“Hey, how would you like to be part of my Friendship Paddle on September 24?” asked my good friend and longtime colleague Ethan Stewart a couple of weeks ago. “I’m in,” I quickly replied, envisioning kayakers and surfers cruising around the Channel Islands for a fun afternoon. I had no idea what was in store: Since then, my neck, mid-back, and rotator cuffs haven’t found anything friendly about it.
The paddle began in 2003 when friends and family of Doug McFadden, who had inoperable brain cancer, decided to raise money and spirits by paddling on prone and stand-up paddleboards 30 miles or so from Santa Cruz Island to the mainland across the Santa Barbara Channel. Donations and goodwill flowed in. Doug’s life expectancy was doubled, and, every year since, the Friendship Paddle crew honors a new person from Santa Barbara County.
This year they chose Ethan, who’s written about his pancreatic cancer and major, exhausting operations on these pages. He’s a natural choice since his connections to the ocean and the environment are deep and span continents, including work as a journalist on climate change, ocean acidification, natural resources, and the Gaviota Coast.
Despite the physical challenges coming, I was honored to be asked by Ethan, who also enlisted Indy senior editor Matt Kettmann. We’re part of the West Coast relay team, but there’s also an East Coast team, comprising Ethan’s Cape Cod connections; as of last count, there were nearly 100 people planning to take part in the paddle. We start at dawn this Saturday and should hit Miramar Beach in Montecito between 2 and 5 p.m., depending on the weather.
With just weeks to prepare and not being a surfer or paddler, the fish-out-of-water analogy suits me well. Firefighter John Ford paddled the entire trip when his wife, Tara Haaland-Ford, was the beneficiary in 2013, but I get winded just getting to a boat anchored five minutes from shore. Supposedly, our relay shifts are just 20 minutes long every couple of hours, but 20 minutes feels like two hours when you’re lying on your stomach and lifting your chest and head off the board while paddling a freestyle stroke.
I’m anxious for Saturday, with compounding concerns about my capabilities, the wind, ocean tankers, and curious (read: curiously hungry) wildlife. And no matter how much you get in the water, when you’re in the middle of the Santa Barbara Channel on a 12-foot board, you feel as if you’re in over their head. But that’s the point, as it gives at least slight insight into what Ethan and so many others with cancer are going through. With fear, hope, struggle, mortality, and, most importantly, support, it’s a team-building trust fall in 4,000-foot ocean waters, and everyone has skin in the game.
It’s also a fundraiser, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the honoree. That can be spent on anything, be it frivolous or practical, but nearly every dime has or will be spent attempting to cover the cost of health care required for survival.
Even just preparing for the event has commandeered my thoughts and made me reflect on life’s priorities. The thought of Ethan; his extended family; his amazing wife, Anna; and beautiful, destined-for-greatness daughter, Sawyer, brings hair-trigger tears. I want to do this right. I hope to pull my weight. I need to make a difference. We will all make a difference.
See friendshippaddle.org to donate and learn more.