While many teenagers are hanging out or working during their summer break, 16-year-old Christopher Ahrendt and five of his classmates at Christopher Columbus High just shot a documentary.
They drove from Miami to Key West and back, following a group of kayaking enthusiasts who paddled on a one-week journey from Miami to the Conch Republic to raise funds for cancer research as part of Castaways Against Cancer. This is the 17th year the kayakers — teachers, a banker, cancer survivors and relatives of cancer survivors — have made the trip, but the first time a film crew has followed them.
“I knew they were a tight group,” said Christopher of the eight-member kayaking group, “but they’re like a family more than anything. The way they just accepted us and brought us in — that was big for me and the other kids that were reporting and covering their story.”
It was an eventful trip — five rudders broke off during their 160-mile journey.
“They have this mentality to push on no matter what,” Christopher said. “What they’re trying to simulate here is a struggle, like how patients struggle with cancer. These guys are fighting cancer. If something goes wrong, they just have to adapt.”
Case in point: Duct-taping a broken rudder to the boat.
The kayakers also managed to dodge three storms, but couldn’t escape a fourth.
“When they got to Little Palm Island, the currents really picked up and three kayakers got caught in one of the channels,” he says. “They had to trek through hip-level mud to get back on high land, and they got stuck on the island for two hours because of the storm.”
The students plan to submit their film to the All American High School Film Festival, a national showcase for high school filmmakers.
Christopher was one of three students who shot footage and conducted “video diaries” of the crew as they made landfall each evening on a different key. Three other students are editing the footage, which spans six days.
The kayakers camped out the first night on Elliott Key, the largest key north of Key Largo, and then stayed at different family-owned hotels in the Keys. Their voyage began June 11 from Virginia Key and ended on Friday, at Smathers Beach in Key West.
The idea for the film project came about on a bus ride after a school field trip to Miramar’s NBC 6 studios, where the students were promoting their Media Excellence Awards after winning their second national championship in broadcast journalism at the Student Television Network Convention. The students began brainstorming ways to set themselves apart from the competition.
They thought of making a documentary and decided to feature Castaways Against Cancer, with whom they were familiar since some of their teachers are kayakers on the team.
The students equipped the paddlers and kayaks with GoPro cameras. When cellphone reception was available, they conducted interviews with the paddlers on the water. Drones were used to capture aerial footage of their expedition. An app called Glympse showed the paddlers’ voyage in real time on CAC’s website, so viewers could track their progress. Cancer survivor and former Castaways member Robert “Bob” Linfors will do the voice-over for the film.
Due to insurance liabilities and that the event is more for a seasoned kayaker, the students, between 15 and 17 years of age, didn’t tag along on the water for the trip. Instead, they followed them via a road trip to the Keys.
“We knew we wanted to cover the Castaways but we didn’t really know what our angle was or what we wanted to tell,” Christopher said. “As the week went on we developed this really good story about them and why they’re really doing this.”
Omar Delgado, who heads the broadcast program at Christopher Columbus, is leading the documentary project with his students. For two years in a row, the program has been ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for a high school broadcast journalism program.
“Both of my parents are cancer survivors,” Delgado said, “and it really struck a chord with me.”
“It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication but they seem to love it,” he says of his students, who report local news and happenings for their school’s news network, CCNN Live, which has won multiple awards and is a Florida Scholastic Press Association All-Florida network. “I’ve seen kids who don’t know how to write become amazing writers and I’ve seen kids who don’t know how to use a camera become amazing cinematographers.”
Delgado says he was inspired by his former teacher at Christopher Columbus, Steve O’Brien, founder and fleet commander of Castaways Against Cancer.
Born in Key West, O’Brien, who’s been teaching history at the high school for 35 years, lost his mother and two other family members to cancer. O’Brien’s vision for kayaking for a cause came to him during his mother’s wake in 1999. His father is a cancer survivor.
“When we started this 17 years ago, we were hoping to raise $10,000 and when we made that we were really thrilled. We didn’t think this would evolve into what it has,” said O’Brien, 62. To date, CAC has raised around $800,000 for the American Cancer Society’s Lower Keys Relay for Life.
CAC is a Relay for Life team, and is the top fundraising team in Florida, among hundreds of other teams in the state. They raised over $75,000 this year.
“These donations are extremely impactful,” said Alana Wortsman, the community manager of Relay for Life. “It goes toward research, grants and programs, like Road to Recovery, where drivers take cancer patients for treatment in Miami, because here in Key West, we don’t have those resources available.”
Even with strong winds, choppy waters and broken rudders, the eight-member crew kayaked eight to 12 hours a day, covering more than 20 miles daily, until they reached Smathers Beach. Five guest paddlers joined them on select days.
“We are all tired and sunburned, but strengthened by the love and support of so many who have battled cancer,” said team captain Patrick Linfors, an executive with the Central Florida Boy Scouts of America.
“There is no finish line until we find a cure,” said paddler Lou de la Aguilera, CEO and president of U.S. Century Bank.
O’Brien says he chose the American Cancer Society to be the recipient of Castaways’ efforts because they were helpful when his mother was diagnosed. “They always picked up the phone for me.”
The driving force on why he battles the elements and puts his body through rigorous training year after year, he says, is empathy.
“I’ve witnessed radiation, chemotherapy and the aftermath of medicines, which are a two-edged sword — in the suffering and discomfort, as well as the endurance and the courage,” he said. “When you’re in a kayak, sometimes you’re out there for a very long time. You’re very sore. You’re tired and you want to come in. But like chemo and radiation, you’ve got to see through it until the end. You don’t have to do this by yourself, so it’s nice to know that people are there with you.”
Christopher said one of the many lessons he and his film crew learned is to rely on each other. “Since I was driving, I had to go to bed earlier. So I had to rely on the other two to charge the batteries and get all the equipment packed for the next day.”
They also learned the importance of giving back. “We decided to make this film a fundraiser for them,” he says. “When we finish, we’ll sell DVDs and downloads of it, and all proceeds will go to the Castaways’ cause.”