And then there were five...
Sadly, another challenger has dropped out of the race. Pelican announced this morning that he had pulled out after reaching the Sebastian Inlet checkpoint.
That leaves the five frontrunners in what is increasingly looking like a tight race.
As of 5 p.m.:
Sandy Bottom and SOS were about 1/3 of the way across the portage at Moniac with a pace ranging from 2 to 3 mph. They have a few options. There is a restaurant at Moniac and if it is open they might stop there for some food. Also they could stop and camp for the night or part of the night, or they may press on and reach Fargo and the Suwannee in a single effort. Either way they are making steady and impressive progress.
One note, their trip up the St. Marys is perhaps the fastest yet during a running of the Florida Challenge. To reach the takeout before noon means they must have been paddling hard for most of the way. It will be interesting to see how long it takes the three others to cover the same distance.
Also as of 5 p.m.:
Mosquito Magnet left the Fort Clinch checkpoint after spending nearly 20 hours on shore. He left just as Riverslayer and Whale were rounding the corner in the channel across from Fernandina Beach within sight of the checkpoint. If they knew to look, they might have seen the flash of his paddles to their northwest.
Mosquito Magnet is expected to ride the incoming tide past the town of St. Marys, on winding channels through grass marsh, and up to and under the I-95 bridge. The tide will push him pretty far inland, but at some point he will begin to detect a counter-current. Part of the difficulty he will face having left the checkpoint sometime around 4 p.m. is that he will soon run out of daylight. The lower portions of the St. Marys are wide enough and easy to navigate, but he will need to stay near the center of the river to avoid mud-colored logs submerged just below the surface of the tanin-stained water. They are invisible and very dangerous -- particularly for a solo kayak moving fast upriver. I remember well my few moments of terror balanced like a teeter-totter on log, feeling the boat begin to tip over, feeling the log about to crack my hull. It was black. There were no lights and no moon, and the water is even darker. Somehow I managed to back off the log without turning over. But I stayed in the middle of the river after that.
The other issue for Mosquito Magnet will be camping. Presumably he is well rested and ready to travel, which is good because there are no really obvious camping spots until after reaching Traders Hill. Some watertribers have camped at the boat launch at Traders Hill, but it is accessible from the highway and presents the potential for interuptions during the night. The better option, is to camp on one of the many sand banks upriver from Trader's Hill, get some sleep and then do what Sandy Bottom and SOS did -- wait for daylight to reach the takeout and start the portage. Mosquito Magnet may have a different plan. If he manages to keep going though the night it will be a substatial accomplishment.
By my estimate, Mosquito Magnet is about one and a half to two days behind Sandy Bottom and SOS. Their steady pace on the portage may not create an opening for him to catch and pass them. If not, he may have the opportunity to outpace them down the Suwannee. Stay tuned.
Riverslayer and Whale arrived at the Fort Clinch checkpoint at about 5 p.m. just after Mosquito Magnet's departure. The tides are perfect for them to sign in at the checkpoint, get resupplied and then immediately turn up the St. Marys. But they may need some rest and a longer bit of resupplying. That's something they know and I don't. It is important to get some good rest before starting the trip west. This part of the Challenge is by far the most difficult. One danger is that challengers may underestimate how long it will take them to get to Cedar Key. This is probably not a problem for Riverslayer and Whale, who are both in expedition canoes capable of carrying plenty of provisions. So my main question about Riverslayer and Whale at this point is how fast can they get resupplied and get back out on the water? Can they catch Mosquito Magnet and perhaps Sandy Bottom and SOS? Is it even part of their plan to try? We shall see.
Overall, this is starting to look like it could be a close race -- despite the different classes of boats. Wind is no longer a factor and the weather looks perfect for a fast trip across Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.
But first three of these guys have to start up that spooky, spooky river and only then receive the privilege of walking 40 miles to the Suwannee. Good luck, and may God have mercy on your souls.
[Sharkchow (AKA Warren Richey) is author of "Without a Paddle," published by St. Martin's Press. It is an account of his participation in the first Ultimate Florida Challenge in 2006.]