THE WATERTRIBE CARNAGE
Seventy-eight boats lined up on the north shore of Egmont Channel for the 7 am start on March 3. Of those, 24 boats reached their goal. Many failures occurred in the initial six-mile crossing into 15 to 20 knot winds and chop, and weather went downhill from there. All the way to Key Largo, those who finished the 300-mile leg had their slowest times ever due to strong headwinds. The only exception was Sunday, the second day, when the storm front passed and north winds blew at a rate that made paddling and sailing fast and furious, reportedly at 30 to 35 knots. On arriving in Key Largo, Rod Price commented that this 300-mile leg of his 1200-mile Ultimate Florida Challenge was more difficult than his 1000-mile Yukon River Race in 2010.
You can see a video of the conditions off of the starting beach, by Danny Laboy (Danito) at http://youtu.be/dUq48BIJcDc ..
The racers were headed to either Placida (67 miles), Key Largo (300 miles) or around the state and back to the starting line (1200 miles). Here were the finishing tallies:
Placida, 3 finished of 11 boats starting
Key Largo, 17 finished of 55 starters
Ultimate Challenge, 4 finished of 11 starters
Total, 24 finished of 78 starting boats, 31% finishing percentage
The big stories were the competitors in the 1200-mile Ultimate Florida Challenge, which continued up the east coast from Key Largo to the Florida-Georgia state line, up the St. Marys River, a 40-mile portage on foot (or bike) to headwaters of the Suwannee River, down the Suwannee to the Gulf, then down the Gulf to the start at Ft. DeSoto Park, St. Pete.
Of the eleven starters, two succumbed to weather before the 67-mile checkpoint, one quit with equipment failures at 170-mile point of Chokoloskee, and the most unfortunate incident prior to Key Largo was Randy Smyth's (SewSew) mishap in Florida Bay. Just a few miles from Key Largo he capsized his high tech trimaran, Sizzor. No big deal as Randy could right the boat and continue unassisted. However, an observer called for a rescue, and in the dark and high winds the rescue boat first ran over his boat breaking his hull, then in backing up tore up Randy's sails beyond repair. I talked with Randy at Key Largo, and he had a true competitor's good nature and humor about the incident. He said the sails were 5 years old and ready for replacement anyhow.
The mother-son team of Dawn (SandyBottom) and Alan Stewart (SOS) caught up at Key Largo after a two-day delay for last-minute boat modifications at the starting line. Alan's new trimaran needed a few fixes, as his first sea trial was the day before the race start. His boat was a marvelous design, with a 32-foot carbon fiber mast and high-aspect racing sails. They made terrific time tacking down the Gulf coast in mainly headwinds. Dawn got tired of scrambling from one ama to the other as they made their tacks, so she developed a technique of rolling across the tramps from one side to the other.
The seven remaining competitors continued from Key Largo up Card Sound into Biscayne Bay, facing long stretches of open water. The weather had eased somewhat but still gave us a few strong easterly blows. Dawn and Alan were in their element in Alan's "Mosquito," Alan having sailed the east coast a number of times in beach cats. Ardie Olsen (ArdieO) had recovered from his capsize and swim to shore the second night in the 5-foot chop of Charlotte Harbor and was storming ahead in his Ruahine Ocean-X, a 21-foot by 19.5-inch kayak. His boat required constant attention to stay upright. Not far behind was Wayne Albert (MosquitoMagnet) in his Greenland-style rudderless Silhouette kayak, making excellent progress with the Greenland paddle he carved. Bill Whale (Whale) and Rod Price (Riverslayer) teamed up in their expedition canoes and headed out from Key Largo continuing their partnership that served them well for the next 900 miles. Marty Sullivan (SaltyFrog) had enjoyed teaming up for the first leg of the event with Jim Collins (JungleJim), Bob Waters (BustedRudder) and Laurens Willard (Ghostyakr) but continued alone towards Miami. At Biscayne Bay he followed the east-side barrier island of Elliott Key then paddled across the "Safety Valve," the 10 mile gap of open water and shoals, to reach Key Biscayne with the distant Miami skyline almost out of site to the west. The initial 300 miles to Key Largo had taken a toll on him physically, but the kayak he designed and built had performed beautifully, handling the rough seas well and cruising efficiently with the heavy load. Nick Hall overcame equipment problems in his Hobie Tandem Island sailing/pedaling/paddling craft, but his overload of equipment and supplies were taking a toll as he proceeded several days behind the other competitors.
The Key Largo to Sebastian Inlet leg saw the demise of three competitors. Ardie decided the fun had ended and pulled out. Nick's boat was too overloaded to try to continue. Marty got to Peanut Island campground in Lake Worth and spent two nights and a day eating, resting, and preping equipment to continue. But the morning of his planned departure he decided he was not able to physically continue the trip. He had lost 11 pounds in 11 days, which confirmed his decision to stop.
Alan and Dawn expanded their lead up the east coast and arrived at Fort clinch, the Florida/Georgia border, over 2 days ahead of the next competitor. They switched from the trimaran to a Kruger Cruiser canoe since the sailboat was too large to bring up the log- and shoal-blocked St. Marys River. The canoe was towed by bicycle on the portage, Dawn and Alan taking 1/2-mile turns pedaling and walking. They paddled together with little discord, except when Alan had to muscle the canoe up the portage hill at Big Shoals. The following competitors thought they might make up the difference over the 310 miles of river and 40 miles of portage, but the mother and son team lost little time in spite of an 18-hour weather delay in crossing the Gulf from Suwannee River to Cedar Key. Arriving at Cedar Key, they looked forward to trading the canoe back for their sailing trimaran after, of course, a shower, a huge breakfast, and a night in a real bed. I have never seen two people who have been through so much and still have such a great attitude and good sense of humor. They launched early the next day and sailed straight through 28 hours to the finish in moderately accommodating weather. Total time: 23 days 5 hours.
See videos of Dawn and Alan on the portage: http://youtu.be/3ikizfMyZPU
arriving at Cedar Key: http://youtu.be/nKjEE9UZBlw
Wayne Albert (MosquitoMagnet) exemplified true grit in his low-volume kayak with only a skeg and Greenland paddle that he carved the weekend before the race, having lost his primary paddle in rough seas two weeks earlier. He arrived at the first EC checkpoint, 67-mile Placida, in bad conditions and turned around and headed right back out. Most competitors sat it out until the next day. The Nigel Foster kayak had little initial stability, however the chines and round bottom made for an excellent rough water boat. Combined with his Greenland paddle skill, Wayne was able to stay on the water when others were waiting out the weather. The paddle was shredding his hands until Dawn provided Wayne with hydropel, for which he was extremely grateful. With low freeboard he was sitting in water due to a leaky spray skirt all the way to Key Largo, where he was able to remedy the problem. He was the first kayak into Key Largo, where he spent 20 hours recovering and healing from the brutal first 300 miles.
As Wayne progressed up the east coast, his goal was to catch Ardie. He lost some motivation when Ardie dropped out, but regain motivation when he realized Bill and Rod might catch him. Heading up the east coast, the small skeg allowed the boat to weathercock badly with the strong, constant easterly winds. When packing for Fort Clinch, his provisions included a couple cases of "Boost Plus," maybe that was his secret. Although his calorie intake was around 3,000 per day, about half from Boost, he still lost 13 pounds by the time he reached the finish. Wayne approached the finish line beach with a perfectly executed victory roll, symbolic of his kayak skills. He claimed the Eskimo roll gave him the preliminary bath he sorely needed. Upon his stepping out of the boat his face showed his journey's toll, but after cleaning up and having a beer and dinner, he brightened up and shared his impressions of the event.
See video of Wayne's departure from Fort Clinch: http://youtu.be/1nVcYYj8yJA
A true symbiotic relationship evolved between Bill Whale (Whale) and Rod Price (Riverslayer). Although Bill had a full sail rig with outriggers on his canoe, conditions almost never were favorable for sailing. This allowed he and Rod, with only a downwind sail, to keep a similar pace for the entire event. They ran a measured 40 to 50 miles per day, usually stopping at or shortly after dark and leaving some time before dawn. Bill provided navigation and tidal information, while Rod had needed charts and uncannily homed in on eating establishments and located seats downwind from the other patrons. Upon arrival at Fort Clinch, Bill went for food brought by his wife and support crew, Lisa, while Rod went for sweetened ice tea. The portage was a true test of the partnership when Rod's feet gave out. Bill pitched in, towing both boats the last 11 miles of the portage. Water was good to run the rapids at Big Shoals on the Suwannee, but cooler heads prevailed, and they portaged. Bill and Rod continued down the river, into Cedar Key and on to the finish, working together like a machine. They camped just 20 miles from the end and finished in fine shape about 1 pm the next day. Bill looked like he had lost weight, and Rod appeared to be approaching fighting weight.
Rod and Bill arriving at Ft. Clinch: http://youtu.be/1nVcYYj8yJA
on the portage: http://youtu.be/ZbPcBvuGOqw
at the finish: http://youtu.be/Y5rnGoCE6eI
This year's Ultimate Florida Challenge is one for the record books, not because of record times but for the grueling conditions. The finishers deserve utmost respect for what I consider the toughest race in North America. The combination of weather, logistics, navigation in addition to physical endurance make this an ultimate challenge. Previous Ultimate Challenge finishing percentages were 70% in 2006 and 75% in 2010. In 2012 it was 36%.