The toughest paddling race in the world truly lived up to its name this year. The 2012 Florida Ultimate Challenge left entrants with broken boats, battered bodies and depleted spirits. To be accepted in a 1,200 mile small boat race that circumnavigates the Florida coastline and includes a 40 mile portage between the St. Marys and Suwannee Rivers, entrants must have a proven background in multi-day competitions. Despite this requirement, only 4 of the 11 starters finished.
Last year, when I decided to enter the Florida Ultimate, I wanted a durable expedition canoe that could carry plenty of supplies and gear, and handle extreme weather conditions. I chose a 17′ 6″ Superior Expedition Canoe made with eight layers of Kevlar and capable of holding 600 lbs. total weight. Speed-wise the Superior canoe was a conservative choice, but as the headwinds howled in the first week of the Challenge – it turned out to be the perfect choice.
Having won the Yukon 1000 Mile Race in 2009 with partner Ardie Olson, My goal was to become the first paddler to complete North America’s two longest paddle races. Ardie and Kerry Newell had the same idea. Ardie declined an offer to race a tandem kayak with me in the Florida Ultimate, opting for a solo attempt in a sleek racing kayak. In good weather, Ardie’s boat could travel 100 miles a day. If Ardie could finish the race at that speed he would break the previous 19 day completion record set by Warren Richey in the 2006 Florida Ultimate. Tough weather and rough seas quickly ended Ardie’s plan. He withdrew from the race at Boynton Beach on day nine – short of the 500 mile checkpoint at Sebastian Inlet.
Kerry Newell’s race never even started. He traveled from Upstate New York with a solo, carbon fiber canoe outfitted with a spray-skirt and a small rudder. After feeling the gusting headwinds on his face and seeing the crashing waves on the beach, he decided his canoe could not handle the conditions. Despite having completed the Yukon 1000 twice in a voyageur canoe, Kerry Newell was not ready for the unpredictable Florida weather.
My biggest concern before the race was a pulled back muscle that I first injured last October and strained again a month before the Ultimate. The injury severely curtailed my training. This left me with a goal of simply being healthy on the starting line. I faced a brutal first week of battling headwinds that frequently reduced my forward progress to two knots. Much of the route for those first few days was through the inland channels of the Everglades. The channels were wide enough for navigation but the other aspects of the ‘glades such as oppressive heat and millions of mosquitoes were constant. I raced along side of Bill Whale, a competitor in another class of boat. We decided for ease of navigation, if not for at least the purpose of morale, to travel the race together.
I was amazed to arrive in Key Largo without any major physical pain. Reaching Key Largo after 6 1/2 days when you had expected the trip to take under 4 days was a morale killer. When I left Key Largo Saturday morning on day eight of the race, I felt like I was in a deep hole. I am sure all of the racers that continued past Key Largo had to make the mental adjustment that this challenge was going to take longer than expected.
Both myself and Bill Whale’s race was made much easier by running together. Bill was competing in a Kruger Canoe that allowed him to deploy a large sail under the right wind conditions. Those conditions never seemed to be present. He was frustrated that ninety percent of the time, he was paddling and not sailing. Bill and I ran together from the first checkpoint in Placida to the finish. Together we set mileage goals for each day, picked out campsites each night and were ready to paddle before dawn every day.
During the run of the race up the east coast of Florida I led the way for Bill and myself allowing him to draft my boat and consequently not have to work as hard paddling. My small favor was returned many fold during the overland forty-mile portage. After almost 30 miles of towing our boats I was suffering from badly blistered feet, and could barely step forward. Bill strapped my boat to his and insisted on towing both canoes the final 11 miles into Fargo, GA. where we picked up the headwaters of the Suwannee River. We continued to help each other out along the race. At Big Shoals on the Suwannee River, we need to assist each other in carrying our boats for the quarter-mile portage around the class III rapids. For myself, on a long and torturous race like this, having a running mate to keep you focused and in a positive attitude turned out to be the difference between our quitting the race or successfully finishing the 1200 mile journey.
On Friday, March 30th the two canoes of Bill Whale and myself touched shore at the race’s finish line of Ft. DeSoto, in an elapsed time of 27 days, 5 hours and 48 minutes. We were applauded by a group of twenty friends and family. This was easily the toughest physical challenge of my life. Congratulations to all who attempted, and everyone who finished the Florida Ultimate Challenge.