Kenny Emerson admits he didn’t know what he was in for when he signed up to paddleboard from Bimini to Lake Worth last summer. His son, Chris, had mentioned it almost a year before, but COVID postponed that one until June of 2021. When he mentioned it again, Emerson thought it was a worthwhile father-son experience, and it also benefited a heartfelt charity, Piper’s Angels Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis, which was founded in West Palm Beach by local entrepreneur Travis Suit to raise funds for cystic fibrosis, with which his daughter Piper had been diagnosed at age 4.
Launched in 2013, the long-distance paddleboarding race, “Crossing For Cystic Fibrosis,” covers 83 miles across Florida’s Gulf Stream, and takes an average of 15-16 hours. The event begins with a midnight launch from the Bimini Big Game Club Resort & Marina, and lands mid-afternoon the next day at Lake Worth Beach. It’s an endurance race, comprised of both “amateur” teams and competitive racers; Emerson’s team would number four: two women, Kerry O’Connor and Romi Glazer Wallach, his son, Chris, and himself. Now 66, Emerson, who is from tiny Advance, MO., came to Florida in 1978 and has been a waterman ever since, surfing for the past 20-some years, paddleboarding for the last 10. He still has his Missouri twang, but with a new respect for the piece of ocean he did his best to cross.
ON HIS TRAINING: I knew it would be very, very difficult, and the crossing was more of a longevity and endurance race. We would train 20 miles a day, then 25 miles. We would go from here [Ocean Ridge] down to Boca, then back up to Lake Worth and then come up on the Intracoastal back here, and we’d do it in an eight-hour day—knowing it wasn’t going to be the same, because in the ocean you’re going to have the drift of the current of the Gulf Stream that gives you a couple of miles per hour boost. We didn’t know any other way to train. I wanted to train like a pro athlete, but life got in the way. Right before the race, I would have told you I wished I had spent more time on board… they said it was going to take you about 15 hours, and I simply related it to always working hard in my life, and I said, ‘well, I’m going to work a double today; instead of eight hours, I’m going to work two shifts.’ That’s how I put it in my mind; that’s how I crossed this thing.
ON HIS TENACITY: I was very fortunate to grow up in Small Town, USA, and do all the things a kid in a town of 600 people would do, from Boy Scouts to all the sports. And work hard on the farm for many years, a stay-at-it-until-the-job-gets-done attitude. That’s where I learned that. … My dad was a pretty good mentor, too. What’s the old saying? ‘Be like a postage stamp and stick to it till you get there.’
THE RACE: It was midnight, June 26 of 2021. It’s a Saturday night. We’d all gone over as a team the Wednesday and Thursday before, about 160 paddlers, with an escort of 62 support boats. We leave 15-20 paddlers at a time, two or three boats at a time—we take off in a line, our team of four—two guys and two girls—with our particular boat, a 26-foot Bluewater open fisherman with twin engines.
The seas are very, very flat; it is very dark. There had been a full moon three nights earlier, but this night, it is cloudy. At first, you can see many, many lights with all the boats and the paddlers, but by about 15 minutes, we come to realize it is only our boat, and we can’t see any other lights or boats, and it’s just us. The four of us.
As we take off, the girls have a hard time standing on their paddleboards, because they can’t get used to the night. And it is starting to get a little bit bumpy. It takes us four or five minutes to get acclimated, and then we get into the groove and we all, as a team, start paddling behind the boat.
I had developed shin splints and I had bad legs and I used Aleve and nutraceutical anti-inflammatories, and I am hoping I won’t get too inflamed from my body getting exhausted; I am probably a bit nervous. But it feels good to be on the water. It is exciting our first hour or so. …
What happens for the next four to five hours is that the winds increase, and the seas increase. Our goal as a team is to average 5 to 6 miles an hour. And if we do that, I think it’s going to get us across in about 15 hours, with the Gulf Stream giving us about a 2 to 2.3-mph push. The Gulf Stream will be pulling us toward Florida, once we get out in it.
By the time we get to the Gulf Stream, it is about 1:45 in the morning, and the seas have picked up and the winds have picked up—2- to 3-foot seas, the winds possibly 10 or 12. The team is strong, we are paddling strong. We know we have a reason we are doing this, and we know we’ve got a challenge ahead, but as time goes on, the seas get bigger. …
Somewhere around 4 or 5 in the morning—we are out there by ourselves now—the seas are about 4 to 5 feet, the boat is starting to rock back and forth. One of the girls is falling back behind, the seas are picking up and we are trying to stay together as a team, but we are struggling.
I knew the hard part of the race would be at nighttime, in the dark, just the mental part of it. It’s fear of the unknown. You do not know what’s next; you can’t see what time it is. You are just completely focused on staying behind your boat. You are trying to make sure the team is together. At this particular time the water is moving faster, so I am falling off the board a lot. As a surfer, I am not used to that. No question you are disoriented somewhat—the boats, the lights reflecting on the water. And you’ve got a wave out on the ocean, and when you’re flying down that wave and the board pushes you back, it’s a very difficult thing to stay on your board. The ocean is winning.
We take a quick break about every hour for three minutes; someone would hand us an oat and honey bar with a bottle of water. By this time, the seas are moving the boat pretty good, and it’s hard hooking up with the people who are handing you the water. By this time, I think the girls are going to give up very soon in the race. But they’re tough. They’re hanging in. I’m super proud. Now we’re getting close to predawn. It’s 6-foot—possibly bigger—waves by now. 18 to 20 knots, the boat is rocking. I start getting seasick. Maybe I didn’t have the right diet, maybe I took one too many anti-inflammatories. I get violently seasick for 25 to 30 minutes hanging on the board, and the seas are knocking me off my board, and the boat’s ahead and I’m the one who’s falling behind.
We keep going as a team, and I go away and get sick again. Now we’re about six to seven hours into it, and I get violently sick again, and the captain has asked me two or three times [if I want] to come aboard, and I say no, no, and finally I say I do. I cannot take it anymore. At that point I get aboard, and it is possibly 7:30 in the morning.
The two girls and Chris are still paddling, and I realize the tenacity of my two female partners. Within five minutes they call the medic—I have the Bahamian doctor on the boat giving me an IV in the middle of the ocean. I didn’t understand how badly dehydrated I had been … I am out of the water for about an hour, they give me the IV. I sleep for about 10 minutes. I get up and drink some water. When I get back in the water—it is about 9:30 or 10 in the morning—the seas and the winds are getting bigger. We have been cruising for about 10 hours as a team.
We are about 55-60 miles out. Another boat has taken on water and has to leave, and they leave their paddlers behind and the Coast Guard comes in to pick up the paddlers, and at that time, the Coast Guard tells all the people at that point who are still in the water to hop in your boats and race to shore. Lots of people have gotten sick because of the high seas. And they are worried about people drifting apart from their boats, even though we have two GPS devices. You can drift very quickly in the Gulf Stream. It is very easy to get separated from the boat and people. You really have to stay focused on the current and the wind. I am learning how strong that current is.
When we get the call it is time to get in the boat, we are all ready and we get in the boat. We’ve been out there too long, and the ocean has just beat us to death. It was a great fight. Our captain, the support crew—the water has beat them, too, and we are ready to come home. We are about 22-25 miles out from Lake Worth, and it is a very, very rough ride; the seas are extremely rough. We have eight people on the boat and four boards, and by this time the seas are even a little bit bigger. We take the boat up to Lake Worth, and the boat lets us off about half a mile from the Lake Worth Pier. As a team we all paddle up to the pier.
I am upset at the end because I wanted to finish. Our team has worked hard for this. They wanted to finish and I wanted to finish with them. But we did not get to … I am disappointed in myself at first, but I’ve been in lots of these things and lots of sports and lots of games, and you don’t win ’em all. You show up for them all.
So we get out of the water and I have a very special landing in Lake Worth, with my son, his hand on my shoulder. We had trained together. He was helping me out of the water, whether he knew it or not. That was a very special moment.
For more information on Crossing For Cystic Fibrosis or the Piper’s Angels Foundation, visit pipersangels.org.
This story is from the Summer 2022 issue of Delray magazine. For more content like this, pick up a copy on your local newsstand and click here to subscribe to Boca magazine.