VENTNOR - Distance paddling is one of the fastest growing sports in the area. Whether participants come from traditional canoeing and kayaking backgrounds, lifeguard racing or surfing, South Jersey's waterways are perfect for getting out on a board and doing some miles.

Although it's not usually very popular in January, Hurricane Sandy has changed the way locals look at that.

"One night, I put up a message on Facebook that I was thinking about holding a paddle race," said Sean Duffey, 30, of Margate. "I figured it would be about 20 people. Who would ever want to do a paddle in the winter? But I got a huge response. It spread like wildfire."

On Saturday, 127 paddlers took part in Freezin' for a Reason, a 5.6-mile paddle in Ventnor Heights to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy. The paddle route weaved along the backbays of Ventnor and Atlantic City, starting and ending at the Viking Rowing Club.

Between the race entry fees, donations and the after party, hosted by Tomatoes of Margate, the event raised $8,000 that will go directly to the Waves for Water Sandy Relief effort.

Duffey, a Longport lifeguard and teacher at Atlantic City High School has surfed since he was 4. He has also raced in the Dean Randazzo Cancer Foundation Paddle for a Cause the last four years.

While his home was not affected by Hurricane Sandy, he witnessed the disaster first hand. Directly after the storm, he helped the beach patrols in initial response. Then he thought of the paddle as a fundraiser.

"I saw a lot of the destruction right away. The national media was reporting that Atlantic City's Boardwalk was gone. But it was actually a part that was already being repaired. My Dad is a Jitney driver and his work has been cut in half because people think Atlantic City has been washed away. I wanted to show people that it's not - it's open for business."

He also noted that other areas of South Jersey are far worse off. And the international surfer-led organization, Waves for Water, which is normally in Japan, Haiti or Indonesia after natural disasters, has committed to helping the coasts of New Jersey and New York recover for the long term.

"Down here, we got hit, but up north they got rocked. Waves for Water is putting forth such an effort. That was the organization that is really helping through our surf communities. I have friends who went to Indonesia and did work with them. And people are asking what they can donate, so this was a perfect fit."

Dan Callaghan, 26, of Absecon, an Ocean City lifeguard and surfboard shaper took second in the 14-foot prone-board class. Callaghan has been fundraising and gutting houses since Sandy and noticed how effective Waves for Water has been.

"They came to New Jersey (after Sandy) and put their foot down and said, 'We're going to help these areas.' Whenever there are questions about how to get something done, they've been there with answers."

There were seven divisions and a 2.5-mile non-competitive paddle on Saturday.

Chase Buckner, of Ocean City, won the Kayak division, finishing first overall at 1:00:03. Ryan Mathews of Asbury Park won the Open Prone Division at 1:03:06. The 14-foot prone division went to Tim Schwegman of Atlantic City at 1:10:04.

Terri Plunkett, who made the trip from San Clemente, Calif., won the Womens Stand-up Paddle division. Steve Dullak, of Virginia Beach, Va., aced the 14-foot SUP division at 1:04.38, edging out Sven Peltonen of Brigantine by one second. The 12-foot-6-inch SUP class went to Zack Stiener of Margate at 1:14:38.

There was also a lifeguard boat division that was won by the team of Judge Casciato and Jim Mason, alumnus of Longport and Ventnor Beach patrols, respectively.

This is the first local race ever held in the winter, forcing paddlers to figure out how to stay warm, but not overheat. The race took place during the warmest part of the day when the temp hit the low 40s. The water was 37 degrees, although few participants actually fell in. The wind was west at 10-15 knots, only creating a tough headwind for a short part of the race.

Margo Pellegrino, 45, of Medford Lakes took second in the Women's Elite race. An activist, she has done several long-distance paddles on the East, Gulf, and West Coasts to raise awareness for clean oceans.

"Paddling in the winter is a challenge - figuring out the gear. I don't like the cold. ... This is my first cold weather race. I know there's a pro winter race in North Carolina, but that's not as cold as our temps," Pellegrino said.