This Sunday, when you see hundreds of paddlers splashing onto the beach outside of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club, you’ll be witnessing the 20th anniversary of one of the most physically grueling, psychologically challenging, and financially ambitious fundraisers on the planet. This is the Friendship Paddle, and the effort’s 2022 beneficiary is the renowned plein air artist Chris Potter, who is fighting a rare and aggressive cancer around his lungs.
“Our mission is to support a Santa Barbara community member with a life-threatening illness and just rally around them to provide not only financial support but also emotional support,” explained board member Chip Blankenhorn.
The first paddle was in 2003 to support Doug McFadden, a 39-year-old father of two with an inoperable brain tumor. His family and friends decided to endure their own challenge by paddling on boards from Santa Cruz Island to Hope Ranch Beach.
“They were all surfers and watermen,” said Blankenhorn. “The ocean was a solace for them.” The event was so impactful that they did it the next year, formed a nonprofit, and have been selecting beneficiaries every year since, now with about 150 paddlers and more than 30 boats providing support.
Honorees are nominated by word of mouth, and then there is a confidential selection process. “That’s one of the more challenging aspects of being on the board,” said Blankenhorn. “In any given year, there might be a few different people that are deserving. But we like to focus on one person and put the whole effort of our organization behind them.”
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As a native Santa Barbara resident who paints the shoreline almost every day, Chris Potter was “kind of a no-brainer” when it came to this year’s selection, admitted Blankenhorn. Of course, no one wants to be sick enough to attract Friendship Paddle attention, but Potter was honored, having known about the event for years. Among other connections, his friend and longtime Independent writer Ethan Stewart was a beneficiary in 2016.
Potter is really appreciating the “Friendship” part of the name. “What I didn’t realize is how awesome all the people are running it,” he said, impressed that so many have been giving their time and money for years. “Getting to know them has been the best part about this.”
The father of two teenagers was diagnosed last fall with NUT carcinoma, an exceedingly rare cancer that afflicts so few people that very little is known about it. Initially almost unable to breathe, Potter found some relief after rounds of radiation, chemotherapy, and other treatments, only to be hit with bouts of COVID and pneumonia. More tests are upcoming, so now he experiences good and bad days that come in unpredictable waves.
“When I feel good, I feel like maybe there’s some random chance that I can beat the million odds against me,” he said on a recent good day, while chasing his dogs away from dead seals on Ellwood Beach. “When I feel shitty, it’s easy to remember that nobody has survived this. You can go into a pity party that gets pretty deep and ruins your day.”
He’s hopeful that this weekend — which starts with Saturday morning boat rides to Forney’s Cove on Santa Cruz Island and commences with Sunday’s 24-mile paddle back to shore — will fall on good days.
“If I feel like I feel right now, then I’m okay,” he said. “I’m just gonna will it.”
Donate to this year’s Friendship Paddle to benefit Chris Potter at friendshippaddle.org.