KASLIK, Lebanon: As a female athlete making her name in a newly established sport in Lebanon, Caroline Raphael is used to challenges.
This spring, she is preparing to take on her biggest challenge to date: a Guinness World Record attempt to travel the length of Lebanon’s coast on a 4.2 meter stand-up paddleboard.
In so doing, she hopes to draw attention to the environmental issues and social pressures she has encountered on the board.
The scale of the task ahead is not lost on the salt-water adventurer.
On April 27, she will try to cross 180 kilometers of open water in 24 hours, which translates to a 7.5-kilometer-per-hour average speed, without stops. The previous record distance on a stand up paddleboard was 177 km, set by American athlete Seychelle Hattingh, who is coaching Raphael via an online app, but that attempt was undertaken on flat water rather than the open Mediterranean.
Raphael has never before attempted such a feat of endurance: “I’m confident with my strength, but I’ve never done long distance,” she says.
Then there are the logistical hurdles: Not only does Raphael need to organize and fund a support boat and crew, she also faces a problem unique to Lebanon. The delicate security situation on Lebanon’s southern border requires her to arrange, via UNIFIL, cross-border permission for her and her support boat to leave from Naqoura.
While her stand-up paddleboard is now an integral part of Raphael’s daily life, that hasn’t always been the case. When the 36-year-old returned to Lebanon two years ago after nearly a decade in the United States, she decided to set aside her master’s degree in 3-D animation and open Surf Shack Lebanon, a nonmotorized water sports club.
Despite a love of surfing, Lebanon’s lack of consistent waves pushed her to buy a number of stand-up paddleboards, which resemble traditional surfboards but are larger, allowing the rider to stand up and propel themselves with a paddle.
The accessible sport proved an excellent way to explore the coast, and Raphael soon started offering tours all along the coast. “People loved the idea that I’m not in one location,” she says. “They loved the idea of exploring different spots; it was an adventure to them.”
However, she had an ulterior motive: Raphael hoped to raise awareness of the major environmental issues affecting the coast, from widespread pollution and waste in the water, to the physical destruction of the landscape.
“I’m using positivity to highlight the negativity,” she says.
“I take people out on the water to see how beautiful the coast is. Once they have this connection they’ll be aware we have a problem.”
Through her tours, and her record attempt, Raphael also hopes to draw attention to the ever-shrinking area of publicly owned beaches in Lebanon. She cites her local coastline as an example: “I can’t believe in Jounieh Bay there’s no public beach. If I want to get out just to stand-up paddleboard I have to go through one of the resorts.”
She argues that by building on the country’s most picturesque seaside spots, developers are destroying the very natural beauty they seek to capitalize on. “It’s gorgeous because there’s nothing there.”
Raphael believes Lebanon’s past has created a culture of short-termism and hedonism.
“The country’s really based on entertainment,” she says. “Maybe it’s because they’re getting [their] frustration out because of the wars we’ve had. People are really frustrated and we live day by day here.”
She believes a greater awareness of outdoor activities could be beneficial. “Sport is really important and it’s not just about being fit or healthy. It’s also education, it’s knowledge and it’s also connection with Mother Earth.”
But the challenges facing Raphael are not just in the water and along the coast: One of the biggest barriers she had to overcome was in the home. Her family, she says, has only just started to come round to her lifestyle as a full-time athlete. Traditional gender roles dictate that “the woman has to serve the man,” she says. “I used to fight with my family about that.”
Raphael is hoping her record attempt will help to challenge such ingrained ideas. “You can be all the woman you want to be but you don’t have to be in the kitchen.
“You can have a voice, you can do whatever you want to do,” she says.
“I want to encourage women to go outdoors and do all kinds of sports, and be successful in it.”
Any number of factors could upset Raphael’s delicately laid plans, particularly the unpredictable spring weather, but getting her name in the record books is not her main goal.
“Guinness World Record or not, I’m still doing it to raise awareness for my country,” she says.