It was far from a paddle in the park. Yet Mike Simpson’s 278-mile circumnavigation of Puerto Rico by stand-up paddleboard (SUP) achieved not only an incredible feat but also endeared the SUP expedition pioneer and BIC Ambassador to the island and its inhabitants.
Simpson started life on the water. He grew up surfing off his native Rhode Island. He later moved to Colorado and took up whitewater kayaking. In 2007, he travelled to Hawaii, tried the then-new sport of SUP and has never looked back. In 2011, Simpson paddled an epic 2002 miles from Key West, Florida, to Portland, Maine.
“I fell in love with Puerto Rico while surfing there in 2012,” he explains. “It was then that I got the idea to paddle around the island.”
on the way to Guanica, he purposely didn’t leash up so as not to experience the same problem. Instead, a breaking wave tripped him off the board and he had to swim a mile through a reef and into a lagoon before he could recover it.
Simpson prepared by having BIC build him a customized board. First, the deck was concave-shaped so that the top of his gear bag would sit flush with the waterline. This prevented a wave from knocking the bag over and the board with it. Secondly, the board was constructed thick enough to carry the 200lb Simpson, his 65lb bag (packed with dehydrated foods, safety equipment, a hammock and other supplies for beach camping at night) and a daily average of five-gallons or 40lb of drinking water. Third, the board had a 29-inch beam, four-inches wider than a typical SUP race board, for added stability. Fourth and finally, the narrow tail on the 17-foot long board made it easier to ride big swells. This last feature proved a key point. Instead of flat calm on the island’s southern shore as his Puerto Rican friends predicted, Simpson experienced a wild ride in all but 20-miles of his 13-day trip spanning late February to early March.
“The original plan was to start from San Juan and paddle clockwise or to keep making rights until we were back where we started,” Simpson says. “It took us two days to cover the first 19 miles to Loiza. The winds blew from the northeast at 25 to 30 knots, the seas were eight-feet plus and all the reefs were lit up with huge breaking waves.”
Two days later the weather was no better. Simpson moved to Plan B accompanied by Puerto Rican SUP star Meldrick Velez, who asked to paddle along for one or two days and ultimately completed the entire circumnavigation. The two drove to Fajardo and started again.
“The contrasts in the landscape as we paddled down the east coast, along the south and to the west were amazing,” Simpson says. “There were lush green hillsides, towering mountains that reminded me of Hawaii, and desert like conditions with huge cliffs as we got to Cabo Rojo to the west.”
Simpson admits there was never a time he wanted to call it quits. However, he says he did question his decision when breaking waves in the south meant staying at least two-miles offshore and while out there he saw no other boats at all – recreational or commercial.
This was also the stretch he ran into his most potentially serious incident. Simpson fell off his board in huge seas off Salinas, his leash wrapped around the board and trapped him underneath until he unleashed.
The next day, on the way to Guanica, he purposely didn’t leash up so as not to experience the same problem. Instead, a breaking wave tripped him off the board and he had to swim a mile through a reef and into a lagoon before he could recover it.
Finally, after successfully paddling Puerto Rico’s west coast and northwest shore, Simpson and Velez went back to complete the stretch from Loiza to Fajardo.
“It was a beautiful Sunday morning with glassy seas,” Simpson says. “We spent the morning exploring the reefs as we finished up our trip. When we got to the beach, Meldrick’s family was waiting. They took me in, they made me part of the family and we’re now friends for life. Everyone focuses on San Juan, but there is so much more to Puerto Rico, so much more to explore!”
Simpson plans next year to paddle across the over 3,000-square-mile Lake Nicaragua to spotlight the loss of flora and fauna from the proposed construction of the Nicaragua Canal to connect the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic. He is an ardent environmentalist and feels that seagoing people should be stewards of this resource. In the future, his goal is an SUP trip from Venezuela or Trinidad & Tobago north to Puerto Rico.