Review - Kayaking The Aleutians, a Justine Curgenven film

If you'd like to save time don't read this review - just buy the film.  It's cheaper if you order the pre-release version release before Valentine's Day, 14th February 2015 (details below).  

And let's face it, you're going to want this film. (Update - Justine taking film / presentation on tour).

Quite simply, it is the best yet from Justine Curgenven and chronicles her 101 days spent kayaking with Sarah Outen linking together the inhospitable yet beautiful Aleutian Island chain off Alaska.  

While waiting for the DVD you can download the free podcast and listen to Justine tell the story of the expedition -

Sitting on a comfy sofa, watching this epic 2,500km voyage unfold on screen, it's easy to overlook the three-fold scale of the challenge.  Firstly, the Aleutians are a place synonymous with appalling weather.  As we see in the video, the sign at Adak airport describes the town as "Birthplace of the winds".  This is square one for many Pacific storm systems and in modern times no kayakers have succeeded in paddling the entire Aleutian chain. 

Secondly, there is the not-so-small matter that one of the paddlers is a novice.  Sarah Outen is clearly a tough nut.  She's currently in the process of circumnavigating the world entirely by human power, cycling across America at the moment.  Yet despite training off north Wales with Justine and Barry she was still a (relative) beginner when she embarked on the journey.  For Justine to plan and successfully execute the expedition with seasoned paddlers would have been hard enough but to take responsibility for a novice, in some of the most treacherous conditions imaginable, almost beggars belief. 

Yet these two obstacles, which would have overwhelmed most mortals, pale into insignificance when faced with the third.  Somehow, Justine managed to record the entire adventure on video.  If that doesn't seem like a big deal then you have never made a film!  To capture an adventure on video you must devote a large slice of your brain's processing power to the task, leaving it permanently running in the background like a phone app, ready to perk up to take charge when something interesting happens.  It is constantly assessing what has been shot and working out what extra cover shots are needed to take make complete edited sequences.  When things are at their worst, their utter gut wrenching bowel emptying worst, it's this part of your lizard brain which makes you pick up the camera and talk to it. 

Being able to allocate one part of her brain to filming and another part to the demands of the sea and expedition is the first of Justine Curgenven's extraordinary skills (we'll come on to the others later).  She has demonstrated it many times in the past, most recently in her film about circumnavigating Tierra Del Fuego with Barry Shaw (This Is The Sea 5).  But Barry is no beginner and with Sarah paddling half to a full knot slower than Justine, it would have been understandable if the filming had suffered.

It didn't.  So we see them in a desperate situation with land out of sight, part way through a massive crossing between two islands, with an uncharted tidal stream drifting them far off-course and well away from land.  The current is too strong for Sarah to paddle against.  What do they do?  The next land is Hawaii... All this is on camera.

TV programmes love to create what producers call false jeopardy - "If the cupcakes don't get into the oven in the next minute they might be soggy!"  There's nothing false about the jeopardy here.  Billy Pepper, a captain with thirty years experience of piloting big boats in the waters puts it succinctly, "You two are crazy.  I've never known anybody to attempt this." 

Technically there are things a purist filmmaker would quibble about yet it would be a churlish sod who'd complain about a splash of water on the lens when shooting in conditions that no-one else would dare point a camera.  Adventure films have becoming increasingly glossy productions, mainly thanks to the DSLR revolution, but there's only so much shallow depth of field, time lapse, dolly-shots and focus hunting one can stomach before each film starts to look the same.  From the opening five seconds of one of these videos I can predict how the rest of it will go.

No so with this film.  I genuinely didn't know what was coming next.  And that's the point - neither did Justine or Sarah.  Justine's great (other) film making gift has always been to make the viewer feel they're right there with her - if not actually in the kayak then safely alongside in a nice, warm sofa-shaped boat. 

Part of this is technical.  In her early This is the Sea films she used a mini-camera on a stick that attached to her deck with a suction cup.  It's easy to forget this was a revolutionary perspective in those pre-GoPro days.  No one had seen this angle before (I spent ages making a similar system for Volume 1 - Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown).  Now anyone can clamp a GoPro to a kayak deck and the dreary videos are all over YouTube.  Those users, like the makers of the glossy-but-predictable DSLR adventure films, have forgotten that what truly matters.  Content. 

This film has content.  In bucketfuls.  So buy it.

DVD details
The DVD includes a 55 minute film festival version and a 70 minute Directors Cut. Other bonus material includes 4  extra films: Sea kayaking with Whales and waves in the largest tidal range in the world at the Bay of Fundy,  Strait Flush: a downwind stormy paddle in Wales and 2 shorts of surfing at Tofino, Vancouver island with The Hurricane Riders. Total running time is approx. 155 minutes. Shot in HD, widescreen 16 x 9.

RRP is £19.99 / US $29.95 for the DVD.

Download details

At the time of writing these are being finalised.


Ollie said...

Simon, you have convinced me to get it!

Simon Willis said...

Hi Ollie - you won't be disappointed! Hope all is ell.


Down The Lane said...

Can't wait! I have all her videos and I'm sure this won't disappoint...

Rony Maier said...

I followed the entire expedition on blogs and fb posts by Justine and Sarah,but this review increases a lot my hurry to watch the film ! 😄

Simon Willis said...

Down The Lane - you'll love it. Buy the pre-release before 14th Feb and it's cheaper.

Rony - at the risk of getting you even more excited there's also the free Podcast with Justine at if you haven't already listened to it.


Capehorn said...

I had been waiting for the download version but changed my mind and just ordered the DVD. So excited!

Simon Willis said...

Good idea - you'll get the other films too.

Josh said...

Great review, and well written! I'm an avid paddler and a teacher in Unalaska. I've never ventured from the safety of our bay towards the exposed sides or the passes around our island. It was exciting to meet and host Justine and Sarah while they were here, and has been just as exciting following the whole adventure. The release of this film is highly anticipated out here in the Aleutians!

Simon Willis said...

Hi Josh

Great to hear from you and thanks for the comment on the blog - you won't be disappointed in the film.


Rony Maier said...

Will listen,thanks Simon..!

Anonymous said...

I saw this film last night at the Ocean Film Festival in Australia. It is AMAZING! Justine and Sarah are incredible people. The challenges they faced on their voyage were terrifying and the visual splendour of the Aleutians was mind-boggling. I can't believe how cheerily they faced every obstacle in their path.