Beyond The Salish

Behind the scenes of an expedition gone wrong

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It’s not often a sea kayaking video opens with a viewer discretion warning. Then again, it’s rare to encounter a paddling film so brutally raw and with scenes so haunting they’ll keep you up at night. Vancouver-based filmmaker Richard Chen’s Beyond the Salish tells the story of a sea kayak expedition that nearly ended in tragedy—and will certainly provoke plenty of hand-wringing and commentary from audiences at stops on this year’s Paddling Film Festival World Tour.

Beyond the Salish

Chen was introduced to sea kayaking by his friend, fellow 24-year-old Vancouverite William Chong. Chong was looking for a partner in paddling adventures, having previously kayaked solo from Prince Rupert to Klemtu along the Inside Passage of British Columbia’s northern coast. The pair spent last summer practicing their skills along the Vancouver waterfront, in preparation for a seven-day trip from Cougar Creek to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island in late September.

“There’s nothing like learning by doing,” Chen says early in the film. “This journey would be my rite of passage.”

Richard Chen and William Chong pose for a photo on their ill-fated trip
Photo: Courtesy Richard Chen and William Chong

From the outset of the film, it’s evident to viewers—if not the paddlers themselves—that Chen and Chong are in over their heads with the 150-kilometer route, most of which is exposed to the open Pacific Ocean. They were challenged by choppy seas and headwinds as they ventured out of sheltered waters on the second day. Chen remarks there were “points when I couldn’t even see Will” in the growing swells. In the moment, he says to the camera that he’s contemplating calling SOS with his phone.

Chong was equally concerned. “Conditions were getting out of hand,” he recalls. “I was worried if Richard could finish the trip.”

Going from bad to worse

The pair were slow to get started on their third day, and they finally hit the water around noon to find rising seas as the tide changed, forcing them a kilometer offshore to avoid breaking waves and shoals.

“As we navigated past the second reef, a rogue wave blindsided my kayak,” says Chen. “I yanked my sprayskirt, bailed out and screamed for Will.”

“For a brief moment, I thought, ‘Why did I decide to go with Richard?’” admits Chong.

From the water, Chen made an SOS call. Amidst surf and exposed rock, the pair struggled for 10 minutes to pump out Chen’s flooded kayak. Their attempts failed and after abandoning the boat, Chong tried to tow his partner out of harm’s way. This effort was also futile, and Chong says he knew he would be in the water soon, too. For the viewer, the panic in the friends’ terse communication, laced with expletives, is haunting.

“My initial reaction watching the footage was something along the lines of, ‘How did we not see this coming?’”

For Chen, the situation was “desperate.” He reached for Chong’s boat just as a “monster wave hit, snatching my glasses and phone.” Chong capsized and was now in the water, too. “At that moment,” says Chen, “it felt like all hope was gone.”

“My initial reaction watching the footage was something along the lines of, ‘How did we not see this coming?’” admits Chen. “Unlike many people who’ve experienced near-death experiences, our experience was self-inflicted, and criticizing us is perfectly valid. We had no business doing the kayak trip on that route with our experience both as a team as well as individuals. I think what’s important to know is that there are always risks to taking any expedition and it’s important to know where the edge of what you’re comfortable with is, and how far you can push yourself beyond your comfort zone. This is the lesson we’ve learned—is to take manageable risks and know when to pull back.”

Rescue comes by chance

In the point-of-view footage of the disaster, viewers can see an aluminum boat bobbing in and out of the background. Commercial fisherman Rick Williams just happened to be boating by, and he tenuously navigated the choppy waters and pulled Chen and Chong from the sea.

“He found us in distress completely coincidentally,” says Chen. “What I felt when I was pulled out of the water was perhaps the biggest relief of my life. I collapsed onto the deck and I couldn’t muster anything else but a ‘thank you’ out of my mouth.”

bow shot of a sea kayak with water damage to photo
Photo: Courtesy Richard Chen and William Chong

“The fact that we came out alive and unscathed is something beyond luck and human comprehension,” adds Chen. “Often filmmakers make the hero’s story a long-winded journey of struggle and failure that in the end leads to success. At the heart of Beyond the Salish is a humbling experience where two young men, optimistic with big dreams, come face to face with the obstacles of a harsh reality.”

Spectacular Northwest Territories presents 2024 World Tour, Paddling Film FestivalBeyond the Salish is an official selection of the 2024 Paddling Film Festival, and available to stream today as part of the Virtual Adventure Program.

Feature photo: Courtesy Richard Chen and William Chong


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