So when thinking of Stoke for Life’s first fund raising event we thought of an adaptive long distance paddle, something no other adaptive athlete had done before, and that’s when we came up with the idea of the “Harbor to Harbor Ocean Challenge”. We would attempt the paddle from Dana Point Harbor to Oceanside Harbor in one stretch and we would do this paddle for a few different causes.
When it came to the planning of the paddle we decided to do it on November 11th, 2016 to honor our American Veterans and the sacrifices they make for our freedoms, a lot of our veterans are coming home as adaptive athletes now with disabilities ranging from amputees and spinal cord injuries to PTSD and other unseen disabilities. This for us was a no brainer. We would also do this paddle to raise awareness to the abilities of adaptive athletes as this distance paddle is something only a few ELITE paddlers have attempted but no adaptive athlete had ever done before.
Now that the time and place was decided we needed to come up with a solid team of people to help us accomplish this goal. The first person I thought of was Stoke for Life team member John Afshari, John has worked with a lot of disabled people and athletes in addition he loves to distance paddle. We would need water support in the form of a boat and water craft (Jet Ski or sea-doo) so I talked to my longtime friend and fishing buddy Ian Tucker and his boat “Back Stabber” for water support. Brennan Rose also volunteered to bring his water craft to support us in the water. So now the scene was set and we just needed to complete this amazing goal we set out in front of us.
November 11th, 2016 was a Friday and there was a building swell of five to seven foot coming out of the N/NW and conditions were perfect. The crew and I set out to Baby Beach in Dana Point at 5:00 am sharp and we arrived there about 5:45 am to a few close friends to see us off, Jim Shlemmer Sr, James Shlemmer Jr, and Cyndie Kontoes (Momma C). We took a few photos and John and I set off to start this amazing journey. We pushed outside the harbor about a mile and a half before the pace boat caught up to us.
The first checkpoint was the San Clemente Pier about 5-6 miles outside the harbor, we made that with no problems, our second checkpoint was San Onofre power plant and that was at about 10-12 miles outside the harbor we made that as well in really fast time as we were clocked by the pace boat going between 4 and 4.7 knots for the first 10-12 miles, but this is where the problems started. As we were clocking miles we needed to refuel and hydrate periodically and as we reached Sano power plant we decided this would be a good time. It was at this time while pulling up to the pace boat when I inhaled exhaust fumes from the boat. I immediately knew that this was not a good thing and would most likely end up with me getting motion sickness as inhaling boat fumes is often the cause of the onset of sea sickness.
And that’s exactly what happened, within the next 20-30 minutes I was unable to focus my eyes on the horizon, and was starting to feel nausea setting in. We were still keeping up a great pace but right at this time I really started to feel sea sick and started to puke periodically about every 15 minutes. This made it impossible to hold any fluid in me as I was trying to replace it when I wasn’t feeling nauseous. This is where communication was the key and we learned a lot as I have not been sea sick for over 15 years.
I am an avid fisherman and have been for most of my life having fished places like the butterfly banks (east and west), the 10-10 trench, and the 60 mile bank which are in the middle of the ocean for those that don’t know. So when our boat crew noticed me getting sick and our pace slowed from 4.5 knots to 2.1 knots they thought I hit the wall was suffering from exhaustion. When I told them I was sea sick they couldn’t believe it and continued to insist I get in the boat. It was because at this time I had come to a complete stop for 10 minutes and could not focus my eyes on anything at all and had basically lost all my strength. This is where having an experienced team of watermen was essential and saved this whole mission.
Brennan Rose was on a watercraft but had left for a short time when we got to Sano to pick up a friend from the beach to witness the paddle and surf a few spots on the way. When he returned I was hunched over my board pretty much at a standstill unable to open my eyes and focus on anything that is when Brennan told me to jump in the water. We were about 2 miles off the beach and about a mile south of Sano power plant, for those that don’t know this is notoriously sharky waters.
As I mentioned before there have been many sighting of great whites off the beaches of Sano and surrounding waters. In 2006 a boogie boarder was bitten and killed in the same area; we were a lot farther off the beach but that did not give me one bit of comfort. My boat crew was still ready to pull me out of the water and of course I was not getting on the boat until we reached Oceanside Harbor so I only had one choice, to jump in the sharky waters off Sano.
I flipped my board and into the water I went, it took only a few minutes for the sea sickness to subside. Within 10 minutes I was back on my board and back at it paddling. John Afshari was also such an integral part of pulling me through this as he was right by my side the whole way encouraging me as only John seemed to pick up on the fact I was not getting in the boat regardless of how sick I was, failure was not an option here! Thank you John and Brennan for being exactly who and what I knew you were, knowledgeable and dedicated watermen and the best friends a guy could have in this situation.
I was not out of the woods yet as we paddled along every 20 minutes or so I would throw up, but after about 2-3 hours of that I was able to keep fluid in me without throwing it back up. Throughout that time we were being clocked by the pace boat at about 2.8 to 3.5 knots, this was not the pace we originally set and it was taking a lot longer at this pace. We stopped to refuel and that is when I was really able to refuel and hydrate to get my strength back but by this time I was fighting exhaustion because of the inability to hydrate for the previous 2-3 hours. Luckily John’s clever girlfriend (Heather) had given John some powdered electrolytes that he was mixing in the water for me and this made all the difference at that time.
After that long grueling period we finally got our pace back up to 4 to 4.5 knots and we were back on track and by this time I could see Oceanside harbor, but we were still 4-5 miles away which seemed like forever at this point. For the whole time since we left Dana Point at 6:00 am the conditions were perfect with no wind and a N/NW swell helping us along the way, but that would all change about 4 miles outside Oceanside harbor. The wind came up fast out of the north at between 7 to 10 mph and made us work hard for the next three miles. At the one mile mark outside of Oceanside Harbor we stopped for a pep talk and this is where I noticed the swell coming out of the N/NW, with the wind and the swell hitting DMJ’s (Del Mar Jetties the breakwater wall) and the cross chop from the boats coming out of the south entering the harbor the water was incredibly turbulent.
As Captain Ian Tucker was yelling “Five thousand feet Chaka” I realized that this was going to be the hardest stretch of water I have ever paddled, and it was. With every paddle stroke it seemed I was still in the same spot, not moving and possibly getting sucked back out to sea. A lot of athletes talk about visualization in essence visualizing your victorious moment or accomplishments to prepare you for success. I surf Oceanside Harbor more then I surf anywhere and I had been paddling in that harbor visualizing this very moment that I was living. Exhausted, dehydrated, spent, and almost out of gas I remember visualizing this moment many, many times and visualizing that moment prepared me for what I was about to go through.
There is a green nautical marker on DMJ in the mouth of Oceanside Harbor and that marker was my focus, as we were paddling it seemed I was getting farther and farther from it rather than closer and closer. So I decided to stop looking at it and just put my head down and paddled my ass off. I noticed a big boat coming from the south making a straight shot for the mouth but they seemed to notice us and gave way by slowing way down and waiting for us to approach. That is when I finally looked up and saw that I was about 15 yards from the marker and that is where exhaustion hit me like a sledgehammer and I threw up more than I had the entire journey right there in the mouth of the harbor. Brennan pulled up on me and asked if I was ok, surprisingly I felt great. I felt strong, and my stomach no longer was in knots. I told Brennan I felt great and I buried the paddle and finally hit the flat water where my race board started to fly and we knew we were home.
As we rounded the corner we could hear cheers from our friends the Shlemmer’s, and Stoke for Life VP Collin Renner cheering us on to the finish. The boat and water team stopped in the flat water to rejoice in a moment of victory and sheer stoke. There were hugs and high fives and then John and I paddled to the dock where I was greeted by my brother James who just got off a fishing boat accompanied by good friend Guy Rowlett. So here we are surrounded by great friends and family after the most grueling and amazing paddle we had ever done.
I often use a quote by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in a lot of my speaking and she says “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough”. When we decided to attempt this paddle it really scared me because of a few reasons, one being the sharky waters we would paddle through, but the real reason was the fear of failure. The fear of us not completing this goal was looming over me like a black cloud and it drove me to work harder, train harder, and to visualize the victorious end result. Twenty five miles paddled, eight grueling hours on the water, and thousands and thousands of paddle strokes later the First Annual Stoke for Life Harbor to Harbor Ocean Challenge is complete.
We want to thank all of those who donated to this fund raising event as we were able to raise enough money to get the equipment and essentials Stoke for Life needs to help others change their lives in the water and that is our ultimate goal, to help others and change lives.