There's nothing easy about the 39.8-mile, open-ocean crossing between Catalina Island's Avalon harbor and Dana Point, Calif. Every year, a select breed of SUP teams assemble and find a way to attempt the exposed and ever-grueling Catalina Challenge. Last year, Orange County's Jodie Nelson created a media maelstrom after opting to do the crossing solo as a personal challenge to raise funds for Boarding for Breast Cancer and Keep A Breast Foundation.

It was nearly impossible for anyone following standup paddling to not her about what happened during the ensuing nine-hour journey, as a minke whale that Nelson named Larry accompanied her and then stirred up a blitz of nationally broadcast appearances, from The Ellen DeGeneres Show (below) to NBC's Today, and with it, a flood of donations to Nelson's cause topping $130,000.

This year, there were no whale escorts or relentless training for a repeat solo effort (she didn't even plan on racing), but Nelson still found an equally worthy cause to drive her and race partner Jen Lee's crossing at the March 27 event. Through Nelson's nonprofit, Paddle with a Purpose, Lee and Nelson coined their crossing Paddle 4 Japan and, with Quickblade's support, dedicated their efforts to the victims of the recent Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. (Proceeds from the team's $25 crossing T-shirts, available at Quickblade Paddles, support the American Red Cross's tsunami relief programs.)


"I didn't train at all so I was prepared to just grin and bear it, but I did that because I made it not about me," said Nelson, who finished with Lee in 9 hours, 26 minutes. "When I'd get whiny I'd think about their pain, think about people losing their lives and homes, so I can think I'm lucky, out here, healthy, paddling, on a $2000 board.  And Mentally, I knew I could do it."

While Nelson and Lee spelled each other every 20 minutes, trading sprint stroke shifts on their 14-foot Bark , the conditions provided plenty of challenges. "Last year, there was not a cloud in the sky," Nelson said. "This year, we had everything: headwind, glassy northwest wind, rain, hot sun, straight into whitecaps, and southeast wind? Stuff I've never seen."

San Clemente, Calif.'s Rob Rojas, who earned the fastest standup paddleboard time at 7:06 with teammates Tom Gallagher and Anthony Vela, was also left wide-eyed with the tough conditions.

"Catalina was brutal in terms of having a headwind and side-chop most of the way," said Rojas, whose well-rounded team raced on an Ohana custom 19-foot unlimited board.

Nelson added her take that this year's event, "felt real in terms of people's motives," and noted a few inspiring teams completing the crossing at both ends of the age spectrum—teams like the four-paddler squad that included Peggy and board-crafting legend Mickey Munoz (age 73), Jericho Poppler and Lance Erickson, as well as the dual parent-child team of Norm Scheel and his son Nick, 12, paired up with Manya Clark and her 12-year-old daughter Alleanna. Click HERE to view a list of the full 2011 Catalina Challenge results.  — DS

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2011 Catalina Challenge Finish line from Eric Abbott on Vimeo.

Video from Bart De Zwart and E.J. Johnson’s 2011 race, in which the Starboard paddlers won the Men’s 14-foot Open SUP Division in 7:36.