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Orcas Island man swims channel for cancer awareness

Damien Stark ... swimming from Anacortes to Friday Harbor to raise funds to fight cancer.    - Submitted photo
Damien Stark ... swimming from Anacortes to Friday Harbor to raise funds to fight cancer.
— image credit: Submitted photo

Orcas Island resident Damien Stark will swim the Anacortes-to-Friday Harbor ferry route — 19.5 miles — Saturday and Sunday because he believes “There is no greater joy than ... not the swimming itself, but the ability to use swimming in order to help someone else.”

This has been what he calls his personal mantra as he swims almost every other day, all year long, in East Sound. And this is how “Swimming the Crossing for Breast Cancer” began.

After caring for a beloved friend who ultimately died from leukemia, he moved from the Bay Area to Orcas Island in September 2000 and started a photo business. He left the island but returned in 2005, and is now working at the Outlook Inn.

A compelling moment came when two local friends received breast cancer diagnoses within six days of each other. Stark wanted to find a way to help ease the burden of those dealing with such a significant disease, so when Ruthie Dougherty told him about the Breast Cancer Treatment Support Mission Project, he decided to combine his swimming prowess with the idea of a fund-raiser.

The “Mission,” as he refers to it, is a cooperative effort between the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Puget Sound affiliate and the San Juan County Health and Community Services. They offer ferry tickets, transportation and mileage reimbursement to San Juan county residents with breast cancer so they can get diagnostic or treatment services on the mainland. Kathy Hagn is the Breast Cancer Treatment Support Mission Project program coordinator. San Juan County has the second-highest breast cancer rate in Washington state.

One hundred percent of the funds that will be raised by Stark’s swim will go to support this program. To him, this is the entire point of his intense and chilly endeavor.

On the first day, Friday, he will swim from Anacortes to Orcas Island (12.5 miles), sleep at his home, and then the next day swim from Orcas to Friday Harbor, another eight miles. He chose the route to honor the pathway taken by island people who find themselves with a cancer diagnosis and then must travel back and forth daily, often for five days a week, six weeks at a time for mainland treatment. He chose these particular days because of the agreeable tides.

As the idea grew, the need for additional support also materialized. Coast Guard permission and support, as well as ferry communications, are part of the organizational aspects that need to be in place before the swim. Jen Vollmer and Kerry Quirk are taking care of much of the paperwork, and have been a significant part of Stark’s organizational team. Many others have also helped.

Stark expects to be in the water for up to 12 hours each day and is committed to doing this safely, so there are a lot of details to address. Because the water is so cold, he uses a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer wetsuit with mask, gloves and booties. After trying others, he decided this is the best one available. Food and water will be provided every half hour. At least two boats will accompany him — one to be on the lookout for water hazards, the other to carry a physical support team.

Stark created a Web site, www.breastcancerswim.com, with detailed options for finding out more about the swim, cancer information links, how to volunteer or donate, and how to contact him. His number is 360-298-2232.

Donations are tax-deductible, with all of the funds going to the Breast Cancer Treatment Support Mission Project.

A few sponsors are needed to help with logistical costs such as gas for the boats; volunteers to help during the event days; a large soft-sided Zodiac type boat are still being solicited.

As word is getting out about the swim, Stark is receiving some poignant mail. A check came to him provides a week of mileage reimbursement, with a note attached. The note said “In honor of … ” and a woman’s name was given.

“This is what it’s all about,” Stark said, “to honor someone. All the rest is just details.”

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