It’s one thing to putter around on a stand up paddleboard for a few hours through Dana Point Harbor. It’s quite another thing to do what Will Schmidt plans to do on his.
When the morning of April 6 breaks, the Laguna Niguel resident will wake up in Avalon and embark on an exhausting 40-mile open ocean paddle from the island to Dana Point.
Schmidt is going to attempt to make the run by himself (with a small crew on hand watching out for his safety), something only a handful of others have accomplished.
He estimates that his stroke-a-thon will take between seven and nine hours to complete. But that’s only if other factors don’t get to him first – rough ocean currents, blustery winds, muscle cramps, an unforgiving sun, and perhaps some overly curious sea creatures.
“It’s been a lot of training,” Schmidt says. “A lot of running, weightlifting, shoulder work, and a lot of time on the paddleboard. I did 14 miles around the harbor today. My biggest fear is getting fatigued, and not getting the right water and food.”
There is, of course, a point to his pain. A former stinger missile gunner in the Marines – he served in Afghanistan and Kosovo – Schmidt is doing the solo paddle as a way to raise awareness and funding for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that has plagued many military personnel who’ve returned from duty in war-torn countries.
Schmidt has himself been affected by depression and anxiety, two symptoms largely associated with PTSD. He attempted to do the paddle last year, but was sidelined by the condition.
“I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t paddle, couldn’t do anything,” he says. “I tried medication and things, but they made me so tired I totally lost my zest for life. My father dealt with it too, so this paddle is kind of an homage to him, and a challenge for myself as well – sort of a way of becoming myself again.”
PTSD is a non-diagnosable disease, a condition that doesn’t get much media attention in comparison to the feel-good stories of uniformed veterans returning home to adoring families after long periods abroad. But while it’s heartwarming to see these reunions play out on YouTube, for many vets, coming home doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending.
That’s what Schmidt wants to teach people, which is why he’s become sort of a paddleboard preacher for PTSD.
“It’s not as if you can take a blood test and see you have PTSD, so it’s hard for doctors to treat it beyond asking a patient how they feel, or how they think they feel,” Schmidt says.
“Little things will trigger it, like watching a war movie or seeing a car accident, or someone behind you yelling HEY!, which is startling. The stress doesn’t go away. It creates a strain on your friends and family. People with PTSD can become distant and defensive – if you ask them what’s wrong, the response can be ‘Nothing, leave me alone.’”
PTSD isn’t just a mental condition; it’s also a physical one. People who suffer from PTSD often can’t sleep, and deal with weight gain or weight loss. Medications aren’t always a quick fix, either.
“Prescriptions are very difficult, because it will usually take four to six weeks for you to even notice a change, and in that time you might find that what you’re taking isn’t working for you, so it will take you a couple of weeks to wean off that and try something else,” Schmidt says. “For me, it was about an eight-month battle to try to find the right thing that works, going through almost every medication in the book.”
These days, pumped about accomplishing his paddleboard goal, Schmidt says he feels better than he did when he was a teenager. It’s become a life-affirming thing for him, even if he wasn’t doing it for a charity – in this case, the Wounded Warriors Project, which aims to help physically injured veterans as well as those struggling with PTSD. He’s established a crowdfunding site and hopes to raise $10,000 by his April 6 departure. Any advance money will pay for a chase boat, emergency equipment, food and water, and any supplies he’ll need during his paddle.
But fundraising is secondary to Schmidt’s main goal of simply raising awareness of PTSD and anxiety/depression issues.
“Since I’ve left the military, things have gotten a lot better regarding people being able to talk about PTSD,” says Schmidt. “Back in the day, it was ‘suck it up, you’re just being weak.’ But as we become more aware of what this condition is, then more people are able to speak about it. Still, there are those who don’t speak about it all, and don’t get the support they need.”
Compared with what Schmidt and his fellow veterans have mentally had to endure, a 40-mile paddleboard ride actually seems kind of easy.
“I’ve always been an extremist,” Schmidt says. “I’m the guy who goes off on a different path and finds a different way. It always makes things more fun and interesting.”
You can help Will Schmidt's solo paddleboard attempt by donating to his GoGetFunding page here.
And click here to watch a video of Schmidt surrounded by dolphins on one of his paddleboard rides.