Paddle boarding across the lake on a calm day is a difficult enough endeavour. Now, imagine trying to paddle board 4,500 kilometres into prevailing winds and white-capped waves. Beginning on June 9, Spanish endurance athlete Antonio de la Rosa spent 76 days, five hours, and twenty-two minutes paddling between San Francisco and Honolulu. He was alone the entire time.
“What it takes to do something like this is really special,” says Galen Licht, CEO of Sea Trek, a commercial sea kayaking business based in Sausalito, California. “A unique quality is required to be out on the water for 76 days solo, and I think part of it is just attitude.”
Six months prior to De la Rosa’s trans-Pacific attempt, he contacted Licht, looking for a place to launch his boat and someone to handle on-the-ground logistics. “At the time, I was like, ‘What? A paddle boarder’s going to try and cross the Pacific?’ I was a little skeptical, but I said, ‘Sure, let’s talk when you’re a little closer,’” Licht says.
De la Rosa is known for his daring ocean exploits. In 2014, he won the Rames Guyane, a rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean. In 2017, he paddle surfed around the Iberian Peninsula, a 3,500 kilometre voyage that took 141 days. He’s also paddle surfed through the Arctic Circle, covering 900 kilometres between the towns of Ilulissat and Upernavik, in Greenland. The way Licht saw it, crossing the Pacific Ocean was De la Rosa’s next big challenge.
As the attempt grew closer and Licht learned more about De la Rosa, he agreed to help him out. “This seemed like a good fit,” Licht says. “The fit for me was his mission with no plastics and bringing awareness to the ocean.” De la Rosa’s boat, a seven-metre-long paddle board designed specifically for him with a small sleeping cabin at the front—just enough room to sit up—and storage at the back stocked with a desalinator for fresh water, his computer, radio, GPS, and 90 days worth of food, was nicknamed the “Ocean Defender.” Beyond attempting the 4,500 kilometre voyage, De la Rosa’s goal was to raise awareness about the accumulating plastic in oceans, specifically in the Pacific Gyre.
Before tackling the trans-Pacific crossing, De la Rosa was quoted as saying: “We have to curb the way we generate waste and dispose of it without taking into account our impact on the environment. We must understand that if we continue along this path, we will end the planet.”
Licht and his team at Sea Trek arranged everything for De la Rosa so he would be prepared for the trip, including finding him an electrician to deal with some electrical issues on his boat and throwing him a send-off party. “It was really neat to be part of that side of the expedition and get to know him,” Licht says. “He’s very charismatic. He’s got this energy.”
On June 9, De la Rosa launched from San Francisco’s port with Licht and a few other Sea Trek team members accompanying him to just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. From there, he was on his own.
For the most part, Licht says, the season turned out to be quite good for the attempt, but he stressed that the most challenging part of the trip for De la Rosa was getting through the first 200 miles off the California coast. “The prevailing winds are northwesterly. That means they’re blowing down the coast towards the land. In order to get away from that, he was paddling 18 hours a day. There wasn’t sun. It was always cloudy. It was wet. It was cold. He would paddle for 18 hours, sleep, and then drift back.”
If you were to track De la Rosa’s progress over the first two weeks, you would have seen him travelling in spirals away from Hawaii as he fought against the currents and winds. At night, with no way of anchoring himself, De la Rosa would drift, forcing him to wake every hour to check his GPS and correct his route. According to Licht, during those first two weeks, De la Rosa was blown “something like a thousand miles south of where he started.”
Most people who’ve attempted this trip, Licht says, give up in the first week because “it’s too hard and they weren’t prepared.” But De la Rosa, he says, was different. “He was in it for the long haul.”
Once De la Rosa got past the first 200 miles, the trade winds took over, blowing him towards Hawaii.
When Licht got word that De la Rosa was closing in on the island, he hoped a flight over, connecting with the Waikiki Yacht Club where De la Rosa planned on finishing. It was 5:30 a.m. on August 24 when De la Rosa came into view. Licht assembled as many boaters as he could to greet the bearded and wearied athlete, hoping onto a paddle board himself and grasping De la Rosa’s hand as he neared land. “It was a really deep connection, holding his hand, cheering,” Licht says. “The sun was rising over the ocean as we were greeting him.”
Licht was the first person De la Rosa had seen in over two months.
“He was ready to get off,” Licht says. “Other people paddled out and greeted him. There were outrigger teams that paddled by and they didn’t know. Some knew and some didn’t, but you could see, once they figured out what he’d accomplished, the respect that they gave him.”
De la Rosa docked his boat and took his first steps on land. His birthday had passed during the crossing, making him 50-years-old when he arrived, and his body had thinned out, losing nearly 26 pounds. But he maintained his smile and enthusiasm. “I feel tired but very satisfied,” he said upon arriving. “I had to overcome some difficult currents when I left San Francisco, wind sources that pushed me south, several hurricanes that have passed me close, great waves that shook my small boat as if it were a washing machine, sleepless nights, heat, and humidity, but I am here. I have succeeded. I almost do not believe it.”