Just keep paddling: Southwest Florida paddleboarders to cross ocean to save little girl
In Disney Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” Marlin crosses the entire ocean to save his son, and this Father’s Day weekend, two Southwest Florida men will do the same, but to save a friend’s daughter.
On Saturday, Marco Island Police Department marine patrol officer Josh Ferris will face the elements and undergo a test of physical, mental and emotional strength as he paddleboards 50 miles, the equivalent of 880 football fields, from the Bahamas to the Florida mainland as part of Crossing for a Cure, an event dedicated to raising awareness of and finding a cure for cystic fibrosis.
Travis Suit of West Palm Beach founded Crossing for a Cure in 2011 after his then-4-year-old daughter Piper was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a congenital disease that affects the lungs and pancreas.
“The moment she was diagnosed, I just turned on the switch and said anything and everything we have to do,” Suit says in a video on the Crossing for a Cure website.
So in 2013, he and three of his friends – Shane Pompa, Joseph Morel and Kyle Igneri – grabbed their paddleboards and set out to surf 90 miles from Bimini, Bahamas to Riviera Beach in the inaugural Crossing for a Cure.
The connection between paddleboarding and cystic fibrosis lies in the therapeutic nature of saltwater; according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, inhaling saltwater rehydrates the lining of the lungs and loosens the thick mucus that builds up, thus reducing recurrent infections and associated lung damage and respiratory failure.
This will be the second time Suit paddleboards from the Bahamas to Florida for his daughter, but this year’s crossing includes a few changes from the original journey: Primarily, the adventure will be hotter, shorter and bigger.
In 2013 Suit and his three friends traveled overnight to avoid the brutal summer sun; however, that presented its own set of unexpected challenges, including sea sickness from 8- to 10-foot waves and vertigo from the boat lights shining in their faces. So this year, the journey will take place during the day.
“This year, paddlers will have to contend with the heat and sun, so it will be the exact opposite conditions," Suit said in a previous interview. "Getting baked in the summer sun with potentially no wind will be a challenge. We want the ocean to be glass calm, but if it is, (it'll) be because there's no wind, and it will be like paddling in an oven.”
Luckily though, this year’s trip will be about 40 miles shorter than the last, with a final destination of Dania Beach instead of Riviera Beach. It will also be more than 10 times bigger with 34 paddleboarders, including Ferris, joining Suit on his journey.
Ferris and Suit met at a Jimmy Buffet concert 10 years ago and have been good friends ever since. When Ferris heard about this year's Crossing for a Cure, he was one of the first people to sign up for the trip.
"Travis is one of my closest friends, but for the grace of God, this could be one of my three children. I want to do whatever I can to support Travis,” Ferris said in a previous interview. “When you come against this adversity, you can cower and fade away or you can lean into it and try to turn a tough situation hopefully into a positive situation."
It's that sort of positivity Ferris will bring with him on the journey, but he's also bringing a sense of realism; while he isn't afraid of many elements of the open ocean that would give most people pause, Ferris is well aware of the physical toll of the journey.
"I've been around water my whole life, so I'm not too worried about sharks or the sea or anything like that; that stuff just doesn't bother me," Ferris said. "I know it's going to hurt though, and take toll on my body. I'm anticipating a little bit of pain afterwards, but it's worth it."
Especially since every dollar the trip raises gives Piper a fighting chance for a long and happy life.
"Research on cystic fibrosis is fairly new, even just since Piper's been born," Ferris said, "and every year of research increases life expectancy, so if we raise more money for research and raise more awareness of the disease, I don't know why they shouldn't be able to find a cure."
Pat Murphy of Naples is also participating in Crossing for a Cure. He's been friends of Travis' for years.
The surfer and co-owner of WaveJet of Florida created a crowdrise fundraising account that has raised more than $3,000 for the cause.
He hopes for calm weather the day of the trip.
“The trip is a minimum of 50 miles," he said, "(but) if we get blown off course it could be 60 to 65 miles."
But, as Ferris said, the risk is worth it for his friend, Murphy said.
And they will be risking a lot.
On a recent training paddle, Suit told the participants to keep it all in perspective and when they leave Bimini, “we will be going into battle. The 50 miles is our battleground and instead of IEDs, we have tiger sharks and bull sharks. Instead of a physical enemy, we have ourselves and the physicality of what we are going through, and all that stands in our way of accomplishing our objective.
"We will all finish together. We might not all finish in the water together, but we will all finish together,” he continued. “We don’t just fight for the people who are living with cystic fibrosis. We fight for all those that helped advance the community of cystic fibrosis to the point that Piper has a life expectancy that goes beyond 10 years old.”
Crossing for a Cure has raised just over $107,000 as of Tuesday morning, well exceeding its initial goal of $50,000 and even exceeding its increased goal of $100,000.
To learn more about Crossing for a Cure, visit crossingforacure.com or 'like' the group's Facebook page. To learn more about Piper's Angels, Suit's cystic fibrosis awareness foundation, visit pipersangels.org. To donate to Ferris' campaign, visit crowdrise.com/joshua-ferris-crossing-for-a-cure.
Lori Griffith, Special to The Courier Newsweekly, and Collier Citizen reporter Ashley Collins, contributed to this article.