By Conor Mihell
Photography by John-Paul Marion
The oval-shaped perimeter of the largest island in the Pacific Northwest has become a proving ground for speed-oriented sea kayakers. This summer, Canadian Joe O’Blenis is attempting to reclaim his record for lapping the 750-mile perimeter of Vancouver Island, which he set with a 23-day trip in 2007. Barely a year later, British expat super-paddler Sean Morley eclipsed O’Blenis’s mark by nearly six days. “I wouldn’t be going if I didn’t think I had a shot at the record,” says O’Blenis, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario. “It’s that stupid competitive spirit in me.”
O’Blenis plans to launch his third attempt to capture sea kayaking’s most contested speed title in August on Vancouver Island’s east coast. In 2007, he had to abort his first attempt after an equipment malfunction forced him to limp back to civilization with improvised hatch covers. Re-equipped, he set out again – into headwinds that persisted for 18 of his 23-day circumnavigation. That was enough to break Leon Somme’s previous mark of 28 days. Also in 2007, Keirron Tastagh of Great Britain and Jeff Norville of Portland, Oregon, set the tandem record with a 19-day circumnavigation.
Morley says the island’s appeal to speed freaks has to do with its blend of accessibility, challenge and scenery. Much of the coastline is undeveloped wilderness, complete with snow-capped peaks and old-growth forests. “It doesn’t require you to be away from home for months nor is it that expensive to get there,” says Morley, who lives in San Francisco. “But if you want to put yourself through some pain
The island’s east side is a labyrinth of islands and tidal races, while its west coast is fully exposed to Pacific Ocean swell and surf. And the weather always plays a role. Though Morley got around in just 17
O’Blenis, 44, has an impressive list of long-haul paddling accomplishments to his credit, including a single-season, 3,750-mile cross-Canada canoe trip in 2004. He scrapes a living handcrafting traditional, narrow-bladed Greenland-style paddles, which he intends to use on his trip this summer. He says the toughest part of his record-breaking 2007 trip was resisting the temptation to relax and enjoy the scenery. “To be successful this time I’ll have to get on the water between five and six in the morning,” he says. “I know I’m going to suffer.”
Meanwhile, Morley wishes his Canadian counterpart the best of luck. “I’m glad he’s taking another crack at getting it back,” he says. “That said, I paddled really hard and treated it like a race. I know the amount of effort to go around the island in 17 days. To beat that will be tough.”