Two friends rang in the new year by kiteboarding more than 100 miles from their launch spot in Key Largo — all while raising money for a worthy cause. 

Physically, Scott Gerke, of Sugarloaf Key, and Joe Tatangelo, of Michigan, knew they could kiteboard the length of the Keys for a two-day journey to Key West in an effort to raise awareness of mental health. From their launch in the Upper Keys, the two kited roughly four hours straight before stopping at Coco Plum Beach in Marathon. They then kited down to Little Palm Resort on Little Torch Key as the sun set. In total, the two kited roughly 70 miles on day one. 

Winds weren’t in their favor as Gerke and Tatangelo reversed their trip on day two, with the launch taking place from Smathers Beach in Key West to the end point at Little Palm Island. 

Joe Tatangelo and Scott Gerke kiteboard to raise mental health awareness. The two started in Key Largo on Jan. 1 and worked their way south to Key West.

“We had to catch this storm in Key West,” Gerke said. “We had moments where our kites shouldn’t have been in the air, but we were just like angels out there giving us what we needed to keep our kites in the air. I landed on Picnic Island and Joey landed at a beach near Kiki’s.”

While the trip brought challenges, Gerke couldn’t help but note the number of “strangers turned friends” along the way. It all started the day before, when Gerke and Tatangelo sought someone last minute to give them a ride to Key Largo. That’s when Cristine Verlardi came forward and offered help by driving them up and providing land support.

“She literally followed us the whole way using a GPS tracker,” he said. “I feel like, and Joey had the same feeling, that the universe recognized what we were doing and provided help when we needed it.”

The idea to kiteboard the Keys for mental health originated late last year from Joe Tatangelo, whom Scott Gerke met out in Oregon in 2018.

Upon landing at Coco Plum Beach, Gerke and Tatangelo were met by a group of kiteboarders who heard about their excursion and offered them fruit to fuel up. Gerke even received assistance from a man who helped retrieve his kite after it landed in the mangroves during launch. 

“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have made it to Little Palm before sunset,” he said. “This whole trip was nothing but experiences with random people who helped make this happen, from raising money to organizing the trip.”

For Gerke, kiteboarding helped him get past some tough times in what he called a “sh** storm of a summer” in 2019. The idea came about late last year from Tatangelo, whom he met in Hood River, Oregon in 2018 as he was touring the U.S. in his minivan. 

Scott Gerke takes a selfie with Joe Tatangelo as they prepare to launch their kiteboards.

“He called me up recently and asked if I wanted to do what we call a downwinder, where we go from one place to another,” Gerke said.  “I said, ‘Sure,’ and asked if he wanted to do it for a good cause, and he was like ‘yes.’”

A Go Fund Me page subsequently launched. So far, a little more than $2,000 raised will support mental health services in the Keys. Gerke said the money will help people obtain therapy, case management, crisis stabilization and other services people need but can’t afford.

“My big thing is eventually, I would like to just have a bank account where people can pull from to get talk therapy,” he said. “That’s what I think is such a big … just having a professional you can talk to who has an unbiased opinion.”

Scott Gerke and Joe Tatangelo joked about going on a pizza diet. Gerke said “we kind of did that for a week before the trip.”

With the 138-mile trip complete, Gerke said he’s looking to make it happen again this year. Through his journey, Gerke said, people are starting to notice that he’s not afraid to talk about the issues he had. 

“These kinds of things happen to everybody and everybody processes these feelings in a different way. It’s really OK,” he said. “Everyone’s going to notice that it’s normal to have these feelings and it’s normal to talk about it.”

Visit Gerke’s Go Fund Me page to donate and visit kitethekeys.com to learn more. 

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Jim McCarthy believes in community reporting, giving back and life on the water. A workout fanatic, diver and a bogey-golfer, Jim loves chicken wings, Marvel movies and sports.