14 March 2014
14 March 2014,

Rod’s Account of the Everglades Challenge 2014

Everglades Challenge 2014-7 Waiting to Launch Ever since the end of the 2012 Ultimate Florida Challenge I was looking forward to doing a long race with Bill Whale. Bill and I met during the UFC and ran together around the state in our solo canoes. Our schedules finally aligned for the 2014 Everglades Challenge. We were one of 140 boats lined-up on Ft. Desoto Beach for the start of the challenge. The weather forecast promised mild conditions for the first few days and I planned to take full advantage of this gift. At 7 am Bill and I quickly dragged my CLC triple kayak into the water, slipped into our seats and charged southward across Egmont Channel. We established a strong pace and soon left most of the racers behind us. For the paddle down to checkpoint one, we were close to two solo kayakers – Ardie Olson and Greg Stamer. Two tandem teams were close behind us. The father-son team of Robert and Druce Finlay had completed several ECs and were tough competitors. Running close to them was the sister-brother team of Cathy Shoenfeld and Jim Collins. Jim is an ex-SEAL and experienced EC racer. We all arrived at the 60-mile checkpoint at Cape Haze Marina within minutes of each other. Bill and I hustled to refill our water jugs and were the first paddlers out of the checkpoint. Everglades Challenge 2014-2 Final Preparations before Launch-1Now the real race was starting. How many paddlers were willing to keep pushing through the night? Crossing Pine Island Sound can be very intimidating, but tonight there was a mild following wind and I put up our Spirit sail for an extra push. The crossing went well and I was very pleased with our pace. About midnight, Bill and I each took a five-hour energy shot. I was alert and ready to keep paddling for a few more hours. Bill’s shot didn’t help him at all and about 2 am he said we needed to find somewhere to sleep soon. He was hallucinating and about to fall out of the boat. We headed for the nearest island – which turned out to be a swampy mangrove island. As we circled the isle it was clear that there was not going to be any inviting beaches. I saw a gap in the mangroves and we wedged our kayak into the thick growth. There was some dry ground for us to spread out our tents (without poles) and crawl in. This definitely qualified as one of the worst places I have slept in a race. Bill and I managed to sleep for about two hours and I was happy we were not disturbed by any raccoons. We quickly stashed our tents in the boat and resumed our trek southward. We stopped on the west side of the Sanibel Island bridge at 7 am for breakfast. I estimated we had covered 100 miles in the first 24 hours. As it turned out, Team Finlay was on the east side of the bridge at the same time.   Everglades Challenge 2014-6 Riverslayer & Whale The run from Sanibel Island to Marco Island is probably the most tedious part of the challenge. The condos and hotels passed by slowly and soon the Sun was overhead and we were feeling like steamed lobsters. About 11 am Bill told me that he was exhausted. He did not know if he could continue. One moment I am thinking we are in great shape to set a new record in the Class 1 division, and the next moment my partner is sick. I saw a restaurant on Bonita Beach and we pulled ashore. Bill headed to the bar for a cold soft drink. I hoped the break would help, but back on the water Bill was still laboring. After another hour, I suggested that we take another a longer break where Bill could get some good rest. North of Naples, Bill set up his tent and slept for about 90 minutes while I watched our boat and equipment and talked to the occasional curious beach comber. Back on the water, I urged Bill to eat and drink. I was convinced that he was “bonking,” a term that basically means that you have exhausted your energy reserves. Bill said he was 25 lbs. lighter than when he started the 2012 UFC. In a multi-day race you need some fat reserves to tap into. I gave Bill one of my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches along with some fig newtons. Eat, eat, eat ! Everglades Challenge 2014-3 LaunchWe slowly made our way southward. Bill and I were tired of paddling in the Gulf and a west wind was building, so we decided to head in at Gordon’s Pass. I thought we might find a restaurant at a nearby marina, but since it was Sunday evening it had closed early. Bill and I pulled over to a park on the water and decided to have a freeze-dried meal. At this point, my thoughts were on making sure Bill could continue the race. After an hour plus break, we repacked the kayak and headed on the inside route towards Marco Island. Bill and I were thinking of sleeping on a beach near Marco for a few hours, but we spotted an inviting (and unoccupied) dock and screen house. The screen house was too cluttered inside to sleep so we set-up our tents on the ground. Bill set his alarm for 4 am which would give us four plus hours of rest. During the night I heard someone else coming to shore. It was Mark Ellison – another WaterTriber. Relieved that it was not the owner of the property, I went back to sleep. Bill’s alarm beeped at 4 am, and we began loading the kayak for Monday’s paddle. Jim had found a spot in the screen house to sleep. He asked if we had any extra water and I gave him a quart to last him until he reached Marco Island. Bill and I shoved off about 5 am. We went by Marco shortly after dawn. In 2012, Bill and I had a couple of breakfast sandwiches at a marina store on the Marco River.  We stopped at the same place and ordered two deluxe sausage, cheese and egg sandwiches – there would be no bonking today. Bill’s system seemed to have recovered with the extra rest and plenty of nourishment. We saw several Tribers pass us while were eating including Ardie Olson, John Craun and the team of Bob Bradford and Toby Nipper. Everglades Challenge 2014-4 Launch1Bill and I re-entered the triple kayak and headed for open water through the Ten Thousand Islands. Out in the Gulf we encountered a slight headwind, but nothing like we faced in 2012. We made excellent progress and turned into Indian Key Pass to reach checkpoint two at Chokoloskee. Bill and I caught a nice break and rode a surging, incoming tide into Chokoloskee Bay. We reached the checkpoint about 3 pm and to my surprise – there was Team Finlay’s tandem kayak on the shore. I thought Team Finlay would be hours ahead of us. Ardie Olson and Greg Stamer were still on there way in. Apparently we were not the only ones having some problems. Chokoloskee has water, bathrooms, a convenience store and a terrific Cuban restaurant. After signing in, I made a beeline for the Havana Café for two Cuban sandwiches. Bill bought a few items at the convenience store and found out that the tide would start going out after 4 pm. I brought Bill his Cuban sandwich and when we returned to the boat we discovered that the incoming tide had dumped a few gallons of water into our hatches. Bill had left one of his dry bags open and his spare batteries got wet. So while he went to buy more batteries, I bailed out the kayak. Ardie and Greg had now arrived at the checkpoint. Ardie was having some problems with numbness in one of his legs, and Greg was having some problems with his drink mix souring in the heat. Team Finlay had slept a few hours at Choko and were now preparing to leave. We had heard that Bob Finlay was having some chafing issues. They left at 4 pm and we headed out forty minutes later. Bill watched his GPS closely and led us out of Chokoloskee. Our plan was to paddle southward to Highland Beach and take a break for a couple of hours before heading into the Everglades. In past challenges I had stayed outside of all the islands as I made my way along the coast. Bill navigated a course that was inside of most of the islands. This put us in perfect alignment with the wind and waves, and I quickly popped-up our Spirit sail. For two hours we were moving along at a strong pace. I would occasionally look up to see the unusually bright stars in the night sky. A veritable “cathedral of the cosmos.” The feeling of being away from civilization and paddling under the stars is an experience I will always treasure.   Everglades Challenge 2014-1 Bradenton Bridge cropped As we approached Highland Beach, it was clear that is was low tide. Unless Bill and I wanted to drag our boat about 100 yards to the beach, we were not going to take a break here. So we decided to paddle on. About midnight, we were both getting tired and decided to head to shore. I was not optimistic about finding a spot to nap here. Bill got out of the kayak and hiked back into the swampy terrain, but could not find any dry land. We paddled down another half mile and it was my turn to get out and look. I found a mound of scallop shells that had probably been dumped by a commercial fisherman decades ago. Behind the pile was some dry land. Bill and I were getting our tents out of the kayak when we heard and saw a helicopter about a mile north of our location. We thought it might be the park rangers looking for illegal campers. Its my contention that taking a nap in a poleless tent in a swamp does not constitute camping. If the rangers were going to this extreme to issue a few tickets, my congressman was going to hear about this. The helicopter left after about twenty minutes and it did not take long for me to fall asleep. We later learned that it was actually a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescuing a sick WaterTriber. Now that’s an appropriate use of my tax dollars. Several hours later, we were back in the triple kayak and heading towards Ponce de Leon Bay. I felt refreshed, but the buzzing mosquitos and concern about the helicopter kept Bill from getting any sleep. We made it to the Shark River, our entry point into the Everglades, shortly after dawn. It was a beautiful morning and as Bill and I paddled into Whitewater Bay, we were surprised at how calm the bay was. In 2012, we had gusting headwinds and waves that would easily push you backwards if you were not paddling hard. Bill and I cruised down the middle of the bay, then paddled across Coon Bay and into the Buttonwood Canal that leads to Flamingo. We arrived at the third checkpoint a few minutes after 1 pm. Bill and I were now only 33 miles from Key Largo. Everglades Challenge 2014-5 Launch3

Sherry Olson, Ardie’s wife, was at Flamingo and gave us the run-down on the race. Team Finlay had left for Key Largo about three hours earlier so it was very unlikely that we would catch them. The good news was that we were in first place in the class 1 division, but there was a pack of six kayaks about two to three hours behind us. Bill and I decided to make the most of the daylight and start our crossing of Florida Bay. If we needed rest after darkness fell, we would hopefully find a decent island.
At Flamingo, you must portage your boat around a lock from the freshwater boat ramps to the salt water ramps. This was a time consuming procedure where we first had to unload all of our gear and then carry the triple kayak about a 100 yards to the put-in. Bill and I did this very carefully, especially when walking the boat down the slick ramp. Then we had to make several trips to collect all of our gear. By the time we had bought food at the store and repacked the kayak two hours had passed. I was relieved as we were leaving that none of the kayaks had reached Flamingo yet. With the weather forecast calling for strong headwinds from the east, I was hoping most of the kayakers would decide to sleep a few hours.
Water Tribe Logo It was high tide as Bill and I headed into Florida Bay. Bill seemed to have plenty of energy and I hoped we could make the entire crossing without any protracted stops. Once out from Flamingo, we started hitting moderate headwinds. Our forward speed was a little faster than 3 mph. Bill’s navigation across Florida Bay was perfect. After nightfall Bill and I took a short break at a cut through in a mangrove island called Crocodile Drag-Over. We both felt rested and decided to push on to the finish. The headwinds and waves were increasing. Bill had to secure his spray skirt for the occasional wave that drenched him. I took a five hour energy shot about 10 pm and felt an immediate jolt. I was actually enjoying crashing though the waves as we closed in on Key Largo. And every so often, a big wave would explode over Bill and I would hear a few profanities. That is one advantage of sitting in the back. The miles slowly counted down until we had a mile of calm water paddling into the finish at the Bay Cove Motel – Key Largo. Our official finishing time was 3 days, 17 hrs., 59 min. Despite a tough second day, Bill and I won the class 1 division. Team Finlay finished about an hour ahead of us and won the class 2 division.
This was my third class 1 win (’03,’06, ’14) in the Chesapeake Light Craft Triple Kayak. John Harris and his staff design tough boats, and I’m sure my triple kayak has many more WaterTribe challenges in its future.
Thanks to Chief – Steve Isaac and all of the WaterTribe volunteers for putting on another great Everglades Challenge. Congratulations to all of the finishers!

Check out all the results of the Everglades Challenge 2014…


One response on “Everglades Challenge 2014

  1. Thanks for the adventure. I built the Jimmy sailing skiff and finishing a CLC 17LT for my daughter hope to be launched by April. Your paddle was in my ole stomping/sailing grounds. How were the current near Marco/coconut island?