Every summer, the sea off Brighton beach is packed with enthusiastic hordes paddling round the pier for charity. Adventurer and business coach, Neil Laughton, always like to go that bit further….
I was sitting in a popular Brighton seaside wine bar with some business friends. It was a dark mid winter’s night in 2016 and out of nowhere someone said “Let’s do a sea challenge for charity!” I did a quick online search… “Remotest islands in the world”. Easter Island, Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua in the South Pacific Ocean stood out as officially the remotest inhabited island in the world, some 3,500 km from the coast of Chile.
It has an interesting history – with ancient Polynesian clans from AD 400 whose tradition of carving, transporting and erecting circa 1,000 Moai stone statues around the island were legendary. The invasion of western people including slave traders together with disease and the introduction of vermin decimated the population in the late 19th century to a few hundred people.
Easter Island is 117 sq km with a ragged 60km coastline of volcanic rock, precipitous cliffs and it is continuously smashed by South Pacific waves and the odd Tsunami. “Why don’t we paddle-board around Easter Island?!” The challenge was set in stone, well in Chardonnay, actually. Time to start planning and preparing. The paddling team became Mark Newman, Meriel Davis and me with Rob Pelling our “safety man” and photographer. November 2018 was the chosen month as historically it is the least windiest of the year and flights booked - 20 hours of jet flight to get there.
I approached the Red Paddle Company who seemed to like our intrepid plan and four large boxes arrived at my house. Time to learn to paddle-board in rolling seas off Brighton beach! Our main training exercise before departure for the South Pacific would be an attempt to circumnavigate the Isle of Wight. We set off from Hythe Harbour at 0530 hrs one September morning and headed for The Needles. After 12 hours on the water we paddled around the famous red and white lighthouse at 9.30pm under a near full moon. It was glorious.
The team successfully paddled 100 km around the Isle of Wight in 21 hours over three days and we felt as ready as we could be for Easter Island. Final packing of essential kit and equipment for the expedition included off-grid power units from Tex Energy, hand-held Sealblades to be used in an emergency and an array of communications devices. Red Paddle had generously exchanged our 12ft Explorer boards with the latest edition 13ft Voyager boards and our bodies had been toned in the Spa at The Grand.
On arrival at Easter Island, we rented a car in order to make a detailed reconnaissance of the coast. Oh dear! Three meter crashing waves onto 75% of the coastline, large twenty foot rolling swells coming in a SW direction and only two potential safe entry / exit points on the entire island! We talked to a local Chilean Navy detachment and Dive Company. Both recommended a fishing boat as a safety backup. With a deteriorating weather window we decided to set off the following morning at 0700 hrs.
With Rob in the safety boat we started paddling North from Roe Bay near Hanga Roa approximately 400m offshore to avoid the noisy breaking waves over jagged volcanic rocks. It was tiring work paddling hour after hour into a steady headwind and if you fell off, it took three minutes of furious paddling to catch up the others.100% focus was required to stay upright and the slightest deviation off the horizon ensured an undignified stagger into the shark-infested waters. Thankfully, I didn’t see any fins lurking on the surface.
Rob helpfully provided water and snacks at hourly intervals. After nine hours of paddling, we had covered approximately 45% of the 60km journey and finally reached the safe harbour of Anakena Beach situated on the North coastline. This was a haven of beauty – a curved white sandy beach fringed with palm trees and featuring an impressive line of Moai statues with “top not” hats. Exhausted, we struggled up the hillside with our camping equipment and after some tea and pot noodles, crashed out.
Shortly after sunrise on Thursday 9th November we set off again on what we hoped would be our final day’s paddling around the island as strong winds were forecast for the rest of the week. The next section was one of the most daunting, having to circle the vertical cliffs of the eastern Poike Peninsula with its enormous volcanic crater called Maunga Pua Katiki. This imposing headland would be the crux of the mission with its swirling tides, crashing waves and fickle wind changes. We battled on becoming weary as the day progressed. Turning the corner, we passed the magnificent line of fifteen proud Moai statues at Ahu Tongariki in Hotuiti Bay. We turned onto the long south coast leg with the white oil drums serving the airport becoming our new landmark waypoint some 25km away.
We had maybe four hours of daylight left to complete the last 15km section including rounding the SW headland and the incredible Rano Kau crater. It has a lake one km across with several peat bogs floating on the surface. A legendary race was held here with the island’s young men representing their clans shinning down the near vertical cliff-face, diving into the sea and swimming to Moto Nui Island some 2km offshore, grabbing a few migratory terns eggs and the first back received special powers, status and privileges for one year.
As the sun began its descent below the limitless horizon, we passed the point where we had started our mission some 36 hours earlier and headed back into Hanga Roa Harbour. We were a little pooped to say the least. As I sat on the plane home reflecting on our experiences, it suddenly dawned on me that three middle-aged business executives with no previous experience of paddle-boarding had just completed an improbable circumnavigation of the remotest island in the world and raised a few thousand pounds for the Rockinghorse charity. As I like to say, “Its better to go paddle-boarding and think of God than go to Church and think of paddle-boarding!”
To make a donation to Rockinghorse please visit www.justgiving.com/EasterIslandPaddleboardExpedition