There’s something special about the first, no matter the context. First descents. First ascents. First love? First kiss? Last week, Karen Wrenn, 39, became the first standup paddler to connect all of California’s Channel Islands, battling sharks, hefty windchop and gnarly sideshore gales intent on knocking her off course. But the mother of three endured, proving again, there’s nothing stopping the pure power of will. –JC
SUP mag: Tell us again where this idea came from.
KW: I was talking to Chris Wyman, sports marketing director for Kaenon, he was my captain when I did Catalina to Dana Point. We were throwing ideas around and he’s like, ‘we can do anything.’ So we came up with this plan.
SUP mag: Give us the lowdown. What was the routine?
KW: There’s eight islands and seven crossings I had to do. The first day was spent motoring to Santa Barbara Island. My first day of paddling was from Santa Barbara to Catalina Island. It was 27 miles and I paddled all day. Then I got in the boat and we motored to a safe spot to anchor. I got up the next morning, did another crossing and slept on the boat every night. The logistics were interesting. You can’t anchor at every island so I’d paddle a channel and we’d motor back to where we could anchor and head to a new starting point every morning. I did seven channels in five days. The northern islands are all close together so I did three crossings in one day.
SUP mag: What was the toughest day?
KW: On the 43-mile crossing there was a ton of side chop and headwind for three quarters of it. I din’t fall off the board the whole trip but this was definitely challenging. I had to push through and be mentally tough.
SUP mag: So sharks. That’s a big deal out there. How was that for you?
KW: The day I did a 28 miler from Santa Barbara to San Nicholas Island, the boat crew saw a pretty big one close to me. It surfaced twice. They didn’t really know what to do. They didn’t tell me until I was completely done because they didn’t want to throw me off. I noticed the boat veered pretty strangely at one point and wondered what was up.
SUP mag: So how do you deal with that mentally?
KW: There were so many seals it was insane. So there’s a lot of food in the area. The first couple days I was always looking. I’d see things and get scared and head back next to the side of the boat. By the third day of paddling I came up with a system. I felt so much better if I knew one person was spotting and I only had to look five feet in front of my board. I tried to keep my focus on the water straight in front of me.
SUP mag: Did you have an aha moment out there all alone?
KW: The most beautiful moment was near San Miguel Island the day I did three crossings. The islands are close together. I woke up really early and started paddling at sunrise. As the sun was coming up the light was amazing. I was able to paddle right along the shore of San Miguel. It was one of those moments when it’s all clear and you realize ‘this is really happening.’
SUP mag: So you’re a pretty stellar racer on the Naish Team. Do you like races or adventures better?
KW: I like them both a lot. Doing solo things like this is a personal challenge. It makes you realize how strong you are and you learn a lot about yourself when you’re out there. Racing satisfies the competitor in me. I love being on a starting line and having something to train for. But the adventure and being on a boat is really special. My husband was looking at Outside magazine and read about a 300-mile kayak route off the coast of Scotland. We’ll have to wait and see.
Wrenn’s Trip By the Numbers
147.7 – Total mileage paddled
43 – Longest day in miles between Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands
12 – Most hours spent consecutively on the water
1 – Number of dorsal fins spotted by support crew
8 – Channel Islands connected in five days of paddling
3 – Kids who were stoked cause their mom’s a badass
1 – Husband who was cool enough to assist
2 – Parents that worried incessantly about their daughter’s safety
Photos by Bishow