SUP Adventure for Charity
Updated: Feb 1, 2019
December 15, 2018
We gathered on the beach at 5:30 AM; the sky was completely dark, with just a tiny hint of pink in the east that hinted that dawn would eventually come. We were feeling a bit nervous about the challenge that awaited us: 25 KM on our paddleboards across the open sea. While we had done several other long distance trips before, this one seemed the most intimidating.
Were we ready physically? For myself I was wishing I would have trained a bit harder in preparation.
Would the weather be ok? The forecast called for an extremely strong wind, and we weren't quite sure how this would impact us out on the water.
As we finally met the rest of our team in person after only ever talking in our online group chat up until this point, we started to get excited. I felt the momentum building as we all realized that we had come together for a common goal and were about to attempt something special: a crazy paddleboarding adventure to raise funds for a good cause, a Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap. Suddenly the nerves were gone and I couldn't wait to get started.
A group of young Cambodian boys on the beach enthusiastically helped us pump up our paddleboards with air, and together we organized our equipment as the sky slowly brightened.
We posed for a photo together: 9 of us paddlers, from 6 different nationalities, each wearing our new Angkor Children's Hospital t-shirt and holding our country flag.
There was Samda, the Cambodian SUP enthusiast who had dreamed up this idea and pulled it all together; Annie and Martin, an American/Polish couple who run SUP Asia, a successful SUP business in Kampot, and who were our initiators to stand up paddleboarding in Cambodia; together we represented the SUP community in Cambodia as the only 3 paddle businesses currently operating in the country. The team was rounded out by Matt from South Africa, who was full of energy and passion for extreme sports, and 3 crazy Khmer guys, friends of Samda, who had never been on a paddleboard before and decided to just throw themselves into the sport head first with this challenge.
By 6:45 we finally set out onto the water, paddling past the main ferry pier and waving goodbye to our well wishers. We followed along the coastline at first, relaxed and excitedly chatting about past and future paddle trips.
After the first half hour we felt the wind that had been forecasted start to pick up; it was strong and coming at us straight from the side. The time for talking was over, as we each settled into our own space; paddling forcefully on only one side of the board to try and maintain a straight course despite the wind.
Pushing ourselves hard this early in the journey, the trip started to feel very daunting. I doubted whether we would be able to keep going on like this for the 8-10 hours that we expected it would take us to reach our destination.
We stopped near a sheltered point for a very welcome break, and caught our breath. We looked at the island looming in the distance across from us, and discussed which point to set our sights on. From this moment on, we would be leaving the shore of the mainland and crossing the open sea until we reached Koh Rong Sanloem.
Comforted slightly by the support boats we had following us, we didn't take too much time to overthink our plan, and instead just set off. The wind was at our backs now, and the group quickly split apart. The 4 Cambodians drifted off far to the left, while Martin and Jeremy purposely aimed themselves to the right, taking a strategy to counter the wind as long as possible at the beginning, with the hope it would easily carry them back later. I stayed in the middle with Annie, both of us choosing the most direct route straight towards our destination.
The conditions quickly changed as we distanced ourselves from land; the waves growing in size and crashing all around us. Annie and I rested on our knees, intimidated by the strength of the sea and feeling a bit cautious to fall off of our boards in these conditions. We were comforted to be together as the others drifted further and further away, although we too would lose sight of each other as the giant waves rose up between us. We played it safe, being most aware to under no circumstances lose our paddles, as this could be extremely dangerous out here.
Feeling extra tiny and vulnerable, I decided to put on my life vest which I had stored on the front of my board. Even this turned out to be quite a feat, as I struggled with the straps in between waves, trying to hold my paddle in one hand, and begrudging myself for not adjusting it to the proper size while we were still on the beach.
A couple times we saw our team members in the distance fall off of their boards and looked on worriedly until they were able to pull themselves back on. We hoped that the support boats were watching over closely enough and would be able to reach someone quickly enough if a problem arose.
Occasionally I would catch a glimpse of Jeremy or Matt half a kilometer away from me, standing up and paddling despite the rough conditions. I thought they were crazy and wasn't up for even attempting it myself.
After continuing on like this for over an hour, a group of five of us somehow managed to come together for a couple of moments. Reuniting with others reassured me and gave me more courage. I reminded myself that this was a special opportunity and that I didn't want to spend it holding back and stuck in fear, so I decided to try standing up on my board.
The second I was on my feet, everything changed. Suddenly I felt so alive as I sensed the power of the sea beneath me and realized that I could control my board and have fun with it.
I found myself laughing out loud as I caught the right angle and was able to surf, or when a wave would come unexpectedly and completely swipe my board out from underneath me.
Falling became not something to fear, but also a part of the game, as I realized that there was no real danger to it. With my life jacket secured and my board fixed to my ankle with a leash, so long as I didn't lose my paddle, I could safely float in the water before hopping back up and trying again.
Flying along with the wind pushing hard at my back, I realized that we were approaching the island much faster than we had anticipated. As it grew closer and closer, I had a strong feeling wash over me that I needed to enjoy each and every special moment of this trip. I already felt nostalgic for it, and wasn’t ready yet for it to end. I truly had a blast playing out on the waves and had a warm feeling of camaraderie as I glanced around at the others doing the same. I waved at the captain of the support boat as I cruised past him, watching how extremely his boat rocked on the crashing swells.
After just 4 hours, and countless falls into the sea, we approached the edge of the bay that marked our finish line. Jeremy caught up with me and we enjoyed the last few moments of the journey together; simultaneously in awe of what we had just achieved, and sad that we couldn’t keep going even longer.
The upside of arriving ahead of schedule was that our day was much less exhausting than we had imagined; the downside was that our welcoming party wasn’t ready for us to arrive 3 hours ahead of schedule, and we would have to wait for our final approach to the shore.
The big support boat anchored at the edge of the bay, and each member of the group filed in on their own time as we cheered for each new arrival. I was especially proud of the Cambodians who had handled this extremely challenging first-time paddle experience very well, and successfully completed it with smiles.
We tied our paddleboards to the boat and climbed up, feeling a little wobbly in the legs, and surprisingly more sensitive to the drastic rocking of the boat on the waves than we had been on our boards. For the next 3 hours we fueled up on water and snacks, jumped off the boat and swam, and chatted among ourselves.
Finally, we received the call that the welcoming party on the beach was ready for us, and we loaded back onto our boards one more time to complete the last leg of the journey. We joked and laughed as we paddled the final 30 minutes across the large bay, finding it humorous that the group on shore didn’t know that we had already been here for the last 3 hours.
As we approached, we saw the drone flying overhead to capture photos of us, and we all pulled into a nice group, smiling and waving. I was filled with joy to finish this feat with Annie by my side; someone whose adventurous spirit I admire so much. She warned us that as we approached the shore there would be big waves breaking, and that we should be careful not to fall and embarrass ourselves in front of everyone who was watching us arrive. We all agreed, planning our strategies on how to arrive on our feet.
As we drew nearer and nearer, the welcoming party finally came into clear view. There were hundreds of people gathered, with loud music and signs, all excitedly cheering us on. In the midst of seeing all of this, the large waves Annie had warned about indeed started to catch us. We each tried to regain our focus, determined to finish as champions, but one by one inevitably succumbed to the powerful surf, flailing and spluttering as we laughed at ourselves and each other and the ridiculousness of it all.
We half swam, half walked the final meters carrying our boards, and rolled up to shore a little less gracefully than we would have liked to, but with the biggest smiles on our faces. The energy of the crowd was incredible and contagious. I felt so honored that all of these people had gathered here just for us. While we were pleased with what we had done, our welcomers seemed baffled and in complete awe of what we had accomplished.
I was immediately swept up by two Cambodian girls who wanted selfies taken with me standing between them, my paddle still in my hand. We stacked our boards onto a big pile on the beach and posed for group photos; paddlers, supporters, and welcoming police, and government officials all standing together.
After soaking up our 15 minutes of fame, we were ushered into the bar for a much appreciated beer. We stood together in front of the crowd, listening to several speeches from the officials; regrettably not understanding a word as they spoke in Khmer, but still being struck by the large scale of this event. These important people had taken time to come out here to meet and congratulate us, while many more had gathered to generously donate to the Children’s Hospital. We were extremely grateful for our amazing hosts (Vayo Guesthouse Koh Rong Sanloem), who provided us with drinks, delicious food, and a comfortable place to stay for the night. The sense of community was strong, and we were proud to have had the opportunity to take part in this amazing event.
Already, we started to discuss plans for the 2nd Edition next year, as well as other exciting paddle adventures we could tackle together. While the accomplishment of this big paddle expedition felt great, the strengthening of the paddle community in Cambodia and the support of others coming together for a good cause felt even better. We’ll be fondly remembering this wonderful experience until we have the chance to do it once again.
* Check out this fantastic video summary of the day - Big thanks to Marcin and Matt! *