Everglades Challenge 2011 DNF

It was about 8 months before the EC2011 that I tripped over the Watertribe site. “A life changing experience” caught my eye, and I began perusing the posts of those who had completed the race.
I signed up and started training. I confided in friends: “I’m entering a kayak race”- “that’s nice where is it?” – “Tampa to Key largo 300 miles”.
My favourite sailing quote is “Be careful who you talk to about your sailing plans. Those who have abandoned their dreams will try to destroy yours.”
To most I was nuts, or having a mid life crisis. My wife and I had paddled most of the water in Florida but not South of Everglades city, and never these kinds of distances but she thought it a fine idea. I married her for a reason.
I had started developing sciatica on longer trips and this was my greatest fear. Could I sit in a boat for an entire day?
I became a Google Earth junkie, saving websites and printed out booklet charts on HP tough paper using the NOAA charts site:
Waypoints for my Garmin GPS78 were gathered from geogarage:
http://marine.geogarage.com/routes (A great site but now defunct. It would merge google earth and paper charts in a hybrid view.)

Two months before the start I was in Tampa and made a side trip to Fort Desoto Park. It was a nasty rainy day. Looking south there was only grey mist and a confused chop while the GPS proudly displayed 60NM to CP1. Maybe my friends were right. I’d never yet paddled that distance in a single sitting. At that point CP1 was my goal, Key Largo a dream.

I took the training seriously. Living on a lake allowed me to paddle quite often while running, lifting, and swimming helped overall. I even quit drinking beer promising myself that reward in Key Largo.
For the sciatica the wallet left my back pocket and I took up yoga for stretching.
At race day I was 54 years old, 20 lbs lighter and in the best shape I’d been in since rowing crew long ago.
The EC had already changed my life!

The trip to CP1 was as advertised. Grossly overdeveloped Intracoastal Waterway and crazy people in all manner of power craft. The headwind and chop through Sarasota bay was maddening! My Necky Arluk III despite being 18’ had 2-3 feet less of waterline length because of the swept bow. It would dive under most every wave and the sail furled on deck would collect and hold a gallon of water. I suffered from Epic envy as I watched them next to me slicing through the chop with their plumb bows, never taking it over the deck. My next boat will be all about waterline length and reduced rocker!

The first time I even looked at my GPS I had covered 25 miles. I felt good; sciatica was there but manageable by repositioning and working my legs with the stroke. I knew CP1 was in the bag and arrived there at 12:45 in the morning. The quick hot shower was an out of body experience. I didn’t bother taking my clothes or PDF off, just got back in the boat and paddled out to a spoil adjacent the train trestle. Pitched tent, changed into dry clothes, wrung out the freshly rinsed gear, cooked a hot dehydrated meal, did my EnduroxR4 per chief’s instruction and passed out.

I wake at first light when camping. It is beyond my control. I did not have enough sleep but I was up and my mind full of details. Next time I will bring those eye shades and see if I can get more than 3 hours of sleep.
Broke camp, in the boat and off. My wife is a sewing magician and had made a deck bag that I could put the days food rations into, slots for about 4 20oz Gatorades, and a see thru pouch for chapstick, sunscreen, backup GPS batteries etc. This worked great! I had vacuum bagged each days allotment of powerbars/gels/jerky/dried mango. Simply cut open and dump in deck bag.

The conditions were OK until Charlotte harbour. I intended to cross Boca Grande to Cayo Costa and hug the island to be sheltered from the wind somewhat. Crossing the wind was on my nose and very strong, plus a flood tide and nasty chop. I was making very little progress by the GPS and decided to wait in the Boca yacht basin for conditions to improve. I settled for an early burger there instead of cabbage key. When I got back into my boat a guy with two kids on a dock was looking at me. You start looking a little crusty and I assumed he was just wondering if I didn’t have a home. I said hello and he asked where I was going. I answered “Key Largo” and he said “You’re in that watertribe race? cool! Do you need anything?” I needed nothing but it was a nice conversation and it boosted my spirits. The wind had moderated at least 10knots and the crossing was now manageable.

Having made it to Cayo Costa I was able to start reaching with the sail and started making some good time.
It’s interesting how quickly the day passes while kayaking and it became an obsession to make time before it went away each day. It was a long haul down pine island sound and the wind was about 80 degrees off my nose and continued to freshen all day. I was reaching with the sail and really moving. The GPS was reporting 5-6 knots with occasional peaks at 7 (crazy fast for a kayak). I wasn’t paddling much, but bracing very often on gusts. It was nearly impossible to take a hand off the paddle to get food or a drink, but figured out I could use my downwind hand to brace one handed using the cockpit rim to brace against. I had read posts by Sandybottom where she said she had simply peed in her cockpit. At the time I thought that a little extreme. With no opportunity to get out of the boat let alone use 2 hands to pee in a bottle, I peed myself at least 3 times that day. I was so busy keeping upright and on course I would have happily done #2 if I had to.
It started feeling very lonely. It was becoming late afternoon, 3 miles to mangrove on the left, 2 miles to mangrove on the right, and no other boats in sight. This was not a place I wanted to have a problem, and I had no idea where home would be that night. I did not want to cross Matanzas in the dark and I was completely exhausted.
I knew Sanibel was not a kayak friendly place with bulkheads everywhere and it became clear I had few options. In the twilight I saw a 2’ break in a low rock break-wall 50 yards from a dock. I dragged the boat through the hole, up onto mangrove roots.
It was getting dark; I donned my headlamp and got my hammock strung up. There was only 30’ from the water to what turned out to be some ones driveway, and there was a very nice house visible at the end of the drive. I had to cover my lamp twice as cars passed, then once when people walked down the drive. I cooked a quick meal, grabbed a water bottle, a pee bottle and crawled into the hammock to call my wife. I really wanted someone to talk to about the day. I guess I freaked her out when I said something to the effect “I don’t feel like I’m racing anymore, just surviving”. She said later I wasn’t making sense and thought I said I was going to get back in the boat and go. She went to bed stressed, got up to check my SPOT and felt better when my spot didn’t move. I was unconscious in seconds having paddled 15 hours on 3 hours of sleep. She wasn’t satisfied I hadn’t done something stupid until she saw my SPOT move in the morning
I had stealth camped on a 10 acre estate valued at 4M by the tax rolls. The owner is the daughter of some New England publishing gazillionarie. She is involved in charitable projects on Sanibel and surrounding counties. That’s good. She might not have had me shot if discovered. I am so happy Hennessey hammocks are camo colored!

Awoke day 3 with sleep under my belt and headed out under Sanibel Bridge. I should have stayed outside Estero to take advantage of the calm in the morning but made the mistake of going inside. I thought I might get a free ride on an ingoing tide but of course you pay for that at the next inlet. I did get to take a break in the inlet coming out Big Carlos Pass. Plan was to go outside and come in at Gordon pass or further South depending on conditions.
19 miles later it was getting to be too much outside and I wanted to go in at Gordon Pass. There are people you see again and again in a paddle and in my case that would be GhostYakr. I caught up to him 5 miles or so from Gordon Pass. I felt bad saying hi because it necessitated his stopping, pausing his Ipod to see what I was yammering about. As I neared Gordon it became clear I wasn’t carrying a sail through the inlet. The tide was outbound and waves were breaking in the narrow inlet. I turned into the wind, got the sail lashed down on the deck and turned back to the inlet. Waves started lifting my rear and the boat wanted to take off surfing. I was not interested in surfing the inlet and was busy braking right and left to keep a reasonable pace when a wave broke on my back and knocked me down. Shit.
My first thought was “well that’s that I’m out of the race ..someone will call the authorities”. I did not feel very stealthy at this point. I’m bobbing in an inlet with an upside down boat that I can’t right. There are rock piles north and south and some jackass in a 65’ motor yacht is honking his horn at me like I’m supposed to get out of the way.
I figure out the sail has deployed and it takes what seems an eternity (maybe 2 minutes) to get it lashed so I can right it.

With the boat upright, I climb up aft of the cockpit, straddle OK but the damn seatback that I had worked so hard to create perfectly molded to my lower back with padding is floating upright blocking my ass from entering. Over I go again. Flotsam is everywhere and I have to keep track of my paddle and seat which is not secured. You are oblivious to things outside your immediate sphere of concern at these times and it is then I hear “Can you get in?”. It is GhostYakr and he is rounding up some of my junk and doing a great job in the soup! “I’m working on it” is all I can offer.
I straddled the boat again forward of the cockpit so I can push the seat back with my butt and get in. Finally upright I paddle in to a beach inside the inlet emphatically giving a cop on a four wheeler the OK sign (please don’t call anybody!!!).

GhostYakr takes this as an opportunity to pump out, his boat is leaking from points unknown and I am feeling guilty assuming he did not want to enter Gordon Pass but did so when he saw me flip. His chase later confirmed this despite his denial there on the beach.
I lost a few items in the inlet I had spares for but a gallon of water I kept forward of my feet was gone and I needed that. I should have stopped at the marina there near Gordon pass but I assumed there would be opportunities later. Down to 2 bottles of Gatorade on deck and 1/3 of a camelback I started paddling on a mission to find water before sundown.
Paddling down Keewaydin Island there are dozens and dozens of docks with no boats. Some had plumbing and I paddled up to one turned the spigot and got a sucking sound. They must all be abandoned. I’m wondering how “Kneadingwater” got his name at this point.
I’m about to turn left leaving little Marco Island to starboard when I see a dock a couple 100 yards down that has a couple of boats. I take the slight detour, beach and walk up to the dock. I holler hello and an elderly gentleman appears. Looking like a refugee I ask if it would be OK if I borrowed a garden hose for some water. He explains there is no plumbing on the island but offers me a gallon of drinking water which I accept wondering if this disqualifies me from the race. I need a ruling on this. If I simply used his hose (without asking) I’d be OK. I asked permission to use a hose… I didn’t ask for a gallon jug. He offered me a gallon in lieu of a hose. Enter lawyers. Chief?

Like the day before I am asked where I am going, then where I started. He looks at my kayak and wishes me luck and to be safe. The look on his face is one of horror but he is sincere and again my spirits soar on his simple act of kindness. He had to carry that gallon from his car to his boat to his house. I intend to return it to him next EC with a note. Well, maybe a gift certificate and a note.

It is calm and beautiful paddling behind Cannon Island and through Johnson bay. I am almost dried out and for the first time loosen my skirt to allow the cockpit to dry out as well. It is twilight just ahead I see a disturbance in the otherwise perfectly rippled water. Having witnessed (Muffin?) the night before getting fluked I know exactly what is about to happen. I stop paddling hoping to glide over the beast. He spooks and I am up, down, up and down in a shower of putrid stinking Manatee shit, farts, and mud, my cockpit is half full with this soup, but I am upright!
When you spook a manatee they flee. Their fluke goes up and down exactly 4 time’s right on the surface. If you are in the way, be ready to brace. I’m told stay in the channel to avoid them but in some places, on lower tides there is not enough water for them to float their bloated carcass except in the channel. Sorry, I’ve never been a fan.
Soaking wet, stinking of manatee with no place to get out and change I layer on a windbreak over my PFD and start paddling to warm up. It’s dark as I round Isle of Capri.

I did not know about the challenge mapper prior to the EC2011. I use Google Chrome and the Watertribe site does not enumerate options when you mouse over EVENTS from the home page. I discovered the mapper AFTER the EC and began learning all kinds of things like the shortcut Hammerstroke took through Isle of Capri! I would have done many things differently had I known about the mapping tool prior! If you are entering the EC for the first time, stop reading this, use Firefox or IE and spend several days studying the routes of those who completed this event!

Going up the Big Marco River in the dark I fell in love with my GPS 78sc. None of the marks are lit and it was joy to cursor over a distant mark, hit go and try not to run into it. I paid a lot for it but it came with maps built in, and is kind to batteries. I had brought two headlamps along. Don’t bother with ones that have red light, never used it, but DO get LED ones that have two modes (spot and wide) and dimming capable. Invaluable.

Where to sleep was the question again. I like Goodland for its bars / restaurants but knew it had no camp able areas so it was something else or an island in the gulf. Last time to Goodland we looked at the marina at the base of the bridge and knew it was lightly occupied so I turned in there. I paddled around and found an entire finger of empty floating docks.  Climbed up on the dock, pulled my boat up out of the water, pitched tent, setup the stove, cooked a hot meal, low and behold the spigots worked! I was livin large! Showered off the manatee goo, fed a hot meal, with gear drying out I climbed into the tent. It is always a great feeling when you score a cool camp site no matter how bizarre or absurd. I wasn’t exactly “stealth” but no one noticed and I was gone before anyone was up. I did leave something behind in the porta potty, and that was luxurious as well.

Passing Tripod key in the early morning I saw GhostYakrs boat on the beach and a hammock pitched nearby. Would have been nice to chat but I wasn’t about to wake him, I had no idea when he got there.

It was a long 10 NM to Indian Key Pass with the headwinds and chop but I had the tide perfectly and made great time through the pass, another 3 miles and I was ashore at Chockloskee with Pelican welcoming me to CP2. This is when it all came apart.

I had never planned to take the Wilderness Waterway. I read the Watertribe site about earning an alligator tooth by taking the WW, touring endearing places like “Nightmare” and the such. Sounded like great fun, but this was my first attempt, and I simply wanted the shortest easiest route. My plan was to be outside to “graveyard” then inside at Whitewater bay or stay outside around Sable if the weather was good. I had no chart for the WW, and no waypoints in my GPS for it. I had spent countless hours examining my intended route and options in Google earth and GeoGarage but not a moment on the WW.
Add to that I had a flight out of Orlando early Saturday morning that was non negotiable. The next takeout was Flamingo and that would be a hike if the weather was bad.

My feathering wrist was sore, swollen and squeaked when I moved it (intersection syndrome)
Everyone seemed to be going inside, and I was not feeling very good about the weather offshore.
I made the call to my wife who would drive from Orlando to pick me up.
It was over. I began breaking the boat down and helped Ghostyakr carry across the road and gave him my remaining power gels and some food.

It was lonely again. I was an outsider watching others live the dream. Chiefs warning about the price of dropping out didn’t take long to settle in.

At that time a woman came by. She was taking pictures of the bay and the boats coming and going. We chatted about the race and my DNF. She invited me to the trailer she and her husband were staying in while visiting from Canada while waiting for my wife. It wasn’t hard to find as they had two very nice composite kayaks on top of their car. We chatted about vacations and good spots to kayak, and they offered me a cold beer. I laughed out loud. They looked at me like I’d been on the water too long. I explained I had not planned for this contingency. It would be my first beer in 6 months and not wanting to wait a full year to have one in Largo I accepted the consolation prize! We toasted to good health and nice water to paddle on. Kindred Spirits.

I’m over the guilt of quitting. I made the right decision for me at the time. A friend wrote this simple note in response to my email of dropping out: “You showed up”. That was nice.

To make amends I’ve signed up for the NCC2011 and the EC2012 which is now only 310 shopping days away by the Watertribe countdown clock.
As parents, husbands, wives or whatever we sometimes get caught up in our day to day lives.
Sometimes we forget about ourselves. The EC2010 was the best thing I have done for myself in a very long time. It is a deeply personal challenge at many levels.
As advertised:  “A life changing experience”
That it is.

Thanks Chief!


  • Never have a deadline. It will always be on your mind creating stress.
  • Gordon Pass was the first time in 15 years I had ever rolled unintentionally. My training for this event did not include practice rolls. If it had I can’t say for sure I would have successfully avoided a wet exit in those conditions but I would have discovered the poor design of my back support, and the need to have the seat attached. I roll a lot now, and will start doing so fully loaded.
  • Contingencies. Most people went behind pine Island. I never planned for that or the Wilderness Waterway I was too focused on the shortest route.
  • I actually gained weight on the trip. I had Edema in my ankles and feet. I was so concerned about sciatica that I asked my doctor about Ibuprofen . He was OK with 800mg every 6 hours provided I hydrate well.  I was drinking too much water and/or not enough Gatorade. Hyponatremia is a serious condition to be understood and avoided.
  • Test all of your food prior. I will projectile vomit at the sight of a peanut butter Cliff  bar and for some reason they put more of those horrid turds in the “assortment paks”.
  • Never pass up an opportunity to get something you need. I did that when I lost a gallon of water and it caused undo stress.
  • You cannot have too many bags of dried mango. You can use them for barter if you do
  • Sleep: If you paddle into the wee hours, will you get enough sleep? Maybe try light blocking eye shades. Don’t forget a timex with an alarmWhat I got right:
  • The booklet charts I made were awesome. I divided them into 4 spiral bound editions corresponding to the checkpoints so only 1 is on deck at any given time.
  • The deck bag was invaluable but needs big fat zippers instead of Velcro(for rolling). It had a slot underneath I could slide the booklet chart into for safe keeping. It stayed through the rolling
  • Spares. I lost hat/sponge/sunglasses in the roll and had spares for those under deck. Also had a spare (identical) Garmin borrowed that was a mirror image of the one on deck. Think about what you really gotta have the entire trip, then think about your boat upside down.
  • Tent and a hammock. If you only bring one, take the hammock. Don’t forget the Thermarest. You will need it in the hammock if it’s cold, or on the ground if nothing to hang from.
  • I developed a nasty rash under my arms day 2. I had brought a tube of “Aquaphor” Healing Ointment at Walgreens and began using it on arm pits, butt and hands. Never had a problem with any of the 3 locations after I started using. I’d brought gloves expecting to get blisters but never did.
  • The sail. My wife bought me a Spirit Sail years ago which I never used because of the silly mount. I created a custom “mast step” molded to the deck out of fiberglass. My wife shortened the spirit to a meter, and I stayed the spars to limit the stress on them while reaching in big wind. It far exceeded my expectations.

Leave a Reply