Bitter Atlantic winds, 3,000 miles of raging seas, 30ft waves and two months of relentless, painful paddling. These are just a few of the challenges Charlie Head will face when he sets out to be the first person to stand up paddleboard across the Atlantic Ocean later this year, with no support boat, no company and no precedent. It’s just one man, a strong pair of arms and a lot of guts.
“I’d like to do it in 40-60 days, and the majority of the time I’ll be going with the tradewinds,” the 36-year-old tells me, explaining how the Atlantic weather systems should help push him west. From his starting point on the Canary Islands, Head will be paddling for up to ten hours a day, and his next glimpse of land – if all goes to plan – will be when he arrives in the Caribbean, physically and emotionally depleted.
Currently embroiled in the planning stages of the crossing, Head is working towards his November start date by building his body strength with ad-hoc work as a stuntman. “The one with the tanks” (or Brad Pitt’s Fury) is his latest, and he’ll soon be making his pirate debut in Peter Pan.
The Brit doesn’t look like your average stuntman, or adventurer for that matter. His eyes are kind, his voice soft, his manner gentle – but his ambition is fierce and his thought process seems clear. There’s no doubt in his mind or uncertainty in his voice when he tells me the Atlantic has “just got to be conquered”. The crossing will demand not only a mammoth amount of courage but, faced with unpredictable weather patterns with the potential to blow him miles off course, he’ll also require enormous patience. It’s a characteristic he offers in bounds: ten years on the Isle of Wight helping children slowly master the basics of water sports has made him effortlessly tolerant. But he just can’t fight his natural inclination to explore. “I had cabin fever on the island, so in 2011 I ran out of there, jumped on my paddleboard and disappeared.”
Head’s first long-distance mission came soon after, when he paddleboarded around the Isle of Wight – a route notoriously difficult even for boats, due to the Solent’s tidal rips. That was just stage one, and the next challenge was a 500-mile stand-up paddling mission from Penzance to London, carrying just his rucksack on his board. Head found accommodation in friendly strangers’ sheds, and his journey made headlines when he rescued a dog that had become stranded on rocks at high tide. “This furry little shih tzu looked like it had never left a woman’s handbag. He’d escaped on a walk and bolted – what a little adventurer!” Balancing him on his carbon board, Head paddled him to land, reuniting him with his owner.
Taking on an environment as unpredictable as the Atlantic has meant that, this time round, Head’s transport is much more sophisticated. Purpose built for the expedition, and costing more than £30,000 to manufacture, the board is designed to deal with the 30ft waves and 50mph winds Head is likely to face. “I’ve basically looked at all the ocean craft that have crossed the Atlantic, from sailing boats, to ocean rowing boats, and I tried to design a craft I can paddle. Then I enlisted the help of a friend who’s a German naval architect.”
The result is an entirely self-sufficient stand up paddling boat, similar to an ocean rowing boat but significantly smaller. “It hosts all the equipment and facilities I’ll need to survive on my own out there: solar panels for my energy, water makers for converting salt water into fresh, and navigation equipment. It’s quite a heavy thing to paddle, but it’s possible.”
The meticulous design of the craft will help Head handle some of the logistics of the crossing, but not all of them. Many people who have successfully crossed the Atlantic have been part of a larger team, with shift work enabling them to dry off, sleep, dress their wounds or soothe their salt rash. With no one making the crossing with him to share the hard graft, Head’s sleep will be nothing more than an hour or two here and there, in a space he likens to a “dynamic coffin”. When he’s not recuperating at night he’ll be paddling in pitch black, fighting fierce winds and swells from every direction, while negotiating one of the biggest shipping routes in the world. “I’ll have GPS and satellite navigation, so I’ll know every detail of where I am. And so will the tankers, hopefully,” he adds, laughing.
Head is readying himself to deal with every eventuality, which also involves physically bulking up before he goes. The board will be loaded with 80 days’ worth of food, but he still expects to lose more than 20% of his body mass, meaning “more ribs, less six pack” by the time he arrives. “The paddling is all endurance,” he tells me, and his training already involves swimming, boxing and core work to strengthen his body.
But no amount of physical preparation will equip Head for two months alone at sea with no support team and no camaraderie. “Most of it’s mental,” he tells me. “You can’t really prepare too well for that stuff. And just going along all by myself, that’s really it – the vulnerability of it. But it’s a mind game – keep going, crack on.”
While Head is focusing on planning for the things he can control, he admits there’s one element he just can’t forecast. “It’s all down to the weather,” he admits, matter-of-factly. “Taking on heavy seas in this tiny little box is going to test me quite a lot. And staying standing up in some of the conditions will be pretty hard.”
“You have all these different aspects enabling you to survive,” he tells me. “And if you lose one of them, it changes the whole thing.” It doesn’t faze him, though, and his attitude remains relaxed. “I’m happy to deal with issues as they happen,” he tells me.
Head may not be able to predict the weather, or his body’s reaction to relentless paddling, or even his head space after two months alone at sea. But he won’t let that stop him. “Sometimes you just don’t know how you’re going to react to certain situations. That’s the journey you have with yourself on an adventure. It can either make you, or break you.”