Computers by Kayak


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Kayaks have been used to deliver a lot of things. Whales come to mind, as do fish. Computers don’t usually top the list.
But that’s what Richard Smith — a former elite special-forces officer from Scotland’s Royal Marines, now turned IT manager for Oracle — did on his Northern Lights Expedition to Greenland this summer. As part of his missive to raise awareness about global warming, he used his sea kayak to deliver laptop computers to Inuit children. Doing so, he reasoned, would enable them to better learn about the crisis by interfacing with partner organization, while also becoming pen pals with students in Scotland.

Forget for a second the oddity of having a keyboard in your cockpit. Playboaters reserve such space for beach balls, designed to heighten loops not awareness about the global thermometer. Sea kayakers use the spot for drybags, camera cases and binoculars.
Not Smith. He carried the laptops during the entire course of his three-week, 300-mile foray along the country’s coast.

Actually, he quickly found that his cockpit wasn’t the best place for his school kids’ laptops, hauling them instead in the hold of his 18-foot sea kayak. “The rear hatch was the only other place we could fit them,” he says.

Using kayaks for their eco-friendliness, Greenlandic tradition and to support their message of raising environmental awareness, in all he and partner Craig Mathieson delivered three of the machines to schools in the southeast Greenland villages of Isortoq, Sermiligaq and Kungmiut, settlements only accessible by boat. He then registered the children with ThinkQuest to facilitate lesson plans, forum discussions and media file exchanges on climate change, which locals are experiencing first hand. “The laptops are merely a tool to help us link the Inuit schools with western schools and our partner site,” he says.

No matter that the 37-year-old ex-Marine with a PhD in astrophysics had to dodge icebergs and polar bears along the way, while making up to 30 miles each day. Most of us would have been coveting a bottle of Glenfiddich as our most precious cargo on such an expedition, not computers. But Smith saw them as the best way to connect kids from different cultures.

And they did so while dealing with rather unorthodox paddling conditions. Steep-sided fjords and undulating geography created weather as incompatible with forecasts as Macs are to PCs. “The weather changed in minutes,” says Smith, “from sunshine and calm to cold winds and confused seas.”

Each afternoon, the ice cap heated up like a micro-processor, creating up to 30-mph winds. They also had to watch out for the dreaded Piteraq, winds that can top 210 mph, and fight 10-foot-high tides. Then came mazes of icebergs that threatened to smash them into smithereens with each passing stroke. They also created tsunami-like waves that sent them surfing as fast as the school kids would soon be doing on the Internet.

We can laud our No Child Left Behind program till we’re glacier blue in the face. This guy’s the true hero. He’s an astrophysicist. Military stud. He could be predicting meteor strikes or busting up bad guys. Instead, he’s kayaking computers to kids.

And not just any computers. Dell Vostro 1320’s, with 1Gb RAM, giving Inuit kids the power to Google, Facebook, join Club Penguin and Tweet like a Greenland grebe. In this day and age of Bernie Madoffs, pop star poisonings and NFL players shooting themselves in the leg, it’s as refreshing as a post-sauna plunge in Greenland’s icy waters.
I’ve never delivered anything nearly as altruistic via a sea kayak — a guitar to camp in Maine’s Arcadia National Park, a bowl of blueberries to a batch of pancake batter in Alaska, and a couple of abalone shells from a midden in Tasmania.

While the computers have Microsoft operating systems, it’s Smith who has the macro soft heart. Sure, sponsors like Kokatat and P&H provided them with drysuits and 18-foot, fiberglass Cetus kayaks. They even had endorsements from the Scottish government and Royal Geographic Society. But none of these supporters were the ones fleeing icebergs and polar bears, and delivering laptops farther north than Lapland.

The Oracle worker is far from finished with his Odyssey. Next spring, Smith plans to return with UK school children in tow. Then he’ll bring Greenlandic children to Scotland, to tour power stations that are at the center of the global-warming crisis. “The Inuit children will be able to see what’s causing it, and our children will be able to see first hand how global warming is affecting their daily lives,” he says. “Meanwhile, the computers will help educate them so they can make the right choices about protecting our environment in the future.”

Smith is making the right choices now. And like the whales that raised their flukes as he paddled by with his laptops, we should raise our own flutes of Glenfiddich in his honor.

–Note: To donate to Smith’s cause, visit Click here

By Eugene Buchanan


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