By Jack Bark, Long Distance Prone Paddler & Florence Test Pilot
The son of legendary paddleboard craftsman Joe Bark, Jack is a humble man who quietly does extraordinary things in the ocean. In early September 2022, he reached out to us with an idea: he wanted to paddle from the coast of Southern California out around Catalina and back. In one go.
We squinted at the text, unsure if we’d read it right. 30 miles was typically the wall most long-distance paddlers hit before finishing a race or stopping for the night. This journey would take them 50 miles beyond that point.
We geared up Jack and his crew on the support boat with boardshorts and hooded rashguards to ward off the sun. 19 hours later we got a message: “We survived.”
Jack Bark takes it from here on his new ‘hobby’ that he calls Adventure Paddling.
“I've had this idea for the past 6-7 years, but it’s something that’s been on the backburner for a long time. The last few years I’ve been pretty busy with my new job as a fireman, and I haven't been training how I would like to be. I was getting antsy for an adventure. Former Australian Paddling World Champion Lachie Lansdown was planning to come stay with me for a month for the Catalina Classic and so I started thinking that this could be the year we finally do it. Lachie and I kinda decided that we’d probably never be properly trained up and we might as well just do it. It was pretty exciting talking about it so we decided that’s it, it’s on. We figured there were a few guys we couldn’t leave out. I paddled through the Bass Strait (AUS to Tasmania) with Zeb Walsh in 2014, and I knew I couldn’t leave him out on this adventure. We rang him up and he said he'd make it work as a work trip, and 2 days later he’d booked his flights. Lockwood Holmes was the last member of the crew who we knew couldn’t say no, and luckily he was able to squeeze it in between a mission trip and an elk hunt.
AROUND CATALINA AND BACK
I think the reason I wanted to do this paddle is because it’s close to home, and I’ve paddled to and from Catalina a good amount of times. I’ve paddled there and back in a day for lunch, but something about getting there, and then going around, I don’t know…I looked on Google Maps one day and routed it out and saw the mileage and just thought yeah, one day we’ll do it. That was probably back in 2016…. and almost every year I’d find it in my photo roll and keep thinking about it.
Besides that, the topography on the backside of Catalina is pretty neat because it drops off super deep right off the shoreline. You’re able to paddle very close to the coast the whole way, even between the kelp beds and boiler rocks and the actual cliffs. It’s a beautiful paddle, and very stimulating mentally looking at fish down in the kelp forests, looking for mule deer and bison up on the hills, dodging swells trying to dry dock you on the rocks.
We started the paddle at 9PM. Looking at the maps, the distance ahead of us and the weather patterns a week out, it was our best bet that we’d have calm water through the evening. From there we’d have a nice paddle up the backside of the island and would be able to ride some bumps on the way home without getting it too bad with the afternoon wind. We hit the water and within minutes we were getting bumps with the offshore flow coming off the peninsula. We were able to ride swell pushing us from the start almost across the whole first channel. Having the wind and swell at our back was nice, but paddling in the dark became incredibly difficult as we were all fighting dehydration and the challenges of riding bumps, while not being able to see where they were coming and constantly trying not to fall off our boards. We were lucky enough to have my brother and cousin on our escort boat and we were able to have some semblance of direction of where to paddle. This was huge since we could barely see and we were worried we’d overshoot the south end of Catalina and paddle extra miles.
The backside of the island was definitely where we hit our best pace, because we finally had daylight, and we got to enjoy all of the scenery.
We rounded the west end of Catalina at 10AM and were a bit ahead of schedule. We stopped to sit for a minute and have lunch, and prepare for the last 24 miles we had ahead. After eating, we got back on the grind. We had clean conditions and were able to make some good time. By this point, we had paddled 50 miles and were into the physical unknown. Our bodies were sore, tired, but still somehow working.
The last channel heading home felt great (at least mentally) because it was our last leg – until you remember you’ve still got 24 miles to go. We lucked into pretty great conditions for the first 12 miles, and then the wind from the hurricane hit. We were getting bashed by this quartering wind for the last 10. It’s hard enough just paddling with that kind of wind, but when it’s coming from the side you’re trying to move forward while simultaneously adjusting your paddleboard to keep it from turning with the gusts. You’re suddenly using new muscles and straining your arms way more than normal. Those last few hours were just a pure grind. We had our hoods up and our heads down, just doing our best to keep the spray out of your eyes and paddle forward. Like anything, we finally finished and after dodging the rising south swell breaking on dry rocks, we were able to sit on the beach and call it a mission.
We’re super stoked to have finished and just so glad to have enjoyed some time in the water with some great friends. It’s refreshing to not have a competitive angle or obligatory reason for doing adventures like that. There was no prize or reward for this paddle – it was more of a chance to challenge ourselves physically, definitely mentally, and of course to bring the boys together.
WHY ADVENTURE PADDLE?
I think the reason the longer adventure paddling is so intriguing to me is because there’s no reason to push yourself this hard other than the love of it. There’s no trophy. No accolades. No witnesses. If you don’t like paddling, you're not going to enjoy it. It's type 2 fun, where during it you're going through the emotional roller coaster of having fun, pain, you're over it, you get fired up…. and then you finish and you say you’ll never do something like that again. But then the next day you're sitting around all sore and you're already planning the next one with the boys.
I’ve been competing in races for the last 10 years, and I’ve met some of my best friends racing around the world. It’s all super fun challenging yourself in that way, trying to beat someone else.
But with these adventure paddles, there’s no time or person to beat, no expectations, no stress or pressure leading up. You are really challenging yourself, pushing your body and constantly fighting the urge to stop. It’s a mental grind.
We just got to adventure in the purest form. To see how our bodies would handle when we pushed into a distance we had not paddled before. The unknown of it all, especially paddling for 10+ hours in the dark – it was a completely new experience for us.
HITTING THE WALL
With a paddle like this, I think we all hit our bigger mental walls in the first few hours. I’m normally in bed by 9PM, so to be launching off the rocks then; my body was like “woah woah woah, you're about to do what? I was just shutting down for the night!”
It was very challenging between 3AM to sunrise when it got extremely dark as the moon dropped below the horizon and the conditions got worse. The sleep deprivation was at its worst. We were getting hit with all these bait fish flying around, paddling past a massive seal colony and with hardly any vis it was very uncomfortable, especially after already being 35 miles into the paddle.
The gear we had was a huge factor in our success. The Florence Hooded Rashguard was as good as it gets for that type of mission. We changed out of our wetsuits into trunks and rashies at sunrise, and getting to feel a little more free just felt like another little reset on the body. With the warmer weather and hot water we had out there, the LS rashie kept the cool water feel on your back and arms of the rashguard, but didn’t soak it in and get heavy or drag. It’s skin tight and locked onto your wrist so you weren't having to adjust it or mess around. The best gear is the stuff you can put on and forget about it, and that was this rashie. The hoods are great as well. With or without a hat on It adds sun protection to your neck and head, and you can’t even tell it’s there, lightweight and still allows a little air flow.
We really enjoyed testing the Hooded Rashguard 2.0 prototypes with the back pocket. It’s nice to be able to carry something on you whether it’s a little snack, gel, inhaler, whatever it is, and having it on your back you don’t feel it tugging your shorts down, especially on a paddleboard.
We were paddling some new boards my dad’s been working on for the last few years. They're a 14’ board with the displacement hull of our Unlimited class boards we shape that are around 17-18’. These boards are designed for the average paddler who wants more glide out of their board without having to push the longer board that requires more strength. They worked insane for this paddle. We were able to capitalize on the glide and the quicker stroke, but we didn’t have to push the extra 4 feet of board like the 18-footers. The conditions also came together and I believe that if we were on the large racing boards, we would have burned out our arms way quicker, and that back-end 20-miles would have been even more brutal.