Meet Jonathan White, an active sports nut and who was on patrol in Afghanistan when he detonated an IED, sustaining devastating injuries. But the story doesn’t end there, it only just begins. Driven to push his limits and find inner calm on the water he can be found training on his marathon K1 or on his surfski in the ocean. Jon, who is nearing completing his Masters has set his sights on the Molokai downwind, the Cape Point race and Paris 2024. The British paddler talks to us about re-learning paddling, and his future goals.
Hi Jonathan, Can you introduce yourself? and your link to watersports?
I live in Mid Devon 2 minute drive from the Grand Western Canal, where I do the majority of my training. I also train at Exeter Canoe Club and do my surf training at Exmouth, all in the South West of England. As a teenager I did a lot of whitewater kayaking as well as climbing, mountain biking, running, rugby and cricket. I just loved being active. I joined the Marines and there I specialised in Mountain and Cold Weather Warfare, so climbing and skiing became work too. Kayaking faded away for me, especially after a nasty incident on the North Esk, Scotland where I had a couple of difficult swims.
and your injury?
I was injured 8 years into my career during my second tour in Afghanistan. Whilst I was commanding a foot patrol, I stood on a mine, the explosion instantly tore off both legs and destroyed my right arm below the elbow. The result was double above knee amputations and my right arm amputated above the elbow.
Post injury, What attracted you to surfski racing?
I got into paddling again for exercise and a challenge. In 2012 I did the Devizes to Westminster (DW), a long distance race based in the UK, but after that I did nothing more. I had a busy life period, building a house, starting a business and having kids. Then I had a difficult period of 17 reconstructive surgeries over 2.5 years and my marriage falling apart. So after this I decided I needed a focus again and got back in a boat in Autumn 2018. I completed DW race again in 2019 with the same partner, Lee. The 2012 race had been a catalyst for him to get into sea kayaking and had enabled him to become a full time guide.
This time I saw it as more than just a challenge, it was a genuine sport, a past time. So after the 2019 DW I started marathon racing. Jim Taylor-Ross, the UK Epic Kayaks rep and the GB Ocean Racing manager was at my first race he told me “What you are doing here in marathon is great, but I think you would really enjoy surfski and we are trying to open it up to para athletes” so a couple of weeks later, on a Thursday evening, we met at Exmouth Beach with another paddling friend, Dave. He got me in a ski, worked out I could roughly steer it. Worked out that with a helping hand I could re-mount it and that was that, the Saturday was spent doing the Epic Bay Surfski race.
How easy was it to cross over from K1 to ocean racing?
There are a few extra skills to learn, but a lot of it is psychological. It’s about getting used to the constant water movement, getting used to seeing big walls of water moving towards you but knowing its actually ok and not panicking. In my K1 I wear really short prosthetics, so I have the height of a 10-year-old but with a grown man’s body. So we remounted the footrest rails much closer to the foot rest and then instead of a pulsar, I have a ceiling on my footrest that stops my feet from slipping up and off.
I have the tiller geared so it is very sensitive so I only need to make small movements. In the Surfski, I’ve designed a similar footrest that holds my feet to some extent so I don’t get washed out of the boat. We have also adapted the steering to a tiller bar to do the same as in my K1. I wear longer legs in the surfski, this makes entry and exit at the beach easier and is also good for remounting as they act as a counterweight to my head. My paddle has a collar that is fixed lengthways on the shaft but it can rotate freely, this is what I hook onto during paddling. I’m working with Farley Sports to improve this design a bit.
Can you describe your journey to the World Champs in 2019?
Having done the Epic Bay race, Jim and Mark Ressel (Mr Icon) were happy with my performance so were happy I could go onto the Icon Race (The race that is a step up from the Eic Bay race). The Icon is an A-B race and definitely more challenging than Epic Bay. This was actually only my 5th time in a surfski and conditions were pretty challenging that day, so paddled on the shortened course along with the SUPs. I swore a few times in that race, just as my safety paddler and I were rounding the last challenging headland, he fell in just behind me and couldn’t remount in the conditions. I felt a bit helpless as I was only just surviving myself. I hung around until I saw a safety boat come in to help him and then just got my head down and completed the race without him. From there I went on to the Nelo Summer Challenge in Portugal. This was the first time a Para-athlete had competed in a world-level ocean race. The World Champs in France (2019) was a tough race, I had been ill during the 2 days before, and my batteries were drained by just over halfway, so it was just a case of keep paddling. Then it was great to see other para athletes In France. Again I didn’t have my best race and was soundly beaten, so I was given a benchmark of where I need to get to moving forward.
Molokai is the challenge, how will you train for the event?
Once I finish my master’s course in September, paddling is going to become a real focus. I’m going to continue to compete across three disciplines, sprint, marathon, and ocean. I would like to make Paris 2024 on sprint. There is talk of having a world-level para marathon, so I’d like to make that too. And then I would like to continue to tick off all the big global surfski races, until I’m ready to do the Cape Point Challenge and Molokai. I hope completing these races will really get people to re-think what’s possible.
What drives you to train?
I just love training. I love the feeling, I love the progression, the experimenting, the micro companions with myself one my training partners. I just love pushing myself. I think I’m actually a much nicer person to be around when I have that in my life. I think it gives me confidence and allows me to relax. I also think training is a form of meditation for me. I can’t think about all the other day to day rubbish when I’m in my boat as I just concentrate so hard on the present moment, what I am doing there and then, reach stroke, each effort.
How do you average against the able-bodied paddlers?
The easiest comparison is Marathon racing where there are no para races at the moment. My last Marathon race was in Div 5 (of 10) and I currently seem to be right in the middle of the div 4 pack when training. In ocean racing I have never come last in a open race, but of course I’m normally at the back end of the field. I’m gaining all the time though and love it.
What support do you need to achieve your goals?
Clearly there is a financial cost to this especially with ocean racing. Travel for me but also more importantly my safety paddler. If I am asking people to travel with me and do these races but not compete themselves, I need to cover their expenses, but really their time too. It’s all coming together and luckily I have some great product sponsors too. Epic Kayaks, Vaikobi, Kirton Kayaks and Maximuscle. They all help keep my expenses down whilst ensuring I have the highest quality equipment!