Water Tribe’s Everglades Challenge 2012
A Dream is born
Entering the Everglades Challenge 2012 became a dream to explore the adventure side of sailing for myself and sailing friend Birch Ohlinger. In the fall of 2011 we began discussing the possibility of entering the Everglades Challenge; an expedition style race. Our Team became named, The Key West Community Sailing Club’s “Key West Magnum”. Magnum for the design we sailed is a Hobie 18 footer properly called MAGNUM. We proudly sailed the event flying the club’s beautiful blue and white burgee, proudly representing the club and all its members. The club supported our efforts and allowed our boat to be sailed from its beach as we trained and prepared the boat for the expedition.
Birch & I had not sailed together before this event and wanted to put time in the boat together so we were as prepared for the event. First we sailed a 40 mile day event in the Club’s Hobie 16. The sail went well and we decided to continue on. Next we sailed an 80 mile overnighter again on the Hobie 16, big problems arose for us sailing the Hobie 16. In rough conditions it was then that we decided we needed a bigger more substantial catamaran and decided the Hobie 18 Magnum best fit our budget and needs. Shortly after we drove to Little Torch Key and found our baby blue Magnum, struck a deal with the seller and brought her home.
In the preceding months our team replaced about every conceivable part on the boat, so many of race competitors fail to finish this grueling race due to lack of preparation of their equipment and themselves. Birch & I were dedicated to finding every weakness and replace it before it broke. After lots of hours and money our boat was ready for the event that started March 3rd 2012 at the entrance of Tampa Bay at Fort DE Soto State Park.
A Sailing Team needs more than just sailors
Our Team consisted of more than Birch and I. We came with a shore team for support and encouragement, Ed Gully and Arlet Wagoner traveled with us and followed our every move and meets us at every check point. Seeing them at each checkpoint gave us tremendous encouragement and confidence in our mission not only to finish but to representing the sailing club and Key West as well.
The Team drove to Fort De Soto State Park overnight and arrived bright and early Friday March 2nd for setup and safety inspection. As the day progressed we meet many of the 100 teams and 100+ competitors. The array of sailboats, kayaks, canoes and catamarans was impressive and all line up at the water’s edge awaiting the start the very next morning. Our safety inspection went well and we attended several meeting about the race and sailing safe smart and the proper use of the SPOT satellite beacon that every team must to carry to report its position and the use of its OK button. It also had a help button that our dedicated shore person would alert the United Stated Coast Guard to rescue us if needed.
We arrived at the beach Saturday March 3rd 6 AM to a windy dark morning, soon the sun would appear and we would start at 7 AM sharp. The race started but our team was delayed 30 minutes and finally got off the beach near 7:30. In the end it did matter but at the time very stressful to watch competitors leave and we’re still on the beach. Finally we shoved off in hot pursuit but immediately our port rudder would not lock in the down position, we continued on with only one rudder. In the first hour we had sailed out of Tampa Bay and into the Gulf of Mexico and in 4rd place behind Bumpy & Macho Man aka Jamie Livingston and Kenny Pierce in the Olympic Class Tornado catamaran, Sew Sew aka Randy Smyth in his custom carbon trimarran and the Prindle 16. It was just a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky but with a healthy 15-17 knot breeze out on the SW or just about on the nose. A steep chop developed and we slogged all day long towards the first check point opening at Gasparilla Pass Placida, Florida. The only thing that occurred was near 3 PM we noticed we had passed Randy Sew Sew and little did we know that that we had also passed SteersWithBeers aka Robert Wetmore and Puma aka Joseph Frohock in the Prindle 19 and now we are in 2nd place. It would take us to get to the check point to learn the complete news that many of the competitors had broken down already due to the trying conditions.
The sun had set as we approached the first entrance or leave the Gulf and move towards our tuning point and entrance to Placida or CP1. As we turn in the cut small breakers are abound but nothing unmanageable. So far so good as we turn to Bird Key and prepare to beach the Hobie to lower the mast. You need to understand this is just not a sail but an expedition. Now we need to remove the mast and paddle 45 minutes to CP1 located behind two car bridges and two railroad bridges as well. There is good news for it is down wind making the paddling as easy as it can get to paddle an 18’ catamaran.
It is now dark as we navigate up the River towards the check point we eventual see a light and the end of Leg One. Chief was there and a slew of people and best of all our shore team, Arlette and Ed. Here we discover we are 4 hours behind the Bumpy and Mach Man with Sew Sew and Prindle 19 on the beach with Sew Sew attempting to repair his boat to continue on. Boy were we tired but hearing how well our team has performed against the competition makes us eager to move forward up the course. Just before we headed out again after a hot dog meal supplied by the race management a decision was made to change out course and not enter the Gulf where we had just left but 7 miles further south at Costa Cayo, simply sailing up the Intercostal Channel hiding from the big Southerly breeze that had now built to in excess of 20-25 knots.
The start of Leg Two / CP2
We started Leg Two @ 10:00 PM Saturday as the weather had continued to diminish and we sought a brief refuse from by beaching the boat at the cut on the North End of Costa Cayo an un-inhabited state park. After getting safely ashore near 11:30 PM Saturday and after 16 hours of sailing, Birch and I looked out at the churning Gulf and were glad we on a hard sandy beach. We agreed to stop and await the oncoming storm that predicted winds in excess of 50 kts out of the North upon its arrival. As we wrapped ourselves in our emergency survival blankets it was only moments we were hard asleep.
Craziness (Stupidity) at Costa Cayo
We had beached the Hobie on the Northern tip of island as we were well shielded from the still strong southerly winds but we had awakened ourselves near 2:00 AM on Sunday morning. I do not know what we were thinking but we agreed to once again head out into the Gulf and continue the race to the South. Let me say this now, one the wind was still out of the South at 25+ Knots, two the surf was just scary and chaotic and third the big storm was a still on its way. Why we did what we did I just cannot say today but we did it anyway. Under a reefed main and jib we headed out into the Gulf and everything was great…. Too smooth in hindsight. Within minutes we were hard aground on a sand spit with the churning seas just beyond. We dragged the Hobie totally hard onto the smooth packed sand and surmise it was no big deal, we’ll just drag the Hobie to the Gulf side of the sand bar and proceed. Little did we know at the time someone up above placed that sandbar in our way as a stop! Look at what you’re doing, moment! Did we listen to the warning, No so off we go once again into the dark crazy winds and seas! We sailed west for a while in an ever increasing wind and seas. It was then we decided to drop our mainsail and sail under jib alone. That was the only smart decision to make at the time, but with only the jib to power us, the GPS showed we were sailing away from our destination check point at CP2. Sanity finally appeared as we turned back toward the safety of the beach. Today I am a man in my mid 50’s and that decision to enter the Gulf was properly craziest I’ve made as an adult. Safely back on the beach now we sleep again until the sun begins to lighten a very dark and ominous sky. Yes, the storm is about to hit and hit it does! The wind direction quickly swings to the Northwest and delivers a blow of 5o+ kts coupled with an icy cold rain. But here we sit safe on the beach. Blow mother blow because you cannot hurt us here!
After the initial storm front passed Birch I and I reassembled our gear and began to plot out our next move. Looking up from our tasks we noticed two men walking towards us from the intercostal side of the island and quickly found Bumpy & Macho Man had stopped last night just around the corner from us. They were smarter than us and stayed the entire night on the beach never trying our risky maneuver. It was nice to meet them for they we great friendly helpful competitors. They came by once again this time with beef jerky and cookies, how about that! They planted the seed of their plans to sail south in the intercostal to the next inlet opening at the North end of Captiva Island. We thanked them for their friendship and quickly decided to accept their plan and move forward to restarting the race to CP2.
The Restart at Costa Cayo
Our position on the beach made our exit at 11:30AM Sunday morning very difficult for the strong south winds were blowing onshore. We launched the Hobie and walked and pulled the boat to the west or towards the safe intercostal channel. Several people stood on the beach and watched out struggle and offered to make cell calls for assistance, I gave them safe thumbs up and then they knew we were crazy. It was a struggle but we eventually made it to the western edge of the sand island beach to unfurl our jib and off we went to the South. There sat the other team’s Tornado still on the beach, quickly we realized we were leading the EC 2012! Our self-congratulatory praise was left behind as we soon approached the North Captiva Cut and reentered the Gulf of Mexico.
Craziness (Stupidity) again… When will we ever learn?
Heading out into the breaking surf is one on the most dangerous thing and boat can do especially a light small catamaran. As we sailed south just inside the breaking seas we noticed an area that appeared less crazy and tumultuous, wrong! One breaker comes upon the Hobie, then another, then another. None stopping her forward progress but each wave is throwing her bows skyward. But each time we progress forward until here arrives the mother of all breakers, I call to Birch hold on as I do too and soon the bows are pointed upwards at what appears to be more than 45 degrees into the air. The Hobie stops her forward movement and is now that we are very vulnerable for another wave will surely capsize her, breaking the mast in the shallow water and throwing Birch & I into the wild sea. But just before another breaker approaches to my relief the boats jumps forward and easily crests the wave. It appears we made it and slowly we enter deeper waters and a more restive seas state. We made it! Under jib only we head south at 7-10 knots towards CP3 located 65 miles at Chokoloskee. It turns out to be a beautiful sunny but colder day, yet we are still in the race and actually leading it now.
Onward to CP2 Chokoloskee
As Sunday progressed to evening the winds began to sub side just North of Marco Island and we raised the main with a reef. Onwards to Indian Key the entrance to Chokoloskee and our check point finish at CP-2. We actually made it through all the channels and cuts without any problems. Birch discovered I am crazy for I was spouting all kinds of stupid comments as I was suffering from lack of sleep and experiencing hallucinations. Birch found it very amusing to witness my confused thoughts for they had no rhyme or reason but I spilled them none the less.
As we approached the mud beach at Chokoloskee Birch stated how he really wanted to see Arlette and Ed there to greet us. I cannot say how important it was for us to have them there for their support. Low and behold as we beached the Hobie in the mud there they were, time 11 PM Sunday night!
We are very tired cold and informed that we were no long in first place as Bumpy & Macho Man had passed us during the day and have left already for CP3 located at Flamingo inside the Everglades National Park. On top of that our SPOT, a safety satellite beacon that tracks our progress and reports our position and reports that we’re Ok or in need of assistance, is not working and will need to be replaced if we are to continue in the race. In other words no Spot no race and we’re disqualified. Little we can do at this moment but bed down till morning and accept our plight. As Bumpy & Mach Man sail toward CP3 and then the finish at CP4 in Key Largo Birch & I are out of the race until we find another SPOT… just how we do this in the middle of the Everglades I do not know but know we’ll work hard in the morning. Mike the check point race management offers us a hot shower in his hotel room and we quickly pass out in various places around his motel room.
Sunrise Chokoloskee Monday Morning
Upon awaking, I quickly call Chief the race organizer and explain our predicament. Chief explains he will work on finding a replacement and says to start researching the web for a retailer. First we’re off a few blocks walk to a Cuban Restaurant for the best tasting breakfast of all time. When we get back to the room I call my friends at West Marine to search their inventory for a SPOT unit in Naples or Fort Myers the next two closest cities. I’m informed that West Marine has one in stock in Naples and our hopes begin to rise. Just then Chief calls to say a competitor that dropped put earlier will lend us his SPOT and meet us half way. This is just too cool to image. I call and we agree on a location at the resort Port of the Island inside the Everglades, in less than an hour I’ve got the SPOT, stop off at a store and we restart the race by 11:30AM Monday morning!
Exit CP2 Chokoloskee
Just a beautiful Monday morning as we shove off the mud beach at 11:30 AM, cool crispy northerly wind at 15 kts making our exit from the confines of Everglades twisted channels an easy sail. Quickly we enter the Gulf once again an experience the easiest fast sail to Cape Sable located at the Southwestern Tip of the Florida Peninsula. We’re able to briefly raise our spinnaker hitting speeds of 17 knots; the Team is flying south and great fun. Soon the spinnaker halyard cleat explores under the enormous loads and we continue with just the main and jib reaching. We round Cape Sable and head west toward CP3 at Flamingo. Tacking back and forth we progress to the Flamingo and get there past sundown and yes out shore team was there once again!
CP2 Flamingo Everglades Nation Park
By now my body is showing the effects of being in a wetsuit for 3 day with chafe all about my armpits, personal area and ankles. I made a poor choice in not spending the extra dollars for a dry suit. Flamingo did not have a hot shower but a hose at the fuel dock did suffice. As I showered off still wearing the suit I looked down into the water below to see a very large Alligator starring up at me. I knew what he was thinking as I moved from the dock’s edge. The weather forecast and current winds were out of the Northeast. Florida Bay’s reputation is if the wind is out of that direction it will not matter what state the tide is in the wind will blow out most of the water leaving very little water height to pass through its very shallow channels. Birch and I devise a southern router to avoid this and soon we’re ready to leave again, on ward to CP4 and the finish in Key Largo.
The Final leg Flamingo to Key Largo Finish Monday 11:00 PM
As we head out of the Flamingo channel Birch notices the wind is more North than expected and begin lobbying for us to stick to our first route option to Key Largo using the Northern and shorter route. Soon I sign on and we’re off. The first channels are the more challenging both for their East West direction but also for the lack of maneuvering room and water depth. After a couple hours we have progressed extremely well towards Key Largo until we hit an area appropriately name the Twisted Channel… Here we find very few channel markers and even less water. It is here we attempt to slog, push and cajole the Hobie ahead. By 3:00AM we’re dead and decide to stop our efforts and await a rising tide and sunrise as the sun’s rays will illuminate our way forward.
Our restart in the middle of Florida Bay 6:30 AM Tuesday
Our restart begins with me hallucinating once again calling out to Birch, “Where are you walking to”? A startled Birch jumps awake and looks out over the virtually dry grass bed we’re sitting on and says, “Where do you think I’m walking too”? But with light we can see the small channel markers that were so elusive just hours ago in the dark and begin pushing the Hobie about one half mile towards deep open water…. deep for Florida Bay is barely 3 feet deep!
Finally we raise the sails once again and we’re off flying towards the intercostal and Key Largo at over 11 knots. We touch bottom one more time get out and push a bit but in no time sailing free again. Now understand we’ve been sailing on this small Hobie for 3 days now and ones thought patterns are not always sound… remember my hallucinations, right? At about 10:00 we arrive at our coordinates for the finish but guess what we cannot locate the Bay Point Motel. We tie up behind a canal front home and call the race director, Chief, only to discover we’re still 6 miles short of the finish. By now the wind had built to over 25-30 kts on the nose and we head out once again North up the intercostal towards the finish.
Finish 11:30 AM Tuesday (Total time 76.5 hours)
Yes, we made the finish and 2nd overall! The expedition was truly an adventure for both Birch and I. We made it to the finish without wanting to kill one another and enjoyed every sunrise, sunset, the wild life that includes sea turtles many playful Dolphins, Ospreys and I even saw a Bald Eagle! Great fun. I can speak for myself that I’d like to do more of these expedition style events in the future. So time will tell what adventures are ahead for Birch and myself, stay tuned.
Again a great thank you to the Key West Community Sailing Center and a big hug to our shore team Arlette Wagoner and Ed Gully for making this all possible you’re the best!