CASTAWAYS AGAINST CANCER BEGIN 23RD VOYAGE WITH NEW PARTNERSHIP

Even in the middle of a pandemic, paddlers prepare to launch from Virginia Key in 2020. From left: Paul Kumer, Roger Dabdab, Omar Beceiro, Patrick Linfors, Castaways founder Steven O'Brien, Jaime Lemus, Eric Pino, Sebastian Strong. CONTRIBUTED

For the 23rd year in a row, teams of paddlers and cyclers who some might call “just a little bit crazy” will make grueling 160- and 170-mile treks, respectively, from Miami to Key West as the Castaways Against Cancer continue their fight to combat the deadly disease.

Begun by a “group of four sea-hippies” in 2000, this year’s voyage – dubbed the “Carry On Tour” in the organization’s tradition of naming each unique trip – aims to raise significant funds for the disease with an ever-elusive cure. Beginning in Miami’s Virginia Key on Saturday, June 11, the paddling crew will take seven days to trek 160 miles all the way down to Key West’s Simonton Beach by Friday, June 17. On that same Friday, a team of cyclists will complete the most similar route possible by land – 175 miles, all in one day.

With their funds originally donated to the American Cancer Society, the nonprofit group made a switch in 2020, directing funds to support research at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Two years later, the strength of the partnership spurred the organization to announce a five-year, $1.5 million pledge to the research institute on World Cancer Day in February 2022, a promise the University of Miami itself agreed to match 50 cents on the dollar.

For the Castaways, an ability to communicate directly with the principal investigators and see the direct impacts of their funds drove the switch to Sylvester. The facility is one of only two in Florida and 71 nationwide recognized by the National Cancer Institute as NCI-Designated Cancer Centers for their transdisciplinary, state-of-the-art approaches to cancer research and treatments.

“The beauty of this partnership is that the doctors come back to them and say, ‘This is what your $200,000 did this year,’” said Jackie Suarez, the organization’s communications volunteer lead. “This group is really passionate about seeing that all their money actually goes somewhere.”

Among the projects funded by the athletes and their supporters in the last two years were an early cancer detection clinic, studies identifying effective treatments for pediatric brain tumors, and research to identify and understand the molecular mechanisms that cause resistance to lymphoma therapies.

Breast cancer survivor Suzy Curry is one of the team’s few Keys paddlers and is aptly named the “Mayor of the Keys” on the Castaways website. As the former owner of Stout’s Restaurant in Marathon, Curry was roped into the team after making her famous banana pudding for the paddlers to enjoy when they made a pit stop at Sombrero Beach. 

After retiring in 2014, she began completing larger portions of the trip with the paddlers each year and eventually completed the entire voyage in 2017 – only the second woman to accomplish the feat. Even today, she still joins in for “just” the 110-mile Keys portion of the paddle.

“What I’ve always told people is that it’s not like we just say ‘Here, give me money,’” said Curry. “We’re actually going out and doing something.” She recalled nights of camping on islands too thick with mosquitoes for the paddlers to talk with their mouths open, as well as the eerie feeling of venturing offshore and dodging lightning storms in a kayak for the 50-mile two-day portion at the beginning of the route.

“Believe me, it’s brutal,” she reiterated.
Donations to the paddlers’ epic efforts can be made through the “Donate Now” tab at www.castawaysagainstcancer.org. The “Events” tab on the page also includes some of the trip’s major landings and celebrations, from the kayak launch on June 11 to the Carry On Tour’s closing ceremonies and celebration in Key West on June 17. The events are open to the public, and supporters are encouraged to attend in order to welcome and celebrate with the athletes.

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.