Ryan de Jongh (42) is Curaçao’s male version of Diana Nyad, the world record-breaking woman who famously swam from Cuba to Florida (110 miles) earlier this year. Ryan will be kayaking around Curaçao (99 miles) for the second time on Friday, November 15, 2013, but this time he will be joined by two very special young men: Brandon Ravelo (16) and Chris Perret Gentil (18). The trio is raising funds for a new NGO, Sportinternaat Willem Alexander Curaçao, that aims to provide athletic training and education to underprivileged youth ages 6+. More broadly, Ryan and Sportinternaat Willem Alexander founder Corah Kooistra are championing the awesome cause Deporte ta Futuro (Athletics is our Future) because they believe that “discipline, endurance, sportsmanship and good health embedded in practicing sports on a regular basis will lead to a brighter future for our young country.”
I had the pleasure of catching up with Ryan at the end of August 2013. Preparations for his November 15 Challenge were well underway. Ryan is extremely happy to be able to lend a hand. “Too many Curaçao adolescents waste their lives, dropout of school, become criminals. If they were given an opportunity to enroll in Corah’s institute from a young age, they’d be able to cultivate a different, more positive view of themselves and the world around them, gain ownership, pride and accomplishment.” Ryan is a firm believer in driving change from within the human experience: looking inward and taking good care, physically and mentally.
An avid Shotokan Karate practitioner turned distance kayaker-runner-cycler, Ryan has been ‘practicing what he preaches’ for over 20 years. A ‘sea man’ and frequent media personality, he has been very actively involved in creating environmental awareness, preservation and lobbying for environmental legislation. This next Challenge is particularly special to Ryan because of Brandon and Chris. Admittedly “this stuff takes many, many years of practice, so despite their best efforts they might come up short… and that’s okay: their hearts and minds are in the right place and we’ve all gotta start somewhere!”
Ryan’s longest challenge was kayaking from St. Maarten to Curaçao (1,000 miles) in 22 days in 2009. You might be scratching your head, wondering what exactly, compels a sane guy to volunteer himself for solitary confinement by Caribbean Sea? [I don’t know about you, but Tom Hanks in Cast Away comes to mind… ‘Wiiilsoooon!’]
For starters, Ryan truly believes in the causes he promotes (be it environmental awareness or sport education), so in that sense: his deep conviction fuels his physical preparation. Then there’s the immense mental/emotional challenge. “Think about it, paddling is much like meditation. When I paddle [for extended periods of time] I get to know myself better. I let my mind wander. I sing in all 4 languages (Papiamentu, Dutch, Spanish, English)… any song that comes to mind: Himno di Korsou, Lambada, etc. at that point it’s the most beautiful song in the world to me. Or I’ll start to count, in all 4 languages. Singing and counting bring me peace of mind. ”
Ryan sticks to a well-balanced diet filled with energy-filled carbs, fruit and vegetables during his preparation. Then there’s the actual Challenge. Last time he paddled around Curaçao he ate 20 chorizos and 30 bananas. “I just eat what my body craves! I want the Challenge to be a celebration of my preparation.”
‘Jong geleerd, oud gedaan’: Shokotan Karate and Kayaking.
The first time Ryan had ever kayaked was on a lake in upstate New York during summer camp. He was 12 and “hooked for life”. He started practicing Judo at St. Paulus College around the same age. One day he was put in ‘time out’ for being mischievous, so he crossed the street to the outdoor field where a Karate class was being taught. “My Sensei, Gobin Persaud, saw me standing there in my Judo outfit so he asked if I wanted to join… to this day!”
Ryan is a firm believer in keeping an open mind and adapting to influences and situations (“I’m not a Buddhist, but I’m deep into Buddhism, I adapt it to my culture”), and he’s a veritable mix of cultures: “my maternal side is French and came to Curaçao from Haiti in 1798. My paternal side, De Jongh, came to Curaçao from the Netherlands in 1824. But if you take a closer look, I have more South American blood in me than European blood, there was a lot of mixing! I feel like I’m yu di Kòrsou, but I’ve been influenced by so many different cultures (Japanese, American, Latino etc) and I’ve learned a ton about other people.”
Ryan insists that his Challenges are a product of all those influences: the Eastern practice of Shotokan Karate led him to Special Training every year: 4 days, 12 hours a day. The premise of the training being Sensei Tsutomu Ohshima’s “We are experts at babying ourselves; we must look at ourselves with the strictest eyes.” Ryan thought he was going to die during his first Special Training; granted, the experience also taught him ‘the power of mind over body’. An elusive concept, at best, for non-marathoners (such as myself).
But don’t let him fool you… Ryan is also super-naturally endowed with a special brand of ‘crazy’ (read: intensity): “I read somewhere that a modern man couldn’t do 22 days of Special Training meditation [in Buddhism]… and that just twisted my mind. What do you mean a modern man can’t do that?? That’s when I set out to do the 22 day St. Maarten – Curaçao Challenge.”
Man of Mangroves and Marine Biology.
Ryan fell in love with Curaçao’s extraordinary marine life before Shotokan Karate and kayaking. But he has also seen its degradation over the past 20-30 years. “I got in touch with Dolphy Debrot at NGO Carmabi, started learning about environmental preservation, reading studies conducted by international scientists who research our underwater.” In 2007, the government cut Carmabi’s subsidy by 90%, so Ryan decided to partner with Debrot and set out to do his first Challenge kayaking around Curaçao to raise funds and create awareness.
Before you knew it ‘first guy to kayak around Curaçao!’ spread like wildfire and so did his message: “folks still approach me in public and ask me about [Carmabi’s] progress, our message really resonated, and the education continues, we continue to go to schools, lecture, give kayak trips to underprivileged youth.”
Though cutting mangroves (essentially the buffer between land and sea) has been happening for the past 400 years, Ryan came to realize that Curaçao’s rapid real estate development of the past 20-30 years was posing a particularly serious threat to coral reefs. “It’s all interconnected, you take away the mangroves, other living beings are bound to suffer: 60% of all fish live on coral reefs and lay their eggs in the roots of mangroves. And that beautiful clear blue water we market in our tourism brochures? Well, the fish consume the algae so that our water remains clear.” Eight years ago Ryan decided to start planting mangroves to help fish lay more eggs. “80% of our mangroves have been cut down over the past 20 years, [my initiative] has replanted 40-45%. It’s just plain horse work, nobody sees it, but in the meantime we’ve planted over 100,000 mangroves!” [As a matter of fact, Ryan is the first to plant mangroves in the world.]
Ryan is currently working on lobbying the government to pass legislation that will deepen waste pipes [that carry sewage into the ocean] beyond 25 meters, to prevent bacteria formation (such as cholera) along our coast. “Marine biologists around the world want to be HERE. Our coral reefs are still intact and Curaçao has the first marine biology university in the world (Carmabi)…” (See: #678. Curaçao is #2 on Google’s New Underwater Map)
Whether it be educating Curaçao people, tourists or government officials, Ryan’s message is crystal clear: we’re all interconnected, pay it forward — we must all pitch in to protect our impressive natural endowment.
Ryan hosts kayak tours of #619. Curaçao’s Awesome Mangrove Project, you can even help re-plant some mangroves, please visit: http://www.carmabi.org/news/activities/34-mangrove-kayak-tours or call 5999-561-0813 for more info.