Meet the Veteran Paddling 2,000 Miles for Suicide Prevention Awareness

Joseph Mullin's 'One Man, One Mission To Save Thousands Expedition' down the East Coast

Eds. Note: The following is adapted from a post on the Outside Adventure to the Max blog.

By Nick Carlson

According to a Department of Veterans Affairs study, each day over 20 veterans take their own lives. For Joseph Mullin that was staggering statistic he just couldn’t accept. A disabled veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) himself, Mullin felt he needed to generate national consciouses for this serious issue and raise money for Mission 22, a national organization aimed at suicide prevention among veterans and active military members. So last spring, the 65-year-old Mullin embarked on a 2,000-mile journey down the entire East Coast.

Called the One Man, One Mission, To Save Thousands Expedition, Mullin started his trek at Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Maine, and headed south towards Key West, Florida. Last week, I caught up to Mullin while he was wintering after completing one-third of his trip. I asked him about his journey on the water and the veteran’s cause he’s paddling for.


Nick Carlson: How did you get involved in Mission 22?

Joseph Mullin: I’m a disabled veteran with PTSD from 20 years of underwater recovery and a few life events. I was shot at when I was 17, so I know the sounds and feelings of having rounds whizzing by your head.

There is a bond between veterans that cannot be explained nor can it be broken. My brother and sisters are hurting and need help. I think what I’m doing for Mission 22 is the best way for me to help them.

Your expedition is called: ‘One Man, One Mission to Save Thousands.’ How did you come up with the idea for this voyage and how long have you been planning it?

I have been around the ocean all my life: surfing, scuba diving, canoeing and kayaking. Lately, it has been mostly kayaking, so that’s the perfect choice of vehicle for a trip.

What do they say? Go big or go home. I thought 2,000 miles in a kayak would draw attention to the cause.

Living in Massachusetts with a direct access to Buzzards Bay made for the optimal training ground. The bay is like a bowl so when the water starts to move the chop comes at you from all sides. I trained in my 14-foot kayak in seas from flat to 7-feet. I trained for 2 years studying the movement of the water, winds and currents. My route was 20 nautical miles down the coast across a harbor and many coves. Then I’d stop for lunch and return in various conditions.

How did you prep for this expedition? 

I took a kayak camping trip with my buddy in Casco Bay in Maine in 2015 and we ended up in 14-foot swells and 30-knot winds, which I do not recommend anyone tries.

I spent two years researching equipment and gathering data and charts and plotting courses. I also added some appropriate apps to my phone: USCG, Life360, Navionics, NOAA weather to name the main ones.

You started your expedition to kayak the entire eastern seaboard last spring. Where are you now, how has been going and when do you expect to be underway again?
I started at Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Maine on April 30, 2017, and ended at Watch Hill, Rhode Island. My original kayak (Necky Looksha Elite) developed problems when I reached Rhode Island and was losing buoyancy, stability and performance. I went from paddling 30-40 NM (nautical miles) a day to 10 NM.

I had to research a new kayak and find a sponsor or a company willing to help me. After much research, I found Current Designs. I spoke directly with the owner of the company and explained my situation and my cause. I explained the conditions that I had paddled through so far and we talked about my course ahead. We came up with the best solution: a gently used Solstice GT.

You have to remember I am living out of the kayak, so transportation has been provided by family and friends. My new kayak was delivered, but it was too late in the year to continue. There were too many storms. So I am living with my girlfriend waiting for warmer weather and will start training once again in Buzzards Bay before departing hopefully in April. I will start where I left off in Rhode Island.

Tell us about your setbacks. I read your Day One account and for many of us, we would have quit right there. What keeps you going?

On Day One my kayak was overloaded (ego bigger than common sense). I had paddled for over two hours and was just coming in when I capsized.

Because of the overloading I couldn’t self-rescue. I called the Coast Guard and then spent one hour in 38-degree water. I was dressed for 45-minute immersion in 35-degree water. I ended up in the hospital with mild hypothermia.

[Afterwards I] unloaded all unnecessary gear. I basically went lean and mean. Then I continued my trip.

If you are going to kayak the coast of Maine please join the Maine Island Trail Association. The information in their book is great. Also if you decide to kayak the Bold Coast (northern section) please hire a Maine guide for your safety. Trust me on that one; I used every bit of knowledge, technique and stamina to make it down that coast.

I was stuck in Jonesport, Maine, for five days due to weather. Jonesport is a small lobstering town and I camped on a bluff the first two days in 50-knot winds and torrential downpours.

On the third day, I packed my gear and headed into town. I met a veteran there who gave me access to one of his houses for 3 days. The lobster men of Jonesport are excellent people who provided much information on currents and plotted my route. They also provided me with a radar reflector. Don’t let anyone tell you they don”t work; on a 44-inch light pole (Railblaza) it worked fine.

I capsized off of Rye, New Hampshire, in shallow water. I was tired and was trying to take a shortcut. I walked the kayak to shore and a surfer came out to help me. My son came to pick me up and while transporting me down the coast a bit the kayak folded in half so we went to his house where I could fix it. Those years of building surfboards come in handy.

He took me to Salisbury, Massachusetts, to a state campground at the mouth of the Merrimack River. I waited three days for the mouth to calm down but it wasn’t happening. There was 15- to 20-foot surf.

So I went along the backside of Plum Island to enter further down the coast.

You need to be able to adjust plan on the fly as you may not always be able to camp or find lodging as you go.

Since I was in Massachusetts, I could call on friends to help. I won’t have that luxury again until I hit my hometown in Virginia. I can say there is nothing stranger looking than to see a kayak being transported in the back of your girlfriend’s dump truck.

Watch Hill was my third capsize. I was a mile off shore going through a rip. I made it through the worst part when I went to change course four degrees to head inland. It capsized so fast I could only wet exit and get it upright to install a paddle float.

Since the boat was traveling with the water above the transition strip I could not get any water out. I called a “mayday” and was contacted by Coast Guard but rescued by some local boaters.

When I got to shore I noticed the top pin of my rudder system was missing which probably caused the abrupt flip. Luckily I do not panic nor quit.

OK, give us some highlights of the trip so. What has been the best part of the expedition so far?

Seeing an orca breach the surface three feet off your bow is something you will never forget.

I will be forever grateful to the residents of Jonesport, Maine, and the 91-year-old veteran in Portland who gave me the grand tour of Portland and Cape Elizabeth. [And I’m thankful] for all the other great people I have met along the way so far, the people who understand my cause and provide free camping and meals.

Catching the sunrise and sunsets out on the water is always great–the tranquility of being out there, man and nature in harmony.

Having PTSD, I’m at peace when I am on the water it’s therapeutic to me.

Have you had any encounters with many veterans groups or veterans? 

I have met with a number of veterans and we have shared our stories and experiences. We also shared how many comrades we have lost to suicide. It saddens me that I didn’t get the word out soon enough.

I have talked to veterans who belong to veterans groups who are willing to help spread the word about Mission 22. We have reduced the number from 22 to 20 (suicides per year) but our goal is zero. We still have a long way to go and much work to be done.

Have you been mostly going solo or have other paddlers come out to join you?

I get two reactions when I tell people. It’s either great or they think I’m insane. They haven’t convinced me yet on the insane part.

I have sent out press releases to the [paddle] shops along the coast asking them to put up a notice if anyone wishes to come join me for any amount of time or length of the trip.

So far I have had only one Maine Island Trail member come out to the island I was on near Portland. We only got a short paddle together as conditions changed and I went back to the island to camp.

When do you expect to paddle into Key West? 

I expect to leave Rhode Island sometime in April and I expect to make Key West, Florida, by Christmas. However, I have extended my trip to include the Gulf Coast to Houston, Texas.

How can people help? 

First and foremost go to my website acske2017.org. At the top of the page click on the text with Mission 22 and donate.

Second I am paying for this trip out of pocket. I’m on Social Security so funds are very limited. You can help me at gofundme.com rkwvuqb8.

Kayakers can follow me on my site. When on the water, I post a blog every day. When I’m in your area and you want to join me, send me a comment on the blog.

If you are willing to put me up for a night or to feed me, I would appreciate it. Transportation to or from a nearby campground also helps.

Failure is not an option. The mission is far greater than the journey. Thank you in advance on behalf of my brother and sister veterans.

–Check out Outside Adventure to the Max for more from Nick Carlson

–Read C&K editor Dave Shively’s award-winning 2016 feature on vets and paddling, Healing Waters