It was about 15 miles from the Lake Erie shore, with wind and waves pummeling Tom Corrigan’s 32-foot Sundancer, that his mind summoned a cherished image of his nephew, Carson.
Uncle Tommy’s solo pandemic voyage, dedicated to the 4-year-old St. Jude patient, was initially a way for Tom, a 45-year-old accountant, to explore lakes north of his eastern Pennsylvania hometown. He would replace his automobile commute with travel by boat and after his workday finished, take his Labrador Retriever, Hank, for shore excursions.
And along the way, Uncle Tommy would raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, where Carson is being treated for a type of cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. He'd fundraise via his Instagram account (@tomandhankoffthehook) and through a sponsorship with the adventure retailer Creek to Peak. At each dock, he would place a whiteboard outside the boat, custom artwork (via dry erase marker) highlighting the locale and raising awareness for Carson and his family in northern Alabama.
“I wanted to accomplish two things,” Tom said. “One, somebody now knows Carson and his story, and, two, there are people who now know what rhabdomyosarcoma is and what St. Jude is doing for kids.
“Early on, I met a lady from the UK, and now she follows us on Instagram and has her church praying for Carson.”
There had been challenging moments, like taking the boat solo through canal locks, but nothing like the day on Lake Erie, when relentless waves bounced the Sundancer like a plastic bathtub toy.
But thinking of those storms his nephew must walk through as he undergoes cancer treatment helped Tom keep his composure. Deciding if he should turn back or if there was another way for an amateur captain to navigate to safety, he believes Carson showed him the way.
“I thought about how I had to go into the wind, how just like Carson walks right into the hospital and knows that’s the way through, I had to turn and go into the wind,” Tom said.
The counter-intuitive turn worked, leading the Sundancer on a less turbulent path — the journey could continue.
“I didn’t have a plan really at that point for how much longer I would keep going, but then I had a FaceTime call with Carson,” Tom said. “He asked, ‘Can you bring the boat to me, Uncle Tommy?’ “
When Tom awoke early the next morning to examine maps, he saw that if he could avoid heavy winds on Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, he could make Chicago before Halloween to equip the boat for river journeys south.
For Carson, who was back at St. Jude after another relapse, Uncle Tommy would find the way.
For ‘Uncle Tommys’ everywhere
Carson’s family and friends often call him by his nickname, Hambone, earned for extrovert antics, which have continued even through relapses and more difficult treatments.
Jason, his father, explains that while the soft tissue tumor rhabdomyosarcoma is often curable, the location in Carson’s mouth and face has created unique challenges.
Treatments followed surgery in May, and then in August, shortly after his uncle’s trip began, new complications arose, requiring more aggressive treatment.
Through it all, Carson closely followed his Uncle Tommy’s trip via Google maps, learning a little about geography and a lot about family devotion.
“I like to think there are Uncle Tommys everywhere, and I’m in this position because of the pandemic situation that I can help my nephew,” Tom said. “I can get that exposure for St. Jude and what they are doing to as many people as possible.”
The boat trip is an extension of other efforts Tom has helped lead, including a virtual 5K each February with participants from around the country.
An immense network of friends and family has swelled a social media support group to more than 1,500 members. Carson’s mom, Erin, once wrote in a post: “People think St. Jude is just a commercial, and it’s not. These kids need our help.”
Tom learned that firsthand, in 2018, when he took a shift helping Erin with Carson in Memphis so Jason could stay in Alabama, where he works as factory manager.
“I had an expectation that St. Jude would feel hopeless, like a last-ditch effort — but it felt so hopeful,” Tom said. “There’s so much in place to help save these kids, and you find out about the research, the nutrition, the Child Life specialists.
“It was the most eye-opening experience.”
These are the stories that have traveled with Tom and Hank, from dock to dock: “When I tell people about Carson and St. Jude, you see their faces light up...you can see their hearts warm.”
Unfortunately, in mid-October, Tom found himself with much more time on the docks. In Northern Michigan, winds again became a factor, churning up huge waves on Lake Michigan that haIted the journey.
Carson and his little sister, Laney, following along on maps, noticed Uncle Tommy seemed stuck at the top of Michigan. When Jason explained why, the kids improvised a weather dance on a video call.
“Wind, wind go away,” Jason can be heard singing on a video call Tom recorded. “No more big waves!”
Whether the boat eventually made it to Alabama mattered less to Jason and his wife, Erin, than the gift of adventure and anticipation the family received following Tom and Hank.
“Tommy sometimes would say, ‘Tell me if I need to stop the trip and just fly down,’“ Jason said. “When the reoccurrences come and cancer shows it’s stubborn side, basically it’s hard not to get discouraged and you do think about the ultimate consequence of the disease.
“One of the cool things has been the excitement of tracing the journey and the video calls at all these different places.”
A few days after the weather dance, Tom got the break he needed — the winds dipped just enough for him to “bunny hop” the boat 192 miles through rough but navigable water. In a celebratory text showing the boat’s St. Jude flag framed by the Chicago skyline, Tom wrote: “Never underestimate the power of a 4-year-old superhero and his weather dance!”
Too much awesome
Among those who have taken up Carson’s cause and helped Uncle Tommy are members of America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association — the “Loop” being the 6,000-mile boating route to circumnavigate the eastern half of the U.S.
By joining a flotilla of “Loopers,” Tom made it through locks on the Illinois River that opened in late October for the first time in several months.
Nearly three weeks later, when the Loopers kept south toward the Gulf of Mexico, Tom veered east, headed for Huntsville. Though continuing to stop at docks, Tom stayed essentially self-quarantined on the boat, to ensure he could see Carson right away.
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, on the Tennessee River near Decatur, Alabama, Uncle Tommy and Hank welcomed aboard his superhero co-captain, Carson.
Wearing an orange T-shirt with the message “Too Much Awesome,” Carson ran down the dock, first greeting Hank, the Labrador. For Uncle Tommy, it was a moment many months in the making.
The emotions were hard to contain as Carson, Laney and Jason joined Uncle Tommy and Hank for the final 27-mile leg of the trip.
“I had Carson in my lap, so he could put his hands on the steering wheel and ‘drive,’ and that’s when I got those tears in my eyes,” Tom said. “I thought about those moments when I didn’t know if I’d be able to get out of Michigan, much less make it to Alabama.”
‘You pray that you are right’
In January, Carson will return to St. Jude for scans, to see if this year’s treatments have pushed the rhabdomyosarcoma back into remission.
Uncle Tommy and his dog Hank will be back in Pennsylvania by then, after a trip to the Gulf Coast to leave the boat for repairs. He plans to pick back up on the Great Loop early in 2021 and hopes to finish on the Hudson River, near the Statue of Liberty.
Perhaps, one day, Carson can fulfill a wish he expressed, sitting with Uncle Tommy, helping pilot the boat on that final leg before Thanksgiving.
“Next time I go to Pennsylvania, I don’t want to take the airplane, Uncle Tommy,” Carson said. “I want to take your boat.”
During a pandemic and one of the hardest years of his young nephew’s life, Tom and Hank’s off-the-hook adventure have given Carson and family a welcome distraction — and now a new, wonderfully implausible holiday story of renewal and possibility.