KITTERY, Maine — At first, Donald McDowell picked up a paddle board because the ocean locally was too cold to surf in all day.
Now, more than six years into the growing hobby, the summertime Kittery Point resident has paddled hundreds of miles, and each summer he travels with several dozen other enthusiasts to Cape Cod for a 34-mile paddle board marathon through the Cape Cod Bay.
After completing the event as a personal challenge five years ago, McDowell has returned each year as the charity event has gained personal importance in his life.
The Cape Cod Bay Challenge benefits the Christopher’s Haven organization, which houses families who have children with pediatric cancer who need treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. The organization has seven adjacent apartments to the hospital that families who wouldn’t be able to afford hotels or housing can stay there for free.
Helping the charity by competing in the event was a nice gesture for McDowell at first, but it was his enthusiasm of paddle boarding that got him interested. But after his 14-year-old nephew was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, McDowell sees a larger importance in the Cape Cod Bay Challenge.
“A few years ago, my nephew was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he’s been battling that for a number of years,” McDowell said, adding his brother and their family are financially stable to pay for housing during treatment.
“Other families, my god, on top of everything else, it could break the bank.”
McDowell said that through the years of completing the event he’s met several of the families Christopher’s Haven has helped, saying they are always so appreciative of the support.
In the five years participating, McDowell has raised roughly $11,000, and is hoping to raise at least $2,500 by the time the challenge begins Aug. 22.
“The first time I did it, I was terrified for the whole week leading up,” McDowell said of the 34-plus mile event that can take anywhere from 10 to 13 hours to complete. “It’s physically challenging, but also mentally challenging. You don’t see land in either direction for a number of hours.”
McDowell said the challenge is very supportive and not a race, although participants are expected to keep a pace of at least 3.5 mph. If they drop behind three times, they have to finish the trip in one of several safety boats floating along. McDowell said he trains by paddling at a pace of about 5.5 mph and does roughly five to 10 miles each day.
“It’s a fun event, the first couple hours you’re talking to the people next to you,” McDowell said. “After a while I’ll turn on my iPod and concentrate.”
McDowell said he’s participated in all different conditions, including one year where a brutal headwind made the 34 mile trek seem endless. Most years, he said, the distance paddled ends up being closer to 36 miles.
“It’s so emotional when you finish, you’re so tired,” McDowell said. “But when it gets tough, I think about what these kids are dealing with, and I think ‘This is nothing. I can deal with this.’”
To find out more about the Christopher’s Haven organization, visit its website, http://christophershaven.org.
You can also donate to McDowell’s First Giving fundraising page by going to his website, www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/donaldmcdowell/2015-cape-cod-bay-challenge.