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Veterans, first responders to cross Catalina Channel for Operation Open Water

Even though you’re with a group, there’s times when you’re alone during a paddle crossing the channel from Catalina Island, when you become one with the ocean, overcoming obstacles one stroke at a time.

“You get to be with the good and bad sides of yourself. You come across different challenges of pain and fatigue and exhaustion,” said Danny Nichols, co-founder of Operation Open Water. “You get to find out what you’re made of.”

On Thursday, Nov. 11, Operation Open Water will bring together about three dozen veterans, first responders and watermen who will brave the crossing from Catalina to Huntington Beach to mark Veteran’s Day. It will be a 10-hour feat to show support for one another and raise awareness about mental health.

“Everybody deals with stuff. I think we all realize when we’re together, we’re better,”  Nichols said. “When one of us goes dark, someone is there to help out.”

Nichols and Army veteran Kyle Kelly started the mission in 2019 with just 11 paddlers, doubling in size last year and this year drawing about 35 participants who will join the estimated 33-mile endurance challenge.

Growing the event has been the goal from the start as the veterans find ways to inspire and encourage others as they all train for months leading up to the event.

Veteran Jake Green, who was mentored by Kelly last year, is returning with a team of five other Army vets from North Carolina for this year’s challenge.  For Green, a retired sergeant first class with the US Army Special Forces, it will be his second crossing.

“We’ve seen this pay-it-forward ripple effect of veterans mentoring veterans,” Nichols said.

Also joining for a relay are Huntington Beach Marine Safety Chief Eric McCoy and Police Chief Julian Harvey, who will rotate with others every 45 minutes.

Friends and family watch as paddlers arrive from Catalina Island during their paddle to Huntington Beach, CA, in 2019, the first year Operation Open Water was held. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The idea to bring veterans and first responders together is to show support for two groups who face insurmountable stresses and trauma, at times resulting in mental health issues.

“For us, adrenaline, exercise and fellowship were the ingredients to balance that,” Nichols said. “When we can get together, we can take the mask off.

“The hope comes from realizing we’re not alone and everyone sees and experiences things,” he said. “In part, for our first-responder community, it’s day in and day out. And I think veterans feel that first responders don’t get the support.”

For the surfers and water enthusiasts joining the cause, they become a bridge to help bring the groups together in the ocean, he said. Together – on water and on land – they are one.

“Everyone is on the same mission,” he said. “Everyone is connected to get across the channel.”

Nichols started to talk about the prime weather conditions expected on Thursday, before stopping short.

“I don’t want to jinx it,” he said, with a chuckle. “The universe has a perfect plan, we’re committed and we’re going to show up and surrender to whatever Mother Nature gives us.”

Nichols called the feat a “hero’s journey.”

At the end, when the Huntington Beach Pier and the people on the beach become visible in the distance, there’s a burst of energy to the finish, he said.

“You realize you just accomplished something that 99% of people won’t do or haven’t accomplished, and you look to the left and right, to your brothers and sisters, and you think ‘Wow, we just did that,’” he said.  “I know that if I can do that, I can do anything.”

Source: Orange County Register

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