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Braving crocodiles, injuries

One man's mission to rid the ocean of plastic takes him through many hazards and brings rewards.

September 01, 2010|By Michael Miller, michael.miller@latimes.com
  • Tom Jones, an extreme athlete from Huntington Beach, set a world record by paddling 1,507 miles from Key West, Fla., to New York City in three months.
Tom Jones, an extreme athlete from Huntington Beach,… (Scott Smeltzer,…)

Tom Jones was paddling through a southeastern river this summer when he felt a sudden motion that nearly jerked him off his board. Instinctively, he hardened his stance and tightened his hands around the paddle, which, he quickly realized, a crocodile had ensnared in its teeth.

At that moment, Jones, who was paddling from Florida to New York to raise money to remove plastic from the ocean, realized his fate was out of his hands. He had already put up with 100-degree heat and horseflies in the first days of his journey, and now, for a moment, everything came down to two possibilities: Either the crocodile had bitten down on his paddle as a defensive move, or it wanted Jones for its next meal.

It turned out to be the former, as the animal, after nearly pulling Jones into the water, let go and swam away.

"That's when you realize where you are on the food chain," Jones said Monday in the living room of his Huntington Beach home, where he had spent the last two weeks recovering after paddling 1,507 straight miles.

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Jones also tore some abdominal muscles midway through the May 12 to Aug. 12 trek, and had to wear compression shorts to contain the swelling. His fingers grew so blistered that he had to wrap duct tape around his gloves. Some days, he literally cried, cursed and recited the names of his wife and three children to give him the stamina to keep paddling.

But when it was all over, the 48-year-old didn't want the focus to be on him. Even though his trip was certified by Standup Paddle Magazine as a world record for consecutive miles paddled, he still saw it as a means of spreading the word about pollution.

"They would say, 'You're crazy! Why would you do a thing like that?'" Jones said. "And then I'd have 15 seconds of their attention."

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'Bit by bit, we make it'

Three years ago, his nonprofit, Tom Jones Foundation, launched a campaign called Plastic Free Ocean to fight plastic in the water — a problem Jones believes to be the single biggest threat to humans and the environment. The goal of Jones' latest journey, titled the Wyndham Green Paddle 2010 and sponsored by Wyndham Worldwide and other corporations, was to raise $500,000 to help remove plastic from the ocean.

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