Keep Fit: Block Challenge – Paddling from Montauk to Block Island

Paddling in the 2015 Block Challenge
Paddling in the 2015 Block Challenge, Photo: Kelly Laffey

The sun started to rise just as I was passing Wölffer Vineyard. And, thankfully, the temperature did too.

A classic over-thinker, I had mulled over the idea of signing up for the Block Challenge—an 18-mile paddling event from Montauk Point to Block Island organized by the nonprofit Paddlers for Humanity—all summer. I had finally committed the previous Monday, five days before we were to launch, and I was feeling nervous.

By the time I made it to the Stretch, I decided that I would have enough time to pit stop at 7-Eleven to grab a cup of coffee before driving the final few miles to the lighthouse, our launch point. The 24-hour hub was crowded with both fishermen and bleary-eyed Manhattanites who had just arrived in Montauk at 6:20 a.m. Caffeine in hand, I wondered if any of them would see me in just over an hour. The coffee and rising humidity calmed me down. At least I’d be warm when I was out in the middle of the Atlantic.

Upon arriving at the lighthouse, I met a couple whose experience seemed to mirror mine. They too were encouraged to join the group on a whim, seduced by the opportunity for a unique adventure and bolstered by encouragement and donations from friends and family that they could do it.

“You’ll be fine,” a guy in the car to our right noted. I hadn’t even notice him pull in, but as I lathered up with sunscreen and packed a backpack with granola bars, water and Buddy Fruits—mashed up fruit in a squeezable container—I decided that he was right.

Paddling in the 2015 Block Challenge
Paddling in the 2015 Block Challenge, Photo: Kelly Laffey

My new friends led me down to the launch area, about a quarter-mile walk from the lighthouse parking lot. There, Lars Svanberg from Main Beach Surf + Sport showed me the board he was graciously letting me borrow, an 11-foot 4-inch ocean-going gem, much better for handling the waves than the 10-foot board I had been practicing on. The boards, kayaks and even a scull were spread out along the narrow beach, a sea of colors and excited paddlers against the backdrop of the lighthouse about a half-mile east. We received final instructions that we were to paddle north about 300 yards to the Kimberly, our lead boat, where we would all gather again and, at the sound of the Kimberly’s horn, begin our trek east to Block Island.

At 8 a.m., we were off. Thankfully, I passed the first test, making it past the breakers without too much trouble, and I joined my fellow paddlers at the Kimberly. Sitting in the water, with the lighthouse to my right, I finally allowed myself to be truly, fully excited for the adventure ahead. I was not the most in-shape person at this event, and I was fully prepared to bring up the rear. But, with the generous help of family and friends, to whom I am so, so grateful, I was actually about to check off this bucket-list adventure.

The first leg of the trip was by far the most difficult, as the currents whipped around the Island to make for a pretty gnarly chop. I started the paddle standing, but was quickly coerced into kneeling on my board, as I kept telling myself that it would flatten out once I was past the Lighthouse. A fellow paddler confirmed that suspicion as we neared the first checkpoint. All paddlers stopped and gathered around the Kimberly about once every hour to share laughs and motivational conversation; and to and refuel with water, Gatorade and snacks the crew threw down to us. The Kimberly was stocked with everything we could need for the 6-hour trek, and it was hilarious to watch the sky as food and drink soared from the boat into the hands of hungry paddlers.

The weather that day was beyond perfect, and we could see Block Island throughout our entire journey. When the waves finally stopped coming at me from every direction, about three miles in, I was able to stay standing for most of the journey. There were times when I was swept to the front, where I laid on my board on a sled attached to a jet ski. As I traveled at a speed far faster than a paddle, the water became a beautiful blue blur. The Kimberly played music, I realized when I was first swept, and I tried to stay as close to her as possible. Soon, the lighthouse faded into the distance, the radar tower a dark, indistinguishable feature, and the dunes and trees of Block came more into focus.

The hours flew by. This was the most physically intense thing I had ever done, but it was also the most fun. Never once did I wish for the trip to be over. And soon, we gathered at a buoy that marked the entrance to New Harbor, Block Island, indicating there was a mile left in the journey. The stop was scheduled so that all 50-plus paddlers would arrive on Block Island at one time, as an empowered, cohesive unit.

And just like that, it was over. The feeling of accomplishment was overwhelming, and it was time to celebrate. With mudslides and a barbecue and high-fives. And the knowledge that we had raised the most money ever for local children’s charities in 10-plus years of the event.

Turns out, all of the encouragement I received prior to (and during!) the event was founded. I could do this. Many thanks to all the people who donated to my cause, and to Dan Farnham, Scott Bradley, Lars Svanberg, Ed Cashin and Fred Doss for organizing and putting on such a memorable event.

Until next year!

Read more Keep Fit

I did it! Kelly Laffey celebrates completing the 2015 Block Challenge
I did it!I did it! Kelly Laffey celebrates completing the 2015 Block Challenge

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