Justin Riney set out from the western end of Florida’s panhandle on New Year’s Day with plans to take the scenic route to the northeast corner of the state— and that’s just half of Expedition Florida 500 (XF500), his yearlong SUP journey. For the first six months, Riney is circumnavigating Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coastlines, and then he’ll spend the second half of the year exploring the state’s estuaries, rivers, lakes, and wetlands.
The goal of XF500 is to highlight the importance of stewardship efforts related to Florida’s aquatic ecosystems, coastline, and waterways. Riney, founder of Mother Ocean, and XF500 leader, will be accompanied by paddlers from Quiksilver, Tahoe SUP, and communities along the way. The team is coordinating with local organizers to spread their message by participating in shoreline cleanups and gatherings that promote grassroots participation and awareness.
SUP magazine caught up with Riney on Day 35, after 300 miles of coastal paddling, to talk about his motivation, the journey thus far and what he’s looking forward to in the coming months of the expedition. —Tom Fucigna Jr.
SUP mag: Can you describe your motivation?
Riney: My motivation stems around the conservation of Florida’s waters. We’re celebrating Florida’s 500th anniversary with the goal of making sure these natural resources are here 500 years from now for future generations to enjoy.
SUP mag: Why did you choose a standup board as the vehicle for this journey?
Riney: Here in Florida, we have conditions that are favorable for paddleboard touring and exploration. There’s a lot of shallow, flat water. I’ve surfed my entire life and that’s always been my medium of choice for connecting with the water. I actually only recently started paddleboarding the day after Quiksilver Waterman and Tahoe SUP came on board to do this project. Paddleboarding offers the opportunity to experience our planet’s waters in a very intimate and relatively easy way.
SUP mag: Do you have a support team?
Riney: I haul all my gear with me. There’s 143 pounds of it, and I’m completely self-sustaining. I have to replenish food and fresh water each week, but I could do this entire trip on the gear I have on my board right now. My goal is not to prove that I can live off the land or say that I paddleboarded around the state; my goal is to connect with communities and people along the way to inspire change, so this mission comes with plenty of opportunities for local support with regards to provisions, places to stay, etc. You could call the locals my ground support; they’ve been incredibly helpful.
SUP mag: Are you paddling every day?
Riney: I paddle on average six days a week. I’ve built in a day off each week for rest, laundry, food replenishment, and office work. I’m running a nonprofit organization from the water, so I need time not only for physical rest, but also to catch up on emails, obligations, planning, etc. It’s a very dynamic schedule, though; there are many adjustments that are made in the moment since there are so many moving elements to this project.
SUP mag: Can you describe a typical day?
Riney: There’s definitely no such thing as a typical day, but when I’m in areas that are more populated, I’m working directly with the local communities to raise awareness for their area, their local history, and the issues their local waterways are struggling with. I’m documenting everything from a first-person perspective (my cell phone), so the amount of time spent taking photos, writing, responding to messages, organizing logistics, and handling media can get very time consuming and a bit overwhelming. It’s important to find a balance with the daily agenda that maximizes furthering the cause, allows for the physical paddling, and somewhere in between gives me enough time to rest and stay healthy. When I’m in a remote area, I simply breathe, paddle, and enjoy my surroundings. I’m constantly looking for ways to connect people at home with what I’m experiencing. If people can feel what I’m feeling and see what I’m seeing, we wouldn’t have the challenges we face with regards to water quality and preservation.
SUP mag: What factors have provided the greatest challenge so far?
Riney: Time. There’s not enough of it. Weather is tricky, and wind is always your worst enemy out here. I have a hard time saying no to people, so I tend to bite off too many responsibilities. Consequently, I average very little sleep and skip meals a lot, which is not healthy or sustainable. That’s a balance I’m learning to manage, but it’s also indicative of our mission – I’m not an adventurer or paddleboarder…I’m a conservationist and I’m passionate about this cause. It’s more important for me to connect with as many people as possible to deliver this message.
SUP mag: Have you needed to make any major logistic revisions?
Riney: I make hourly revisions on a minor level. Plan A is always there to fall back on, but I prefer Plan B, which is flexible enough to allow communities to embrace our arrival so they can leverage it as an opportunity to showcase their area. This project is an excellent platform for a lot of people to tap into with regards to awareness. I’m fortunate to have a lot of help with the logistics of the events, coordinated by our Project Lead, Cynthia Trone. Without Cynthia, the local communities would have no idea we’re coming. Because they know we’re coming, I’m able to stay on track with a wealth of available resources in each area.
SUP mag: Have any locations been real eye-openers that have reinforced your commitment to this mission?
Riney: I’ve had a few. One in particular was the Kissimmee River Conservation Paddle we did during training last year. I learned firsthand just how destructive man can be to the natural environment with just a few irresponsible decisions. Each area has their own challenges with regards to water quality and natural resources, whether it’s coastal erosion, seagrass decline, polluted runoff, wastewater issues, or political battles over water flow.
SUP mag: Have you had any particularly magic moments?
Riney: My favorite so far was in the Ten Thousand Islands and the western interior of the Everglades. You’re completely removed from society; your senses are heightened, you’re more aware of your surroundings, and the wildlife and nature just comes to life. There’s nothing more peaceful than being completely dependent on yourself, and having a real opportunity to enjoy the natural world around you.
SUP mag: What are the most interesting creatures you have encountered?
Riney: I’ve seen just about everything except a Florida panther or a bear. We saw 183 alligators in one day on the Kissimmee. Sharks, crocodiles, snakes, birds, manatees, dolphins, lots of bugs, rodents, turtles, bald eagles– Florida has so many unique ecosystems, and it’s a thriving paradise for thousands of species of plants and animals. I’ve become quite the student of learning about the vegetation and local wildlife; I catch myself getting excited about things I would have never taken an interest in if I hadn’t seen them firsthand.
SUP mag: What are you most looking forward to in your journey?
Riney: I’m excited for the places I’ll continue to see along the way, the people I’ll meet, the daily challenges I’ll face, and the opportunity to learn so very much about my home state.
I think what excites me the most, however, is getting better at executing our mission. I’m learning on the fly since this project is so dynamic. I’m working with Cynthia and a lot of people to fine tune things as we go. We’re influencing and inspiring others, but not on the level that I envision yet. I get excited thinking about the positive change that will occur on a broad scale when we’re firing on all cylinders cohesively; I’m excited for that moment when my vision becomes a tangible reality, because our waters will benefit greatly from that.