Words: Marc Cotterill
Photos: Team NEON
On the 25th of June 2023, Marc Cotterill along with close friends Craig Stanway, Ryan Talbot and Peter Oakden – all self-confessed newbie SUP paddlers – did something epic to raise funds for cystic fibrosis charities. Team NEON – the four-man relay team – began their journey at midnight and set off into the darkness to cross the Atlantic Gulf Stream from Bimini in the Bahamas back to mainland Florida. It’s all part of Marc’s mission to raise awareness for a modern cystic fibrosis medicine that saved his life.
It’s all part of Marc’s mission to raise awareness for a modern cystic fibrosis medicine that saved his life. Marc released several videos on social media in the run-up to the challenge gaining tens of thousands of views and he has recently released a documentary called ‘DO SOMETHING EPIC’ about Team NEON’s experience @ www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qJMrX0KzAY.
Marc Cotterill (42) was born with a chronic genetic illness called Cystic Fibrosis (CF) and spoke to us at SUPM about the challenge. Marc grew up in a world that told him he would be lucky to reach his tenth birthday. The older he grew, the worse his symptoms became, and when he somehow reached adulthood, his lungs were just 30% effective.
After suffering a collapsed lung the morning he was supposed to be going on holiday back in 2017, Marc sat alone in his hospital bed in complete darkness that same night, worried it was the beginning of the end, but said to himself, “This can’t be it!” It was a promise, not a question, as he wasn’t prepared to give up hope.
A ‘wonder drug’ called Trikafta
Then in 2020, overnight, everything changed. Thanks to a revolutionary new CF ‘wonder drug’ called Trikafta being made available in the UK, Marc’s health was transformed. It was his mission to use the challenge as a demonstration of what this medicine had done for him and to highlight that thousands of people living with CF in over 150 countries worldwide are running out of time due to lack of access (see https://actionnetwork.org/forms/cf-drugs-for-everyone-everywhere-now).
Marc takes up the story with, “Embrace the suck!”
In the hours leading up to the challenge, I was advised to remain ‘relaxed but energised’, but I have to admit, it’s hard to relax when you have an 80-mile mission ahead of you. My nerves and emotions got the better of me a few times, I couldn’t help but think back to my time in the hospital, and I was overcome with gratitude, so very thankful that I was well enough to take this on.
When I set off from the beach, the ocean was far from calm. Naively, I hoped the number of boats moving nearby was to blame, but reality soon set in. As the boats cleared, I could see nothing but a glimmer of blue light illuminating a small patch of water behind our support boat ahead. I was forced to my knees early on as 5-6-foot swells threw me from left to right. The reality of the mission became very clear at that point; the only thing that saved me was the voices of my teammates cheering me on from our support boat – just audible over the rush of the ocean!
Before the launch, someone stopped us on the beach and offered advice, “Embrace the suck – before you know it, it’ll be over.”
The team adopted the phrase as a mantra, and every so often, when I felt close to defeat, it would hit me in the face, projected by the team – “EMBRACE THE SUCK!”
I used it to remember the gift of new-found health that I’d been given, and it reconnected me with my ‘why’, reminding me that I’m lucky to be here.
As a relay team, you expect your time on the boat between paddles to bring calm, but the waves were unforgiving, and it wasn’t long before seasickness started to set in. Beforehand, we prepared two giant Tupperware tubs filled with rice and chicken for fuel, but none of us touched it; we survived on carb gels and adrenaline.
Someone, somewhere, must have been looking down on us because, after five long hours, mercifully, the waters calmed as the sun rose, turning turbulent, unpredictable waters into a soft, glass-like texture.
As we turned north, we welcomed the gentle, comforting assistance of the Atlantic Gulf Stream rolling under us, almost as if she knew exactly where we were aiming. I now understand what people mean when they describe being ‘one with the ocean. The heat was extreme; we were tired and running on empty, but with a view of nothing but blue and mother nature’s dreamy ocean soundtrack, we were overcome with gratitude – for each other and the event.
We were on a roll, literally. We were averaging between 8 and 9 mph when a media boat appeared announcing that we were almost leading the pack. The only teams ahead were a few competitive teams with far more experience than this humble group of friends tackling their first taste of ocean paddling. By this point, we were long past halfway and were already planning our arrival at Lake Worth Beach, which included going live on Facebook and banging out ten push-ups on the finish line to irradicate any doubt that these Brits weren’t up to the challenge. Only, it was short-lived following a heart-breaking message via radio.
“All paddlers need to board their support boats and make their way to within five miles of Lake Worth Pier!” It was the coast guard. A storm was brewing.
We were 65 miles into the 80-mile journey, convinced we were home and dry. But perhaps due to our total lack of experience and, some would say, ignorance, we weren’t ready to quit. We switched to shorter, faster transitions. They were leaving nothing in the tank for ten minutes each at full speed.
Several boats eventually flew past us in their efforts to avoid the storm, but we carried on. We covered another five miles before a final, no-messing radio announcement: “Team NEON, this is the US Coast Guard; board your vessel now!”
By this time, the storm had reached us, which was brutal. We jumped into the boat and raced through heavy wind and rain, narrowly avoiding what looked like hell for paddlers. We travelled five miles before reaching calmer waters, leaving five miles to go. So we got back to work, and of course, just as our mantra predicted, before we knew it, it was over.
It all happened so quickly after the storm. We didn’t go live on Facebook, and there were no push-ups at the finish line, but we were hit with an overwhelming sense of pride. Due to our ignorance, we were the third fastest team and covered more miles than most. Together, we raised over £18,500 for CF charities and, in the process, put the conversation of global access to Trikafta in front of thousands.
To support Marc and the team, please visit his fundraising page: https://www.classy.org/team/454643
Follow Marc on Instagram to learn more about the ‘Right To Breathe’ campaign for global access to Trikafta – the drug that transformed Marc’s health: https://www.instagram.com/m4rccotterill/