When Steve O’Brien lost his beloved mother June to lung cancer in 1999, he knew he needed to find a way to honor her.
At her wake, he had an idea: What if I kayak from Miami to Key West?
His rationale was simple: Cancer treatments are often brutal, taking a toll on a patient’s physical, mental and emotional state. He wanted to show support by doing something that required endurance.
“We can’t go through radiation, we can’t go through chemo, but we can do something that’s physically demanding,” he said.
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In 2000, the Christopher Columbus High School social studies teacher gathered three others — two fellow teachers and one radio reporter — and set out on a seven-day, 165-mile journey. They called themselves Castaways Against Cancer.
The first trip was grueling. They battled mosquitoes, sun exposure, aching muscles and fatigue — but they raised $10,000.
On Saturday, 15 men will embark on the organization’s 15th journey to the Keys. The group has raised more than $500,000 since that first trip, and all of the money has been donated to the American Cancer Society. The kayakers range from a 22-year-old to O’Brien, now 60.
The team attracts people from all over the country. This year’s crew will include a firefighter, a stay-at-home dad, a financial executive and a scientist. The crew now boasts several corporate sponsors including banks, law firms and sporting companies.
Patrick Linfors, a 38-year-old Boy Scouts of America executive who lives in Orlando, serves as the team captain. He has participated in all of the kayaking trips since the beginning.
“I just loved the idea of kayaking from Miami to Key West,” he said. “It sounded like the adventure of a lifetime. I jumped at the opportunity.”
For Linfors, the journey has become much more personal over time. His wife, brother, father and sister-in-law have all been diagnosed with cancer at some point.
Logistically, the trip can get dangerous. While every team member is required to wear a life jacket and several team members are trained in open water rescues, Linfors said they’ve had a few close calls. Last summer, the team got caught in a storm and several kayaks almost capsized.
One year, the teammates became stranded on Sombrero Beach in Marathon. Another year, a raccoon stole a kayaker’s wallet while the team was camping at Elliott Key in Biscayne National Park.
“It’s very much a mission, not just a weeklong trip to the Keys,” he said.
But for Linfors, the trip has created a brotherhood. After paddling together for 10 hours a day, he bonds with the people around him.
The trip ends with a team dinner and reception in Key West. On the last day, team members lay flowers in the water to represent the loved ones they’re paddling for.
O’Brien plans to participate until he turns 70, and he’s encouraged by the team’s younger members, who plan to continue the kayak trips for years to come.
“It took on a life of its own,” he said. “I am so pleased and so happy.”
Even with the hardships they’ve faced — including getting caught in tropical storms and having hotel reservations canceled at the last minute — O’Brien considers it the highlight of his year.
“I can’t even tell you how much I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
The group expects to raise $125,000 by the end of the year. O’Brien’s next goal: convincing Gov. Rick Scott to join the team for a day.
“If you really want to do successful fundraising, you just have to have good faith in people,” he said. “Be positive and do good things. Goodness attracts goodness.”