My commitment to the race was made about 5 months prior to the start, entering Class 4, Single Male with a Lug Rigged Chesapeake Light Craft Northeaster Dory built from kit in 2010. I had logged many miles in the boat, but nothing quite as intense as an Everglades Challenge. I then began working out 6 days a week, mainly on a Concept2 Rower and doing some HIIT twice daily to improve core strength and stamina.
I pretty much followed the advice in the articles posted in the Magazine section of the WaterTribe website, mainly Chief’s How To Finish a Challenge. The toughest part was figuring out where and how to put all the stuff in a 17’ open boat. I don’t know how those kayakers get everything they need in their boats!
One good thing I did was to arrive in Florida a week early. This allowed me to acclimate to the warmer weather (coming down from Philly), conduct a fully loaded sea trial, and formulate a game plan with probably the best Shore Contact involved in the race. Doug Higgins – fellow CLC Dory builder – handled all the travel logistics, race reports and communications with the Race Manager throughout the race, leaving me only to focus on moving the boat.
They say the toughest part of an EC is getting to the starting line. THEY LIED! The weather was bad, and the forecast was worse. I was a little nervous on the beach, but, after months of prepping, I was at least going to give it a shot. I could always drop out if it got too bad.
The start was hectic with headwinds, waves and dozens of other starters scrambling off the beach. I started off rowing so I could get a little elbow room before raising the sail a hundred yards from shore. I had the first reef preset before the start, which worked out well for the wind conditions. The Lug Rig doesn’t perform too well up wind (think flat bottom boat, square sail, fat guy in the back) and it gets worse with each reef point, so I chose to take a couple of very long tacks across Tampa Bay as opposed to a bunch of short ones.
About mid-bay, I leaned too hard on the starboard oarlock and cracked the wooden riser it’s mounted on. I was very bummed, thinking this could be a race-ender for me, but soon convinced myself that I’d figure something out before too long. At the first low bridge, I pulled over and assessed the damage. Quickly breaking the riser all the way off and reinstalling the oarlock on to the broken remains with 2 of the 4 mounting screws, I was back in business and rowed under the bridge.
By 2130 I was camped on an island just south of Siesta Bridge, below Sarasota with DogsLife. We talked about the front that was to come through in a couple of hours and got some sleep.
As predicted, the front came through just before dawn with thunder, lightning and very high winds. DogsLife was under way at first light, but I stayed back a little longer to let the initial fireworks blow by and wait for more daylight. At 0730 I headed out and took advantage of the North winds. I should mention here that at this time I was very glad that my request to the Chief for a 2nd reef point waiver was denied. I was doing better than 8 knots downwind with the second reef in and definitely would’ve been overpowered with only one reef in the 40 plus mph gusts.
I pulled over before the Blackburn Bridge to remount my oarlock again as it had pulled off while rowing earlier. While shaving off some of the remains of the broken oarlock riser with a brand new Leatherman, I slipped and put a 3” gash in the fleshy part under my left thumb. The beach quickly looked like a murder scene with all the blood that was pumping out of my hand, and again I thought “race-ender”. Luckily I packed a good first-aid kit and wrapped it up pretty good. I called Doug and told him he might want to get the trailer hooked up, that I was probably going to have to drop out. I decided to see if I could evaluate the situation after reaching CP1, about 25 miles away. Whale stopped briefly to unstep his mast, saw that I was OK and wished me luck.
Pulling in to CP1, I asked Chief if there was a place close by that I could get a couple of stitches in my hand. NorthernLight, an ER Nurse, looked at my wound to see if a few butterfly stitches would do, but one quick look at the blood still pumping out of my hand and it was obvious I needed the real thing. Sherry Olson – race volunteer and wife of ArdieO, UF2012 participant – swooped & scooped me to the nearest ER and within 2 hours, I was back in the race. THANKS SHERRY!
Rumor had it that Boca Grande Pass was pretty bad and that there was a pack of WatertTribers on an island just North waiting for the wind to die down, supposedly by 0100. I decided to crash at CP1 and get some sleep.
Heading out at 0330, the beam reach sailing under a full moon was a very pleasant change from Days 1 & 2. That changed around 0900 when I made the Eastward turn at Sanibel Island and 3 hours of tacking later I made a pit stop at the causeway to rewrap my hand and make a thermos of tea.
I consoled myself while beating up wind with the thought that the East wind will be good sailing in the Gulf once I cleared Pine Island Sound. Unfortunately, the wind died and I had to break out the oars. Once in a while a breeze would pick up and tease me in to raising sail, but would die out quickly. I wasted a lot of time and energy falling for it every time, until finally accepting my lot and rowed for several hours. To make things more frustrating, I watched Macatawa and NorthernLight come from behind and pass me in their 18.5′ XCR sailing canoe with their steady paddle-sailing and I cursed the lack of wind as they passed.
A late afternoon breeze picked up and carried me through the night to Sea Oat Island where I slept on board on the beach inside Big Marco Pass.
Sleeping like a log til about 0700, I awoke to see BustedRudder already under way and heading out Big Marco Pass. Soon I was headed out myself on what started out as a nice day.
Entering Caxambas Bay was upwind and while rowing the damned oarlock pulled off again. Pressing my spare canoe type paddle in to service, I paddled up wind, up current until I got past Henry Key when I started sailing again. Cutting off Cape Romano was challenging as the headwinds were strong, the water shallow and the waterway narrow. Rounding Helen Key and re-entering the Gulf, I was met with 20+ mph winds and 3’ waves from the Southeast. Can you guess which way I wanted to go?
I didn’t want to reach Indian Key Pass in that slop and not be able to row if I had to, so I landed on a beach between Ramsey and Neal Keys. I texted Doug to contact the Race Manger and tell her I have declared a weather hold. Texting me back, he told me that PaddleDancer said I was surrounded by WaterTribers facing the same conditions.
There I got something hot to eat, filled the thermos with hot tea and fixed the oarlock once and for all. Had I fixed it right the first time I would’ve spared my self a few stitches and a couple of close calls when I suddenly had no starboard side oar. BIG lesson learned.
Refreshed and excited to try out my new oarlock repair, I headed out to see how bad the seas were and at least look for a better island to pitch camp. Two hours of getting beat up later, I landed on Camp Key, about 10 miles from Indian Key and spent the night.
More of the same! Steady E & SE winds in the twenties all day. 3 to 4’ seas on the Gulf made for a lumpy ride. Sited Paddlecarver & Tyro while tacking back out one last time before making Indian Key Pass a little after noon. The wind always seemed to clock around so as to be on my nose, and to get stronger the closer I got to Chokoloskee.
With special ‘case-by-case’ status from Chief, I pulled up to CP2 at 1730 with Shore Contact Doug meeting me on the beach. SailbirdMike was working overtime with Pelican still coming, but he was real helpful with info and let me use his room for a quick shower (was worth a million bucks!).
I was real tempted to run into Everglades City with Doug for a hot meal, but chose to keep moving.
I rowed with the tide through a maze of mangroves and dropped the hook in the lee of an island across from Turtle Key, right before reaching the Gulf. I didn’t see one gator or crocodile the whole race, but heard some pretty big splashing between the boat and the shore that night. Splashing + no-see-ums = little sleep . . .
The wind being mostly E at 10 – 15 mph made for some comfortable sailing until early afternoon when it picked up into the 20’s and clocked SE. More tacking!
Five out of six days of upwind sailing was taking its toll on me. By 1930 I was exhausted and pulled up on a beach at Northwest Cape, Cape Sable. I pulled the boat above the high water line, changed in to some dry clothes and laid down in my Hennessy Hammock, half set up in the boat so I could use the mosquito net. All was good, so I thought. Within an hour the tide came up so fast I felt the aft end of the boat start to float! Turned out the high water line was much higher. I had the anchor buried in the beach just in case this happened, but I decided to get dressed and give it another shot.
The wind and waves seemed to have increased in the couple of hours since I stopped at Northwest Cape, so I called it quits again about 3 hours later on the beach at East Cape, pulling the boat all the way up to the brush line this time.
Rowing out of the lee of East Cape, I was met with yet more East wind, albeit light. So it was more rowing, but into the wind this time. Eventually, like every day before it, the wind picked up to 15-20 from the East.
Tacking in to CP3, I was greeted by Root, his wife Christine, Doug and a good friend from Philly, Tom Duffy, taking a break from watching the Phillies at spring training.
Root informed me as I pulled up to the dock that if I finished, I would win Class 4, Single Male as the others in the class had dropped for one reason or another. At the same time I saw RidgeRunner and Greybeard pulling their boat out of the water, and was really sorry to learn about their capsize and dismasting. The good news was they weren’t hurt during the mishap. I stopped long enough to throw down a burger and hang out with people for a short time, but was anxious to head out across Florida Bay.
With the strong East wind, I chose to go down and around as opposed to cutting across. I was also a little leery of getting caught up in the maze of shoals at night, having never been there before. I had to row through the first cut heading toward the ICW, but was able to sail through the rest, drawing 29” board-down.
The East wind was holding up nice and I thought I’d have a nice shot at a good point of sail when I turned the corner to head up the ICW. I’m sure there were plenty of others, but here is where I made the one tactical error that cost me dearly.
When plotting my courses for the race, my route was pretty much waypoint to waypoint, but after making it through the Murray, Clive and Man of War Cuts, Florida Bay opens up and I marked a few waypoints to steer clear of. Tired and used to sailing point to point, I followed my GPS directly for Blue Bank, a shoal to the Southwest when I could’ve started Southeast sooner. By the time I remembered I didn’t need to go that far, the wind had died down to under 10 mph and I had to go Southeast to the next waypoint (upwind again!).
35 miles from Key Largo and traveling about 1 – 1.5 knots upwind, I decided to man the oars. By now the cast and duct tape wrapped around my stitches had chafed my wrist pretty raw, coupled with a severe case of “Monkey Butt” and exhaustion made rowing difficult, but at least I could head right for the next waypoint instead getting nowhere tacking in light winds.
I was getting about 1 hour out of the 5 hour energy drinks and couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I pulled in to a little cove on Craig Key, a little patch between Fiesta and Lower Matecumbe Keys, dropped the hook and slept for about 2 hours using my sail as a blanket.
Palm trees rustling woke me up at 0530 with the promise of wind. Once out of the cove and into the Bay, I was really disappointed to find a fair Northeast wind, light rain and 28 miles to go . . . with Key Largo to the NORTHEAST! The VHF Wx channel called for more of the same for the rest of the day.
At 0730 I was extremely tired and feeling like I can’t catch a break with this wind. I decided to call Doug to tell him I may be dropping out soon as I can’t row 28 miles against the wind in this condition, and the maze of keys all around me made it impractical for tacking. We agreed that we would both think of a spot for him to meet me with the trailer, but I would call him back at 1030 with the final decision.
Almost immediately after we hung up, the wind picked up and I saw a cut on the chart between Green Mangrove and Buchanan Keys that might be possible, depending on how high I could keep her pointed. This might also line me up for the next couple of cuts up the road. If I couldn’t make it though, it would be an hour or so in the wrong direction. I gave it a shot.
It was tight, but I made it! This stroke of luck breathed new life in to me and I called Doug to tell him I’m still shooting for Key Largo. He told me that neither he nor PaddleDancer was gonna let me quit anyway, after making it all this way!
Defying the earlier forecast, the sun came out and the wind clocked to the East as I lined up with Plantation Key. Life was finally good and I made it to the finish at the Bay Cove Motel in Key Largo at 1830. I was the last boat to finish, but luckily a few die hard WaterTribers were still there to cheer me on as I rowed the last hundred yards to the ramp.
I was never so tired, so hungry, stunk so bad nor in so much pain all at the same time, but neither was I ever so elated to get a Sharks Tooth necklace (for finishing) and an Engraved Paddle (for winning in my class). With them came a sense of accomplishment that is still with me over a month later.
The WaterTribe gang is comprised of a rare breed of boaters that are both fiercely competitive and supportive of their competition at the same time. I am nothing short of thrilled to have sailed and finished such a challenge with such competent and fun loving people.
I’m hooked and have already signed up for the 2012 North Carolina Challenge and the 2013 Everglades Challenge. Only next time I will pray to the Wind Gods for a little downwind sailing!