Life

Paddle boarder Jennifer's all set for another record-breaking Irish sea journey

It is the latest sea craze to hit our shores and paddleboarding expert Jennifer Greenlees knows all about the cold water appeal. She tells Gail Bell why she is setting off on another long-distance trip – and how to eat a sandwich while out at sea

Paddle boarder Jennifer Greenlees on the north Antrim coast, Dunluce in the background
Gail Bel

JENNIFER Greenlees has just finished teaching her morning yoga class (still online) and is feeling energised about the day ahead – most likely to include a few hours training on a paddleboard in the sea near her home in Portrush.

She doesn’t mind what the weather will be like or how choppy the water – so long as she’s not paddleboarding in the dark and has notified the Coastguard in advance, it should be plain sailing.

There was a time when the 48-year-old record-breaking paddleboarder ended up – unintentionally – on the water when the light was fading, all because she had been “practising” eating a sandwich on her board didn’t realise the time. On that occasion, she rounded the headland to get back into Portrush, to be greeted by a flurry of fluorescent yellow jackets bouncing over the waves towards her in a boat; a search party with binoculars trained on her...

“I hadn’t planned to stay out so long and so I hadn’t called the Coastguard,” she explains. “I was training for my first long-distance fundraising paddle, from Portballintrae to Bangor, and I needed to practise eating when I was out at sea. I had my packed lunch packed down my bodywarmer and went paddling out, up to Portstewart.

“To really get the push of the full current, it is better to be about two miles out – right out in the sea – so, I paddled out what I thought was about two miles and sat down, ate my sandwich, and then paddled back. As I was coming back into Portrush, it dawned on me that people on shore had been watching me and probably thought I was in trouble and called the Coastguard.”

On completion, that particular challenge – 70 miles on a paddleboard from Portballintrae to Bangor to raise funds for Marie Curie in 2014 – was the longest recorded in Ireland and now the Kundalini yoga instructor (who often combines both passions, teaching yoga on a floating paddleboard) is setting out on her bravest adventure yet: paddleboarding 100 miles from Bangor to Howth, Co Dublin, this time in a fundraising drive for the RNLI.

“I love the sea, but every time I go out, I am always thinking of safety and the RNLI do such a fantastic job,” she says. “In the back of my head I am always hoping I have timed everything correctly and won’t need assistance, but obviously things happen and people get caught out, so it is reassuring to know that help is there if you do get in trouble in the sea.

“There have been a couple of times when I have been caught in rips and found myself paddling and not really getting anywhere, so that can be scary. Now, I understand currents and rip tides and I know what to do, how to paddle out of a rip, and for long-distances paddles I have a support boat and people watching from the shore – including my husband, Richard – because you always need to respect the sea.

“In that first long-distance paddle, for instance, there was a section where everything was against me – the wind, the sea – and I was just paddling and paddling for a while, thinking I would never get out of Carrick! It took about an hour to travel 100 metres.”

When paddleboarding for up to nine hours at a stretch, hand blisters, burning shoulders, sore legs and strained ankles are also par for the course, but the endurance aspect, the discipline and sheer exhilaration of going solo, a woman at one with the elements and with the sea – paddling her own canoe, so to speak – is a type of mental as well as physical therapy for the holistic therapist who studied biology at Edinburgh University before embracing a more “alternative” medicine, teaching Kundalini yoga alongside other disciplines such as body rolling and Shiatsu and bamboo massage.

“The great thing is that I can tie in paddleboarding with my yoga and meditation – I have different mantras for different feelings, so if I’m feeling tired, I will pick a mantra that is energising and repeat it over and over in my head, but if I’m anxious or wobbly or just feeling that the conditions aren’t great, I’ll do one for protection – it just depends, really,” she says.

“Yoga also helps from a physical perspective, from core strength through to balance and flexibility on the board, while yoga on the water is becoming really popular at my class at Helen’s Bay. We don’t paddle out that far, but we have yoga music on and put down little anchors, just floating on the surface, doing different poses, lying and standing, which helps build confidence on how to move around the board.”

Jennifer, who has a four year-old son, Jack, first tried yoga to help with exam stress while at university and found it helped so much that she went on to study it properly, first Hatha yoga, which is rooted in Hinduism, before switching to the stricter, Sikh-based Kundalini style while living in New York.

“It’s very similar, but Sikhs are quite strict and recommend getting up before dawn and practising yoga and meditation,” she says. “I really love Kundalini yoga because it encompasses it all – chanting, meditation, stretching, every spoke of yoga which I really like. I love to make it a real experience for people, whether on the water or on the beach – somewhere beautiful that will make it a memorable experience.”

Over the years, Jennifer’s yoga travels have taken her to Japan, India and Nepal and she spent 12 years living in New York – it was here, while working as a yoga teacher in Montauk, a popular Long Island 'surf spot', that she first came across paddleboarding and was instantly smitten.

Now, as the activity continues to grow in popularity across Northern Ireland, the ASI (Association of Surfing Instructors) accredited teacher is introducing paddleboarding to a new and growing fan base, all of whom “come off the water buzzing”.

Due to her busy schedule over the summer months, she plans to resume her mammoth Bangor-to-Dublin paddle in September, having already completed around a third of the sea journey so far.

“This time, due to the lockdown, I have had to take it in stages because of travel restrictions and hotels not being open,” she says. “The latest stage was round Strangford Lough and now I can’t wait to get back on the paddleboard and get it completed.”

Not one to waste time, she also managed to fit in a separate fundraiser last year, raising more than £3,000 for a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer. Her route included a “hairy” crossing of Lough Foyle, but, almost by way of compensation, a 20-strong pod of dolphins made an appearance and silently cheered her on as she rounded Ramore Head at Portrush.

“I just love the feeling of paddleboarding and being on the water,” she enthuses, “and when you come across sights like that, it really doesn’t matter about the cold sea and the Northern Ireland weather.”

:: Anyone interested in experiencing the yogi lifestyle is invited to join Jennifer in a free detox challenge starting May 10 – to sign up or register, visit jennifergreenlees.com. Donations for the RNLI fundraiser can be made through justgiving.com/fundraising/jennifer-greenlees1

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