On Sunday, June 16, 2019, 220 paddlers left the Bahamas and paddled to Lake Worth, FL (80 miles!) on the 4th Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis—an event founded to raise awareness, develop life-enhancing programs for, and provide financial assistance to cystic fibrosis families. In 2019 this event raised $670,000.
The Crossing is put on by Piper’s Angels Foundation, created by Travis Suit in 2011 when his 4-year-old daughter, Piper, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a progressive and fatal disease that affects lung and digestive functions. In 2013, Suit made the trek with four friends to raise awareness and funds for research. He also made the connection with his research that the salt air Piper inhaled while on the water really was helping her condition by rehydrating the lining of the lungs and helping loosen the mucus buildup.
Our team of paddlers included Ben Vonderharr, Drew Memtsas and Leonardo Betancourt. They were accompanied their captain and crew, John Komaromi, Adrian Komaromi and Cody Wagner. They paddled 14 hours straight to reach their destination. The team raised $5,305. I joined the crew on the boat to re-live their experience with them.
I asked what made them sign up for this challenge. Drew said, “We had unfinished business. Ben and I had signed up for the paddle last year and did not complete it successfully. We wanted to finish, paddling shore-to-shore.” Leo knew someone with CF and had seen how difficult it was to live with the disease. Everyone agreed that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for a physical and mental challenge while supporting an amazing cause. No one tried to talk them out of the opportunity but many people said,“Good for you. I would never be able to do that.”
Training for the event included training runs on the ocean with the entire team. The group remembers their most valuable experience—a training run where they fought 4 -foot seas. They struggled to stay up but got their bearings after an hour or two and were able to stay on the boards. Drew said, “Our confidence changed after that day. If we could survive that, we could handle anything. After that, we knew we had what it takes.” The paddlers also participated in a weight loss challenge and focused on their eating habits in addition to their physical training.
John, the Captain, prepared heavily as well. He said, “For me it was all about safety and making sure the boat was in tip-top shape. The months leading up to it I was tinkering with the motors non-stop, fixing electrical nuisances, just basically dialing everything in that I had put off the past year since I’d typically only be going a few miles out for fishing and diving. I knew the trip would be stressful and emotional, and last thing I wanted was to have any sort of mechanical issues adding to the stress. I did not want to disappoint the team—I was their ride and ultimately responsible for getting them there and back home safely.”
The crew described the night they left Bimini: a crystal clear sky full of stars and an excitement in the air anticipating the send off. Although thunderstorms had been forecasted, the crew was grateful to have been met with mostly flat seas. The 80 boats left in heats of 10. By dawn the crew could only see about 10 of those boats around them. At one point most of the boats started fading out of sight, veering off to the right. The crew looked to each other and tried to decide if they should follow. John decided to stay their course which proved to be the right decision.
Ben recalled, “At night you only see the light of the boat and the chop of the waves. It is disorientating.”
Drew chimed in, “I didn’t feel that way, but I think it was because I was on the side of the boat and could see the mainland. Ben was behind the boat.” When the team got closer to Florida they saw lots of lights.
Cody recalled, “We had to always gauge where the freighters were coming and listening to radio to hear about other boats around us to determine if we would beat the freighter. We had to stay on our toes in case any storms came. We got lucky and never had to pull the guys out to move.”
Cody and Adrian would prepare food every hour and send it out to the paddlers. When they started getting tired or dehydrated, they sent them espresso and coconut water. They kept the paddlers motivated by pointing to the destination and tell them they were getting closer. Cody and Adrian kept changing the landmark to aim for, knowing it’d be easier if the paddlers were paddling towards something they could physically see, even if that meant embellishing the truth. The paddlers never stopped for more than 5-6 minutes at a time. John had to keep an eye on the GPS and make sure they reached every check point.
Eventually Cody and Adrian’s promise of almost being there came true. Leo shared, “It was great to see the crowd of everyone waiting as we crossed the finish line. The crowd was bigger than we expected and it really felt special. We were exhilarated at that moment; the exhaustion hit us later.”
Each of the guys got a box of pizza to themselves as their first meal on land and spent the next few days resting to recover. Drew said “There were things that were tense that you weren’t able to ‘let go’ till you got to shore; the feet gripping the board, your hands holding the paddle. Things hurt that you wouldn’t even expect.”
I asked how Cody, Adrian and John kept the paddlers motivated. Drew said, “It was more about support than motivation. I never felt scared.” Leo added, “They provided us constant support with food and really guided us.” I asked Adrian, the youngest team member, what he learned from participating. He said, “It taught me to really live in the moment and appreciate the people around me.”
Drew added, “Before this experience, the word endurance had a simple meaning to me. I always thought of a marathon runner or David Blaine [magician and endurance artist], someone that pushes the limits of the human body recreationally. But, this experience educated me. A marathon runner endures because he/she wants to; it’s not a necessity. David Blaine challenges himself to these extreme endurance tests because he wants to, and it’s lucrative. People with CF don’t have a choice. They endure every single day out of necessity. It is a constant battle. A marathon runner might have the mindset, Run as hard as you can; you can rest tomorrow. People with CF don’t have that luxury. If they try their hardest and fight CF and have a great day, there is no rest day. They wake up tomorrow… and have to run that marathon all over again!! Now THAT is endurance!”