Field Notes: An SUP Mission to Auckland

Photo: Hayley Thom

Photo: Hayley Thom

Field Notes: An SUP Mission to Auckland

On Tuesday, April 15, 2014, I set off on my longest and most challenging SUP mission yet. I’ve always enjoyed working towards challenges and training for endurance events, competing in an Ironman triathlon and many endurance running races in the past, so, it was only natural after becoming hooked on standup paddling that I wanted to create big SUP challenges for myself. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than setting a challenge and completing it.

I completed my first endurance SUP mission last July where I paddled 55 kilometers in eight hours circumnavigating Auckland’s Waiheke Island. Almost immediately after finishing the circumnavigation I started planning my next SUP mission: an attempt to standup paddle from Great Barrier Island to Auckland.

Great Barrier Island sits approximately 85 kilometers northeast of Auckland city. In order to successfully finish the SUP mission I knew I’d need a northeast wind to head downwind to my destination, and that I wanted an incoming tide in the afternoon. This meant when I got closer to Auckland the tidal current would also be helping me towards the finish.

Sam Thom-Map

I spent the summer doing the local racing series in Auckland and once it finished I shifted my focus to the endurance paddle. I constantly checked the wind and tide charts to find a favorable time to do my SUP mission. Finally, in April, I saw a 10-day forecast showing consistent and strong northeast winds.

I contacted a friend who owned a beautiful 55-foot catamaran that would be perfect for the adventure. The weather was looking great, so we gave the mission the green light and started preparing food and equipment.

On Monday, April 14, we packed the boat and made our way over to the island. On the trip across I was overwhelmed by how far I’d have to paddle. There was a big swell, which made the ride across rough, but it was exactly what I wanted for my paddle back and I was looking forward to riding the bumps.

At 6:55 am I kicked off from Rapid Bay in Whangaparapara Harbour on Great Barrier Island. There was a lot of low cloud cover, so I couldn’t see where I was supposed to be heading. I’d discussed with my support boat skipper, Peter, that I’d be relying on him to help me set a course as straight as possible. Because I couldn’t see Auckland at this point, it was crucial for him to guide me in the right direction.

Photo: Hayley Thom

Photo: Hayley Thom

Only 30 minutes into the paddle we saw a large pod of dolphins, which was a huge highlight and special way to start the day. I settled into my rhythm and made sure not to go too hard too early; this way going to be a long day and my approach was certainly “slow and steady.” The first couple of hours just seemed to race by and I was happy with the progress I was making. I managed to paddle 10 kilometers in rough conditions before I had my first fall.

Three hours into the trip I started to lose my balance. When I usually paddle I go for 45-60 minutes at a time. What I didn’t realize was just how tough it would be to balance once I started to fatigue on the rough water. At this point I was spending most of my concentration on not falling, rather than surfing swells, but I was still having the time of my life and was soaking up every moment of the mission.

Once I got to the 50-kilometer point I really needed to dig deep. The muscles in my arms and shoulders were beginning to ache and I was certainly starting to get quite tired. I made sure I kept taking enough electrolyte drinks and energy bars, and, thankfully, the support boat was constantly encouraging me and really kept my spirits up. At this point I could also see Auckland’s Rangitoto Island. For about 30 kilometers Rangitoto seemed to not be getting any closer. The hours would pass and I felt like I wasn’t making any ground towards it.

Another interesting factor in the paddle was that the breeze was more eastern than what I ideally wanted, causing me to paddle predominately on the right side of my board. It’s hard to believe, but I’m not exaggerating when I say I paddled 80 percent of the mission on the right side.

The point from 65 to 75 kilometers was very tough, as I was really starting to hurt at this point and still had a lot more paddling to go. I kept telling myself to stay focused and tick the kilometers off one at a time. The seas were the biggest I’d ever been in and were also quite messy.

Photo: Hayley Thom

Photo: Hayley Thom

I finally paddled past Rangitoto lighthouse and really felt like I was home, though I was still eight kilometers away. The tide was rushing in the harbor just as I’d planned. It was great to be in my local waters and I was sure I was going to finish, however this was my lowest point physically, as I was so exhausted and desperate to reach land.

Paddling through the breakwater at Auckland’s Okahu Bay I could see some of my friends and family at the yacht club. I was overcome with joy and relief that I would actually achieve my goal after pushing through the pain and fatigue. It’s amazing how you seem to get a massive surge of energy at the end of an endurance event and all the pain disappears.

I came into the boat ramp with everyone cheering for me. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be there when I finished, as I’d kept the mission private in case I couldn’t complete it, but the boat crew sent a text once they knew I’d make it.

I looked at my GPS; it said 88.1 kilometers and was 10 hours 57 minutes since I’d left the beach at Great Barrier Island. I didn’t get off my board, except when falling in, so I’d spent 11 hours on my SUP. It’s one of my proudest physical achievements and I’m thrilled to have completed it.

I couldn’t imagine having to paddle more than five kilometers again, but it’s funny how after a few days rest and recovery it’s natural to think of what could be next.

I hope my story will motivate you to get out on your SUP and have your own great adventures! —Sam Thom

To watch a video of Sam Thom’s SUP mission to Auckland, click here.
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