You never forget your first shark.
Tom Jones was about 50 miles south of Oregon paddling his standup paddleboard down the harsh Northern California coast when his safety, a burly man on a WaveRunner, pointed to the water and shrieked. Beneath the surface, Jones watched a 17-foot great white shark roll onto its back and glide three feet beneath the motorized watercraft.
“Our language doesn’t facilitate the words to say how frightened I was,” says Jones.
What to do but keep moving? The crew would go on to see sharks nearly every day on their way to Mexico. They persevered through wind, rain and treacherous coastline to establish a SUP endurance record: 1,250 miles in 93 days.
Inside the mind of unstoppable endurance SUP athlete Tom Jones
If Jones had the water experience he has today, he says he would never have gone in the first place. “Everything was a death sentence.”
When Jones set off on that first epic paddle, he’d only been standup paddleboarding for about six months. His water experience—despite living within a mile of the coast in Huntington Beach, California—was limited.
Jones was a fighter, picking up the sport in his late teens. He excelled in the ring, retiring with a 51-4 professional record. But after a career fighting for himself in the ring, he was ready to do something for others.
His endurance challenges began on land, running absurd distances for causes. “My why was in place and it was strong enough and it kept me going,” he says of a particularly wet run. It’s part of what he calls his “quitproof” mentality.
Making connections and finding the right reason why
In the past, his why has included fellow veterans and foster kids, the latter a cause particularly close to his heart as he grew up in care and had a difficult childhood. But the why for his first SUP endurance feat didn’t involve people.
Jones connected with Charles Moore, the man who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and was horrified to learn about its effects on the environment. He’d found his new cause.
By the numbers
2: Number of SUP records Jones established
The first-ever long-distance SUP record, paddleboarding 1,250 miles in 93 days, and the first-ever flatwater record, paddling 500 miles in 16 days.
1: Number of SUP records broken
Long-distance SUP record, paddleboarding 1,507 miles in 93 days.
Number of paddle strokes Jones took on the journey from Key West to New York City.
Low estimate for the number of great white sharks spotted on the paddle from Oregon to Mexico.
Number of days it took Jones to paddle 500 miles.
The paddle from Oregon to Mexico in 2007 was originally supposed to be done prone. At least, that was the plan, until Jones saw a picture of SUP pioneer Laird Hamilton standing tall on a wave, extra-long paddle in hand. It seemed to be a more efficient way to travel long distances. Jones flew to Hawaii where he charmed Hamilton into teaching him the new sport.
About half a year later, he established the sport’s first endurance record.
In 2010, Jones set out on a new endurance paddle, this time on the east coast, traveling 1,507 miles in 95 days.
A year later, Jones established a new flatwater SUP distance record: 500 miles in 16 days on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia.
He’s built perfectly for these types of challenges. “He will not give up,” Hamilton told Standup Paddling. “And his cardiovascular capacity is outstanding. Couple the two and you have your hands full with Tom.”
What’s next for the SUP athlete?
Motivated by a cause, Jones can’t bring himself to quit.
In 2024, Jones is set to tackle a new challenge: paddleboarding from the Texas/Mexico border to Key West, Florida. But this time, he’ll have company. Entrepreneur Heather Stone completes a yearly challenge and, like Jones prior to his 2007 paddle, has little experience on a SUP. It’s another endurance event designed to grab attention, this time for a still-to-be-determined veteran-related cause.
“It truly is better to give than to receive,” says Jones. “I love using my athletic abilities to champion worthwhile causes and I’m going to continue to do it until the day I die.”
SUP athlete Tom Jones heading out for another day of training in preparation for his next endurance feat. | Feature photo: Ryan Murtha