IN THE BEGINNING
Frustrated and weary, Steve O’Brien wanted to act. During seven tough months of 1999, the 40-something high school teacher lost his mother and grandmother to cancer. His mom had battled lung cancer for four years. At her wake, he decided to "light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
Steve, a Key West native, didn’t pick up the paddle until he was 42. He started paddling waterways in South Florida as well as the Keys. He found kayaking a source of solitude, peace and spirituality. Being on the water was a place to clear his mind and, not to mention, get some exercise.
Paddling also became a way of spending quality time with family. Steve and his sister Kim have paddled near and far. Kayaking also became a way of sharing good times with friends. From day trips around Key Biscayne to weekend camping trips out to Nest Key, kayaking went from hobby to passion.
In an inspired fit of insanity, he and three co-workers from Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, paddled from Key Largo to Key West in the summer of 1998, simply "to see if it could be done." In what they now call "The Experiment", the foursome battled darkness, fatigue, hunger, massive mosquitoes, angry homeowners and had the time of their lives.
The following spring, Steve’s mom lost her long battle with lung cancer. At her wake, Steve told Kim something had to be done. He knew now, first hand, how devastating cancer can be to those who have it -- and those who love them.
2000 - EPIPHANY
What happened next, Steve calls "an inspired moment." He decided to use his passion as a way to help. Knowing he couldn’t go back to school, become a doctor and find a cure for cancer himself, he decided to help those who are already in the labs.
He dreamed up a plan to hop in a kayak, paddle the Atlantic Ocean down to Key West and raise money for cancer research.
His original plan was to do it by himself. Just Steve, the water, the mangroves, a change of clothes and a mission. But as he tells it, "I realized I couldn’t stand myself alone for a week."
So he took his admittedly wild idea back to his friends and co-workers.
Bob Linfors was the first on-board. The 30-something English teacher had joined OB on the ‘98 excursion and was not about to turn down this challenge. Bob also had his heart in the mission, having lost a grandfather to cancer.
Fellow Columbus teacher Dave Isenberg was the next to sign on. The muscle-bound wrestling coach was ready for a battle. The balding father of two had just lost his young wife to breast cancer. He, too, wanted to stop cursing the darkness.
Steve felt the trio was solid, but didn’t want any of them to be alone in a kayak. He wanted a fourth to fill out two tandems, so Bob tapped his younger brother Patrick, a reporter for Newsradio 610 WIOD in Miami. Although not in the best shape, Patrick embraced the challenge of a lifetime and rounded out the Castaways Against Cancer. He also combined the kayak trip with work, calling in each day of the trip to update listeners on the team’s progress.
After raising money through the spring, the Castaways prepared to ship off for their first annual trip in June 2000. Steve was the captain and Bob was the navigator. The starting point was Black Point Marina in South Miami-Dade. After six days of stiff winds, scorching sunshine and tear-inducing muscle pain, they safely landed in Key West.
Tears were shed, beer was drunk and laughs were had. The unimaginable had been accomplished, loved ones were remembered and $10,000 had been raised for the American Cancer Society.
2001 - THE MISSPELLED TOUR
The following spring, Isenberg decided the one experience was enough for him and opted to stay in kayak retirement. Patrick offered to ask a friend of his, Chad Forbes. Patrick and Chad had met while working together at a Boy Scout summer camp in Punta Gorda. Over burgers and beer before a Jimmy Buffett concert, Patrick and Bob asked Chad, a Graphic Designer, for a Miami Architectural Sign Company, to join the team. Wearing a lei around his neck and gripping a cold one, Chad simply exclaimed, "Awesome!"
In the summer of 2001, the Castaways Against Cancer, once again, pushed off for the Conch Republic. But this time, the team shipped off from South Beach, adding a day of travel. The 150-nautical mile trip now took seven days to complete. They camped at mosquito-infested locales along the way including Elliott Key and a remote, rocky point in north Key Largo. Armed with another $10,000 for the ACS, the team paddled hard for a week and made a triumphant arrival behind the Wyndam Casa Marina in Key West.
2002 - THAT GONE FISHING TOUR
In 2002, no change was made to the team or the travel map. The only change was the month on the calendar. The previous two years, the Castaways paddled in June, just after school let out for the summer. But in ‘02, Bob taught summer school. As a result, the kayak trip was pushed back to July. The Castaways learned an important lesson that summer. July is actually hotter than June. As OB mentioned in an interview for WIOD, "It was nice today. Warm and sunny. In fact, we were four feet from the surface of the sun." The team again raised $10,000 for cancer research and arrived safely in Old Town.
2003 - EVOLUTION TOUR
The powerful grip of evolution took over the Castaways in 2003. New horizons were tested as two rookie paddlers joined the fray, a veteran took a break and the Captain went solo.
Craig Engler, Chad's roommate (left), and Jeff Croucher (right), Patrick's friend since birth, decided to take a brave step and join the kayak team. Craig was a scientist for NOAA in Miami, while Jeff was a scientist for Fugro Chance Inc. in Lafayette, Louisiana. Both fields of work have them traveling all over the world to study the ocean in one way or another.
Bob opted out in 2003, taking time to enjoy his new baby daughter Hailey. He was still a formidable member of the Castaways, once again, raising money and designing our annual team shirts. But during a phone conversation on Day-4, Bob confessed that he missed the ocean and team tremendously and would be back on the boat in 2004.
Throwing sanity out the window, OB decided it was time to paddle to Key West by himself in his own boat. So in addition to our requisite two tandems, OB brought in his trusted Necky Looksha, affectionately known as Alice, named after his late Grandmother.
All of these changes added up to many firsts for the Castaways: the first time we used three boats, the first time we had more than four paddlers and the first time we were without a true navigator.
In 2003, the Castaways battled wind, rain, back-to-back 30-mile days, exhaustion and heat. But the upside made up for all of the aches and pains. The team was able to raise more than $15,000 for the ACS, finally breaking the $10,000 plateau for the first time.
2004 - THE SALTY DOG TOUR
While the 2004 adventure will be remembered for great weather and awe-inspiring marine life, the trip will always be defined by its opening act.
As Castaways crossed Government Cut at the Port of Miami, 4th year veteran Chad was thrown off-balance and capsized. Already out of the channel, Patrick and Jeff fought their way back in to assist their fallen comrade. After a tense showdown with an outgoing freighter, and a fortunate rescue from a passing Samaritan, all six made it across with some bruised egos, a few scratches, and one hell of a story.
2004 was also a great year for exposure. The Castaways had their first ever TV news exposure on CBS-4 in South Florida. In addition to the usual coverage on WIOD, a pre-trip interview with Paul and Ron on Big 105.9-FM proved to be helpful. Several boaters knew who the Castaways were before the team could toot its own horn. Many said they heard about the trip on the radio. Upon arrival in Key West, the team was front page news in The Citizen. The Castaways were also inducted into the Conch Republic Navy.
2005 - FOR THE DUTCHMAN TOUR
Not that we needed another reason to paddle, but in 2005 the mission grew more personal. After helping raise thousands of dollars for cancer research over the years, in January, team navigator Bob Linfors was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma, and like so many of the people we’ve paddled for was forced to undergo chemotherapy.
Armed with a new sense of purpose, the Castaways planned their journey. After the close call in 2004, the launch point was now from Key Biscayne, a mile south of the dreaded Government Cut. The launch, however, was delayed due to the passing of Hurricane Dennis. In order to keep our various lodging reservations, the journey had to be cut a day short. For the first time since 2000, the Castaways returned to lauch from Black Point Marina.
2005 was also the year of.. the Toilet Seat. After discovering Toilet Seat Row in 2004, the following Spring, Jeff purchased a toilet seat, painted it red, white and blue, drew our team logo on the cover and wrote, "Miami to Key West; Since 2000; You Can't Hurt Steel". We humped it all the way to the channel and installed the work of art. Last we checked, it was still there. (Update: it only survived 2 years 5 months)
At the end of our journey, as we rounded the White Street pier and approached the shores of the Wyndam Casa Marina, in the distance we saw our fellow Castaway, Bob, welcoming us back to the Conch Republic. We are proud to say that Bob beat his cancer, and is a reminder that we will never stop fighting.
2006 - THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH TOUR
After six years, the Castaways Against Cancer had raised more than $90,000 for the American Cancer Society and were looking forward to the summer of 2006. Their 7th-annual brought more changes. For instance: the addition of our first rookie in 3 years.
Anthony Berger (left), a co-worker and friend of Patrick, thus rounded out the 7th trip... with a 7th kayaker. And in a strange twist of fate, a last minute cancellation of veteran member Craig Engler brought about the addition of another rookie for the 2006 adventure, Jeff's brother-in-law, Greg Trainor (right).
As if starting off with eight paddlers wasn't enough to make OB sweat, there were two "Junior Castaways" that joined the crew for the first few days.. Dave Bracknell who had recently completed the Paddle Across Florida, and an extra special guest Sandy Valdes (a member of the Iron Manatee Club), who's efforts helped raise close to $20,000 for the ACS through Christopher Columbus High School.
2007 - DIE ANOTHER DAY TOUR
Bad weather.. the '007 ballad for Year Eight. No changes to the course, but Mother Nature ruled the seas. Thanks to TS Barry, the loss of day one took the crew to their secondary launch point of Black Point Marina (used in '00 & '05). Another shock was the near loss of Veteran Castaway, Patrick, who valiantly stayed home to care for his possibly ill, and expecting wife, Patty.
New challenges and New Castaways... a South Florida Firefighter, Pedro "Pete" Almedia (left), decided to put his mettle to the test and contacted OB with his interest. And after many years of support, Adam Scholer (right), a teacher at Columbus finally committed to pulling a paddle for the cause.
Despite the adversities before them, Patrick returned on Day Two to complete the trip after hearing good news back home. The same day Nick Woll, Frank & Monica's son, joined us for a community service project for his graduation. But most notably, the crew broke all previous records bringing in over $40,000 for the ACS (over $160,000 total since 2000, if you're keeping track).
2008 - THE WHOLE NINE YARDS TOUR
The Ninth Annual Castaways adventure proved to be an amazing year of exposure for the team. As fundraising began for the 2008 season, Veteran Jeff Croucher released the first 'Tripumentary' video documenting the 2007 trip. Outsiders were given a first-hand look of the team battling their way through the Florida Keys. Along with the video, various members were interviewd on TV and radio from Miami to Mississippi, and the team made the Miami Herald AND the front page of the Key West Citizen!
Monica Woll of our esteemed sponsor Florida Bay Outfitters joined the crew for all seven days of the trip. Monica, co-owner of FBO, is no slouch when it comes to paddling. She is a Trail Specialist for the Office of Greenways and Trails on the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. Say that ten times fast!
Sadly, that summer the crew learned that their beloved Toilet Seat was the victim of some offshore vandalism and was gone forever. The team vowed: The Seat Would Return!! After a arduous trip, the crew proudly arrived in Key West with over $45,000. Later that summer, the Castaways were invited as guests to share our team story at the ACS Florida Division's Annual Team Development Summit in Orlando, FL where the 2007 Tripumentary was shown to over 700 people and we received a standing ovation.
2009 - BLOOD, SWEAT, & TEN YEARS TOUR
2009 marked the Tenth Annual Adventure and the first odd year since 2003 that the crew launched on schedule! The 'Odd Curse' (a phenomena where the odd numbered trip years are plagued with problems) still proved difficult in this year of recession; most notably were the events on the Elliott Key 'Survival School' where a terrible lightning storm drummed up some of the most dangerous conditions ever experienced by the crew while camping. As stated by our former US Marine, Pete: "That was the worst night I've ever experienced."
After expressing his interest for many years, Heath Harwood, a friend and former co-worker of Jeff's in Mississippi, finally came on board. Heath proved himself as a true Castaway by surviving seven days of paddling solo and by leaving Key West with the first ever Castaways tatoo... and a prowess for eating 50 eggs.
Staying true to their word, the Castaways returned to Toilet Seat Pass with a new and improved high-performance Toilet Seat donated by a a Mississippi friend of Jeff's who specializes in professional auto detailing. Hopefully no Keys locals will develop seat envy and our contribution will stand longer than its predecessor. Despite a difficult fundraising year, the crew was able to raise over $27,000 pushing the overall support for the ACS to more than a quarter of a million dollars since 2000.
2010 - OCEAN'S ELEVEN, THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR
Twenty-Ten marked the official Tenth Anniversary for the team. As with many previous years it was notable due to a very different dynamic with three Veteran Castaways unable to make the trip, a new Rookie, a former "One-and-Done"er back for a second taste of the salty fray, and a new Captain. Founding member Bob a.k.a. "Apron Strings" had to focus on the needs of the family, and "Saucemaster" Jeff missed his first trip after 7 consecutive years due to family and work priorities. In a last minute SHD (smart-husband-decision), Greg "Rainman" left the crew after only a few days to tend to his very pregnant wife in Orlando. Assumed-Former Castaway, Anthony, decided four years of being teased for not returning was enough and threw his hat back in the ring. And last, and never least, a new rook was welcomed to the ranks: Eric Pino. Leading the band of Sea Hippies was the newly appointed Team Captain: Patrick.
The crew faced the typical challenges, but took on a brutal Keys Crossing proving yet again that the trip is never mundane, nor one to take lightly. The year introduced the exciting "Twenty-Tens" fundraising campain to have friends and family collect twenty ten dollar bills, which ultimately the team raised over $30,000 for the ACS! Once again, the Castaways were proud to be featured on Miami and Florida Keys radio. Also, the CAC joined the Tweeting world of Twitter with Sophomore Castaway, Heath, sending real-time updates and pictures for the world to see. Finally, taking advantage of his time on shore, Team Webmaster, Jeff, rebuilt the entire website from scratch and also gave website visitors a chance to track the hourly progress of the crew using a commercial grade satellite tracking receiver provided by ARGOS, and carried by Veteran Castaway, Craig.
2011 - THE DIRTY DOZEN TOUR
Many exciting changes and events happened in 2011, marking the team's 12th Annual Adventure. The team launched June 11th, 2011 - a week later than departures from previous years. A notable change was seen in the team's launch site. Rather than launching from Virginia Key, the crew met at Kenneth M. Myers Park in Coconut Grove. This was done in order to gain some local exposure in the Coconut Grove Grapevine who featured us in two articles during the Spring before our trip.
The team roster was set early in the year with Veterans Heath and Chad officially out. Sophomore Castaway, Eric came through in a big way by hosting the annual Kick-Off Party at his home in The Grove. Being down two paddlers the team took on two Rookies - enter: The Swamp Brothers!
Before they were famous, the Keszey Brothers: Robbie (L) & Stephen (R), were just two guys that played with deadly reptiles, rodents and insects for a living as co-owners of the Glades Herp Farm. Their wild dynamic is featured The Discovery Channel. Thus rounding out our Dirty Dozen, indeed.
After a terrific crossing, the boys were treated to phenominal Keys hospitality. As the team arrived in Key West, they were escorted by their brothers and sisters of the Conch Republic Navy, in none other than the Flagship itself, the CRN WOLF, with cannons firing! Many members were promoted, and newer Castaways were inducted into the CRN. Our Captain, Patrick, was deemed "Commander, Castaways Flotilla of the Northern Territories". In case you didn't know, the "Northern Territories" is all that land that lies just north of Key Largo and stretches up to Canada.
Fanfare aside, the Castaways made a big splash with the American Cancer Society. The team's efforts pulled in over $42,000 for the ACS, thus ranking our team as #5 in the entire State of Florida.
2012 - COME HELL OR HIGH WATER TOUR
Even in the face of the supposed End of the World, the Castaways were determined to never quit. "Doomsday-shmoonsday!", shouted the Viceroy. Team Captain, Patrick, set the bar high in 2012 - a goal of $50,000. This had never been achieved before. In fact, we were concerned we could not break $30k. Heeding the call, the team held multiple pre and post-trip benefits in The Keys, Miami, Central Florida, and in Mississippi! In addition to all the fundraising, Team Navigator, Bob, released his personal memoir of his battle with cancer and the first ten years of the Castaways. (Stop by the 2000 Trip Report to get your copy!)
The roster was only 11 strong due to a few team members that could not make the trip. Family demands, work, and injury took a heavy toll on the team - Bob, Heath, and Robbie were out. With that, a new paddler, Scott Anderson, was invited to join for all of 2012. Scott paddled with the team for all of Day Three in 2011. And despite being on the DL, Robbie still followed the team as the Road Crew.
A last minute addition to the launch came in the form of high end sponsorship from TotalBank. Inspired by what we do, Lou de la Aguilera wanted to help our cause. "Uncle" Lou, and a co-worker, Daniel, joined our team for the first few hours of the trip. That addition helped bring in over $10,000 - catapulting us beyond our $50k goal!
When it was all said and done, the team had raised over $56,000 and we were recognized by the ACS for being ranked as the 4th highest fundraising team in all of the State of Florida! Never to be outdone, Team Captain, Patrick, raised over $11,000 - more than any single person in South Florida. The trip will be remembered by all who paddled, and those who stood on the front lines of our battle. Amazing weather, tons of sea life, laughs, tears, and lessons learned.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a team of paddlers that call themselves "Hope Floats" and have taken to the water. They came up with an idea to paddle and raise money for cancer. When researching how to pull it off, they stumbled across our website and made contact. After a few emails back and forth, they had established a plan, launched a website and eventually pulled off raising $12,000 for the ACS. We are proud to call them a sister team to the Castaways and we have made new friends to the North. This is just more proof that the message is spreading, and OB's vision is changing lives.
2013 - TRIP AROUND THE SUN TOUR
Appropriately in 2013, a total of 13 Castaways took to the water and we were proudly joined by Chris Tart of our sister team, Hope Floats NC, for the first two days of the trip. Additionally, Lou Aguilera of TotalBank was officially added to the team as the 2013 Rookie, paddling the entire trip solo - showing he is truly "strong like the bull".
This year once again proved that despite having done this thirteen times before, the journey is certainly arduous. Within two hours of launching, Robbie, one of the infamous Keszey Brothers, took a spill in choppy water off Key Biscayne and swallowed a lot of salt water causing him to become severely dehydrated leading to an emergency pit stop and a visit to the ER where the medics checked him out. The Viceroy later made the difficult decision to keep him on the bench for the remainder of the trip. Accepting the ruling, Robbie helped out the 2013 road crew for the rest of the week. Without question, this trip is hard, and there is no shame bowing out when our personal health is threatened.
Most years, a single capsize is considered a normal thing. Our crew is confident in open water rescues in tough conditions. However, on Day Five while crossing the last stretch of the Seven Mile Bridge, we learned that the sea is unforgiving and things can go bad quickly. After a leisurely break off Molasses Key, the team started the final push to Bahia Honda. A squall line we had been monitoring took a sudden turn in our direction, kicking up the seas and wind. No less than three Castaways capsized, and no less than six rescues had to be performed in the maelstrom. Team Search & Rescue Specialist, Pete, stayed cool and calm under pressure, coordinating the rescues and leading the team to safety.
In the end, the crew made it to Key West, landing at Higgs Beach and welcomed by a huge crowd. This year the bar was set incredibly high for success, and we raised over $112,000 for the ACS. When the smoke cleared and the results tallied, the Lower Keys Relay for Life placed Third in the State of Florida, and the Castaways Against Cancer ranked #9 in the entire United States.
2014 - DON'T STOP THE CARNIVAL TOUR
2014 marked the Fifteenth Annual trek down Thunder Road. True to form, it was a journey like no other. We battled tides and currents, heat and exhaustion, but in the end we came out with two new Castaways and broke all fundraising records of the past.
The roster changed up a bit with two Veteran kayakers staying at home. Craig, fresh from taking part in the 2014 Hope Floats NC "Three Ring Circus" Tour, decided 200 miles and nine days of paddling against cancer was enough for one year. Eric, now a proud father, was in St. Louis baptizing Baby Pino. In their places were Chris Tart, one of the founders of Hope Floats NC, back to join us for the full seven days, and Osmel "Ozzy" Valladares, a member of Team Totalbank, roped into the fray by El Toro.
Despite the challenge, our family and friends made 2014 our biggest year ever. Dozens joined us at the launch, we were met at every destination by loved ones, and the celebration at Higgs Beach was... well, heart stopping! The final tally for our efforts came in at over $133,000, pushing the Castaways to over $610,000 raised in the fight against cancer since 2000.
2015 - EAST OF MIDNIGHT TOUR
“There is no darker place than our thoughts… in the moonless midnight of the mind… but in that dark place… there is still hope. Go east… towards the sunrise and we shall find the light…” ~Opening line from the 2015 teaser video
For the 16th-time, a group of paddlers gathered by the water alongside friends and family. This gathering has become an annual rite of passage for those inclined to believe that a cure is possible. For those who believe, good can come from bad.
Those who believe, we should take the time to honor those who have fought the fight.
Those who believe, it’s better to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.
And those who believe, kayaking from Miami to Key West is how you “row well and live.”
Each of these gatherings now has a name. And this 16th-incarnation was dubbed “The East of Midnight Tour.”
On the back of the 2015 shirt, there is a quote from Stuart Scott, the ESPN broadcaster who passed away earlier this year from cancer at the age of 49:
“You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live. So live. Fight like hell, and when you get too tired to fight, lay down and rest and let someone else fight for you.”
2016 - PROOF OF LIFE TOUR
This year really began days before launch. For months, the Castaways and their support group held fundraisers, solicited support from the corporate world (a BIG thank you to US Century Bank), raised money various ways at Columbus High School and reached out to family and friends for donations. The response was overwhelming. True “Proof of Life” spirit. In addition, the crew of journalism students from CCNN (Christopher Columbus New Network) were on board to do a documentary, which is slated to be produced and sold, with proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. The launch party and logistics meeting were both hosted by Lou and his family and the Road Crew and could not have been better. We have the absolute best support in the form of our Road Crew. After much planning and discussion, and losing a member to health issues the night before, we were set to launch.
2017 - JUST BREATH TOUR
The #JustBreathe tour presents this years logo. In addition to our logo, we'd also like to introduce SebastianStrong.org, a new organization to fight Pediatric Cancer. We've added a link to SebastianStrong.org on our donation page, be sure to support this excellent cause! June 10th was the culmination of the last year’s preparations. All the time and effort put into the event was about to be unveiled. After a fantastic party at Lou’s and a very detailed pre-launch meeting the night before, the Castaways hit the beach at 6:00 am on June 10th and began to prep their boats as quickly as they could so as to finish as much as possible before the crowd arrived…and what a crowd it was. In record breaking attendance, this year’s launch was, by far, the most celebrated. Close to 300 family and friends came out to honor the cause. Skipper, as usual, was the amazing MC he always is. The Viceroy and Vino also gave very heart-felt words which led us to the prayer by Brother Ben. Sebastian’s father was led to the water for this year’s ceremonial first stroke. Amidst many cheers and tears, the Castaways and many day paddlers set off on their journey.
2018 - UNDER THE BRIDGE TOUR
2019 - NO SURRENDER, THE 20TH ANNUAL TOUR
Our goal has not changed: Find a cure. How? Together. We have had a lot of fun and learned a lot kayaking the Keys and we will do it until we reach our goal. As Steve says, "Kayaking reminds me of chemo. It's long, repetitive and very private. You just have to battle to find the good when you're feeling so bad."
Stay tuned for updates of our next journey.