Operation Open Water hosts Veterans Day paddle from Catalina to Huntington Beach
A 32-mile paddle from Catalina Island to the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier sounds intense.
It was just that Wednesday for veterans, first responders and lifeguards who participated in an endurance event held by nonprofit Operation Open Water designed to promote camaraderie, wellness and connection for those groups and to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder.
On Veterans Day, the ultimate goal was bringing people together, and to that end the trek was a success.
Dozens of family members and friends cheered on the sand at just after 3 p.m., when the first of the paddlers made their way onshore. They started at daybreak.
Jake Green of North Carolina, 41, paddled despite having had his right leg amputated. Green, a buddy of Operation Open Water co-founder Danny Nichols, was one of two amputee veterans who completed the paddle along with Operation Open Water co-founder Kyle Kelly, who participated for the second straight year.
Cottie Petrie-Norris honored six Orange County residents in a virtual ceremony Wednesday for their service to the nation and their local communities, naming them “2020 Veterans of the Year.”
Green, who said he was an elective amputee in 2015 after he was injured serving with the U.S. Army Special Forces in Afghanistan, made it through the channel without an issue.
“This is such an important event, bringing first responders together and veterans, and then you have all the community support,” Green said. “You just can’t quit. I look at it as a ‘no fail’ mission.”
He said he had support from his physical therapist, who flew out from North Carolina. Morgan Hoesterey of Huntington Beach also guided him along the way.
“The way he had to sit and paddle was really hard to do,” Hoesterey said. “The pain level that he just endured for nine hours was pretty high, and he did it with a smile on his face, which is amazing. It was one of the more amazing things I think I’ve ever seen, honestly. He did great. He only got stronger as the channel went on, and it was great.”
Kane Johnson, an engineer with the Huntington Beach Fire Department, was one of two members of the department who completed the whole 32-mile solo paddle. The other was Dane Morrissey.
Images from around the country mark quiet observances on Veterans Day 2020.
They were among about 20 to complete the paddle, including two relay groups.
Johnson said he had never paddled the channel before, adding that it really tested his mental fortitude and physical ability. Other Huntington Beach firefighters waited in support on the sand when he finished, with signs reading, “Sí se puede, Kane” (“Yes you can!” in Spanish) and, “Paddle, Kane, Paddle!”
“About 7 miles in we hit a completely offshore headwind blowing right in our faces, and mixed-up swell,” Johnson said. “It was very challenging conditions. I was laughing, because when that hit us, we had a pod of dolphins come in. That pod of dolphins followed us for like 30 minutes right when we needed it the most, gave us some energy. There was this connection, and it was incredible. It’s hard to explain unless you did it.”
Huntington Beach Mayor Lyn Semeta was on hand at the finish, presenting the group with a certificate of recognition.
Johnson said he had a mantra, “Anything is possible,” which he repeated to himself in Hawaiian during the paddle.
“When I was starting to hurt, I was thinking about the veterans that we were escorting across and everything that they’ve gone through,” he said, starting to tear up. “Then you just go, ‘This is nothing.’ We have Jake, missing a leg, a Green Beret serving our country. He’s going across, and he lost a leg … It gives you a lot of perspective.”
Nichols started Operation Surf years ago, giving veterans and active military an opportunity to learn how to surf in Surf City.
Everyone can visit national parks on Veterans Day for free. Now veterans added to list of those who get free entry year-round.
Now, Operation Open Water has furthered that effort of togetherness. This is the second straight year the paddle has been held on Veterans Day.
“With Operation Open Water, what Danny and the team wanted to do was really help to bring people together,” said Aaron Anderson, a Huntington Beach resident who is on the Operation Open Water board and founded the Green Beret Foundation in 2009.
Anderson, himself a veteran, completed the paddle Wednesday as part of a relay team.
“It’s about being in the water and how the water brings people together,” he said. “With the surf culture here in Huntington — Surf City USA — it’s one of those things where that culture can bring to others something that is so important and vital to the uplifting of the soul and spirit.”
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