Volunteers paddle for 24 hours to raise money for cancer

After a two-hour rest, Dan Hund prepares his canoe for an hour on the water with four other teammates. Each paddler would spend 11 hours on the water by the following morning. // Photo by Ian Ferguson

By Ian Ferguson

On a windy, grey day a team of 13 Bellingham paddlers gathered at the Community Boating Center boathouse to start year five of The 24. The 24 started with six friends who all had two things in common: their love of the sea and a goal to help families challenged with cancer.

Starting on April 13, the team would collectively paddle for 24 hours straight in solidarity with teams around the world.

The fundraiser is orchestrated by the Seattle-based organization Monster and Sea. Troy Nebeker founded the organization in 2013 as an effort to help families and individuals who are  struggling with cancer. On its fifth year running, the event has raised nearly $360,000, directly helping hundreds of families battling cancer according to the Monster and Sea Instagram.

The organization was born out of challenging times, Nebeker said. His wife had been diagnosed with two forms of cancer and their family’s life quickly turned into chaos. 

“When you’re dealing with cancer, it’s a constant,” he said. “It invades every single second of your day.”

Nebeker said he would find his escape in the sea, often times paddling out just to sit there and think. He thought about what his family had gone through and wondered what he could do to help others.

Nebeker said he first started by selling Monster and Sea-branded merchandise. However, he said it was difficult to raise funds this way, so he created The 24.

What begun as a group of six paddlers five years ago, exponentially grew year after year, he said. This year, there are over 40 cities participating in the U.S., Canada and the Cayman Islands, with multiple teams in many cities.

Bellingham team paddlers start their next leg of the day, spending an hour on the water while the rest of the team gets warm on land. // Photo by Ian Ferguson

Estelle Matheson, a paddler from Vancouver, British Columbia was on the Bellingham team this year, and has participated in The 24 all five years.

“It’s almost overwhelming to see how much it’s grown,” Matheson said. “It went from essentially a group of friends to this massive thing all over North America.”

This year, the Bellingham team dealt with near-gale-force winds, with speeds over 31 mph at times, according to a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration weather reading.

“It’s a retrospect to what families are going through,” Peter Marcus, one of the Bellingham team members, said in regard to the weather.

Marcus said if it were any other day, everyone would probably be cozied up on their couch, enjoying their Saturday. Instead, they’re paddling for a good cause, he said.

Nebecker said the challenge of The 24, in a small way, represents the challenges of a family dealing with cancer.

“When you’re tired at three in the morning, he or she is picking you up to keep going,” he said. “The team is picking you up and keeping you going, the community is picking you up and keeping you going.”

Nebecker said that’s what families with cancer have to do — it takes a community of support to keep you going.

“No matter how hard it gets out there, through the night when we’re tired or whatever, it’s literally nothing compared to the people we’re doing this for, and what they’re having to do. It’s literally nothing,” Matheson said.

Nebecker said when someone gets sick, they can no longer do the things they love to do. Recognizing this gives him a source of motivation in moments when he wants to stop.

On social media, Nebecker uses the phrase “go because you can” to illustrate this motivation.

“Whether or not it’s nasty or sunny out, you have your health and you have the ability to walk out the front door when other people might not,” he said.

Dan Hund, a paddler on the Bellingham team, said paddling for 24 hours is a struggle. But it’s supposed to be.

Paddlers on the Bellingham team seek warmth and rest in the Community Boating Center workshop during the early hours of The 24, an annual 24-hour paddling fundraiser that takes place around the world. // Photo by Ian Ferguson

“If we can take 24 hours of being uncomfortable, then we’re showing respect,” Hund said.

Matheson said the team hopes to raise $10,000 this year. She said every $1,000 they raise will be put in an envelope and given directly to a family in need.

The reason families are given $1,000 is because it’s not too much where it overwhelms them, but it is enough to make a difference in their battle, Nebeker said.

“Say we raise $10,000,” he said. “At 1,000 bucks, that’s 10 families that we get to give a moment of peace and an opportunity to feel normal for half a second.”

Matheson said each individual team decides which families get an envelope. The team gets referrals from the community and also refer people they know directly who are dealing with cancer, she said.

Hund told a story of the hours following the first time he finished The 24.

“I’m a mess man, I looked dead,” Hund said.

“You’re so wrecked in the morning,” Matheson agreed.

Strained and worn out, Hund stopped by a local coffee stand. He said the woman who worked there recognized him and commented on his apparent exhaustion.

Hund said in his sleepless delusion he told the woman about what he and his team had done. She then told him about a friend whose 6 year old was battling with brain cancer.

At that moment, Hund knew exactly who would be receiving an envelope.

“There’s no vetting process, you don’t apply for it. It just naturally happens,” Matheson said.

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