By Paul Lebowitz
Bill Pennington is misty eyed. The first owner of the NorCal Kayak Anglers Internet forum is thinking back on 2004, when a few rugged individualists who paddle small boats on a rough, cold ocean became a community.
"Joel is the sole reason we are here today. Years ago, he calls me. 'Hey Bill, you know computers, you should set up a forum.' And I said, 'I don't know Joel. Politics, bickering, spam--I don’t want to deal with all that crap," Pennington recalls.
Joel wouldn't let the idea go.
"He said 'Bill, man, you have to do it.' Finally, he volunteered to run it."
In those days, Northern California kayak fishing was a secret society. You didn't tell people about the spots you fished or the gear you used. Joel was the absolute opposite. He shared with everyone. Almost overnight, Joel's generous spirit forged a community.
"I'd order NCKA stickers by the thousand. They'd be gone in three weeks," Pennington remembers. "Joel was sticking them everywhere. He was pure stoke and energy."
Today more than 3,300 people are registered for the NCKA forum. A few hundred active members form the heart of the community. They fish together for safety and companionship, they compete for the coveted Angler of the Year award (Joel's idea, of course), and they keep the conversation hopping on the site despite the rise of social media. There are arguments and upheavals, but it only rarely gets out of control. Joel wouldn't have it any other way.
"Joel gave NCKA its forgiving vibe. There were times I wanted to delete someone, ban them, drop an F-bomb. Joel was always there to mellow me out," Pennington says. "Even today, Joel is the spirit of NCKA."
Chuck Espiritu agrees. "When you showed up at an event, Joel was always the first to greet you," says Espiritu, a close friend and NCKA original. "He's the guy that had his arms out to welcome anybody new. Mooch taught all of us a lesson on how to live. Unconditional support," Espiritu says, referring to Joel by his forum handle.
'Mooch' seems an unusual name for a man of such generous spirit, though Joel did his part to earn it. He was notorious for borrowing baits and lures from his friends, though no one seemed to mind. Joel always gave more than he received. He was a free spirit who loved a good prank. He was known to hide bananas in 'yaks--"They're good juju," he'd claim--and could take it as well as dish it out.
He was also known for a sign he'd throw, a clenched fist, pinky pointed down. It was a lighthearted reference to his Filipino heritage. "Growing up, we were taught that if you’re cooking rice, you measure the water level by sticking your pinky in. So Joel's running joke was that the pinky down fist was the mock gang sign for the Hella Asian Crew," says his friend Harold Gibson. In the trying days to come, it would become a powerful symbol of the strength of will and the triumph of love for NCKA members of all races and creeds.
In 2007, kayak fishing big game pioneer Howard McKim asked Joel to join him in Ketchikan as an associate guide. Joel quit his San Francisco Bay Area job and packed for his dream job. A week before getaway day, he was walking his kayak back to his van when he suddenly couldn't breathe.
The last time we spoke, a week after he'd walked out of hospice in September 2013, Joel told me what happened next. "A fireman found me, saw the symptoms, and said, 'You have to see a doctor.' The next day I went into the hospital. That's when I found out I had cancer.
"I'd already paid for my Alaska ferry ticket," he said with a wry smile. "I told the doctor to put a Band-Aid on it."
The timing could not have been worse. Joel had already given up his medical insurance. The economy was tanking. The chemo left his body wasted, and he was unable to work. In this time of need, the NCKA family came to his aid. Espiritu set up a website donation button. Brent Pass and Jim Russell organized the annual Pay It Forward Paddle, still raising money to this day. Joel's friends passed the hat at tournaments across the West Coast. The community Joel had helped to build raised tens of thousands of dollars for him and other NCKA members battling cancer or other health challenges.
"Words cannot describe," Joel said on that warm September day. "It gets me teary-eyed. You can only say thank you so much." Every day of the last six years had been a fight. He had only weeks left. He spent that time with family and with friends, fishing.
"What's the point of being depressed? Even given my predicament, to me it's a waste of life," he told me. "Every day is a gift. Appreciate the little things." And as usual, Joel had a message to share with everyone who crossed his path, one he'd first expressed only weeks after taking ill.
"Get yourself checked. I should have seen a doctor every year. I felt like I was invincible. No one is superhuman. You just never know," he said.
It's a private matter, but several NCKA brothers took Joel at his word. One, still under treatment, discovered his cancer early. Others resolved to head off looming health threats by changing their diets or other habits.
When he got out of hospice, Joel spent a lot of quality time with his friends. "He was getting ready to say goodbye. He felt free on the water," says his sister Rachel Herranz Lotilla.
Joel died on September 29, 2013. He was 44. On a calm sunny afternoon two weeks later, more than 100 members of the extended NCKA family paddled out at Half Moon Bay to commit his ashes to the sea. Scores more looked on from boats, or watched from shore.
"I didn't know how many people he touched until he died. I was overwhelmed at the ceremony, there were so many," Rachel says.
Joel's friends threw flowers, shared smiles, and shed tears for their brother of the water. He isn't gone. His more than 15,000 forum posts live on, a daily reminder and guidepost of how to live life well.