Driving 2,200 miles with a sibling is punishment enough, let alone covering the distance by paddle board in the freezing Pacific Ocean over the course of half a year. But that’s just what Pismo Beach twin brothers Ryan and Casey Higginbotham subjected themselves to last spring, summer and fall, the California State Lifeguards becoming the first people in history - and likely the last - to prone paddle from Alaska to Mexico.
Armed with nothing more than thermal wetsuits and a dry bag for supplies and camping equipment on the nose of their 18 feet boards, the college grad adventurers set out on the task not only to challenge their own mental and physical abilities, but in an effort to bring environmental awareness to the degradation of the North American coastline. And they literally defied death to do so, surviving deadly deep ocean whirlpools, freezing waters, brutal storms and fish of the great white variety to complete the self-funded mission in seven months and three days.
So as they sift through some 1,500 hours of footage for their upcoming documentary, we caught up with Ryan to find out why. Just why?
THE RED BULLETIN: You and Casey had just finished degrees in architecture and political science respectively, what on earth inspired you to disappear into the ocean for seven months…
RYAN HIGGINBOTHAM: Just that I guess [laughs]. Essentially, we didn’t want to go straight to 9-5 jobs like a lot of our friends were doing - leaving college and going straight to filling out job applications. That wasn’t us. I’d always wanted to do a video project and both being watermen, we wanted something challenging to do to break the routine and get out of the normal lifestyle.
Why a 2,200 mile paddle in the coldest section of the Pacific?
We wanted to do something that was pushing the limits of what’s never been done before, pushing ourselves and our bodies. I think it was wanting to do something that there’s no precedent for, because then you really have to evolve what you’re doing, your techniques. We were looking at things people hadn’t done before and no one had ever started that far north on a prone board and gone down the coast like that. And that was good enough for us. Having always surfed and being lifeguards, we couldn’t imagine being anywhere for six months other than the ocean.
Neither of you are strangers to adventure or endurance racing…
Growing up in Pismo, we didn’t have a ton of supervision [laughs]. We were free range and with so many open spaces, we were able to run around and explore our whole lives. And when you do things like that, you just want to go bigger and progress. The older we got the more we wanted to push our limits with endurance races and stuff like that. On a whim, we’ll just go for a 15-hour run up in the mountains and see what we can find, with nothing but back packs on our shoulders. Those sort of adventures have built into always wanting to do something harder and bigger.
You set out from Alaska. That must have been cold to say the least?
The water was about 42 degrees Fahrenheit and at night it’d get into the mid 30s. Combined with the wind temp, we couldn’t feel our fingers and toes for the first month. And Day 5 I lost a glove, which didn’t help. But those things that happen all along the way prepare you for the next step.
You spent seven to 12 hours in the water most days to cover 20 miles. And you didn’t have a support boat?
We carried our camping gear, supplies, clothes and food on dry bags that we strapped to the front of the boards. I think if you took a boat it would take something out of the experience. When you get out into the unknown everyday and there’s not a big safety net like a boat following you, it makes it more about the challenge. Other than the food we had with us, we posted food to post offices along the way before we started.
You weren’t even a quarter way through when you had your first dice with death…
The Seymour Narrows off British Columbia are something neither of us are likely to forget. We’d heard about them but didn’t know the history to the extent of the number of deaths and near-deaths there until we’d gotten through it. It was as we were approaching that a guy came up to us in his boat - thought we’d lost our paddles - and warned us about the turbulence, whirlpools and speed of the water. We had no idea how dangerous it was until then, which when you map thousands of miles of coastline can happen. He then said we’d be good to go, but right after that, it switched and started pulling against us.
We were trying to stay in the back eddies as much as possible but the current kept picking up and whirlpools started getting bigger, and everything was getting faster. We got to the edge of it and it was firing against us, so the options were to take the current to Brown’s Bay - and it was firing about 16 knots at that point - or find somewhere to sleep on the cliffside. We found a ledge and ended up going with this option thankfully, because the water only got more gnarly from there. And had we jumped back on we could easily have been sucked under and that would have been the end of it.
And that was a precursor for the Columbia River to come…
We stayed within a mile of the coast typically, but we got swept out to sea by the Columbia River about 12 miles into open ocean that day. It was gnarly and pretty scary. But you stay busy paddling and trying not to think about it. You’re almost too busy to get scared, but it definitely freaked us out. We just wanted to get in before sundown, which thankfully we did - at 9pm! Even then we never considered calling for help. We agreed we’d only do that if we knew we were going to die for sure.
The shark encounters didn’t have you reaching for the satellite phone?
We had a number of encounters but nothing that really scared us. Casey got bumped by a shark up in Oregon, then in central Oregon one swam under us. It was pretty big. And I can’t say for sure, but I think it was a white. All I know is it had teeth and a pretty big fin! But going around the nuclear power plant near Pismo, which is a sharky area, some friends joined us for that part and one of them got ejected out of the water. And then the other looked down and saw a shark just sitting vertically in the water. But that was the worst of it. Other than wetsuit rash, the worst injury was actually on land - when Casey slipped on a rock and cut his shin open. You could see his tibia. We had a kit to stitch it, but we ended up using ointment and duct tape [laughs].
What’s the most compelling life lesson you learned from the experience?
That there’s no comparison to getting out in the wild and overcoming whatever nature throws at you. Having a real experience in today’s world is so rare. Everything’s so modernized that it’s hard to have real, raw adventure. We had an epic experience and if the documentary can have a positive impact on others, that will make it so much better. It was an experience that changed me for the better.