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Pinellas kayaking coach leading students on Baltic Sea expedition

CLEARWATER

A local kayaker is paddling with a group of adventure-seeking college students on their longest trip yet: a 400-mile journey through the Baltic Sea.

Russell Farrow of Clearwater, who owns Sweetwater Kayaks in Pinellas Park, has taken trips before with students from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, which emphasizes experiential learning.

However, this trip is particularly ambitious. Farrow will help lead the group from the shores of Stockholm, Sweden, to Helsinki, Finland.

Farrow was chosen 10 years ago to be a trainer for the college program because he is a British Canoe Union (BCU) coach in the United States. He has paddled through a variety of environments, ranging from the Everglades to the coast of Labrador.

The trip in the brackish Baltic Sea is expected to take five weeks. The kayaks the group will be using are 18 feet long and 22 inches wide.

The 11 kayakers — five students, three college staff members and three professional kayaking coaches, including Farrow — flew to Sweden on Sunday and hoped to begin kayaking within days. They will return July 14.

Last year, the Gettysburg College students paddled 120 miles around the Outer Banks of North Carolina — their longest trip, until now. The same group also has paddled around Horn Island, Mississippi.

The purpose of this year's trip is to expose students to another culture, Farrow said last week, and to teach them expedition skills.

"You learn to think on your feet and speak to strangers," he said. "In Sweden, most of the population speaks English, but in Finland, that's not the case. They're going to have to deal with communication and navigation skills and living in the field for a long period of time."

There will be stops every day along the way, he said. The first planned destination is the Aland Islands, an archipelago in the Baltic Sea. From there, the group will island hop.

Nigel Foster, 59, is another BCU coach traveling with the students. He has been friends with Farrow for 15 years and has experience kayaking in the Baltic Sea. Foster said the Aland chain has thousands of islands.

"So you probably have a safer environment to paddle for people that aren't that experienced," he said. "You can get rough seas and strong winds anywhere, but it is an island chain, so you have the opportunity to get out and (seek) shelter."

The extended forecast calls for thunderstorms for that region, but Farrow said the travelers are prepared.

"Expedition tents are designed to take a lot of wind and to be very dry if there is rain blowing sideways," he said. "They are pretty strong caves."

The group also is carrying marine radios and will mainly travel in the morning, when the weather is calm.

Haven Whipple, 19 and a rising senior at Gettysburg College, has been ocean kayaking for several years. She said traveling for more than a month with only a small carry-on bag is the least of her worries.

"I'm a little nervous that I'm going to be sore for a couple of days after (the trip ends). We've been going to the gym, doing a lot of running — just endurance-based exercises," she said last week.

Students can also apply their developing expedition skills to their everyday lives, said John Regentin, director of experiential education at Gettysburg College.

"We're working in a dynamic environment," he said. "So whether you go into law or business and you're dealing with complex situations, … you have already been placed in environments that are out of your control."

Whipple, who is majoring in globalization studies with a minor in business, said she has already started learning.

"For the past several months, we've been negotiating with people in Sweden, Holland and Finland and organizing, as far as where to stay and where to transport equipment," she said. "I think it's been useful just to talk to people … months in advance."

Farrow said he is looking forward to the challenges of the trip.

"This year we decided to raise the bar," he said.

Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or drodriguez@tampabay.com.

. To learn more

Follow the paddlers

To follow the progress of the expedition, go to http://sweetwaterkayaks.wordpress.com for information and links.

Pinellas kayaking coach leading students on Baltic Sea expedition 06/08/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 8, 2012 10:07pm]

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