The State of Paddling Missions Today
The heart of adventure SUP lies in expedition paddling. The broadly defined discipline borrows from kayaking, camping, downwinding, backpacking, endurance racing and often, masochism. Once a pastime reserved for the staunchest SUP survivalists, the state of expedition paddling today finds everyday paddlers—sometimes even folks with no paddling experience whatsoever—getting on the water for their very own bouts with Mother Nature.
The possibilities of SUP as an expedition vehicle first came into the spotlight thanks to an unassuming Dutchman named Bart de Zwart.
De Zwart, a Holland-born, Maui-based extreme-distance paddler, completed the sport's first widely publicized SUP crossing in June 2011—a five-day, non-stop, 300-mile jaunt spanning from the Big Island of Hawaii to Kauai.
Five days and five nights at sea, sleeping mere moments at a time, eating when his seasickness occasionally subsided, excreting (a challenge in itself) and freezing through nights—alone atop his board. The actual paddling, de Zwart said, was the easy part. Cooking dinner and inflating his sleeping pad in the dark were more tedious. He finally made land six pounds lighter, his feet so swollen and blistered he couldn't stand up, let alone paddle, for days to follow.
His story was picked up by virtually every news outlet in the islands along with national newsgroups NBC and Huffington Post, multiple European publications and SUP magazine.
It was "by far the hardest thing I've done in my life," de Zwart says. "I'm glad I did it but I don't think I'll do it again."
He went on to win the world's longest paddle race, the 11-City Tour, four times, then conquered the North Sea between England and Holland, explored the Greenlandic coast and crossed the 180 miles from Tahiti to Bora Bora, solo and unsupported.
"I always hope my expeditions inspire people to do multiple-day camping trips on their paddleboards," de Zwart says. "In doing so, they'll experience similar things to long-distance expeditions, just on a smaller scale. That's where it all starts."
Around the same time de Zwart completed his initial mission, paddlers such as Alex Linnell, Tom Jones, Michele Baldwin, Mike Simpson, Norm Hann, Will Rich and Shane Perrin were gearing up for impressive feats of their own.
"The awesome part is that it's much more common now," says Perrin, who was the first ultra-distance standup guy to compete in traditional paddle races such as the Everglade Challenge, the La Ruta Maya and the Texas Water Safari, a 264-mile race down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.
"Bart de Zwart was the first to enter those waters," Perrin says. "No one was doing it but now more people have come in."
Accomplishments like de Zwart and Perrin's provide a stark contrast in expedition experience to Texas adventurer, Sam Mauldin, who reflects a caliber of enthusiast commonly seen today. In June 2015, Mauldin and four buddies set out on a 100-mile, unassisted expedition down the Guadalupe River, which took them four days to complete. Prior to the Guadalupe expedition, Mauldin had never set foot on a standup in his life.
"I took up SUP because I wanted to get into backpacking," Mauldin says. "But Texas doesn't really have much unregulated back country and its river territory is open game. We took what we knew from kayak camping, condensed it and hit the road."
After the Guadalupe expedition, Mauldin's enthusiasm prompted him to create the Facebook forum SA Adventure Sports, a place for people looking to get into adventure sports. The interest he's witnessing in expedition SUP, he says, is undeniably on the rise.
"It just seems like people are seeing it as more attainable," Mauldin says. "I see a lot of people get started with a couple overnighters and eventually moved on to long-distance or first-descents."
In addition to the traditional motivations for such feats—triumph, exploration, adventure, escape—SUP missions of all kinds have historically been propelled by altruistic purposes.
Thanks to modern technology and media coverage, expedition SUP's popularity may also be attributable to the powerful impact expedition paddling has on benevolent causes—philanthropic, environmental or otherwise. Of all the commendable expeditions nominated for Top Expedition at the SUP Awards every year, 90 percent are related to an altruistic mission.
In 2014, former Marine Will Schmidt earned that recognition with a solo, primarily self-supported epic from Canada to Mexico down the Pacific Coast to raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project. Currently, Josh Collins—a former member of the US Army Special Forces who suffered severe brain trauma during a training exercise in 2013—is paddling from Texas to New York in a 3,500-mile mission dubbed Operation Phoenix. The lengthy SUP endeavor is intended to raise awareness and funding for veterans in need.
But it's not just soldiers performing valiant feats in the name of those in need. Distance paddling has also proven immensely effective in garnering financial support for victims of disease, particularly in the field of cancer research. In 2014, Charlie Howden set out to paddle Costa Rica's entire Pacific coastline to raise money for cancer research. Howden was perfectly healthy when he committed to the expedition. Months before launching, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His purely philanthropic gesture became a personal calling; he completed upwards of 200 miles and raised close to $20,000 before the disease forced him to abandon the expedition. He passed away a little over a year later, but his legendary story carries a lasting impact on both the paddling and cancer-fighting communities.
Along with soldiers and warriors in the cancer battle, today's paddling community finds stewards of the environment among the most active participants in expedition paddling. In 2015, Christian Shaw and Gordon Middleton of Plastic Tides did a 240-mile expedition down the Eerie Canal, collecting research samples along the way that contributed to the eventual ban of the sale of products containing microbeads—harmful, microscopic plastic pollutants—in nearly a dozen counties across New York.
Still, many modern expeditions begin with the traditional purpose of pushing the limits of human capacity. Perhaps today's most remarkable example of this pursuit lies in the ambition of a handful of radical paddlers racing to attempt the seemingly impossible: a solo, unsupported crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Among the men endeavoring to claim this historic first is Nicolas Jarossay, a Frenchman who planned to launch from the northwest coast of Africa and paddle unsupported to the French island of Martinique in the Caribbean in April. His expedition, originally scheduled to departed in January, was delayed because his board wasn't finished. This setback may prove devastating to Jarossay's intention of completing the paddle this year.
"The season for that crossing is between December and April," says de Zwart, who's crossed the Atlantic four times via sailboat. "Starting in April does not make sense because first, the trade winds that help push you die down, so there's a lot more paddling. Second, when the trades die, hurricane season starts. You cannot risk getting stuck in a hurricane."
With pressure to complete the crossing imposed by the threat of other paddlers beating him to the feat (South African paddler Chris Bertish and British stuntman Charlie Head have both been working on Atlantic-crossing plans), Jarossay's attempt, at this point in time, "seems a little forced," de Zwart says. "He's being pressured because he said he'd do it this year … I hope it works out."
If the Atlantic crossing still hasn't been completed by December of next year, 44-year-old de Zwart, godfather of expedition SUP, may just take a crack at the Atlantic himself.
"I still feel up for the challenge," he says.
As the state of expedition paddling progresses into previously unimaginable realms, it's encouraging to see philanthropic adventures big and small taking place the world over. Whether it's just an overnight trip on your local river or an ocean crossing, the opportunity is out there for anyone who wants it.
Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in our 2016 Gear Guide, released in April. Since the publication of this article, Nicolas Jarossay—the first man to attempt a solo transatlantic SUP crossing—was rescued off the US Atlantic Coast within the first day of his attempt. The next solo transatlantic SUP crossing, to be attempted by South African Chris Bertish, is expected to launch by December. For more info on Bertish’s preparation and mission, check out our recent interview with the man himself and stay tuned to updates on his expedition.
More expedition SUP