On Saturday, June 8, the Castaways Against Cancer, a fundraising team made up of 20 kayakers, will launch its 20th-annual adventure, paddling 160 miles from Miami to Key West. With a mission of helping to find a cure and honoring those who’ve fought the fight, this kayak journey raises money for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life program.
From 2000 to 2018, the Castaways raised $1,031,839, the 8th-ACS Relay for Life team in the nation to top the million-dollar mark and the first to do so in Florida. The team’s efforts are noted in the Florida Keys Relay for Life fundraising totals.
The Castaways Against Cancer was founded by Steven O’Brien, a popular history teacher at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami. In 1999, he lost his grandmother and mother to cancer. At his mother’s wake, he decided to “light a candle, instead of curse the darkness.” O’Brien is planning to make this mission his final full tour.
The group will launch from Virginia Key, next to the Miami Seaquarium, on June 8 at exactly 7:30 a.m. They aim to arrive on dry land at 2 p.m. on Friday, June 14, at Smathers Beach in Key West. The public is encouraged to attend.
“Even though many of the paddlers live in South Dade, they still chose the Keys chapter,” said Suzi Youngberg, with the American Cancer Society in the Keys. “They say the Keys have shown them so much love.”
This year there will be 14 paddlers traversing the entire 160-mile route, and 22 “guest paddlers.” The different legs of the trip measure anywhere from 18 to 27 miles. There’s also a way for regular paddlers to join the team for just a day. Visit castawaysagainstcancer.com and see the FAQ page.
“For me, the toughest stretch is day two,” said Patrick Linfors, the team spokesperson. “My body is asking, ‘Uh … why are you doing this again?’ But I think the Long Key viaduct is pretty challenging. We get there at the end of the day and the current is usually ripping through there pretty good.”
The Castaways are a diverse group from all walks of life. This year’s team includes seven teachers and 10 graduates from Christopher Columbus High School, a breast-cancer survivor from Marathon, the CEO of Presenting Sponsor U.S. Century Bank, a Miami-Dade firefighter and a non-profit executive. Many are from Miami, while others are traveling from Jacksonville, Orlando and North Carolina.
“The oldest paddler is Steve O’Brien at 64, and I think our youngest paddler is in his 30s,” said Linfors.
This will be Suzy Curry’s second full-distance paddle. She lives in Marathon. And, in 2019, Carrie Hellieson, a former Keys resident and employee of the local American Cancer Society, is also making part of the trip.
In the beginning, paddlers often camped out. Now, with sponsorship support, they have hotel rooms to rest in before taking up the oar again. They also take breaks from paddling to visit with supporters. For example, on Wednesday, June 12, the team will come ashore in Marathon at Faro Blanco Resort.
Since 2017, the Castaways have also supported the SebastianStrong Foundation, which was created in honor of Sebastian Ortiz, a Columbus student who died in 2016 at the age of 16 after battling cancer. Through its efforts with the Castaways, the SebStrong Foundation has raised more than $170,000 to support research of pediatric cancers. Paddling with the Castaways and supporting the SebStrong Foundation this year is Seb’s dad, Oscar Ortiz, and internationally acclaimed artist, Alex Mijares.