Editor’s note: This story originally aired on July 2, 2011.
A little before two o’clock on a sunny June afternoon, on the deck outside a restaurant overlooking a non-descript dock in Portland, Maine, a couple dozen patrons, some of them fortified with beer, await the arrival of Mike Simpson and Will Rich.
For the past four months, Simpson and Rich have been making their way north from Key West, Florida, on two stand-up paddleboards.
As their parents and assorted others peer out into the bay, they see ferry boats, and fishing boats, and the odd sailboat, and then, finally, two guys standing on boards, raising paddles over their heads.
“There they are,” someone shouts, and then somebody pulls out an air horn, and somebody else shouts: “Where you been?”
Will Rich hits the dock sporting a bushy beard of brown, blond, and red. He tells me he got tired of shaving some time after St. Patrick’s Day. Since he and Mike have been quoted as saying they find paddling a board “energizing,” I ask Will if that’s how he feels now:
“I’m full of all different types of things going on right now,” he says. “I don’t know if words can describe it. ‘Energized’ is pretty good.”
When Mike Simpson bumps up against the dock, he’s already talking. “We’ve been underway now since March 1st, 90 days exactly of paddling days, thirty one days off, and here we are,” he shouts. “We’ve been in pea soup fog since eight o’clock this morning.”
“Just waiting for a crowd to gather?” I ask.
He laughs. “We did stop to pick up some trash,” he says. “Because I called my mother, and she wasn’t anywhere near here, so we had to wait a little bit.”
“She’s up on the dock now?”
He smiles. “She’s right up there,” he says
A few minutes later, mother and son are reunited and hugging.
Mike Simpson’s father, Henry, is on the deck as well. After embracing his son, he tries to talk a little about what Mike and Will have accomplished. He speaks with difficulty, through happy tears.
“Ah, just, today was the culmination of the most awesome adventure that two men could undertake,” he says. “And for a cause much greater than their own. But to see, to be here for the end of it, knowing what they’ve been through, and just undertaking it, and for the reason they undertook it, it’s just something that you don’t think of, that your child’s gonna do that.”
The “greater cause” of which Henry Simpson speaks is The Wounded Warrior Project, which Mike Simpson and Will Rich adopted as their own before they departed Key West on March 1st. The project was started by several veterans and their friends who were determined to help wounded soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The assistance ranges from counseling to medical help and advice about jobs and training, and Jennifer Herdman, Community Engagement Coordinator for the organization, appreciates the efforts of Simpson and Rich.
“The attention that they’ve received, the awareness that they were able to raise for Wounded Warrior Project, is incredible”, she said. “They’ve reached the coastline all the way up the Eastern Seaboard, and that’s phenomenal outreach for us. You know, it’s creative, it’s different, it’s exciting, and we’re just honored that they would support us.”
On the dock in Portland, there are t-shirts for sale commemorating the coastal paddle, proceeds to benefit Wounded Warrior. Nobody from the organization is on hand for the landing, though Jennifer Herdman tried to connect with the paddlers early in their voyage.
“They were making a landing in Jacksonville Beach,” she said. “I knew that they were going to the lifeguard station, so I came bearing gifts: stickers for their paddleboards and tee shirts for them. When I arrived, they weren’t there yet. I never saw them.”
That failure to connect could not have been entirely unexpected, given the vicissitudes of a four month journey via paddle. The attempt to get across Chesapeake Bay was delayed for several days by bad weather, then interrupted by more bad weather when Simpson and Rich were three hours into the crossing and had to head for land. Nor did the difficulties end there. According to Mike Simpson, even on the trip’s final day, off the Maine coast, there were challenges; specifically, the aforementioned fog.
“I can’t even see anything,” he’s telling a group on the deck. “We’re listening to the rocks, and at one point, Will’s going one way, and I say, ‘Shouldn’t we go over this way?’ And he says, ‘Over where?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I hear the surf over there, so,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that makes sense.’ And then we saw some people at the lighthouse out there, and they were blown away, like, really, where are you coming from? That’s pretty crazy. So we told ‘em we were coming from Key West, and their minds blew out of their heads.”
As the story-telling winds down, it’s easy to suppose that Simpson and Rich must be thinking about how good it feels to be back among family and friends, after four months of paddling…or waiting for days calm enough for same…four months of nights spent with the keepers of lighthouses and other strangers disposed to kindness.
Or are they already thinking of another extreme adventure? Mike’s father, Henry, is in no hurry to find out.
“We’re not asking that question,” he tells me. “I don’t want to know that. I don’t want to know that.”
Ah, then, perhaps Mr. Simpson shouldn’t talk to his wife just now, because apparently Mike has already let Mom in on the next project he’s planning. “He wants to do the Missouri River, all by himself, solo, just like Lewis and Clark,” she tells me.
Marian Simpson was not shocked when her son told her about the plan to paddle a board from Key West to Portland. He’d already kayaked the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, done a lot of extreme skiing, and ridden some of the biggest waves Hawaii had to offer. On the other hand, Robin Rich, Will’s mother, has not quite gotten used to her role as Mom to an extreme adventurer:
“It’s been a long four months,” she said. “I worry every day, and I’m just so glad it’s over, having my son home.”
When I asked her if she’d try to keep her son on land for a little while, she smiled and said, “There’s no holding him back. He’s quite the adventurer. We’ll see.”
Robin Rich is proud of her son for publicizing the Wounded Warrior Project. She also wonders out loud if maybe the trip he’s just finished will help to popularize the previously obscure sport of stand-up paddling.
“You know,” she says, “I hadn’t heard of it until he started, and now it’s everywhere. We live in Gloucester, and there’s a stand up paddle board company there. There’s one in Manchester, Mass, and I guess there was an article about some fellow in Hawaii who did it, so…anybody can do it.”
Well, perhaps not anybody. But if the activity does catch on big time, those few of us who were on that dock in Portland on Wednesday will be able to say we were present for a seminal moment in paddle boarding’s explosion…which, as Mike Simpson and Will Rich might say, on a sunny, weekday afternoon, beats sitting at a desk.