Bart de Zwart on His Expedition Through French Polynesia
Earlier this week, Maui’s Bart de Zwart completed the first solo, unsupported SUP expedition from Tahiti to Bora Bora. After paddling 180 miles over four days and three nights, Bart reached Bora Bora just before nightfall on Sunday, May 18. After resting and traveling back to Tahiti, Bart caught up with us to give us the inside scoop on his grueling crossing. —SC
Tell us why you chose to attempt an expedition in French Polynesia. Are you the first to SUP from Tahiti to Bora Bora?
I was the first to do this crossing. Mostly, I take a map of the world and look at all the places suitable for an expedition or crossing. Important for me are if there is a connection with paddling, what the weather could be like, and if it is an interesting place to go. French Polynesia was an easy choice—it has a very rich paddle history and cultural background, is in the right time of the year and the weather looked doable, and it is a beautiful pace to go.
How did you decide on your course?
I choose Tahiti to Bora Bora because, with trade winds, which switch from southeast to northeast, it looked doable and safe enough. I chose my line a little high just to be safe if the winds would push me south—especially during the night I drift more south. This stage worked out great. I thought about going one island further, but logistically, that would make things a lot more difficult.
What were some of your major concerns prior to the expedition?
Weather is always the main concern. Luckily, trade wind weather is very good to forecast and doesn't bring many big surprises like I had during my North Sea Crossing. My biggest concern this time was getting my 14' Starboard Expedition board to Tahiti. It proved very hard to send from Thailand direct, so I had to go to LA to pick it up and continue with another airline.
You've told us before that the mental strength is one of the most important aspects in these expeditions. Tell us how you prepare for such a mentally and physically demanding challenge.
To be honest, I do my normal training and nothing extra for something like this. I know I can paddle for many days and hours. But, that is where the mental strength comes in—when you get tired, seasick, the wind is not ideal—you have to figure out where to go and eat and drink enough to stay strong. [There are] a lot of small things, which make life tough during a crossing, and you are in it alone—that is the mental part, which is a lot harder than the physical part. You can only be ready for that if you feel you are prepared with all the gear you need, and be convinced that no matter what, you can do it. If you are not sure, you should never start a solo unsupported expedition. One thing is always clear to me, you have to do this on you own and you can't call for help if things get tough. So, I make sure that weather, board and all equipment is all a ‘go,’ and that I have 'plan B' and 'C's'.
Last thing, which is most important of all, is to be connected to the board, so I always wear two leashes, and in tough weather or high seas, also a rope. And, all my gear is connected to the board in case I roll over so I can’t lose anything because most gear is vital.
At night, I recover very well. I sleep, but only shorts naps. I check for traffic every 30 minutes. Mentally, it is not any tougher at night. I feel comfortable in my bed and when I know I am not in a traffic lane, I can sleep fine. Only when it is rough with rolling waves I wake up, and sometimes, upside down—a wet wake up call. After checking all is still connected to the board, that is fine too.
Tell us about the expedition.
The first two days were tough. The wind was a little more from the side than I wished for, the seas were confused with three different swells, and I was seasick and threw up a couple of times, so I had to make sure to get enough liquid and food in to stay strong. Although it is tough, I know I will get through that if I keep eating little by little, standup, and start to paddle. You get over seasickness a lot faster on a board when active, than on a boat when you lay down. At the end of the second day I started to feel good and strong again.
The second night, the waves were a little higher and I expected to get rolled over all night, which didn’t happen until 4:30 in the morning, just before I wanted to wake up. I was asleep, and then in the water. I lost my little pump for the bed, and my wet clothes because the net they were in had a flimsy rope. The biggest problem was my sunscreen was in the shorts I lost. I had back up, but they proved not as effective as expected, so I burned my hands and feet on the last days.
Were there any big victories for you out on the water?
My first victory was to see land again after two days, and passing by Huahine and especially Tahaa, which is absolutely stunning. That day, I knew I had a very long day if I wanted to make it before dark. So, I started at 3 a.m. and paddled for almost 16 hours to just make it into the pass of Bora Bora before dark. The last hour was very, very tough because I had the wind and current against me, and hardly made any ground. I finally made it in just after dark, super tired, especially because I normally eat and drink almost every hour and didn't do this the last two.
I hoped to see some dolphins or sharks but didn't sea any. Twice, I went through a school of tuna and I saw many birds, which got really close and checked me out.
You carried a lot of gear on your SUP. How was it navigating your board with such a load?
Yes, I always have a lot of gear on board: extra food, extra water, and some doubles of electronics, just to be safe. Every item of gear is very important. The total extra weight was probably a little over a 110 pounds. One of the great features of this expedition board is the front fin, which I steer. Even with weight and side wind, I go straight and can paddle equal on both sides.
I had everything I needed. Food is always difficult because some food you bring you don't feel like eating at all. I should have brought an extra tube of sunscreen and my waterproof iPod, because I had this one song stuck in my head, which I heard on the radio on our way to the start.
What steps do you take to recover from a multi-day expedition like this?
That is the easy part: rest and eating good. The next day, already, I felt like really good. The recovery seems to go quick, but the real recovery takes a lot longer. It will take weeks to get back to full strength again, so I just start training again and eat healthy, and gain some weight I lost.
If you could do it again, is there anything you would change about this expedition?
No not really. Choosing French Polynesia was very good—paddling is the national sport here, and a very important part of everybody's life. After my arrival, the locals start calling me a Tahitian ‘aito’ warrior, something you cannot call yourself. This, for me, is the biggest compliment you can get. I hope I can inspire people to get a board and start exploring on a river, a camping trip, a lake, for a day or a week. Life is so exciting, if you want it to be.
What's next on your agenda?
There is always something brewing, but sorry, if I knew for sure I would still keep it a surprise. First thing will probably be a new exciting photo trip with Connor [Baxter] to some remote place.