With headstrong enthusiasm and little else, a man and a rowboat full of beer take on the rugged west coast.
MOST PEOPLE have a bucket list. Just like any list, however, bucket lists rarely have their items checked off by their creators. Neal Roderick Cox of Penticton is different. I met Cox in the summer of 2012, while he was rowing a boat he handcrafted from Vancouver to Alaska. He had no experience, nor did he train or practice. He also had no radio, no marine charts and no tidal information. Pure conviction and a freestyle spirit landed Cox on the same Central British Colombia coast beach as me.
My group was camping on a remote surfing beach when, on the bends and curves of the bay, a small rowboat skippered by a weathered seaman came into view. The vessel was Cindy’s Row Boy, a 10-foot handmade wooden boat with an open top and Rubbermaid containers brimming with beer and cigarette cartons. As the only people on the beach, we chatted with Cox on occasion during his two-day stay, sharing the beach just long enough for him to dry out his soaking wet clothes and duvet bedding. Having struck up a conversation with me en route to harvest some fish, Cox offered me a beer from the limited stash he had recently stocked up on in Port Hardy. He insisted and I obliged. When my friend joined us, I began to share my beer with him. “I can’t stand seeing two guys share a beer,” said Cox, rising to grab another from his dwindling supply that wouldn’t see refuelling for another three weeks.
“I’d like to make it to Alaska sometime in August,” Cox explained.
“Uh, dude, it is August already,” I answered.
“Ah, okay. Well, then, September,” he replied.
It was with this casual attitude that Cox was taking on what most would consider an epic journey and a genuine adventure. Without sponsors, glamour or the need to tell anyone other than his wife, Cox was paddling an estimated 1,300 kilometres from Vancouver to Ketchikan. A new Bare wetsuit and life jacket sat in his boat, but his Levis 501s and a white cotton T-shirt were all he wore.
“Hey fellas, could you give me a hand launching my boat?” At 6 a.m., Cox was asking us to help set him off. With the venerable Cape Caution headland ahead of him and 7,500 kilometres open Pacific Ocean to his west, he was ready to continue. Cindy’s Row Boy, however, was not.
Having no anchor, Cox had used a log boom chain to secure his boat the night before. It had flipped overnight in the high tide, filled with sand, and become swallowed half deep by the beach. His possessions were scattered across the tideline and most of his food was gone. He didn’t care. He knew the ocean would provide food when needed, a truth that holds on this rich coast.
Yeahhhhh, buddy. Photo: Nicolas Teichrob
The casual nature of Cox’s kit became clear in the aftermath. Ravens had crushed his eggs. Disposable razors, a CD player, a couple of pairs of reading glasses and more detritus littered the beach. With daylight hours ticking away, priorities were set. The first item he collected was the beer. Our attention turned to arguably more critical items; we found his driver’s license and credit cards in the sand but his passport was gone. Without means to communicate with the Coast Guard and well behind schedule to avoid winter’s wrath, we believed Cox might die paddling to Alaska. We sent him off with a spare radio, hoping he would not have to use it and assuming it would not return.
In October 2012 — expecting to hear the worst — I dialled Cox’s number. Sure enough, the strong chain-smoking voice of Neal Cox was on the other end. He did indeed make it to Alaska, dumping into the Pacific only a few more times. Bucket lists are not about dreaming. They are about doing.
I wonder what he’s doing now./