The Block Island Challenge: The Grind of the Paddle and the Grip of the Sea

Photo: Geoffrey Haenn

The morning was imbued with ethereal undertones. The sky — a perfect sunrise sprinkled with clouds — harmonized with the sea. The tide, summoning me, whispered the ocean’s mysteries as it tugged toward the unknown. I — anxious and eager, terrified and in awe — dragged my board toward the taunting water’s edge, gulped, and went for it.

“It” was an 18-mile journey across the ocean from Montauk to Block Island. The adventure, dubbed the “Block Island Challenge” by Paddlers for Humanity, is a paddling event benefitting mental health programs for local youth. I decided to commit to fundraise $1,500 for the organization and subsequently travel the 18 miles via standup paddleboard.

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Photo: Geoffrey Haenn

This decision, while it should have been mulled over like the tide-worn rocks that line Montauk’s shoreline, was one of spontaneity and naive ambition. And as I reluctantly descended the beach toward the ever extending horizon, I realized that I was tied to the unexpected and locked to the unknown for the next six hours. Taking a deep breath, I told myself it would take about as long as I had slept the preceding night. That somewhat comforting thought was all it took for me to follow through, and take that first paddle of thousands.

My uncle, who convinced me to accompany him on the journey, was a veteran to the Block Island Challenge. While he recounted details of past years in order to help me mentally prepare, there was no way he could fully debrief me on the myriad of emotions that would wash over me during the duration of the paddle. From excitement, to determination, to boredom, and to pride, each hour inundated my soul with a different balance of  positive and negative sentiments. And while some moments heavily swayed more toward negativity and vice versa, I stayed balanced on my board and persisted in thought and strength. 

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Photo: Geoffrey Haenn

We took off at first light from the Montauk Point. Sunshine dusted the rippling water and gilded the darkened depth with shimmering sequins of light. I was feeling confident as I introduced myself to fellow paddlers — most of whom were experienced and well-trained, which slightly debased my confidence. I met Lars, the brains behind the operation who kindly lent me a board to use. I met a woman who inspired and motivated me by saying, “Hey, you’ll be able to say ‘I paddled 18 miles before lunchtime. What did you do today?'” And I smiled in camaraderie at the people whose subpar pace matched my own as we struggled to keep up with the 3.9 knots of an average speed.  

With the second hour, I felt determined. I can do this, I thought to myself. Only… 4 more hours. And with that daunting realization came the misery and retrospective rhetorical questioning as I asked myself why I was partaking in this grueling journey. The water felt like sludge as I pushed past with my paddle. The air felt stagnant and solid as my steady pace felt stationary. All I could think about was how badly I wanted a damn latte once I finally got to land — which, by the way, was nowhere in sight. The rhythmic slap of the nose of my board against the undulating water kept time with the sloshing of my paddle slicing through the sea. The percussion of my human interaction with nature was mesmerizing to a paradoxical junction of wondrous monotony. 

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Photo: Geoffrey Haenn

So as the persistent patter lulled me into a grind of paddling, and a distant shape — my destination — emerged, a euphoric revelation sunk into my soul. As I looked behind me — at the nothingness I paddled through — I realized why I was doing this. I paddled through dark waters for children who couldn’t do so for themselves. I paddled for the smiles of accomplishment that greeted me on the other side.

I trekked through the open water — my back and arms screaming and stretching for Block Island — to not only support a great cause, but to selfishly revel in the community of likeminded athletes in a non-competitive setting. It was both an individual pursuit and a group endeavor. It was a marriage of my soul and the sea, a waltz between the wind and my steady strides. And as Block Island loomed ever closer, my heart thumped, synchronized with the stilling water, and I was splashed with the shock of nature’s grandeur, the beauty of humanity, and the strength of my own body. 

I paddled 18 miles before lunch. What did you do today?