Paddle4Peace founders Shane Perrin and Dwayne VanHoose on the water.

By Conor Mihell

Shane Perrin finds inner peace when he's paddling hard, training or competing in an ultramarathon race. Regardless of the level of exertion, size of the waves, strength of the wind or ferocity of whitewater, paddling a standup paddleboard is Perrin's happiest place. It's this compelling aspect of the sport that's convinced Perrin's friend, Elsah, Ill.-resident Dwayne VanHoose, that sea kayaking, canoeing and SUPing has the potential to foster peaceful solutions to global conflicts.

This spring, VanHoose launched Paddle4Peace, a collective of long-distance paddlers, in an attempt to develop cross-cultural understanding through paddlesports. VanHoose, Perrin and sea kayaker Mike Tremann will compete in North and Central America's largest paddlesports races—events like the 261-mile Texas Water Safari and the 340-mile Missouri American Water MR340 on the Missouri River—to raise money and awareness of Middle East peace initiatives through the nonprofit Euphrates Institute. VanHoose also hopes to develop paddling programs for disadvantaged youth to share the rewards of outdoor adventure.

"I love to paddle and race and basically it was born out of a 'what can I do with this?' moment," says VanHoose, who has served as the Euphrates Institute's director of operations. "My intention is to focus heavily on Paddle4Peace as a separate entity and to grow it. Peace in the Middle East can also be extended to kids and battered women. Going forward, I want to develop ways to get kids outdoors. Paddling is a part of that. I want to get disadvantaged youth outdoors in a setting that's incredibly peaceful. Ultimately, I want to share nature and combine it with conflict resolution. It's a completely different perspective on problem solving."

For its part, VanHoose says the Euphrates Institute fosters a greater understanding of Middle East issues by revealing "all sides of the story." Its goal is to reach a point where 20 percent of the U.S. public is aware and informed, the so-called "tipping point" where the public is aware and engaged and political change is inevitable. Citing research from Stanford University, the Euphrates Institute insists that, historically, similar awareness programs have been effective in areas like voting rights for women and civil rights legislation. The goal is to end "the clash of civilizations" in our lifetimes.

"We don't pick sides,” VanHoose says. "We don't say you are right, you are wrong. We're engaging people in conversation to see all sides of an issue.

"The simple step is to broaden where people get their news. Stories tend to focus on the extremists … we'd rather focus on other stories and more positive things. That's probably the biggest thing: Becoming educated on all sides of an issue."

St. Louis-based Perrin got an early start to his paddling season by becoming the first-ever SUP competitor in the notorious La Ruta Maya, a four-day, 170-mile stage race across mainland Belize [Read more on Perrin’s race HERE]. Perrin demonstrated the skills that have made him a force in the MR340 race, this time competing against three-man canoe teams including some of Central America's strongest paddlers, navigating Class II whitewater on the Belize River and battling powerful headwinds as he approached the Caribbean coast. Throughout the race Perrin maintained an impressive pace between six to eight miles per hour.

VanHoose will sea kayak in April's Tennessee Volunteer 80 race. And Perrin's next challenge is the notoriously tough Texas Water Safari in June, where once again he'll go against the grain as the first and only SUP competitor. Both Perrin and VanHoose will participate in July's MR340, and VanHoose and Tremann will sea kayak the North Carolina Challenge in September. All told, the athletes will race over 1,000 miles in 2012.

"My peaceful time is on the water," Perrin says. "We need to foster peace in kids. We need to get them on boards and show them what's right in life. For me, it's so rewarding to have what I do translate into my community to help and teach people."

Click HERE to find out more about raising funds for Paddle4Peace.