Lifeguards paddle 250 miles to raise awareness about skin cancer and sun protection

By Jake Howard

Has anybody noticed that it’s been kind of flat lately and that the water feels a lot more like February than August? After a booming start to the summer that saw the best south swell in years bombard our shores amid pleasant water temps, things have certainly slowed down. It’s so 2020.

Thankfully, there’s always something to do in the ocean. A fisherman friend reported snagging his first bluefins of the season. I’m waiting for the invite to the sashimi dinner party, but he keeps telling me he’s strict about social distancing.

Meanwhile, the flat waters have a lot of friends out logging miles on their paddleboards. Last weekend, a group of friends and former co-workers paddled from Catalina to Newport Beach to honor fallen Newport Beach Lifeguard Ben Carlson, who lost his life on July 6, 2014, while performing a rescue during a large swell in Newport.

The Ben Carlson Foundation was subsequently established in his honor to remember his sacrifice and raise funds to provide scholarships for eligible students and lifeguards. In what was a 30-mile trek from White’s Cove on Catalina to Newport Beach Pier, the crew completed the paddle in seven hours—a new record for the annual affair.

“Those last six miles into head-on south wind were brutal. Had tears ready to explode as the pain reached its peak,” surfer Matt Myers recalled. “So stoked for the 23 guys who accomplished this feat!”

Lifeguard Payton Thomas takes a break on the sand in Huntington Beach as he and a group of other lifeguards paddle the Southern California coast to raise awareness about sun protection. Photo: Courtesy of the Huntington Beach Surf Lifesaving Association

And as this story goes to print, there’s another group of lifeguards from 25 different agencies up and down the state of California who are participating in the SoCal PaddleDown for Cancer Relay. At press time, the group was in Newport Beach, and organizers anticipated that the lifeguards would be paddling through Dana Point and San Clemente by Friday.

Benefiting the John Wayne Cancer Foundation’s “Block the Blaze” skin cancer education program, the relay kicked off over Memorial Day weekend at El Refugio State Beach in Gaviota.

They’ve been working their way south all summer and will end at Imperial Beach in San Diego. In partnership with the California Surf Lifesaving Association, the goal of the program is to educate youth about sun safety and skin cancer.

“As ocean lifeguards, we spend the majority of our careers in the sun, and we know firsthand the dangers of sun exposure,” says Bill Humphreys, president of the association. “Through the SoCal PaddleDown, the John Wayne Cancer Foundation is educating the next generation of lifeguards early in their careers on ways to detect skin cancer and prevent long-term damage.”

As we barrel into August and September—my favorite time of year around here—it’s worth taking note of the efforts to raise awareness about skin cancer. With all that’s going on with COVID-19, escaping to the outdoors is one of the few things we can do and feel safe, but it’s important to remember to wear a hat and lube up before you head out in the sun.

Vital stats worth noting include: Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and more than 3.6 million people will be diagnosed with some form of it this year.

“One in three Californians will be diagnosed with skin cancer during their lifetime, and these numbers are on the rise,” says Lauren Fraga, senior program director at the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. “If it’s caught early and treated quickly, more than 95% of skin cancer cases can be cured, which is why educating our youth early on about the dangers of sun damage is so vital to skin cancer prevention.”

This is the eighth year the SoCal PaddleDown has made its 250-mile journey down the coast to help raise awareness for skin cancer and support Block the Blaze. So, if you see a crew of lifeguards paddling by you at the end of the week, give them a cheer and thank them for putting in the hard yards to make sure the youth are learning how to stay protected from the sun.

Finally, if somebody could turn up the temperature of the ocean about 10 or 15 degrees, that would be great. And we could really use some waves, too, while you’re at it.

Jake Howard is local surfer and freelance writer who lives in San Clemente. A former editor at Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, today he writes for a number of publications, including the San Clemente Times, Dana Point Times, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation.

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