This spring, Kate and Andy quit their jobs and set themselves the challenge of a lifetime, to try and be the first people to paddle the entire length of the river Danube by stand up paddleboard. Having only been on a paddleboard a handful of times prior to the trip, this was a brave leap into the unknown, but at the end of July 2016, they finally paddled out of the mouth of the Danube and into the Black Sea. We caught up with them days after returning from their trip, to find out how it feels to cross a continent by paddleboard.
Andy – Having sold my event production company in 2015 I set out to explore more of the world and push myself to new limits both physically and mentally. I love to travel but wanted to to engage with something new; something that would challenge me. Aside form backpacking, prior to this my longest adventure had been a week long cycle trip and the longest I’d ever spent on a river was three days last year in a Kayak on the River Wye. Paddle boarding was something I’d tried for the first time whilst in New York for my Birthday in 2015 and having spent an hour paddling around Manhattan at sunset I knew it was a sport I wanted to do more of.
Kate – For the last few years I've worked in the charity sector, mainly in communications but also in policy and strategy. I wanted to have a river adventure, that was something I decided a few years ago (I grew up kayaking and swimming in rivers). I love water and curious exploration, so this challenge (which Andy and I created together) fitted in with my dream. Last year I also decided I needed to be braver at trying new things; SUP was something I had done only a little but loved it and the rest is history.
Why the Danube?
Andy – No river in the world passes through more countries or capital cities (ten countries, four capital cities,) which meant we knew there would be a huge amount of cultural diversity to experience and immerse ourselves in throughout the journey. Add to the this the fact that, save for a one day meeting in Germany five years ago I had never been to any of the countries.
Kate – It’s a fantastic and beautiful river, weaving its way through many diverse countries and it seems to be ever changing meaning each day our journey was slightly different. I have lived in worked in Germany and Austria, and have close friends from those countries as well as Romania, Hungary, and Serbia. I wanted to really get to see their home countries properly and the river certainly got us off the beaten track.
Andy – I’m a big believer in “learn by doing” and have carried that with me in my life for the last few years. As it turns out, some of the fastest water and most dangerous sections were within the first few weeks meaning we had to learn and adapt quickly! If I was to do it all again though, I’d probably do the same amount of preparation. Learning as we went was part of the journey and the story.
Kate – I am stubborn and like to be good at sports pretty fast, so I've not only had to learn SUP skills but also patience. It actually was really fun to learn as we went, growing in confidence and suddenly one day realising that we were standing up feeling strong and completely at home on the boards. There were aching muscles and moments of frustration for sure, but it was worth it.
Andy – High points? Finishing! That may sound obvious but the sense of achievement, pride and amazement was something i’ve never felt before. Of all the cities we past through I loved Budapest but it was the small villages & towns where you got to witness normal daily life that really stood out for me.
Kate – This is a hard question. There were so many beautiful spots. The forests in Austria, the flower meadows in Germany, the incredible people throughout all of Serbia. And the cities - going through Budapest by SUP was stunning. I think one thing that really stood out for me was meeting people in the most unexpected places. We would camp by the river in the middle of nowhere, just to realise their were local people right next to us. These strangers would share their food, drink and stories with us before sending us with the warmest of words on our way. It made me smile each time, and still does.
Andy – The mental challenge to keep going stroke after stroke, day after day was far harder than the physical challenge of keeping your body moving. Bodies are amazing and, after a small rest & some food can keep on going and going, whereas your mind can be a lot harder to control. The most challenging element for me was the first few hundred kilometres where we had no maps or information, and the many weirs & rapids were unmarked. This meant you constantly had to be on guard to suddenly get in to the bank should the river become dangerous or impassable. That & any day we had a headwind of more than 5mph.
Kate – I agree with Andy regarding the mental challenge. If you were having a bad day, morning, hour, it was sometimes very hard to be positive and just keep paddling. We sang a lot and tried to help each other with jokes, games or just chats in these moments. There were other challenges that cropped up; problems with the boards, long portorages in driving wind and rain past locks, and so on, but we just took each one as it came and worked as a team to overcome them. We also had huge support from local people, family, friends and those following online. All their encouragement could turn a bad moment into something quite different.
Andy – The end was very surreal and something I’ve still not managed to fully process. Having focused on the trip for twelve months and thought what it would be like to paddle the whole way I still wasn’t prepared for the finish line. A deep sense of satisfaction; a huge sense of amazement and a massive amount of disbelief that we had made it.
Kate – My first thought was 'I can't see anything on the horizon but water.' Every day I loved looking out for hills, trees, buildings as we went along. They gave me something to aim for and enjoy; once at the sea there was only water. I was lost for words, but had a feeling of satisfaction and happiness. There had been challenges and hard moments, but I also had all the amazing memories and people who we had met in my mind as I turned my board into the sea from the river mouth.
Smiles at the finish line.
Andy – The success (or failure) of taking on an adventure like this can be made or broken by the equipment you have with you. Trying to single out a single piece of gear is almost lie chasing your favourite child but of everything I loved my Palm Hydro PFD. Super lightweight, amazingly comfortable to paddle in and along with the practical applications it gave a huge mental comfort to know that what ever happened I was always going to be safe. If I was allowed a second choice then it would go to my Atlas jacket. It stayed with me from start to finish and saved me from a soaking on many occasions.
Kate – My divine Palm thermals. Andy couldn't believe that I was still wearing my long sleeved Arun top in July (in the evenings it was still twenty-five degrees and often hotter) I'm someone who really feels the cold. Plus it kept the mosquito bites under control! We had some very cold days back in March and also in May; these thermals kept my core warm and fitted perfectly beneath other layers. I couldn't have done without them. I also have to say that we used all that we had. Jackets, trousers, gloves (many layers for me!) – without these and many other items we couldn't have made this trip.
Andy – Do it. Getting to the start line can be harder than the adventure itself so be prepped to work hard and make sure you get there. Absorb as much information as you can from people with more experience & knowledge than you and take the best equipment you can find & afford.
Kate – Andy has hit the nail on the head. Don't be put off by people telling you that you're crazy or silly when you are planning, and also during your adventure. Ask questions of those who have done journeys before, and keep believing in yourself. There are a lot of good people out there who will support and help you, I promise. Be organised but don't panic when things go completely the opposite direction, it is an adventure after all.
You can find out more about Andy and Kate, and their epic adventure at www.supthedanube.com.