On a scorching Saturday in August, 80 people from around the country and a few from overseas met at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to participate in “Sea Paddle NYC,” a 25-mile trip around Manhattan—all on a paddle board—to raise money for autism and the environment. One of those intrepid paddlers was veterinarian Dr. Hillary Schilke of Pet Vet in Massapequa, who took up the sport two years ago. This was not only a journey of skill, but it also marked a special anniversary for her.
Schilke, 37, was raised on the water having grown up in a boating family. Six years ago, she was looking forward to starting her new life on Long Island with her fiancé Jason Dean, another veterinarian. They had both taken jobs on the island and wedding plans were already finalized. On a weekend in late August, Schilke, Jason and her family were about to go out on the boat when Jason started complaining about shortness of breath and feeling very weak. A few hours later, he died in her arms. The cause of death was a saddle embolus, a clot that blocks both sides of the pulmonary artery. He was 32 years old.
Devastated, Schilke moved on with her life, but each year in August has a memorial with Jason’s family.
“You can’t let grief bring you down. So many people sequester themselves and let a lot build up inside and you can’t do that,” she said. “Every year I meet with his family and we all talk about him. Jason lives on through our memories, our tears and our laughter.”
Schilke got busy in her new job but was looking for an outlet for her grief. One day, she walked into South Shore Paddleboards in Babylon and bought a cheap board she referred to as “the beast” and decided to give it a go.
“I studied dance for 15 years, got a business degree and became a veterinarian, but I was never an athlete,” she said. “As soon as I got on that board I was hooked.”
Schilke wanted to be close to the water and since she didn’t have a boat on Long Island, paddle boarding was the next best thing.
“I find solace on the water, it’s my soul. It’s so peaceful when I am paddle boarding,” she said. “Sometimes I talk to the people along the canal and other times I just lie on the board and let the sun and wind wash over me.”
Schilke became friends with the owner of the store who told her about SEA PADDLE.
“There were classmates of mine who ran marathons and I always wanted to do something like that but I didn’t think I could,” she said. “Here was a 25 mile race around Manhattan on a paddle board so I decided to go for it.”
Schilke started training everyday and bought a better board. On the day of the race as Schilke got on her board, she looked up and prayed to God and to Jason for the strength to finish the race.
The race began from the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, traveled north up the East River through the Harlem River—also called Hell’s Gate for its dangerous currents—down the Hudson and ended at Chelsea Piers.
“The water was like glass and the views of Manhattan were magnificent,” she said. “At one point a man mumbled to me that I was too close to the wall. I told him I was fine and he said, ‘No, my fish.’ He had three lines in the water so I had to duck underneath them.”
Everything was going along so smoothly for Schilke, until she paddled under the George Washington Bridge.
“The winds picked up to 20 knots and the boats were creating huge waves. The harbor police made us pull in because the ferries were crossing and a huge cruise ship was about to pull out,” said Schilke, afraid of being hit by a boat.
The harbor patrol kept an escort and jet skiers followed the racers acting as buffers and also providing them with bottled water.
After a grueling six hours and 26 minutes, Schilke finished the race, raising $2,000 on her own while her four person team raised $6,000 and the organization raised $160,000.
“I knew I was a strong person but I didn’t know I had that kind of endurance and stamina,” she said, adding that she did not fall off the board once. “Keep looking straight ahead and paddle. Let the waves move you, stay relaxed and roll with the flow.”
On Schilke’s paddle, there is an octopus with a helmet and the words YOLO.
“I’m a scuba diver and I love the octopus, many of which I have seen while diving. They are magnificent creatures that can morph into any environment. I would like to think that’s a lot like me,” she said. “I tend to adapt to whatever environment I am placed in. You only live once and although I believe that, I want to believe that we have multiple lives and each one is a completely different experience. Regardless, you should live life to the fullest because you just never know when it will end.”