Paddleboarders set to begin weeklong Chesapeake Bay fundraiser

Katherine Hafner
The Virginian-Pilot

Nearly a year ago, Chris Hopkinson was on his stand-up paddleboard in the Chesapeake Bay on the southern end of the Eastern Shore, just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

It was the ninth day since he set out from Maryland, determined to traverse the bay’s entire 200-mile stretch. He was exhausted physically and mentally.

Suddenly a pod of dolphins breached right in front of his board. The creatures swam underneath and then jumped again on the other side.

It was one of those awe-inspiring moments that enabled him to block out how tired he was feeling, Hopkinson recalled this week. It reminded him why the bay is so important to protect.

Hopkinson, 47, a security software salesman from Annapolis, paddled his board across the entire bay last year to raise money for oyster recovery. He ended up pulling in $190,000, along with a fair amount of media attention including a documentary.

Relay race: This year, instead of going solo, he’s organized a sort of relay race across the bay. It launches Friday from Maryland and ends in the Atlantic just off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel on Sept. 3.

The effort will benefit the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership as well as a new effort to get the Chesapeake Bay region designated as a national recreation area.

Even though he grew up in Annapolis, Hopkinson said he never spent much time on the bay until his wife gave him a paddleboard for Christmas six years ago.

He started going out on the water regularly and fell in love with the feeling of disconnecting from land life. Soon he was taking his children out too, and grew protective of the bay.

“The importance of the bay really just hit home once I was out on the water more,” he said.

Water quality: Around the same time, he saw a video from the Maryland-based Oyster Recovery Partnership that showed how crucial oysters are to water quality — they can filter as much as 50 gallons of water per day, Hopkinson learned.

He wanted to do something to help. It took years of planning, but that’s what brought him to his 200-mile journey paddleboarding last year to benefit the oyster organization.

It wasn’t an easy task. Aside from the inherent physical challenge, the week he chose in September saw winds of more than 15 mph for five days in a row.

He had to switch his route from the western side of the bay — where he’d practiced paddling and planned accommodations each night — to along the Eastern Shore. He went through a couple hundred ounces of electrolytes per day and carried several thousand calories of snacks on his board.

But he encountered parts of the bay most people don’t get to see, which fueled his determination.

Wildlife and more: There was that pod of dolphins, but also osprey, fish, eagles, wetlands and towns full of watermen that have changed very little over the past century.

“I literally said to myself, ‘this is spectacular,’” Hopkinson said. “You’re paddling and on your left is the Eastern Shore; on your right is a beach from a barrier island. It’s a really cool experience.”

He’s now serving in a more logistical role for the event, dubbed Bay Paddle.

Starting out: On Friday, about 190 participants will set out from Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Some plan to do large stretches on their own, while others are on teams that divide up the route. There’s a team of veterans, for example, as well as a team of public school teachers from Anne Arundel County.

Not everyone’s on a paddleboard, either. Some plan to kayak, canoe or use surf skis.

Officials with the Coast Guard, volunteer firefighters and others are on alert for everyone’s safety, Hopkinson emphasized.

Each paddler is supposed to raise $1,000, but Hopkinson hopes anyone interested will also donate directly.

He added the Chesapeake National Recreation Area to the cause — the money goes to the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy that’s spearheading the project in Congress — because he believes getting National Park Service recognition would encourage others to get involved with the bay through outdoor recreation like he did. He sees the bay as a potential “Appalachian Trail for paddlers.”

Next Friday, the relayers plan to arrive at the boundary of the bay and the Atlantic, off Fisherman Island south of Cape Charles.

“All these people are doing this only because they care about the bay and want to do everything they can to protect it,” Hopkinson said. “I think we have a responsibility to leave the bay better than we found it.”

Learn more about the event and how to donate at baypaddle.org.