SBIFF: By Hand is an Epic Ocean Adventure

Brothers Paddle from Alaska to Mexico

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In late March of 2016, with the teeth of winter still gripping the landscape, brothers Ryan and Casey Higginbotham got dropped off along the wilds of Alaska’s coastline. With zero fanfare and a hardline commitment to going it alone, the twin brothers launched their 18-foot prone paddle boards into the icy, northern waters and began to paddle south. Some seven months and 2,200 miles later the duo from Pismo Beach would reach their destination, the bustling beaches of Tijuana, Mexico. Every inch of open-ocean conquered with nothing more than their own two hands. 

Directed by Kellen Keene, the film By Hand, is the story of the Higginbotham’s grand adventure. The scale and scope of the accomplishment is impossible for us armchair enthusiasts to fathom — we spend an hour cruising a stand-up paddle board on a sunny summer day and we feel like athletic gods. We know nothing about true, zero safety net, personal-limit obliterating adventure. And why would we? But watching By Hand is like watching a mountain lion walk through your urban backyard; you are awed, stupefied, and in disbelief that things like this still happen. It freezes you with its truth. In a world gone lousy with geotags and lawsuits, wild freedom like this isn’t supposed to exist anymore. But there it is. Right in front of you. Real as the sun setting in the western sky. By Hand is a screaming affirmation of life lived outside the boundaries of boredom, a burning bit of inspiration to pursue the big and scary things while you still can. It is a powerful call to your better self. 

With an original score from Ventura’s Todd Hannigan and narration from Jocko Willink, the Higginbotham’s understated approach to the epic gets a polished and professional finish. Their Go-Pro footage depicts world-class documentary drama as these two ridiculously handsome amateur athletes from Central California take on the gnarliest oceanic-adventure of the modern age. Even the great Jimmy Chin, one of the most celebrated adventurers in the world, is rendered speechless in the film as he tries to quantify the scale of the paddle and come to terms with what the brothers accomplished. And it’s all stitched together by Keene in a way that celebrates the untamable wild of the world as much as the drama of the paddle. Nature is clearly in charge and the film is all the better for it.

The Independent caught up with the twins earlier this week, just a few days before By Hand’s world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. What follows is a quick tutorial on the power of adventure and the upside of getting way outside of your safety zone. 

Obviously you guys were comfortable in the water with your lifeguarding background but open-ocean paddling wasn’t something that seemed super familiar to you. How did you decide on this particular adventure to pursue? Were there any other contenders?

Ryan Higginbotham: I think going prone came naturally from that lifeguarding/surfing background, we wanted to do it as simply as possible no paddles, oars, or propulsion. When we decided we needed to take on a big adventure, Casey wanted to ride horses across Mongolia. I quickly convinced him that we knew nothing about horses, so maybe we should do something we do know. My first idea was paddling California on traditional lifeguard rescue boards, but it just wasn’t big enough. Then we decided Alaska to Mexico. That last frontier all the way down to Mexico had a certain appeal to it — big enough that it was tough to grasp at the time.

What surprised you most about the suffering you encountered along the way? What was the most surprising things about the joys? 

RH: I found that suffering is really all in my head, it’s all relative, and I could, in a way, shape my reality of what we were going through to make it south. We found something to laugh about every day no matter the circumstances. I also think that having a big goal in-mind with total commitment makes all the little stuff white noise, just obstacles along the way…The real joy came any time after a really tough stretch. I remember drinking a Coke with Casey in Pt. McNeill, British Columbia, after a rough week and a tough morning to make it into town. I was warm, dry, and hanging out with my brother and I was completely content. It was also the best Coke I’ve ever had.

Describe the difference between the mental challenges of the paddle and the physical. 

RH: The toughest mental challenge was just the daily grind and forcing myself to compartmentalize each day so I could keep going. When you have a really tough day and know you still got thousands of miles in front of you, it can feel insurmountable. So, the mental challenge was to stay present. One day at a time. Physically it was about enduring the cold and wet, being hungry, having severe spinal pain, tendonitis, and the constant wetsuit chafing. It was gnarly but, at that same time, these were all things that could be overcome.

Were you thinking movie from the start or did that sort of develop as the adventure unfolded?

RH: I wanted to bring a camera and document but hadn’t gone much beyond that. I told Kellen Keene (the director) a few weeks before we left to drive north to Alaska and he just dove into it. Full commitment. I could never have anticipated the film coming to where it is today.

Talk a little bit about the power of adventure to change a person. To heal and to grow. How have things changed for you two in the time since you completed the paddle? 

RH: I think, at least speaking to adventure in the natural world, it’s the ultimate teacher of self-efficiency. When the tide is against you, a shark bumps you, and the rain doesn’t stop, there is no one to blame. You have to find will and contentedness in your own head.

Casey Higginbotham: We don’t fight as much anymore and we work better together. I have a much stronger concept of what real teamwork is.

I know you did the full length of Baja paddle in the time since completing the Alaska to Tijuana leg. You seem to be getting comfortable with doing epic things. Any big ideas on the calendar for 2020? 

CH: Yes, we did the Baja Peninsula and finished that last January. We’ve got a lot of horrible ideas for what comes next and just have to narrow it down. As always though, you’ve got to save up to fund these things so that takes time. We don’t have a company paying us to go out and do this stuff. No sponsors. It’s just my brother and I figuring it all out. The planning process also takes a lot of time, though we are getting better at it. Baja was laid out in only a few months before we went for it. That being said, I think the main focus of 2020 right now is just getting this film out there and sharing it with people. 

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