The UK’s Charlie Head is no newbie to SUP expeditions. His first time stepping on an SUP he circumnavigated the Isle of Wight. That 14-hour paddle hooked Head, fueling his future expeditions, which, most recently included a trip from Land’s End to London via the Thames. Now, Head is embarking on another expedition, taking a team of paddlers to Greenland, not just to raise awareness for multiple charities and bring attention to our global impact, but also to prepare for yet another expedition he has planned for this winter: an Atlantic Ocean crossing. —SC
How’d you get your start as a standup paddler?
I’ve been running my own water sports school on the Isle of Wight, teaching windsurfing, kite boarding and wake boarding for the last 13 years before I finally stepped on a SUP in 2010 and immediately paddled around the island with Brad Symington. We set a record of 96km in under 14 hours around the island for the first time. Since that day I haven’t stopped dreaming! My school came to an end, but that set me free to explore the possibilities of SUP on my own.
Tell us about your most recent expedition.
I set off from Lands End [Cornwall, UK] on a sunny day in September after the wind had kept me landlocked the day before; it was a freeing moment. There were no definite plans, no hotels or B&B’s, no promises of a hot meal, or even shelter at the end of the day. I hit land every day with the knowledge I needed to seek shelter, food and water. I scared a few locals, but mainly made them laugh, running rogue around towns and sleepy villages in my wetsuit, with my paddle in my hand like a weapon, and my eyes out on sticks asking where the local watering hole was.
I was alone most of the time, but with social media, I connected with so many people on route that fueled my every paddle. A Tweet, Facebook or text at the right time made the world of difference to my morale— I knew that as alone as I was, and how physically and mentally tough it got out there, my journey was making a difference and people virtually came along for the ride.
There were lots of little adventures along the way and I had countless memorable interactions with wildlife, many of which followed me for some of the journey; dolphins, seals, a basking shark, and a moment that captured the imagination of the world after rescuing a stranded dog.
When I hit land, I slept in some weird and wonderful places, from an upturned boat and goat shed, to staying with massive families, the blind, farmers, fishermen, pub landlords, a local drunk, nurse, teacher, pro kite and windsurfers, artist, mad scientist and some dodgy students. All of them showed compassion for my cause and great hospitality by taking me in. And I benefited from their local knowledge and glimpse of their world. Because of the nature of my visit and departing the next day, my experience with everyone was exciting and we appreciated each other for these random circumstances, which will never happen again.
As I made my way up the final stretch of the Thames I arrived at Gravesend, where there were Gothic, industrial creatures towering over me. It was a hectic experience carrying my board through the city center and trying to re-enter 10 miles up river to conclude my journey to Hammersmith Bridge, before being kidnapped by a fleet of Coreban SUP riders leading me through town in rush hour.
It was quite dark, but the final stretch was in sight. Friends were whistling in the distance as my shadow got closer. I was a giant salt lick; I had bloody, raw feet from being barefoot the whole time, swollen claw-like hands that developed from gripping my paddle for so long. I didn’t seem to have the sense of relief of finishing, but was more conscious of how bad I smelt. I had my first eight pack. I felt great, amazing, euphoric and ready to drink a pint of tequila and practice all those paddling dance moves I had mastered on the water.
What spurred your upcoming Greenland expedition?
Since 2010, I’ve wanted to paddle areas of the world where you can see the incredible impact we have on our environments and gain the media attention to inspire people to join me for adventure and let us learn the lessons we don’t teach.
My recent unsupported, solo standup paddling adventure took me nearly a 1000 km from Lands End to London, with just the clothes on my back, bare foot and a rucksack holding everything I needed.
When I started making plans for this challenge a couple of years ago it was never meant to be that simple and it started to look more mean than green. Soon it became clear I needed to take it back to basics, as all these changes weren’t going to exercise the mental or physical conditions I would need for an unsupported paddle across an ocean. I needed to be vulnerable, independent and have only the wind and tide dictating my journey each day.
I needed to paddle every day in all conditions, and most importantly, master the art of arguing with myself and dancing naked with my wetsuit in a busy shipping lane- I think is all vital training.
Our Poles are suffering so greatly from our global impact and there’s no better place to see this happen in real time. This will never be the same again and it’s a chance to experience the intense beauty and share it.
The project is supporting the Canal River Trust and benefits Momentum- Curing Bowel Cancer and Development Through Sport.
Who’s joining you on this paddle? How did you decide on who to bring along?
This trip originated from Justin Miles and Paul Hyman in 2011 With Justin’s previous experience in Polar exploration and Paul’s passion for SUP through his school, Active 360, in London. Their heads came together organically to put together a team that would make this dream come true. Now co-director Phil Sayers and Mo (Mohammad Nilforooshan), are also helping lead this trip and help excelerate us to success.
The ten team members (Juliette Ball, Paul Hyman, Justin Miles, Mohammad Nilforooshan, Phil Sayers, Brad Symington, Charlie Head, Jaime Silva, Justin Hankinson and Stuart Howells) are all passionate water men and woman! Most are instructors and professionals within the industry and share a huge wealth of experience.
How have you been preparing?
With the obvious training. During our fitness and paddling we’ve had limited training with the conditions we will be expecting out in Greenland, but most of our preparation has come with acquiring the specialized equipment needed for a safe trip, which, luckily, our sponsors have provided us with.
What gear will you be using?
Oakley, Coreban GB, Sonim, Pro motion, and Berghaus are our main sponsors. From dry suits to survival gear, we all have individual and independent gear to manage ourselves out there and cope with extreme conditions.
What kind of conditions do you expect?
The range of conditions is from 6 to – 20 degrees [Celsius]. It’s the best time of year for sunlight, but conditions can change fast and with the water temperature there is a little room for error. We will have a buddy system in place and check points to reach in convoy to keep a tight eye on each other… and polar bears!
Are you anticipating encounters with wildlife?
We want to see it all. Whales, seals, polar bears, and dragons! As well as the amazing ice carvings, thundering glaciers, rolling icebergs and the noisy silence with exquisite skies.
How do you think this will prepare you for your upcoming Atlantic crossing?
Its important for me to see how I deal with a range of conditions and being vulnerable mentally and physically, and learn to cope with myself under pressure. Being strong and powerful is the smallest part of succeeding in these journeys— the mental endurance is often the fall of a person.
What else we should know about your future in SUP?
When I return from Greenland I will be starting my campaign for the Atlantic Crossing and completing the building of my unique craft, inspired by the ocean rowing boats that will carry me unsupported for 3000 miles. Our SUP boat will adopt all the required supplies and safety equipment, equal to a solo Atlantic rowboat racing in the Woodvale Challenge. I will follow the trade winds from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, known as the Columbus Route.
We believe it’s the role of adults to inspire future generations, and who better to do this than adventure athletes who are a testament to the ethos that the only limits are those we set ourselves. We plan to get a team of adventure athletes involved to help build awareness for the project and to take part in educational and media events as the project develops.