When he is not finishing his doctorate in biomechanics, or busy taking up new sports and adopting new skills, Mark Hines is embarking upon invigorating sporting adventures, be they ultra-endurance running-related or cycling through some of the world’s most unforgiving climates and conditions. An avid adventurer and an able-bodied explorer with an appetite for the unknown, Hines recently set himself a challenge of continental proportions: travelling from London to the Black Sea on a stand up paddle board provided by BillboardSUP. While things may not have worked out entirely as he had envisaged at the very beginning, Hines recounts a vivifying journey, complete with challenging setbacks, amazing encounters and sights to take your breath away. Despite the trials and tribulations that beleaguered him during his peregrinations, Hines is no less eager to get back out there and try out another bracing adventure. But before he sets off again, we thought it might be a good idea to catch up with him to get his take on this monumental transeuropean SUP endeavour.
Mark Hines, you have just achieved a considerable feat, travelling from London to the Black Sea on a stand up paddle board. Aside from tired, how do you feel?
Disappointed to be back! I had such a great journey. If it weren’t for the howling pain of a horrendous foot infection I would have made the journey last a few days longer. I am fairly philosophical about the journey too, as I had to switch from SUP to cycling to get across Germany.
The alternative would have been to paddle several hundred kilometres further to stay on French waterways to join the Rhine, and the French locks were often far from paddler-friendly. I had time constraints to get back to London, hence having to hurriedly change mode, build a trailer, and make a dash to the Danube in Germany.
Now I am back I just want to be out on an expedition again, and especially with the SUP board on the Danube in Serbia or Bulgaria.
What kind of training regime did you adopt – and for how long – in the run-up to the actual trip?
I had been on a fairly epic 1600km cycle journey in Canada from the Arctic coast down to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, just prior to this trip.
I came back from Canada and took my prototype BillboardSUP to Dubrovnik. I needed to get experience on the sea, and the Adriatic was the most appealing and affordable.
I spent ten days doing a combination of technical work and endurance training, but it was really minimal. It was more to restore a bit of my confidence getting back on the paddleboard.
How long did the whole expedition take overall? Did you stick to your original schedule or were there some setbacks along the way?
It was a three-month expedition, beginning in late May and finishing at the start of September. After agreeing the expedition with sponsors in 2016 I was subsequently offered a job in London, which meant I had an unwelcome deadline to finish. There were also a few setbacks along the way. The English coastline was phenomenal, but I had to wait a week and a half in Folkestone before the Channel crossing, as the support boat team was insistent the conditions had to be right, and they were the experts.
After that, it was a relief to be out on the French canals, paddling from early in the morning until nighttime. There was an abundance of locks and they were not set up for paddlers. Sometimes I would have to unload and clamber up steep banks of nettles, or else lock-operators refused to let me back in. With the deadline to finish in early September I had the crushing realisation I could no longer finish in time with just the SUP board, not least due to a huge diversion south through France in order to meet up with the Rhine.
Another setback was having the Hungarian river police forcing me off the Danube with the claim that SUP was not permitted (whereas kayaking was, for whatever reason). I ended up sending my kit on ahead, hiking 50km to the south of Budapest, and continuing on from there. There was an area of Serbia that served as a microclimate, and over the course of three days the weather was so horrendous with oncoming wind and waves that I only made ground of about 20km. The final delay was when both feet became infected, most likely due to cuts from shells.
I managed for more than a week, but without antibiotics the infection became worse and I had to paddle sitting down trying to keep my feet dry, and the nights were just agonising. By the time I reached the Romanian border it was clear that I did not have time to get treatment and paddle to the Black Sea, so I took a couple of days rest and used a bike to reach the Black Sea the next day.
On the final day I took the board out on the Black Sea for a couple of hours, and that was the expedition completed. It was not in the fashion I had originally planned, but that is the nature of expeditions. Every unexpected change brought unexpected benefits that added to the overall experience, such as finding myself arriving in small German towns just in time for local festivals.
What possessed you to want to make this expedition in particular?
I fell in love with SUP the very first time I tried it. I later took a board out to the earlier parts of the Danube, and a fjord in Norway, and it was such a magnificent way to travel and enjoy the world around me. My background is in ultra-endurance running, and I was keen to do a big summer expedition in a new format.
Stand up paddle just presented itself as the logical choice. I did a journey across Europe some years ago, although that was part hiking and running, and then relying on public transport to connect sections and continue my progress. I had really enjoyed that and I wanted to do something close to home, to show that a journey can be worthwhile, rewarding and enjoyable, without having to be excruciatingly expensive or inaccessible.
You must have seen some incredible sights along the way. Are there any that left a particularly strong impression?
The English coastline, the Channel crossing, Austria and the section of the Danube that borders Serbia and Romania were all especially stunning for me. The Austrian Danube gorge was visually the most striking, coupled with the fast-flowing river and mostly good weather, which all made that section a real highlight.
Almost all of it was so beautiful though. Sadly, a lasting impression was also left by the sheer amount of plastic pollution I noticed from Hungary onwards. It really ruined the riverside and the river itself, and it was a real shame.
Overall, perhaps the biggest impression came from the people, and the hospitality of the Serbs and Bulgarians was just incredible. If I had stopped for a drink with every Serbian fisherman who offered, I would have been permanently inebriated and I would have made no progress whatsoever.
What tips would you give to a SUP rider keen to take on a long-distance endurance challenge of this nature?
Research! There are often local or regional regulations that you need to be aware of. For example, I had to have a support boat and team during the section from Central London to Gravesend, as well as a qualification that was organised through Active360.
I needed a support boat for the Channel crossing. Whether or not SUP is actually banned in Hungary I cannot say, but a local paddler advised that there were areas where the police were more lenient and it would not be a problem. Maps were needed for the many locks and dams along the Danube.
I was looked after by a canoe club in Serbia and by a kayak club in Bulgaria. In Serbia I needed a permit, and at all the border points after leaving the Schengen area I had to go through paperwork with the border police on both sides. Serbia and Croatia share a border along the Danube, and I was only permitted on the Serbian side.
All these components were obviously specific to this particular journey, but it is this background research and administration that needs to be organised early on, so the rest of the journey can go as smoothly as possible.
The Danube is Europe’s second-longest river after the Volga. Any plans to take on any other monster waterways?
I do not have any specific plans at the moment, due to another couple of big cycling trips coming up, but I have my eyes on South America and Canada for returning to SUP.
SUP endurance trips aside, what else is on the cards for you in the weeks and months ahead?
I have some non-SUP endurance trips on the horizon. Every winter I head to the Arctic for an expedition, so I am just toying with ideas for where to go for that (and getting the admin in place!).
In the summer I’ll be cycling from the Arctic Ocean at the top of Canada down to the southern border with the US. I can just enjoy some recreational SUP in the meantime, mostly with the Active360 team in London, and with the BillboardSUP team who produced the phenomenal expedition board I used during this trip.
After almost five years as a professional adventurer and doctoral researcher, I have now gained my doctorate in biomechanics, and have taken a job in academia to enable me to buy some land in Canada, which is where I hope to move to in 2019 and get back into writing and living a more adventurous life.