Health & Fitness

Castaways Against Cancer volunteers to paddle from Virginia Key to Key West

This year, Castaways Against Cancer is comprised of a core team of 12 paddlers including a firefighter, two Boy Scout executives, six Columbus High School teachers, a high school student, a retired restaurant owner and U.S. Century Bank President and CEO Luis de la Aguilera.
This year, Castaways Against Cancer is comprised of a core team of 12 paddlers including a firefighter, two Boy Scout executives, six Columbus High School teachers, a high school student, a retired restaurant owner and U.S. Century Bank President and CEO Luis de la Aguilera. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Castaways Against Cancer, an event organized under Relay for Life for the American Cancer Society, is going for its 18th annual paddle beginning this weekend.

The “kayaking adventure,” dubbed the Just Breathe Tour, launches 7 a.m. Saturday off the coast of Virginia Key. The Castaways will paddle 162 nautical miles south toward Key West and are expected to make landfall at Smather’s Beach in Key West at 2 p.m. Friday, June 16.

This year, Castaways Against Cancer is comprised of a core team of 12 paddlers including a firefighter, two Boy Scout executives, six Christopher Columbus High School teachers, a high school student, a retired restaurant owner and U.S. Century Bank President and CEO Luis de la Aguilera.

De la Aguilera has taken part in this event for six years and this is his fifth year paddling for the cause.

“I’m on the local volunteer board for the American Cancer Society,” de la Aguilera said. “This is the bank’s signature community event and there’s a lot of participation from the staff.”

It takes about six months to plan Castaways Against Cancer. The volunteers start training in January to build stamina and gain knowledge about sea currents and maneuvering and fixing the kayaks.

This year there will be a specially designed kayak in honor of Sebastian Ortiz, a junior at Columbus High who died Dec. 29 of rhabdomyosarcoma — a cancer that affects connective tissues in skeletal muscles. Eric Pino, Sebastian’s cross country coach, will paddle “Sebastian’s Boat” all the way to Key West.

After Sebastian’s passing, his father, Oscar Ortiz, set up a nonprofit foundation, Sebastian Strong, to raise money toward finding a cure for pediatric cancer.

“Children’s cancer research receives less than 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s budget for cancer research. Since kids only represent roughly 1 percent of new cancer cases annually, there are also limited resources and efforts from the pharmaceutical industry to find a cure,” Ortiz writes on the Sebastian Strong website. “Because those two groups, government and the pharmaceutical industry, provide such limited resources to pursue cures for childhood cancers, supporting foundations that are focused specifically on childhood cancer research are critical if we are to be successful.”

Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society’s most successful fundraiser and signature event. Castaways Against Cancer is organized under a Relay committee and carried out by volunteers.

Steve O’Brien, a Christopher Columbus teacher and cancer survivor, founded Castaways Against Cancer to improve patients’ survival, decrease the incidence of cancer, and improve the quality of life for patients and their caretakers. O’Brien went to chemotherapy, fought the fight and survived cancer. At the same time he fought cancer, several other family members also fell victim to the disease.

O’Brien began working with Relay for Life and organized a different and new event: Instead of walking, volunteers would kayak 162 miles.

Every year since, 10 to 13 paddlers kayak from Miami to Key West over a span of about seven days. The castaways paddle about 12 hours a day, barring bad weather and waves. Guest paddlers are invited to join and kayak for a portion of the trip — they are called “day paddlers.”

All proceeds go to the American Cancer Society. The castaways have raised more than $68,000 leading up to this year’s event and $914,000 since its founding.

To donate

Those who wish to donate can go to Castaways Against Cancers can visit castawaysagainstcancer.com and choose which paddler they want to support.

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