In the first Paddle For A Cause, in 2008, seven guys used nothing more than their arms to paddle around Absecon Island.
But by last year, the field had exploded to 74 people trying to do those 22.5 miles around the island - most of them with help from actual paddles.
And when the fifth Paddle For A Cause splashes onto the bay today at the Golden Nugget Atlantic City - the old Trump Marina - the organizers expect about 115 paddlers to try to cover their course.
All those people aren't competing against each other in this event, whose organizers believe in defining that word, paddle, very broadly. They're happy to do that because the cause all those paddlers paddle for is the Dean Randazzo Cancer Foundation - named for the local surfing legend and longtime cancer survivor - which aims to raise as much as $60,000 from today's event.
Most of the field, probably about 70 people, will make that tour of the island on their feet, paddling stand-up paddleboards, says Paul Giunta, of Somers Point, the foundation's vice president and one of those stand-up guys.
But the next-biggest group, called prone paddlers, will do the trip face-down, with their arms as their main tools for pulling their super-sized surfboards over those 22.5 miles of ocean and bay surrounding the towns of Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport.
And some paddlers will split the difference and sit the whole trip, mostly either in kayaks or in outrigger canoes. Giunta says this "other" class in the paddle has expanded because of interest from a Philadelphia-area outrigger club.
Still, for all the variety the event is drawing, there's little doubt that the growth in stand-up paddling - or SUP, as its fans call it - is mainly responsible for Paddle For A Cause's continuing growth. Giunta expects about as many stand-up paddlers to be on the course this year as there were total people in the event last year.
"It's the fastest-growing water sport ever," says Stacey Marchel, of Stacey's Surf Camp in Margate, who hosted a few paddlers Thursday evening for a practice session behind her bayfront operation. "Pretty much anybody can do it. You don't have to be a surfer. You can fish off it, you can exercise. ... You can paddle leisurely, or you can make it a workout."
Marchel, who rents paddleboards and offers lessons, plans to be part of a relay team covering today's course. She doesn't consider herself a long-distance paddler, because the longest ride she has ever done on her board was about 8 miles.
Jon Baker, of Egg Harbor Township, has gone a little farther, maybe 9 miles, but he's still going to try to do the whole island today because that was one of his goals for his approaching 40th birthday. He has also been part of a relay team - the first time he ever stood up on a paddleboard, he did 6 miles of Paddle For A Cause.
But the other thing is, Baker is a big believer in this cause - and the guy it's named for. Randazzo lives in California for most of the year now, but he grew up in Somers Point, surfing around Absecon Island and South Jersey.
He went on to become a professional surfer, but his dream was interrupted in 2001 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes. The cancer has returned several times, but Randazzo has survived and continued to compete for 11 years, and he hopes to be one of today's paddlers around the island.
"Dean is an athlete who has just beaten cancer so many times," says Baker, one of the foundation's trustees. "He has turned something so negative into such a positive in so many ways."
Giunta, the owner of Shore True Value Hardware in Somers Point, has paddled 22.5 miles around Absecon Island and 28 miles around New York's Manhattan Island. To him, the longer race is actually much easier.
Between the winds and the tides in the Paddle For A Cause, "You're always fighting something," says Giunta, adding that the New York event is timed to give the paddlers favorable tides. If today's weather follows forecasts, the wind "should be in our face for 14 miles in the bay ... and we'll fight the outgoing tide from Longport on."
Sven Peltonen, 35, a veteran lifeguard from Brigantine, has been training to try to set a course record today by breaking 4 hours for the around-the-island race. His best time so far was 4 hours and 4 minutes, and he has also put in a 33-mile training run by going around Brigantine and Absecon islands. Still, he isn't sure those weather and tide conditions will cooperate with his plans.
Peltonen has competed in all kinds of paddling events himself. He's done 20 years worth of the prone paddleboard races in local beach-patrol competitions, and he has also competed in Australian-style races - down there, they paddle their boards from their knees, he says. Now Peltonen is getting into stand-up paddling, and today will be his first official race with his new toy, an 18-foot-6-inch-long board that weighs just 29 pounds.
"It's like the Neanderthal progression," he jokes, going from all fours to kneeling to finally standing up on two legs.
Peltonen, who is also an Atlantic City firefighter, has done Paddle For A Cause as a prone paddler and now done Absecon Island as a practice run on his SUP. He says the "prone is way harder," but with his qualifications, he can make that a qualified statement:
In stand-up, "We're like a giant sail on top of the board," he says. "When the wind is in our faces, the prone paddlers have a huge advantage," because their lower profiles keep them out of the wind as much as possible.
But Peltonen was one of several people involved with the race to note that no matter how bad the conditions are on today's 22.5 mile course, they'll be mild compared to what Randazzo has faced over the last 11 years.
"It's a metaphor for the cancer battle," Peltonen says of Paddle For A Cause. "Having this many competitors in a race like this that's so grueling, that's a great testament to people's generosity, and their will, to ... (give) themselves such a gargantuan task."
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
If you go
Paddle For A Cause, 8 a.m. today at Golden Nugget Atlantic City, Huron Avenue at Brigantine Boulevard. Registration starts
6:30 a.m. Paddlers must raise at least $200 in pledges to Dean Randazzo Cancer Foundation. Post-race party, 4 p.m. on The Deck at Golden Nugget. Tickets are $20 including music and food, cash bar. For details, see