Bruce Gipson, Bahamas paddle record

By Katie McKy

When Michael Jordan was 30, he won his third NBA championship and his third league MVP award. When Bruce Gipson was 30, he set a world record in paddling from Bimini, Bahamas to Hallandale Beach, Florida. His crossing time of 11 hours and 56 minutes stood for 31 years, although many attempts were made to break it, from expedition kayaks to a bicycle-powered catamaran. One difference between Jordan and Gipson is that the former won’t be breaking any of his old records when he hits 61. Gipson, however just broke his own record, paddling with Lee McGregor of South Africa, making the 54-mile crossing in 8 hours, 7 minutes, and 59 seconds on November 2, averaging 7 mph. Those who follow marathon paddling might recognize the McGregor name, as Lee was an Olympic coach for South Africa in the ’90s, as well as the holder of many gold medals in various world paddling categories. He’s also the father of the multi-talented Hank McGregor, who was just profiled in Canoe & Kayak magazine.

C&K: How did you meet Lee?
Gipson: I own Venture Sports Kayaking in Boca Raton, Florida. Back in 1993, Lee came to my house to ask about surfskis, the ocean racing kayak that most people use. He wanted to get one, so he had sailed over here with his son. Hank was only 14 then, but Hank would paddle alongside the sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic to train. When Lee came to my house, we started talking and I told him about a 1,000-mile race. He said he didn’t want to do it. Then, about 10 minutes after he’d left, he knocked on my door and he said, ‘I changed my mind. Tell me about the race.’ So, he was living here to train every day and he wound up winning it, paddling from Chicago through the Great Lakes to the Erie Canal into New York. He won $25,000, living on McDonald’s the whole race. That’s how we became friends. I’d go to South Africa. He’d come over here and we collaborated on a few things.

Since Lee is 64, that’s 125 years between you. Was the challenge more mental or physical?
I’ve been paddling for 41 years and I knew Lee could do it, so it was more physical than mental and especially the last five miles. However, there were mental aspects. We started at 5 in the morning and you want to see your progress in the dark, but you can’t, so that’s mental. You just see the chase boat’s light 100 yards ahead. When we could see the shore, even 15 miles away, it was heartening, but still, the last five miles was tough and that was physical. We were still going a good clip, but I could see Lee was slowing. It was a hot, humid day. If we’d had 70-degree temperatures, we would have done it in seven and a half hours.

What was your boat?
A Fenn Elite Double Surfski in carbon fiber weighing 39 pounds.

What was it like beginning your trip?
I couldn’t sleep the night before and wanted to leave even earlier. I was just so antsy. Once on the water, I’m a different person.

What did you eat and drink?
We didn’t eat anything the whole time. If you were doing something longer, you’d have to. We had an energy mix liquid in our CamelBaks. So, it was all done on liquid.

And … peeing?
I never had to urinate. It’s just flushed out through perspiration and dehydration. We would have peed right in the boat. It’s self-bailing, so it would have just washed out. We never stopped more than 30 seconds.

Bruce Gipson, Bahamas paddle record

What did make you stop?
We had some cramping. My left calf cramped one time, but it was 20 seconds and then gone. Lee cramped in his left foot twice. He jumped in the water and got right back in the boat. He also jumped in one time to clear seaweed from the rudder. Even a little bit will create a lot of drag. Those were the only times we stopped.

So, seaweed and heat slowed you. Anything else?
If you don’t have the right conditions in the Gulf Stream, it can go to hell in a minute. If the Gulf Stream picks up, it will be dangerous even for a powerboat. You have to adjust your heading for the current.

What was it like reaching Hallandale Beach?
It was great to know we did it and that it was over. It took us both a couple minutes in the water before we could stand up straight. Then I got my legs and my wife was there and she took that photo of us on the beach.

Bruce Gipson, Bahamas paddle record

C&K: What did you eat when you reached the shore?
Our boat captain was Kyle Shea, a commercial fisherman. When fishing, he trolls at the same rate we paddled, so he trolled and caught a mahi mahi. When we came into shore, he filleted it and gave it to us for dinner. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

—WATCH a paralyzed paddler’s record circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe.

—READ the four-part story of surfski expedition around Sardinia.