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Part of the pod

Scott Sinton in Hall Arm during his 150km paddle of Doubtful Sound. Photo: Supplied
Aided by unusually idyllic weather, Scott Sinton paddled 150km through Fiordland’s Doubtful Sound. 

About a year ago, Scott Sinton was on a boat tour in Doubtful Sound. While puttering around the many arms of the fiords was breathtaking, he felt he barely had enough time to take it all in. He vowed to return, but with a stand-up paddleboard.

And so, with a week to spare before walking the Milford Track in late March, the Auckland-based photographer borrowed a friend’s stand-up paddleboard for a seven-day, 150km-voyage through Doubtful Sound’s many arms.

Sinton has had his fair share of paddling epics. He was the videographer for Paddle for the North, a documentary in which a group of friends canoed through Canada’s Yukon Territory in 2013 to raise awareness about backcountry watersheds and ongoing mining controversies. It wasn’t until after the trip that he took up paddleboarding long distances.

He began his trip at Deep Cove and made his way towards the Tasman Sea, fortunate to strike a once-in-a-blue-moon break in the weather for that part of the country: six days of sun and minimal wind. Unusually balmy, especially for New Zealand’s wettest ecosystem.

“I was ready for the storm of the century, but I got six days of flawless sunshine and relatively light winds,” Sinton said.

With 30kg of gear, he was at the limit for what the SUP could comfortably carry. Food and gear was packed in dry bags, which were held down with bungee cords.

“I had just enough room. It was cosy,” he said.

His plan was to circumnavigate the arms, and make it back to Deep Cove in time to catch his ride to the Milford Track. Each night, he found beaches and safe pull-outs for camping.

“I just followed my nose. I paddled as far as I possibly could each day, and once I knew I only had about 10km left in me, I’d start looking for a spot that was nice and photogenic to stay for the night.”

The tides created swiftly moving rivers of water and he had to plan his movements carefully to follow them.

“One of the arms that comes off the main Doubtful Sound is the length of Milford Sound, so it’s a really big space of water, and you get crazy tidal flow. One day, I got stuck in an outgoing tide, which was sucking me out into the Tasman.”

Doubtful Sound is teeming with wildlife; along with the many kea he saw, he  encountered dolphins, finding the same pod twice during his two days in Bradshaw Sound. There are special protections around Doubtful Sound bottlenose dolphins, which number just 56.

“I was really lucky, because they approached me. I couldn’t get away from them.” He said about 30 dolphins were swimming alongside his board. Occasionally he’d stop paddling to allow them to pass, but they just kept coming back.

“They would swim up and play with me on the board,” Sinton said. “One of them came in fast and put up a big wave that nearly knocked me off. But they were clearly enjoying having me there; it was like I was just part of the pod.”

Dolphins weren’t the only marine wildlife he saw; in Bradshaw Sound, Sinton saw a seal being chased by what he believes was a great white shark.

“There were a couple of big splashes, the fin popped up, and then the seal jumped right out of the water twice, and then rocketed away,” Sinton said.

It was only later, when looking at his GoPro footage, that he realised it was a large shark, about the same size as his board.

“I really like sharks, but they’re top of the food chain down there. And when you’re alone, it’s not really the thing you want to see.”

Another hairy moment for Sinton was a day of high winds; gusts up to 40 knots created waist-high waves, and he had to pull into a protected bay to wait five hours for the winds to settle. Aside from that, the clear skies were a gift; he said he never would have pulled off that distance without good weather.

“It was the best trip of my life, and being alone made it euphoric. If I made a mistake it was on me, but when I did something right I felt really good,” Sinton said, adding that he’s typically not the one to make decisions when he’s on a trip with others.

“The silver lining of doing it by myself is the sense of achievement. It’s given me a lot more confidence to do bigger and better trips and push my comfort zone.”

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