along a little science.

Wilson braved the open sea in KROS (for kite, rowing, ocean, solar), a vessel he designed and built. The 21-foot-long boat uses a combination of rowing and wind power — harnessed through kites — to cut through the waves.

He used KROS to teach aspects of math in his classes at BHS, and students calculated how much energy his solar panels could produce and worked out their teacher’s dietary needs for the physically demanding journey.

Wilson even devised a special food mix composed of nuts, seeds and dried fruit based on the students’ numbers. He also took along a chunky supply of peanut butter.

“I think I’m going to take a break from peanut butter for a while,” Wilson joked. “On most days (my caloric needs) were close to about 6,000 calories a day. I was pretty well on with my estimates.”

“I probably dropped five pounds in the first week,” he added.

His weight hit an even keel after a while, however.

“I stabilized for a while, and the last week I dropped a few more. I still had a good energy level.”

Wilson trained at Island Fitness before his trip, but he proved to be more efficient at sea than he initially thought.

“When I was training at Island Fitness, I would do one hour sets, then take a short break,” Wilson said. “And I’d do that for three, four or even six hours.”

Going the distance

Not only was it a physical challenge, it was mentally taxing as well.

Wilson was alone, spending up to 18 hours rowing. He said the extreme rowing shifts were the only way he could make the distances he did. At times he would rest for 30 minutes and get back to work.

Sleep was frequently sacrificed for distance.

“The second day of not sleeping at all, I’d start to hallucinate a little bit,” Wilson said. “I’d see things that I knew were not real. And then I knew I needed to get a little bit of rest.”

He was able to find other ways to stay rested, too.

“I would meditate a lot, so I was able to get into a mode where I was resting while rowing,” he said

Wilson was able to travel around 50 to 60 miles a day; almost double what other boats like his are expected to do.

In the end, his route from San Diego to Honolulu covered 2,275 nautical miles, or roughly 2,616 regular miles, in just over six weeks.

Kites without wind

Wilson found himself primarily rowing, which was not initially expected. After all, the first letter, “K,” in KROS stands for “kite.”

Wind above the waves was lacking, though.

“But I didn’t use the kites as much,” Wilson said. “I thought I could run the kites most of the time, and I’d be solidly in the trade winds. In reality, I spent the first week struggling against the Westerlies, it was three weeks until I even touched any of the kites.”

Eventually he found the wind he required, but it still wasn’t advantageous.

“I picked up the trade winds for five or six days, but it was intermittent,” Wilson said. “I’d row a good portion of the days, because of course corrections. But when I had the kites, I was making great miles.”

Wilson discovered one downside to their use.

Unlike sailboats, KROS could not navigate as well in the wind. Wilson could only steer the boat within 30 degrees of the wind’s direction. He would then have to row to correct his aim.

And if he ultimately overshot Hawaii, it would be very difficult to turn around — and the trip back to the islands might not be possible.

When he did have the wind, Wilson was able to test what his students worked out in the classroom. He had various kite designs to try, such as delta kites, boarding kites and power-sled kites.

Which ones worked the best?

“The ones that were absolutely the best were the ones I used in the geometry classes, the delta kites,” Wilson said.

The triangular delta kites were able to exceed the displacement speed of the boat, bringing KROS up to 9 knots.

“It was just skimming over the tops of the waves,” Wilson said. “It was kind of a rush. I’m sitting there with the kites out, and the boat just danced through the waves.”

The delta kites were also signed by his students back home, so they also served as extra inspiration for the teacher.

Close encounters

Before, and after, he entered the empty expanse of the sea, Wilson made a few friends.

Fisherman Adi Ljubovic came across Wilson in the waters off San Diego.

“He was real nice,” Wilson said. “I heard him say ‘Hey!’ and I thought, ‘Oh, great, I’m starting to hear things already.’”

Ljubovic offered him some fish to eat, but Wilson turned it down. He also encountered a fishing charter boat on his way out.

Aside from shipping vessels that he could detect on an electronic device, Wilson was alone until the final stretch of his journey.

“I heard this chirping. I thought it was birds,” Wilson said.

It wasn’t birds, but a pod of approximately eight curious pilot whales.

“They came up right up, looking at the boat and looking at me,” Wilson said. “They were crossing within inches of the boat, one even bumped the boat.”

“It was overwhelming. I wasn’t sure to be completely comfortable with this or not,” he added.

Eventually, it was clear that the whales were intrigued by the unique boat and the man inside.

“I think they were mostly curious, because the underside of the boat doesn’t look a lot different than them,” he said. “They were looking at me above the water and there was this constant chirping and whistling; it was really loud.”

Wilson began seeing schools of fish and more aquatic life as he got closer to Hawaii. He even rescued a flying fish that crash landed into the cockpit of the boat. It was a reassuring sign that his trip was soon coming to a close.

The next move

His mother and a news crew were waiting for him when he finally set foot on the island of Oahu. He was soon joined by his brothers, Shane and KC, for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

“The next morning we went to the Hilton Hawaiian Village and had a breakfast buffet,” Wilson said. “I went back two or three times for different juices and fruit.”

Now, he is pondering his next move.

Wilson previously considered either heading north to catch winds that could take him back to the West Coast. He also considered heading south for some island hopping before catching winds to reach the southern coast of the United States.

But he has new factors to consider. Steering the boat back and finding adequate winds to return is one factor. And then there are others.

“I do really miss being around the students,” Wilson said. “I was on the computer for the first time the other day and I sent 30 emails primarily to students who have been in touch.”

“With the students’ signatures on the kite and Shane checking my coordinates, it didn’t feel all that alone,” Wilson added.

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