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Tortola Paddleboarder Susan Chaplin

Susan Chaplin, Paddleboarder
Susan Chaplin with her paddleboard
(Photo by Susana Henighan)

Tortola has many athletes that compete in many sports, here and all over the world, but very few people are aware of Susan Chaplin, who is a long-time resident of Apple Bay, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. For years' I have watched this woman launch a long fiberglass paddleboard off the beach in Apple Bay and paddle off into the horizon. You can at most times spot Susan by her red triangular-shaped flag which waves in the air above her board on a wand as she paddles up and down the north shore of Tortola.

My interest in Susan's sport grew when she talked to me about helping her find a sponsor for her next paddling adventure that will take her from Tortola to Puerto Rico this May. During my time with Susan, I learned that she has run into some very precarious marine situations. She reminisced about how two years ago, when she paddled the 26-mile St. Vincent channel, between St. Lucia and St. Vincent, she battled a three-knot current and 15 to 20 knot headwinds. She was pulled off her rhumb line and paddled an extra 12 miles in four to six foot seas. She actually started going backwards! In the last 11 miles she managed to average only one knot of speed. She ended up paddling 38 miles and was eighteen and half-hours at sea.

Another passage that took her 150 miles from Great Exuma to Nassau in the Bahamas left her washed through a narrow cut between islands by a wicked 8-knot current. She was forced to come ashore on the rough windward side of Cave Cut Cay, an Exuma Island. She portaged all her gear over jagged limestone, through poisonous bush and temperatures in the high nineties, from the windward side of the island to the leeward side, where she could start paddling again--something that wasn't at all in the planning.

Susan says she has seen large and menacing marine life. While she was paddling between Tortola and St. John, a fish bit her hand and sliced it to the bone. She figured her pale, splashing hands attracted the fish. She now wears tough, black water skiing gloves and reports no further fish bites. She admits that gloves won't protect her against sharks. She said that an 8' Bull Shark had swum beneath her board when she was paddling in the Jumentos Islands, Bahamas. The shark had peaceably gone its way. "I've seen whales too," Chaplin said, between Bequia and Mustique in the Grenadines.

Susan Chaplin Paddling Toward Nurse Channel
Paddling toward Nurse Channel, BVI

Susan's encounters with ferries and freighters have worried her far more than any of her meetings with whales and sharks. In the channel between Mustique and Bequia, Susan met a cargo vessel that kept circling her until they were within yelling distance of each other. Thinking that she was in distress, the captain of the freighter asked if she would come aboard and be rescued. She replied, "No thanks. I’m paddling to Grenada." The captain shouted back, "You’re crazy," and resumed his course off over the horizon.

However, Susan's most feared ocean predators are the big speedboats known as "cigarette boats" that race up and down the North Shore of Tortola, her main training area. "There are a lot of those boats," she says, "and I’m low in the water." Despite her red flag, Susan doesn't believe that the boats will spot her.

I spoke to Susan at length about her diet and training regimen. She eats mostly vegetables, fish, eggs, brown rice, and no deep-fried foods. When she is in normal training, which is most of the time, she will cross-train, paddling one day and working out at the gym the next. She also swims and cycles. To build arm strength she often paddles sprints while towing a nylon bucket behind her board.

Susan's latest endurance paddle took her from West End Tortola, to Fajardo, Puerto Rico this May. When I asked her why she paddles, she says it's because she loves it, and that it's "her sport." She wants to inspire people, especially older athletes, to work out and set active goals. When asked about her age, Susan flashes a weather beaten smile and says, "Sweet sixteen."

Quite a woman, and a much-respected resident of the British Virgin Islands. We're lucky to have her here!

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