2011 has been the year of evolution for long distance Stand Up Paddleboarding. As the year began Tom Jones’ 1507 mile journey along America’s East Coast remained the world distance record for a sport that was growing rapidly in coastal regions, but lagging inland. Then Mike Simpson and Will Rich stepped forward this March, beginning a 1808 mile paddle between Key West and Portland that was to set a new benchmark in the sport.
And then the Summer came. Three men decided to take on the Mississippi by SUP, I just happened to be the third to start. Alex Linnell, a 21 year-old Minnesotan, began on the 1st June and finished his journey on August 9th, claiming two world records, the first to paddle the Mississippi by SUP and the longest distance travelled by SUP.
Anyone who has been following my journey knows that world records have been down my list of priorities. I’m certainly not averse to using them as a vehicle for PR and media - we all need bread on the table and if you play the game others play with you - but as I approach the Gulf I know I’m in a position to break the distance record and having come this far I am of course chuffed to be on the edge of another achievement.
Back in 2005 when I wrote to Jack Smith, who at the time held the distance skateboarding record that I dearly wanted to surpass, Jack wrote back to me full of support and enthusiasm and it meant the world to me. Of course, like that feeling when an ex partner finds someone else, it would be natural for any record-breaker to feel a niggle within once someone suggests they’d like to claim the record, but records survive to be broken and there should be no animosity in the passing on of these.
World records are a healthy milestone to aim for and I’m privileged to be in a position to target them now and then. In a sport like SUP, so young and full of energy, the distance world record will continue to draw people into the sport and endurance journeys and is still an approachable goal even for those with limited SUP experience. Tom Evans, who joined me between Minneapolis and Memphis, had never stood on a board before he reached America yet managed 1120 miles, one of the longest SUP journeys to date. It is a beautiful sport that has an easy overlapping with travel, I hope thousands of people enjoy paddleboards down the line.
Where the Guinness Book of Records is concerned there is only one variable at stake here, the distance. To explain the differences in distance travelled on the river I can just say that I used a GPS and Alex the Mississippi Mile markers on Minnesota DNR and Army Corps of Engineers maps, which of course are relatively accurate along a straight line determined by these organisations. These don’t reflect the exact journey a paddler takes down an ever-changing river.
Alex travelled the Mississippi on a clear board, his Dad drove a supporting pontoon boat for almost 2000 miles downstream from Minneapolis, carrying necessary supplies. Meanwhile, back upstream, I’ve been lugging over 85lbs of gear on Artemis, my Lakeshore River Rover SUP. In terms of distance, these differences mean absolutely nothing because a distance is a distance however you’ve chosen to travel it, but the very nature of my journey means I’ve had to read the river, tracking down the strongest currents to enable me to carry my load with the greatest ease, which often means the very outside of the bends where the river flows fastest. Take the outside of one of these large, winding Lower Mississippi bends (or one of the many lakes that the river passes through) and you’d clock up two miles extra over someone paddling the inside of the channel, so it shouldn’t be assumed that two people travelling the same river would amass a similar amount of miles. In fact, without the security of a support boat and with a board full of gear to protect, my freedom to go point to point – the most direct route – has been limited, I said at the beginning of this journey that there should be no surprise if I paddled 100 miles further than Alex by the time I reach the Gulf purely because I’m carrying my gear.
I’ve had large misgivings about a river journey being matched up against an ocean paddle like those completed by Tom Jones, Mike Simpson and Will Rich. Paddling the Mississippi hasn’t been easy and it comes with its own challenges, but an ocean journey is something else. It’s harder. Current assistance is much less consistent, just take the fact that Mike and Will paddled 1808 miles in 90 days on the water (not including rest days), and I’ll cover approximately 2400 miles in little more than 70 paddling days. For weeks I’ve been trying to find a way to extend my passport visa so I could push out around the Gulf towards Florida, experiencing the beauty of the ocean and almost justifying my world record by attempting to paddle in open water, but sadly there’s no way around the red tape. Once I reach the Gulf next week, my journey ends. I’d like to suggest that there should be two separate world records in SUP, one for current assisted paddles, and one for lakes and oceans.
I’ll also put my hands up and say the 77.2 miles Tom Evans and I paddled in one day on the Mississippi River on August 10th would struggle to rival the effort Annabel Anderson put in when she covered 60.5 miles in 14 hours in the sea between Ibiza and Spain earlier this year. There is no comparison.
Assuming I reach the Gulf of Mexico without mishap in the next week I’ll console myself with having completed the first source to sea SUP descent of the Mississippi without motorised assistance, having paddled or carried my board and gear every inch of the way from a little stream running into Elk Lake, MN. My journey has been my journey, but it belongs to many others. I’ve worked hard and had a great time, and I’ll remember this trip not for any world records, but for the people I met along the way. I’ve paddled and carried my board and gear every inch of this river, upholding the purity of the journey I hoped I’d undertake when I started. I’m saddened that I couldn’t meet up with Alex Linnell because the strange distance of an Internet-led relationship can lead to misunderstanding. He has his place in history and he deserves it. I wish him well and hope he has enjoyed his journey as much as I have mine. If anyone has worked hard enough to earn something, they should have the right to claim it. At 21 years old Alex Linnell has incredible ambition. I spent ten hours a day playing computer games when I was 21!
Behind me on the river is Matt Crofton, an inspiring chap who I had the pleasure of meeting and paddling with in Minnesota, he’s the third man out of 6 billion people on the planet who decided to SUP the Mississippi in 2011! And across the Pond is Thomas Oschwald, who is attempting an incredible 3100+ mile circular journey from Switzerland to the Atlantic, and back again. If I eventually do break the distance world record, you’ll see it right there on my website on the day I finish. In fact, you’ll have found my daily progress on my site from the day I started (bar a couple of days delay here and there without an Internet connection). I don’t want to deprive these other guys of the right to push the record forward, we all have the right to be record-breakers.
I am now preparing to leave Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and make my way through what may be the most industralised section of river in the world. Huge ocean-going liners, ships and river barges will keep me on my toes for the next 120 miles - the ship pilots call this section of water ‘Hell’, or ‘Suicide Alley.’ Once past New Orleans the density of traffic may diminish slightly, but I’m ready for the challenge. So far I’ve paddled 2157.3 miles, so I’ll pass Alex’s world record distance of 2323 miles somewhere between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Once I do, I’ll say a quiet thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way, and then I’ll paddle on, with the assistance of whatever current and tide remains at that point, until the Mississippi River spits me out into the sea. All the best to Matt, Thomas and everyone else who goes for the distance record in the future, if you put in the work, you deserve it. Finally, full respect to everyone who has made past benchmarks their own: Tom, Mike, Will and Alex, you made it possible for the rest of us. Thank you.
If you’d like to follow my journey you can do so through my Website. Facebook. Personal Facebook (because we can never have TOO many friends we don’t know). YouTube, & Flickr.