It was an unusual weekend. I had spent most of the past year excited for the annual cruise down the south west coast of Florida. This event is mentally and physically demanding. It requires a lot preparation and determination to finish. There are thousands of things along the way that can take you out of race. Some are prior to the start like work and family. Along the way it can be equipment failure, fatigue, injury or even illness. But with all the preparation I never anticipated the event being canceled by the Coast Guard and getting news that we were ordered off the water.

2015 started like any other year. All was going smoothly for me. I had plans to paddle with Danito for as long as possible. I was able to ride with DieTired and DieTired2 to the start. We shared a camp site in Fort Desoto on Friday night. The biggest news was that the raccoons were thankfully gone and one WaterTriber was not going to make the event. He was hospitalized due to a heart issue. I went to dinner with a bunch of Tribers from Orlando and had an excellent pre-race meal. All was going according to plan.

Saturday morning roll call seemed normal. Some folks were still organizing their gear but conditions looked good. I had listened to the marine weather radio around 5 AM and they were calling for 15 – 20 and stated “small craft should exercise caution” which I took to mean that the potential for rough water was likely but there was no small craft warning in effect. Basically for me and my canoe I would have to proceed cautiously.

When I got to the starting beach the tide was very low. Most likely the result of the wind creating a stronger than usual tide. Since the launch was on the leeward side the water looked calm near shore but when I looked at a powerboat way off shore heading west on plane it was clear that there was a good chop on the water.

Quadcopter video from a spectator confirms conditions looked almost too good at the launch. It was a different story further off shore.

The first half of the bay crossing was fairly uneventful. Danito and I were paddling within 100 yards of each other. As we got further across the conditions continued to build. We were running 1 meter Flat Earth Kayak Sails or FEKS. I was mostly sailing. I would occasionally paddle and brace a bit in the bigger gusts. The wind gusts were strong enough to be causing my deck to flex under the load. When I saw that I eased the sail out and bled off some of the speed and power. Most of the time I was consistently making 4.5 – 5.5 knots which is moving quite well. Its about then that I grabbed my phone and took my first video.

It was soon after this that I happened upon the first capsize assistance being performed. I didn’t know the guy who had rolled. There was already a veteran Triber lending assistance. I acted as the 2nd assist by collecting his paddle and float nearby and then pulling up along side the 1st responder. We were able to get the guy situated and then proceeded on our way.

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Green kayak being assisted after wet exit and re-entry. (Blurriness is from water on the lens)

It took me by surprise when I looked to my right and saw another Triber was in the water and already getting assistance. It was SandyBottom being assisted by FeralCat. As I approached she skillfully got back into her boat and with one of us on each side of her we proceeded to pump her boat out with two hand bilge pumps. This one caught me off guard because the person who went over was one of the most experienced and skilled kayakers that I know. I am looking forward to reading her account of what happened but my speculation is that it was a combination of the conditions, a high performance narrow kayak, and very large expedition load.

Updated: Her account is now here:

Conditions were getting worse as we got further across the bay. I had anticipated this. My plan was to head east of my intended crossing point so that first and foremost I wouldn’t miss the ICW on the other side. Second, as the conditions worsened I would be able to turn so that I would have following seas instead of waves hitting me on the beam. That plan pretty much fell apart the second time I gave assistance because were standing still in the water long enough to drift west of my intended line.

How bad were the conditions out there? I really don’t think they were bad at all. Don’t get me wrong it was very windy and the seas were up but not anything that I would call storm conditions. It should have been manageable for anyone who was an expert in their small boat of choice and in good physical condition. Those that I saw roll and performed a wet exit did great jobs recovering. I am confident they would have been fine on their own too. The assistance we provided was just that, assistance, not a rescue. The others that I heard about after the race were different cases. An I550 sailboat capsized near Anna Maria Island and one account that I heard from a person with 1st hand knowledge of that boat was they hadn’t taken appropriate caution which resulted in the boat going over. I spoke with the person who radioed it in. He was on channel 16 requesting a commercial tow for them because there wasn’t an emergency and everyone was ok but the Coast Guard responded anyways.

OneEyedJake also gave assistance to Tribers in need that resulted in the coast guard being called. He recounted the story on FaceBook and its worth sharing.

“The morning started out with a rather bleak weather forecast. Wind on the high side at 20-ish with higher gusts. A little stronger later on. Out of the north east. With an incoming tide. What that means is that two really strong forces of nature are directly opposed to each other. Wind out of the northeast down the 35 mile length of Tampa Bay pushing against the Gulf of Mexico pushing it’s way in on an incoming tide and meeting at the mouth of Tampa Bay can provide some interesting conditions pushing up big waves and strong opposing currents.

Pretty much smack dab in the middle of the 7 mile open water crossing of Tampa Bay, Mary and I watched as a tandem kayak capsized with two guys aboard. We immediately headed over to help.

They were having no luck trying to right the big (20ft or so) kayak and climb in. We could tell that the cold water was taking it’s toll on them. Mary swooped in to give them some direction after seeing that they were unsuccessful on their own. I circled the boat retrieving items floating away.

They managed to dump some of the water and climb aboard. Almost immediately the entire front of the kayak and front cockpit went underwater and began to sink. Both paddlers exited quickly. Mary and I got our hand pumps and began to help the guys pump out.

That was initially unsuccessful. We would get a little water out and a wave would wash over us filling the cockpit completely. By this time one of the paddlers is showing signs of hypothermia.

Between Mary and I pumping we managed to empty the front cockpit of enough water that the boat would float and got the first paddler aboard. We moved to the rear cockpit and worked on pumping that out too and getting the second paddler aboard.

As they began paddling we realized that we would have to follow them to shore. Both were tired, very cold and paddling slowly in rough conditions.

We watched dejectedly as the bow of the big tandem slowly settled into the water. Every wave seem to be crashing over the paddlers and adding more water to the cockpits. The spray skirts they had were not up to the job.

As expected, the boat rolled over and the paddlers were swimming in the cold, rough water again about a mile off shore. More gear scattered as we closed in. Attempts to clear water out were futile. The cold and exhausted paddlers were not able to assist. One guy in the water was holding onto my kayak and his legs were shaking so much he sounded a woodpecker against the hull. I made a call to the Coast Guard on the VHF radio.

At the same time we were enjoying our time on the water, in the distance we could see at least two other rescues happening. Two kayaks headed our way, we thought to help, but had to keep on going to shore. One had water in a rear compartment and was in danger of sinking (JammerJim). TideRider was assisting him to land.

Shortly after that, SwampGator and OysterSlayer went by headed for shore. As the Coast Guard arrived we broke off and rafted up with these guys to help get OysterSlayer to shore safely. OysterSlayer had taken enough water aboard to make his kayak unstable in the rough water.

We approached Anna Maria Island about a mile away and entered Bimini Bay,a protected cove. While sorting out the situation, sharing experiences and fixing the kayaks we heard on the VHF that the Coast Guard had declared the end of the race and told all participants to head to shore. They had had to rescue 11 participants and were overwhelmed.

We felt bad for the guys who had such a rough time on the bay. At the same time we were exhilarated that our training and experience helped to salvage a bad situation, at least for awhile.

A great learning experience also. Many mistakes were made and while camping that night we re-hashed the day and tried to figure what we could have done better. I’m sure glad it wasn’t one of us that needed rescuing.“

Pictures from Tampa Bay

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Picture of me taken by Danito

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Danito very comfortable in a Kruger Canoe outfitted with a one meter Flat Earth Kayak Sail or FEKS.

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SandyBottom enjoying her paddle.

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Feralcat cruising. Very impressed with the way he handled himself on and off the water.

As we finished our crossing of the bay the water became shallow while passing over a sand bar. I turned so that the waves were directly behind me and started to catch a few. This was fun! I was able to surf my fully loaded Kruger Dreamcatcher for several seconds. When I looked down at the GPS it was reading over 10 knots! Next we saw the Coast Guard come screaming by with lights blazing. I gave them the thumbs up and knew there was likely trouble for someone out there but I never suspected that it was going to be several boats. It just didn’t look that bad out there.

Inside the Intra Coastal Waterway we proceeded to have a relaxed paddle. We passed under the first bridge and I shot video #2

Our next concern was Sarasota Bay. Danito had been there before and after seeing Tampa Bay give some people trouble I followed his suggestion to stay east in lee of Sisters Key. This worked great and as we got to the center of the bay it was calm enough to take off my foul weather gear and spray skirt.

We travelled like this for quite some time before coming to a bridge north of Venice where a Triber volunteering in the race was giving verbal updates. He was a little far away but we got the message that there had been significant trouble. He said that we were to notify our shore contacts that we were ok and proceed to our safest take out point. I yelled back that we were going to CP1. I made that decision because the rest of the trip was in the protected ICW and that was my float plan.

Once this all went down I turned my phone back on. I had a text message and voice mail from my wife who was my shore contact stating we were ordered to get off the water. I pulled up the WaterTribe forum where I found posts from Chief and PaddleDancer stating that the race was cancelled at check point 1 in Cape Haze Marina. That was 25 miles away but for a Triber that just an afternoon or evening sail/paddle so no big deal.

Dannito and I discussed our options long the way with Scareman. We were concerned for the people who were rescued but boggled by the cancellation. There was a lot of discussion about going on anyways but we also talked about getting the full story at CP1 before making a decision.

The evening paddle was amazing. Winds were only a bit helpful. Mostly we were paddling. I was able to get one neat photo of Danito at night.

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Once we arrived at CP1 we saw a lot of boats but not everyone. Some who arrived had already left. There were several reason shared by 3rd parties so take them with a grain of salt. I heard that some were going to go rouge, some were out of the event but proceed as a vacation trip, some had their car, trailer and family in the keys so they had to get there anyways, some were organizing their own catamaran group sail. I was surprised that Chief and PaddleDancer were not there answering questions. Instead the check point volunteer was was trying to handle things as best he could but he didn’t have official updates to share. He really was doing the best he could under the circumstances.

I spoke with FeralCat. For me he was the voice of reason in the group. After hearing his calm and rational assessment I came to either the same or very close assessment that having Tribers on the water and heading in the same direction as the original course would be construed by the Coast Guard as proceeding and disregarding their clear directions. If someone was to have another emergency after proceeding it would only make the current situation worse. For that reason I choose do as the Coast Guard directed and take out at CP1.

So that was it for me. I made camp at CP1. Sunday morning I had to get my boat out of the water so paddled down to Placida boat ramp 5 miles to the south and waited to be picked up by DieTired and crew. We shuttled two more Tribers back to Tampa to get their cars and then went home.

Assessing Events

Since we had a long drive there was plenty of time to read forum posts, news accounts, and Facebook. When reading these there were a few things that stood out and I am going to try and share my thoughts.

Looking for more information I went to Sailing Anarchy. This is an independent sailing news site that prides itself on a no BS and no holds barred approach to covering the sport’s news. So if you are looking for constructive criticism and have thick skin this is a good place get it. The article is here.

The link to the forum is a must read. It contains posts from many WaterTribers but you will have to navigate the normal Internet stupidity to see the quality content. (One Note: Mr. Clean is the Sailing Anarchy owner/operator/main writer. He does give tough but constructive feedback.)

How Many?

I also found the link to these articles that stated 11 or 12 people were “rescued” by the Coast Guard :

Ok, Lets pause for a second and look at it with a critical eye. I have a first responder on the water background. I have performed many rescues and provided assistance to many more. As soon as I see a large total for rescues I don’t implicitly believe the stats. The Coast Guard deserves our respect for the job they do but we should be careful when we read these reports. They are capable of tooting their own horn a bit too much. They are human just like the rest of us. Remember the above report that a call was made for a commercial tow and Coast Guard showed up? I hope that WaterTribe organizers with the assistance of elders (term for multiple finishers) and participants will document a comprehensive time line of events that occurred in Tampa Bay so we can sort out who really got rescued and who were both assisted by other Tribers and the Coast Guard. In my opinion this has to happen prior to any recommendations for corrective actions being made.

Marine Event Permits

It was after reading the Sailing Anarchy post that 1st learned that a MEP was required. It makes sense but frankly I didn’t know that prior to the event. I have a lot of on the water event experience, especially in small boats, and this has never come up in the past. I would imagine that all of the events I have participated in the past never had one.

– Weekly Sailboat Rum Races
– Small Sailboat Regattas put on by Yacht Clubs
– Boat Rallies
– Fishing Tournaments
– Group Campouts on Islands
– Open Water Swims
– Canoe/Kayak Races

I wondered if Chief knew about it because I didn’t.

This requirement conflicts with the original intent which was to have an unsupported expedition style event that condensed a longer trip into a week. My speculation is that the WaterTribe and Everglades challenge started with a manageable sized group participating. Everyone is suppose to be highly skilled experts and very well prepared for all conditions. The Internet and media coverage of this event along with the relatively low cost (compared to big boats) has drawn more and more participants. I like to refer to it as being a victim of your own success. With over 100 boats launching at the same time and immediately crossing a large body of water it makes sense that WaterTribe get the MEP as required by the Coast Guard.

One concern that I have heard is that will place additional costs on event organizers and participants. My hope is that this will be relatively small. My suggestions is that going forward organizers require participants to have a Boat US membership that is tied to their Spot Messenger.

Depending upon how its negotiated with Boat US and Spot we may be able to demonstrate that we are registering 100+ new users every year which based on a complete guess of $60 year for basic service that would be $6000 total. If we were to require the premium service for the captain of each vessel at $170 a year it would be $17000 a year for Boat US. That may be enough incentive to have them station multiple boats in Tampa Bay on the day of the start and one on call for Charlotte Harbor Saturday and Sunday. Just thinking out loud here. It will take some time to figure out what is a good idea and what is feasible.

Safety Checks and Experience Levels

S#!% happens from time to time and even the most prepared get in trouble but the volume of assists and rescues that occurred this year requires re-evaluating protocols. I have a lot of random thoughts on this that may be worth considering.

How do we do a better job evaluating first time participants? Watertribe already has one of the best safety gear requirements list out there. There is a proven focus on safety in all situations. This equipment list is checked by a veteran Triber before the race begins. Its a good system but clearly its not stopping everyone who may not be fully prepared from setting off.

Should the check off be stricter? Do we exclude people based on this evaluation.

Should we have a pre-race certification process? With entrants coming from all over how?

Should we make boats in Class 1 and 2 go off the beach fully loaded on Friday before the event and purposely flip the boat with all their gear to prove they can re-enter safely?

Should all classes have to prove they have had their boat rigged and tested several months before the race starts?

Should all classes have to demonstrate that the boat in its current rigged state has participated in at least one long event prior to entering the Everglades Challenge?

Should a buddy system be in place for all rookies in the race? At least for crossing Tampa Bay when a small craft warning is in effect?

The Stupid Tax

Before getting started I would like to say that Steve Isaac aka Chief needs to be recognized for doing many things right before he is criticized for not having a MEP. I have nothing but respect for his leadership and attention to safety. I know of no other person that does as good of a job as Chief in emphasizing safety, educating and preparing those who wish to participate in our events. If there was a mistake on his part then he will correct it going forward. This an opportunity. WaterTribe will improve and grow from it.

The following is a reply to OneEyedJake’s Facebook post:

Len Perry “Great recap of events. Too bad sponsor of the EC2015 did not apply for a sanctioned Marine Permit. I believe that had the required permits for this type of event been submitted to the USCG, including having event sponsored safety vessels in the area, the outcome would have been different. The USCG may have only suspended -or placed on hold – the EC for a specific time to ensure that all event participants were safe and accounted for, and then allow the EC to proceed. I know from experience with Offshore Powerboat World Racing events when I was the Operations Officer stationed with the USCG in Key West, that it would not be unusual for the USCG to place a hold or suspended for a time period an event due to sea conditions or problems with race participants (i,e, sinking of race boat with loss of life). Had the EC2015 sponsor applied for a Maritime Event permit, all parties involved, i.e. USCG and event sponsor, would meet to discuss how many safety vessels would be required, in addition to an on scene USCG Command and Control vessel, and a predetermined number of USCG boats that would be needed to cover the events safety zone. With all that being said, I would not be surprised if the USCG issues a fine to the sponsor of the event, and not allow another EC to occur unless permits are submitted. The USCG is going to take the stance that the event sponsor not only risked the lives of the EC participants by not having prior approval, the sponsor also risked the lives of the USCG small boat crews along with the USCG flight crew members who had to respond from CG Air Station Clearwater. Additionally, the EC sponsor can be fined a dollar amount to recover the expense of the CG units that were involved with the rescues. Most people would now be asking – what do I pay taxes for? The answer is simple – to have the USCG on call for when an unexpected emergency occurs. However, the EC sponsors acknowledge prior to the event to all participants that hazards/emergencies may be encounter by participants, and requires specific safety equipment for all participants. Yet the EC sponsor does not provide any safety vessels, and believes that by having the participants sign a waiver of liability relieves the EC sponsor of any liability. This is not true, event sponsor can be found responsible and culpable in that the EC sponsor anticipated the possibility of emergencies arising during the event. Therefore, I would anticipate a move by the USCG to fine the EC2015 event sponsor. Fines in this case could be in the amount of $5,000. per incident/participant. Of course a hearing would be held and the fines could be mitigated – but that in itself would be expensive. It would not be unusual to see a fine after mitigation in the amount of $50,000 or higher.”

While I am appreciative of the information I am appalled at the idea that fines could be levied against WaterTribe. This event is structured with safety being a priority. While there may have not been a MEP in place, WaterTribe is a group that has consistently promoted and enforced safety on the water. It would be a real tragedy if organizers were monetarily penalized (a tax for being stupid) because of unprepared participants, poor judgement by participants, and even prepared participants who were did have a real emergency outside of their control. Yes corrective actions need to be done. I would support the following:

– Require a MEP going forward
– Have WaterTribe work with the Coast Guard to do PSAs on MEP requirements going forward.

But again no stupid tax. Fines are not going to help anyone. It only hurts a group that has a history of being focused on safety.

Reference Information on Marine Event Permits

Coast Guard Statute

MEP Overview

MEP Online Form

2 thoughts on “My Account and Assessment of the 2015 Everglades Challenge

  1. Pingback: The Coast Guard Cancelled The 2015 Everglades Challenge | Clarity… in sailing, and in life

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