"A lot of the time there (we saw) no land in sight and when we finally saw Holyhead in the distance, it seemed to be getting further away rather than closer."
After more than 17 hours of paddling, Stephen Sherwin was nearing his breaking point.
Sherwin and three friends–John Kieran, Killian Walsh and Peter Carroll–were attempting to standup paddle 56 miles across the Irish Sea–from Skerries, Ireland to Holyhead, UK.
Despite training for nearly a year, turbulent conditions made the crossing much more difficult than expected. Now, with the coastline cruelly dancing away from his weary eyes, it was going to take every last ounce of Sherwin's willpower to reach the Holyhead coastline.
The plan to do the crossing was born from a historic windsurfing run that took place nearly 35 years ago. That's when Carroll's uncle, Liam MacMahon, became the first person to windsurf across the Irish Sea in July of 1983.
Inspired by the run, the four friends decided they would attempt the same crossing, but this time on standup paddleboards. In addition, they decided their mission would support the Royal National Lifeboats Institute (RNLI).
The RNLI is an independent UK charity dedicated to ocean and water safety through a fleet of lifeboats, lifeguards and educational initiatives. Started back in 1824, this group of primarily volunteers and supporters has saved over 140,000 lives.
"The lifeboat provides such a vital service locally and all over Ireland and the UK," said Sherwin. "They rely on donations to make it happen, so for us it seemed like such a logical fit to raise money for them."
While the four paddlers who set off from Skerries never intended to use the lifeboat services themselves, the ocean conditions were not what they had expected.
"The combination of the tides and weather over the previous few days made it very testing," said Sherwin. "While there were waves behind us, they were also hitting us from both sides which meant we were constantly working to keep our balance."
This constant struggle against the sea would eliminate half the group. Walsh fell victim to severe sea sickness at around the one-third marker, while continual cramping and knee swelling forced Carroll to retire at the halfway point.
Adding to their struggle was a factor they had never considered: loneliness.
"The fact that we were concentrating so hard on balancing made it almost impossible to chat to each other," said Sherwin. "This made the journey very lonely."
Unless you've been there, a lonely paddle across 56 miles of churning ocean is hard to comprehend. Aching muscles, mental fatigue and a fading concentration span makes the already tall task all the more challenging as the finish line approaches. The brain begins to play tricks on you, so it's no surprise Sherwin believed the shoreline was receding as he inched ever-closer.
Nevertheless, Sherwin and Kieran kept their heads down and kept digging. The final few hours crawled by until the remaining duo finally made landfall on the UK shoreline–20 hours after setting off from Ireland.
"What got us over the line was the team effort," said Sherwin. "The spirit and attitude of everyone was phenomenal and during everything we went through, nobody ever complained. They just dug deep and found a way to make it happen."
Not only did these four paddlers dig deep, but so did their local community. After initially hoping to raise €5000 for the RNLI, they nearly tripled their goal and have currently raised over €13000.
"We have been overwhelmed by the donations we received for the RNLI," said Sherwin. "People and local businesses have been so generous with their hard-earned money towards a brilliant cause."
Sherwin and his friends weren't pro athletes or even sponsored for that matter. Instead, they represent the legions of grassroots paddlers that make the standup paddling community what it is today. It’s a combination of inclusion, determination and generosity that is hard to find in other sports.
"We reckoned that you don’t have to be a professional athlete or some kind of hero to do amazing things," said Sherwin. "We are just a bunch of average Joe's with big ambitions."