On Saturday, September 26, Chris Hopkinson completed a 203-mile paddleboard journey through Maryland and Virginia waters, making him the first known person to SUP the entire Chesapeake Bay.
Followed by support boats, Hopkinson started the Bay Paddle fundraiser in Havre de Grace and nine days later ended in Virginia Beach. His mission was to raise money to plant oysters in protected areas of the Bay to help clean the water. Along the way, he faced challenges ranging from hypothermia to sunburn. “I probably could not have picked worse conditions, but I would do it again,” he said.
A challenging journey
Hopkinson spent over a year preparing to SUP the Bay, and one way he did that was by participating in Chattajack, a 31-mile race in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Although that race gave him confidence and made him comfortable paddling over 30 miles, “the conditions in Tennessee and the conditions in the Bay were entirely different,” he said.
One thing that caught Hopkinson off guard was the weather. During the Bay Paddle, the days started off in the 50s and ended in the 70s. “The first day I was not prepared and ended up getting hypothermia. I was pulled off the water for about 30 minutes to warm up. I ended up wearing a wet suit all of the following days. Plus, I had a dry jacket to keep me warm. The idea was if I got too hot, I could just shed layers,” he said.
And even though Hopkinson trained on the Bay through the summer, there was never a time period when he experienced sustained winds of ten plus knots for five days straight. But on the water, he dealt with heavy winds for six of the nine days.
Most of the winds were northeast. “So, they were behind us but also a little to the side. And it created different conditions with the waves. The biggest issue most days was the chop. Even when you have a tailwind, if it’s blowing 15 knots or more, you’re getting three-foot swells on the bay behind you. And when you’re on a 14-foot board, the waves are four feet apart. They’re going to knock you off. It’s hard to balance in those conditions,” he explained.
The journey turned out to be “much more tactical” than Hopkinson expected. At the onset, the goal was to travel about 25 to 30 miles a day. But in reality, each day’s journey couldn’t be determined solely by distance because he needed to end somewhere that was favorable for the winds the next day. So, he had to paddle different distances on different days. “We really didn’t know where we would end up each day,” he said.
Over time, cranking out an average of 25 miles per day became harder. And there wasn’t much recovery time between paddles. Hopkinson came off the water usually between 5:30 and 6 p.m. But it was hard to find accommodations near the water so most days he was driving inland about an hour to and from where they would stay.
In between, he needed to eat, study the wind reports, plan for the next day and try to rest. “I was constantly doing something. And honestly it was hard to sleep. I think my body was having a hard time relaxing and coming down off of the day’s activities,” he said.
On two days, Hopkinson received IV therapy and he received dry needling on his legs once during the journey to help with recovery.
An incomparable experience
“The entire paddle was spectacular,” said Hopkinson.
“I got to experience something that almost no one gets to experience. I saw the entire Chesapeake Bay by paddle board. I visited places that most of us will never go, places most have never heard of. There are places that are completely serene and basically untouched.” Some of his favorite discoveries, included Taylor’s Island, the Honga River and Crocheron.
“I know people have sailed the Bay. But doing that you’re moving pretty fast. And in most cases, you’re in the middle of the Bay. On a paddleboard, I was hugging the shoreline which allowed me to enjoy some places boats can’t get access to, like Fishing Creek. It felt like I was exploring areas that hadn’t been discovered,” he said.
“And most people go through their whole life and never see an eagle. We were seeing two or three a day. It was just beautiful. I was really grateful for the opportunity,” Hopkinson added.
Over the course of the Bay Paddle, Hopkinson received hundreds of text messages and emails. People posted on social media cheering him on and encouraging him.
“I know it sounds crazy, but despite the physical and tactical challenges, I miss the adventure. I miss a lot of it,” he said, adding that he would definitely consider doing a long-distance paddle somewhere else as well as doing the Bay again, maybe on the west side this time.
Meeting the goal
Hopkinson volunteered to embark on the Bay Paddle with the goal of raising $200,000 for Oyster Recovery Partnership to plant 20 million oysters in the Bay. As of early last week, his effort raised over $175,000, which is about 2.5 million oysters short of the target. He hopes that people will continue donating to close that gap.
Salt Life is creating a shirt celebrating the event, and will pass along proceeds to Oyster Recovery Partnership. Hopkinson has received speaking requests, and the filmmaker who was following his journey will create a documentary. Those things could also help bring in donations.
“I want people to remember that $10 buys 1000 oysters. It’s a huge return for a relatively small investment,” he said.
To donate, you can visit Baypaddle.org or text BAYPADDLE 44-321.