Big Stink Big Finish

Enviro-activist Margo Pellegrino reflects on her 2000-mile paddle up the East Coast

"I wanted to make a big stink." That's how 40-year-old New Jersey mom Margo Pellegrino describes her reason for paddling a 20-foot outrigger up the East Coast this summer. But in her case, she wanted to make a big stink for a cleaner ocean.

Fearing the imminent collapse of marine ecology and its impact on her two children's future, the former horse trainer -- who at the time had only paddled an aluminum canoe around Medford Lake -- first imagined the awareness campaign in late 2005. She spent the next 18 months drumming up support from Surfrider and National Environmental Trust, training in an ocean kayak and building a network of publicity stops and places to stay. The actual trip, however, went by in a matter of weeks as Margo set off from Miami, Florida on May 7 and stopped in Camden Maine on July 20, paddling as much as 50 miles per day. In the end, the woman who skeptics worried might not finish at all, finished a day early. (In fact, Pellegrino had to slow down several times to stick to her schedule.) And while she likes to give credit to the seaworthiness of her boat, the following discussion of her most harrowing experiences shows Margo's determination was just as solid.

Much of the trip was up the Intra Coastal Waterway, but you still paddled the ocean at times. Did it get rough at all?

There was this one time leaving Newport, Rhode Island where they had swell warnings -- forget small craft advisories, they actually had swell warnings. 7- to 10-foot swells, open ocean, and they were pretty frequent. This young sailor guy, and this old sailor guy are both telling me not to go out. But I had to because I'd already sat out one day and I didn't want to get any more behind. Besides things can always get worse.

That was pretty intimidating, because I'd never been out in swells that big. And when you're sitting in a boat, it's like looking up at a one-story building. And there was fog, so that's bad because other boats can't see me and I don't come up on their radar. That cleared up. But then I saw a couple sharks, which was freaky because it was my first shark sighting -- and because they were big sharks. .I thought the first one was just a piece of trash sticking up because the dorsal fin was coming straight on. Later on, I turned to my right, saw the profile of a fin and it was about as wide as your shoulders. And the body was huge. I'm thinking, "Sharks! Swells! Agh!" At first it was like, paddle, paddle, paddle, but it was alright after a while. Those boats are built for swells like that; actually those swells aren't even that big to them.

Was that the toughest run?

Newport to Fairhaven was definitely challenging because there was also a squall that blew me off course two and a half miles. But as far as like life-threatening, "almost panic" stage? That had to be in Georgia. The sound was 4- to 6-foot, horrific chop, the wind was in my face. I got behind St. Catherine's and I was like, "I have to stay here." I'd only gone 15 miles and I was supped to do 40. But I knew there was no way. And I'm behind St. Catherine's paddling and these guys come up in their 40-foot catamaran going, "How did you get across that sound??!" They couldn't believe it.

What do you do when that happens? You said before whenever you got tired or worried your strategy was to "dig deep and think of the kids."

That's it. Because every paddle stroke brings you closer to home and closer to the kids.

Now you're done, do you think you inspired a few people?

Yeah, surprisingly enough, people said they were inspired. And I think that's absolutely fantastic. I just hoped to make a big stink to get people to think about the ocean. I wasn't thinking about inspiring people. But I'm telling you, the boat is amazing. It's not me, it's the boat.

For Margo's closest call of the whole trip, plus her reasons for paddling and the continuing results, see the September {{{Expo}}} issue of Eastern Surf Magazine. And for a firsthand look at her blogs and sponsors, go to