Every year, a giving group paddleboards across the Channel, raising funds and spirits for friends in need

The seas were high, and the forecast was grim. The Friendship Paddle’s mid-September plan to motor across the Santa Barbara Channel, stay the night off of Santa Cruz Island, then paddle back to the harbor the following day with only our arms as engines was in jeopardy.

That’s the traditional route for the annual weekend fundraiser, envisioned back in 2003 when a group supported their sick friend by enduring their own challenge of paddling 24 miles across the tumultuous Pacific Ocean. The mission was so inspiring that the group — many of them alumni, including that first honoree — repeated the feat the next year to honor another unwell friend. Then they did it again, and then again, eventually maturing into a 501c3 nonprofit that now raises more than $200,000 per paddle.

With 2022 marking the 20th anniversary, the stakes were even higher to make the Saturday crossing happen, so the nearly 40 boats and 200 participants agreed to brave the choppy channel, trying not to turn green as waves slammed the sides of our boats.

Miraculously, paradise awaited at Smugglers Cove on the island’s eastern edge. From the old olive groves on the nearby hillsides to the craggy peaks of Anacapa Island, we enjoyed warm water and epic views. On Sunday morning, as bagpipes greeted the dawn from a single boat in the water, the ocean swayed little more than a lake, the sun shone bright but softly, and the waters remained pleasant, even in the deepest stretches. These were magical conditions for a human-powered crossing.

This is not the first time such magic has descended upon The Friendship Paddle. Indeed, the forecast is always grim for each year’s honoree — a Santa Barbara resident who is staring down a life-threatening illness — and the paddle’s end is always joyous, if tearful. The honoree walks taller, floating atop a high tide of genuine love, camaraderie and monetary donations to ease the course ahead. Most go on to outlive the life expectancy that their doctors first predicted, and many are alive and thriving today, even paddling themselves each year.

The 2022 honoree was Chris Potter ’98, a Santa Barbara native and renowned plein air painter. Diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer around his lungs in November 2021, he battled to breathe for weeks, finally achieving an acceptable level of comfort after months of radiation, chemo and immunotherapy.

On the morning of the paddle, Potter was energized as we gathered in the waters just off of Prisoners Harbor. He was surrounded by close friends like me and new friends he’d met only the day before, those dedicated paddlers who participate every year, including some from that inaugural 2003 event.

One such original paddler was Arick Fuller ’93 who spoke to the floating crowd about what happens when someone faces a life-threatening diagnosis. “There comes a fork in the road,” says Fuller. Down one path is fear, he explains, but down the other is the choice to fight on.

“Chris Potter rode on,” exclaims Fuller, prompting all of us to erupt in cheers, splash the seas high into the sky, and start our trip toward the mainland, two dozen miles away. Seven hours later, we’d land on the beach outside the Santa Barbara Yacht Club, where hundreds more took Potter into their arms and welcomed The Friendship Paddle home.

Chris Potter before the paddle

‘The power of friendship …’

Doug McFadden ’86 was a 39-year-old father of young kids when he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2003. When his younger brother John McFadden ’93 and about 20 friends decided to honor his challenges by embarking on one of their own — crossing the Santa Barbara Channel on paddleboards — they unwittingly created a meaningful, impactful and beloved annual fundraiser.

“What we discovered on that first paddle is that the power of friendship — with all of your friends and family supporting you — puts wind in your sails,” John says. “It really buoys a lot of people through these times. It was a simple idea that just blossomed.”

Today, The Friendship Paddle is also an umbrella for the Keiki Paddle, which began honoring children fighting grave illnesses in 2008. “There are so many moving parts,” says John McFadden, whose other three brothers also graduated from UC Santa Barbara. “We’re so fortunate to have this volunteer crew of board members and boat captains and everyone else.”

Word-of-mouth nominations are quietly vetted, but the honoree is usually someone with a life-threatening illness who has a young family and a connection to Santa Barbara’s coastal culture. “In any given year, there might be a few different people that are deserving,” says current president Chip Blankenhorn. “But we like to focus on one person and put the whole effort of our organization behind them.”

Given his penchant for painting ocean scenes, his deep Santa Barbara roots and his teenage children, Chris Potter was a nearly automatic decision for 2022. The support regime began in the months prior to the paddle, with a specially crafted lager made in Potter’s honor and sold at multiple breweries and restaurants. The physical work began early as well, with participants practicing their strokes Wednesday mornings off of Miramar Beach.

Potter is just the latest in a line of Gaucho honorees and participants, including Cameron Benson ’88 in 2018, Genny Sowers Maxwell ’95 in 2017, and Tara (Haaland ’95) Ford in 2013. “This has been a very Gaucho type of thing,” says Fuller. “There’s a lot of goodness around everyone. A friend in need is helped; that’s the bottom line at UCSB.”

Despite a brief shark sighting on Sunday, which prompted some hustling out of the water for a short spell, the 2022 paddle proceeded perfectly. Upon hitting the beach, there were tears, but whether they came from elation, exhaustion, sadness or hope — or a bit of each — was hard to tell.

“Cancer is such a lonely disease,” Potter tells me later, echoing what he said to supporters after the paddle. “You’re by yourself when you wake up in the middle of the night. I think about death every day, and I didn’t have to on those days. I got to think about life instead. It was a vacation from cancer for me. As much as it brings it to the surface, it also made it more manageable because I had 150 people supporting me. I got a huge boost of positivity.”   

Heather Allen, Bren School of Environmental Science Alum