ATLANTIC CITY - Favorable conditions met the surfers, paddlers and endurance athletes who stroked 23 miles around Absecon Island as part of the Dean Randazzo Cancer Foundation's Paddle for a Cause on Sunday.
The fourth annual event included a record 65 paddlers, some competing and other just doing it for the challenge and charitable cause.
Graham Parker, 24, an Ocean City lifeguard of eight years and coach of the C-Cerpants club team, was the first to cross the finish line at E Dock of Farley State Marina, in 4 hours, 26 minutes.
The win was a huge redemption for Parker.
"Last year I basically had a navigational error. We started at the Wonder Bar. I thought Gardner's Basin was the turn. I basically went from first place to out of contention because of that detour," Parker said.
This year, Parker quelled any doubts about his paddling prowess, finishing first both among the prone paddlers and overall. Five minutes behind him was Mark Temme, 44, a native of Long Beach Island, on a standup board, repeating his first-place finish in the standup paddle class.
Coming into Great Bay Inlet, Temme used the waves to his advantage.
"I came around the jetty, turned to come into the bay and I saw the backs of the waves. I thought, 'The least I can do is pick up a swell.' And there were some actually breaking. It really lined up. It was the first wave I've ever caught on this race board."
Temme, who lives in New York, gives standup paddle lessons and tours on the Hudson River.
"It feels awesome," he said of Sunday's event, still full of energy after the finish. "Very rewarding. That ocean leg is always a rush."
Behind Temme in the standup division was Billy Mehl, 29, of Ship Bottom. Mehl got frustrated when he was knocked off his board several times during the ocean leg. He was, however, impressed with the sea life.
"There were dolphins swimming next to us for about a mile and a half. I was paddling with another guy about 20 feet away and they kept surfacing in between us, crisscrossing under my board, and coming up to look at us."
Sean Duffy, 28, of Margate, finished third in the standup paddle class in 4:46. Rounding out the prone class was Harvey Cedars lifeguard Billy Webster, 29, in second place and Bill Auty, 38, of North Wildwood, in third. Last year's top finisher, Andy Carter, 24, of Ocean City, finished sixth in the prone.
The inaugural event in 2008 consisted of Mike May, a Margate surfer and longtime friend of Dean Randazzo, with seven of May's friends. The numbers show considerable growth in the interest locally in the sport of distance paddling. Half the participants entered in standup, the other half in prone.
Randazzo, of Somers Point, was back from his transplanted home of San Diego for the event. He is New Jersey's most successful surfer of all time, despite four battles with cancer in the past 10 years.
"I'm a surfer and I've met Dean before," Parker said after the race, "Cancer is one of those things that affects so many people. Anytime you can do something to support people fighting that disease is a good thing. Today we went through pain for four hours. If you have cancer, you go through that kind of pain for years."
Last year, Randazzo paddled a 15-mile stretch, but the exertion, combined with his most recent treatment caused a blood clot. This year, he did most of the trip by boat, supporting the paddlers.
Randazzo was most impressed with Margo Pellegrino, 41, of Medford Lakes. Pellegrino is an ocean activist who raised awareness of the state of our oceans by paddling an outrigger canoe from Miami to Maine in the summer of 2008. On Sunday, she finished first among the women at 5:17. In July, she plans to paddle from Cape May to Sandy Hook without stopping.
The goal of the event this year was to have each paddler raising funds for families battling cancer. Not every paddler was racing. The team of Dan Gottlieb, son Greg Gottlieb, both of Margate, Josh Miller, of Somers Point and Cookie Till, of Longport paddled as a relay team for the cause.
"Going out was a little rough through Absecon Inlet. The tide was coming in and there was a lot of water moving," said Dan Gottlieb.
Still, this team alone raised more than $3,000.