Lapping the Island
The race for one of sea kayaking's top prizes
Canadian sea kayaker Joe O'Blenis pulls no punches when asked why he's planning to endure over two weeks of 40- to 45-mile-long paddling days around British Columbia's Vancouver Island this summer: It's to reclaim a speed record he set in 2007 by lapping the island's 750-mile perimeter in 23 days. Barely a year later, British superpaddler Sean Morley eclipsed the Canadian's record by nearly six days. "I wouldn't be going if I didn't think I had a shot at the record," says the native of Thunder Bay, Ontario. "It's that stupid competitive spirit in me."
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 and completing the 460-mile-long Yukon River Quest marathon race. In 2003, he paddled 170 miles in an attempt to set a new world record for distance paddled in 24 hours. He's planning to depart the city of Nanaimo or Comox on Vancouver Island's east coast (part of the Inside Passage) in mid-June to take advantage of the longest daylight hours of the year.
This will be O'Blenis' third attempt to capture the Vancouver Island speed record. His first attempt fell short due to an equipment malfunction that forced him to limp back to civilization with improvised hatch covers. Re-equipped, he set out again and suffered through 18 days of headwinds to complete the trip in 23 days, beating the previous record of 28 days, held by American Leon Somme. "Sometimes I was paddling at a marathon pace but barely doing [one mile per hour]," says O'Blenis. "You wear yourself to nothing doing that."
Vancouver Island has become a proving ground for speed-oriented paddlers. The route is challenging—it's east side is a labyrinth of islands and tidal races, it's west coast exposed to Pacific Ocean swell and surf, and much of the coastline is undeveloped wilderness. Tandem speed record holders Keirron Tastagh of Great Britain and Jeff Norville of Portland, Oregon damaged their boat on a surf landing on their 19-day trip in 2007 and had to construct an improvised skeg; and Morley spent hours paddling in massive swell, unable to go ashore due to surf.
Last time he did it, O'Blenis says the toughest part was resisting the temptation to relax and enjoy the scenery. "I walked the beaches and only once did I get on the water before six AM," he says. "To be successful this time I'll have to get on the water between five and six in the morning. I know I'm going to suffer, but it's the perfect place to do it."