By Mark Slater
So The Ultimate Paddler Challenge, well a little idea started forming in my head after reading about Chris ‘SUPracer’ Parker’s tales of paradisiacal paddle perfection/hell at the Ironmana event in Bora Bora, French Polynesia. But due to having limited time, even more limited funds and zero chance of an invite there, a trip to the Society Islands was not on the highly likely list for me Initially I thought about using four paddlecraft for the challenge, stand up paddleboard (SUP), prone paddleboard, outrigger canoe (OC1) and surf/ocean ski, but after careful consideration decided ocean ski may not be such a good idea, as I had never been in one before and it would probably not have chance to practice in one. They did also look very, very tippy indeed!
So the plan of action came to be:
Prone, SUP, OC1 and a 32 mile (52km) open water paddle on each craft in the same day.
This would involve, starting at the South Coast at Weymouth paddle to Boscombe, swap paddlecraft, paddle back to Weymouth, swap again then to Boscombe for finish.
Sat August 2nd looked perfect to have the tides and strong currents around St Aldhelm’s Head (also known as St Alban’s Head) work in my favour as best as possible for each leg of the journey and weather conditions were looking like it was going to be feasible to attempt the challenge.
My super duper Dad, Stan the Man, kindly offered to drive down from Doncaster and be road support crew, Nick ‘Capt’ Watt and Nick ‘the prone paddle legend’ Thorne had kindly offered the use of their OC1 and 16′ prone board respectively, so it was looking like all systems were go.
And with a beautiful cloudless sky I set off from Overcome Beach, Weymouth at 2.10am August 2nd. The prone board was the first mode of transport as I figured this was not only likely to be my slowest discipline, but also the most painful, so a good one to get done and out of the way.
With the clear night sky, visibility was fairly good and the plan was to stay fairly close to the shore for the first few hours to try and keep away from the outgoing tidal current as best as possible, then as the tide turned move further out and hopefully make use of the strong currents passing by St Aldhelm’s head and Durleston.
I eventually hit the Head in around four hours, which was a big mental milestone for me as at 17.5 miles from my start point, I now knew I was over half way of this first leg, but for some reason after about another 15 minutes of paddling I felt quite down and rather weary, so I had to stop, sit on the board for a minute, force an energy bar down and have a very stern word with myself. After that all seemed ok, so one of the above must have done the trick and from then on it was just a steady plod passed Old Harrys Rock and to the beautiful Boscombe seashore, where I arrived at 9am, so six hours and 50 minutes of prone paddling, stage 1 done and one hour ahead of schedule.
I tried to force as much food down me as possible, but for some reason the packet the cold chilli con carnie I had didn’t seem particularly appetising, but luckily my dad had a steak and kidney pie in the van, which seemed far more appealing!
After topping my bum bag up with more exciting treats of energy bars and flapjacks it was time for some SUP action and I set off feeling quite good in myself. With still being one hour ahead of schedule I knew I would have a little head current for the first few hours, but I was happy with the fact that whatever progress I made in this first hour would be a bonus. As I was paddling the South Westerly wind started to pick a little, but it was only forecast to get up to around 10-12mph, so I figured once I had the current running with me, it would help offset the bit of headwind for the rest of this leg. But as I continued to paddle the wind continued to increase to a good force 4-5 and the sea became a mess of white caps and chop. I carried on for a little longer, but as I approached Old Harrys, I thought it would be wise to give my dad a quick call and ask him to hold fire on setting off for Weymouth while I weighed up my options.
With around 25 miles still left, it was going to be a very long upwind slog and even if I did manage to complete the leg, I would likely to be way behind schedule to catch the tidal flow for the return journey. Another big concern was although the current was due to turn in my favour, the wind would then be against it, meaning things could get really messy around Durleston and St Aldhelm’s Head and this coupled with the fact that it was just sheer cliffs straight into the sea between those two points, meant that if things did get a bit tricky I would be a teeny bit stuffed with regards to trying to get ashore!
I really, really didn’t want to turn around and admit defeat, but deep down I knew it would be pretty foolish to carry on, then I suddenly had a tiny eureka moment and thought if I turned around I could get back to Boscombe with enough time to drive down to Weymouth and OC back, so therefore I wouldn’t have fully failed, only cut the SUP short and with that in mind I was a little happier with heading back to good old Boscombe even though I had only covered a total of 14 miles on the SUP
Once at Weymouth we set about getting the OC ready for the off. The wind was still really blowing from the SW and there was a few waves coming in. The wind (& swell) was going to be side on my back, so although this was generally going to help push me in the right direction, it was going to probably be a bit of a bumpy (and rather wet) paddle back.
Having spent very little time in an OC1, I have to say I was a little apprehensive about heading off out to sea in these conditions and things weren’t helped a great deal by the fact that a group of sailors on the beach said there is a tidal race which can run off St Aldhelm’s Head which can get quite rough, but I figured I’d been passed there once already today and all seemed fine, so at 4.30pm off I went. As I left the sailors also mentioned to my dad, it would be worth getting a photo of me as it would probably the last he would see of me (and apparently they were being quite serious!)
St Aldhelm’s head was clearly visible, so I set my sights on that and just kept paddling. Luckily the swell was hitting me from the canoe side rather than the arma (the stabiliser on the side of outrigger canoe), which helped keep capsizes (called a ‘huli’ in outrigger canoe lingo) less frequent.
As I approached the Head the sea turned into a bit of a mess, but once I had passed it , apart from the odd boil, things calmed down considerably and I thought “Well, that wasn’t bad, what do those sailors know.”
While paddling I looked to my left and took in the dramatic scene of the sheer cliffs dropping into the sea, then I glanced over to my right and about 200 metres further out the sea was a churning mess of whitewater, I had a brief, smug thought that I was pleased I wasn’t caught in all that mess, then turned to look ahead again and to my horror, looming up in front of me was the same churning mess of whitewater and I thought, “Ummm maybe the sailors do know what they are talking about!”
I really, really didn’t fancy capsizing in this section, so what tiny bit of paddle style I may have had before totally went out of the window as I leaned right over towards the arma to keep me stable and hopefully upright while worked my way through the mess. I also came to the conclusion that I was quite happy I had made the decision to turn back on the SUP, as I really wouldn’t fancy my chances staying upright in this turmoil.
Once I rounded Durleston Head, I turned to aim straight for Boscombe, which now meant for the last 10 miles I was perfectly lined up for a downwind run all the way home and as darkness approached, at 21:30 and 5 hours after the start of this section, I arrived at my destination, to the welcome sight of my dad waiting with a beer in hand for me.
So all in all, l was fairly pleased with how all had panned out, mind and body had stayed sort of intact and I had semi completed my ultimate paddler challenge, with a 32 mile prone paddle, 14 mile SUP and 32 mile OC completed, so sort of a success I suppose.
I must say a massive thank you to my dad for being support crew extraordinaire, Fanatic, ION and K-66 for their superb equipment and support, Nick Watt and Nick Thorn for the kind loan of their fine paddlecraft and to my wonderful daughter, Lola, who when I told her about my plan and that I wasn’t really sure if I was up to the challenge, she simply said, “You’ll do it Dad” and in my low points, those words kept echoing in my head and kept me moving forward.
Until the next time
Outrigger Canoe (OC) is a narrow canoe you sit in/on with a stabilising arm coming out on one side, called the arma and use a single bladed paddle to propel yourself forward. They come in various guises of one man, two man, three man, four man and six man. OC1 therefore means it’s a one man canoe, OC2 a 2 man, etc.
A prone paddleboard is like an overgrown surfboard, whereby you can either lay on it and take alternate strokes with your arms to propel yourself forward or kneel on it and paddle with both arms simultaneously.