Tuesday, March 27, 2007

release Date 3/8/2007 Watertribe Race, and 3/26/2007

Release Date 3/8/2007

“You can’t just DO something like that, you have to train for it” my friend exclaimed as we were paddling along. I had just told him I signed-up for the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge Race in Florida. I explained how I WAS training we were in the middle of an 18 nautical mile paddle along the coast. He shook his head and made a dismissive noise, like he always does when I he catches me in serious error of judgment. This worried me, because I’ve seen this look from him before, and he has always been right.

The more I thought about the more I worried. 300 NM divided by 7 days is 42 NM a day, every day. At 3 knots that’s 14 hours a day of paddling. I had never done anything like that before, and wasn’t sure if my body would hold up. I had never even paddled over 30 miles without a current assist in a single day.

It was too late I had paid the fee, told my friends about it, and bought an airline ticket, I was officially “committed” I convinced myself that it wouldn’t be that bad. I wasn’t going to try and win the race, just sort of do it as a cruise, but the math kept bothering me.

The race runs along the West coast of Florida, from St. Petersburg, to Key Largo. It goes along the beaches, through an area called 10,000 islands, and the Everglades National Park. I used to live near St. Petersburg, and I’ve paddled some of this coastline in the past, so I thought it would be fun to do it all in one trip.

My main paddle is a carbon one piece paddle, and I also wanted to bring my Greenland paddle. From past experience I know the Greenland paddle is easier on my body, and uses different muscles. My Greenland paddle is even lighter than the carbon one. My friend Miles custom makes paddles, and mine is a very light lay-up, See GreenlandPaddles.  I am by no means an expert Greenland paddler, but I wanted all the help I could get. I even left my heavy watch at home to make my arm lighter!

After checking the airline website I realized I was going to have a problem. They don’t allow luggage this large, except for snow skis. Fortunately I found the world’s largest snow ski bag on the Internet and ordered it. It came the day before I left. I had a little trouble cramming it in the rental car, and got some funky looks, but the airline took it.

I arranged to rent a kayak from Sweetwater Kayaks. Jean and Russell run a great shop in St. Petersburg, and I have paddled with them before at their annual symposium, and in New York City where I live. 

My flight came in the day before the race, and I spent the entire day madly racing around trying to get everything done. First stop was picking-up the boat. Russell and Jean gave me a brand new plastic Valley Nordcapp. I had wanted a speedy composite boat, but they said they had problems with renting boats for the race before because the boats came back damaged. We made a few jokes about this boat, since it had only been paddled once before, and the race has a reputation for being hard on people and equipment. Russell put stickers for the shop on the bow, and asked me to make sure the TV camera’s caught them if the Coast Guard came to get me.

I then went out to meet my fellow racers, attend a “captain’s meeting”, and a mandatory gear inspection. The Watertribe people were very interesting, and a close knit group. I was a new guy. You get a “Tribal Name” this is apparently the name you use when you sign-up on their website. I just chose a login name, tgamble, like I always do on websites, but now it was my official tribe name, and people were going to call me that for the rest of the week.

The guy who runs the race is “Chief”. I’m not sure if he is elected, or some secret ceremony selects him after various cruel boating exploits, but he is in charge. Everyone had funny names, Sandy Bottom, Shark Chow, stuff like that. I think my favorite was “Snore Bring Gator”. This refers to camping in the swamps in the Everglades; its full of alligators.

They hassled me a little bit at the gear inspection because I didn’t have a paddle float, and a few other things, but they decided I was worthy in the end. I had the 2 most important things, a satellite EPIRB, and a snake bite kit.

Every 24 hours during the race you have to have someone login to the website and update your position. I didn’t know this, but made a panicked call to a friend in New York who agreed to do it. This is how they keep track of people in between the 3 mandatory check points. You are allowed to miss updates in the Everglades because there is no cellphone service there.

One of my fellow racers agreed to let me stay in his campsite, so I left my boat on the beach, left my luggage at the kayak shop, bought some food, a bottle of bourbon, stove fuel, returned the rental car, and got a taxi back to the campground.

I arrived at the campground in Fort Desoto Park around  10:30 PM.  This is a stunning beach and great campground, but it features very aggressive food stealing raccoons. I have tangled with them before on a previous trip when they unzipped the zipper on my tent to get into my food.  I was planning on putting my 1 weeks worth of food into someone’s car, but of course everyone else who was going to be up for a week with almost no sleep had long since gone to bed.

The only thing to greet me at the campsite was a hungry raccoon who walked right up to me while was unpacking, I raised my arm as if to smack him, and he just smiled at me. I ended up stuffing the food in my bivy bag with me while I slept, and having a very lousy night’s sleep. I was awoken by truck headlights a few hours later when my fellow campers were headed to the beach. I had to hitchhike a little later, fortunately the people on the road at 6:00AM recognized me as a fellow tribe member, and picked me up.

Looking at the other boats right before the start I was reminded of that line from the Untouchable’s movie where Sean Connery says: “Tisk Tisk Tisk, brought a knife to a gunfight” before he shoots some guy who pulled a knife on him. My boat was probably one of the slowest. In the kayak class sails are allowed, and encouraged, but I didn’t even have an umbrella to deploy.

One of the most popular boats for the race are boats made by Kruger Canoe. These are large open canoes and kayaks with sails. They can actually sail fairly far off the wind, not just downwind.

Sailboats are allowed, as are kayaks with sails. The really fast people were large sailboats with 2 men crews who could go 24x7; they were going to be finished in just a few days. The limiting factors are that the boats have to be hand launched and landed, and some of the checkpoints are up some narrow passages where really big boats can’t go.

If you want to enter a class with no sails you can, it is the racing kayak class, boats over 18ft long, and less than 20inches in beam. Most of these boats were really fast too. The fastest was paddled by “XL-XS”. It was a custom built surfski with hatches. He had it shipped from his home in California. Turns out he was an amazing paddler, and a nice guy.

We all posed for a group picture, then the race was officially on. I got a late start by about 10 minutes because I was still packing my boat, the shuttling around with no car, and trying to keep the varmints out of my food supplies made it hard to get to the beach early. No problem I was just going to cruise anyway. I didn’t even eat breakfast, but I put a couple of pop-tarts under my bungees. It was windy about 10-15kts, but it was from behind us, just over our left shoulder. This was great for the kayaks with downwind sails, and pretty good for me too.

As I was leaving the beach I noticed a guy in a surfski had capsized, and was having trouble getting back on the boat. I paddled over to him and put him back on board. He was already cold, it was windy about 60degrees Fahrenheit, and he was just wearing shorts and a t-shirt. After he was on his boat, I told him: “Ok I’m going to let you go, and you have to start paddling and bracing right away” He only made it about 20ft before he went over again. I put him back in the boat, had him stabilize on me, and started towing him back to the beach. It was slow going because he was leaning across my boat to keep upright, and I was towing him right next to me.  A big sailboat had been circling around, trying to help, and I was able to get them to tow him the rest of the way in. By this point I was at least 20 minutes behind the rest of the pack. Here is the surfski guy being towed by the sailboat:

I caught up to a few people by the time I finished crossing the entrance to Tampa Bay. It’s a huge channel that connects the bay to the Gulf. Most of the coast along Florida features barrier islands between the mainland, and the Gulf of Mexico. There is a dredged channel for most of the way called the Inner coastal Waterway. My original plan was to paddle outside along the beach, but it was a little rough for that, and I noticed everyone, even the big sailboats had gone “inside” to the Inner coastal, so I did too.

On  this google map you can see the start, is out on the beach at Ft. Desoto near the letter “G”. The inside route is behind Anna Maria Island, and Longboat Key, into Sarasota Bay.

By 9:00AM I had crossed the bay, even passed-up a few people. I celebrated with my pop-tarts and just started paddling again. By 13:00 I was at the Ringling causeway in Sarasota, I was feeling pretty good. I talked to a few other people as they passed me. Most were sailboats that had gotten an even later start. One guy “Pelican” had made it across the bay, then realized he forgot something so he went back for it. He cruised right by in his sailboat, that had a peddle rudder system. In the picture you can see that there was a nice following wind, which meant the sailors could just cruise, and didn’t even need to tack.

It was fun meeting and talking to other paddlers on the water, but I was behind most of them, and never saw them again. I paddled for about an hour with “There and Back Again” a few times, that day. At first he had his sail up so I couldn’t easily keep-up, but later I met him after he had stopped it was in a narrow channel and he was paddling. I talked to him for a couple of hours. We were talking about something to do with towing kayaks with carts on land when he mentioned in passing that he was a double amputee. I wondered why he was so slow getting out of his boat when I passed him earlier, now I knew why.

This double, “froggy130 and catlady” passed me at 16:00, they had an even later start. They were paddling a double surfski like sit on top. I saw them a few times during the race at checkpoints. At one point they made the mistake of telling me where they lived, which was close to one of my friends, so I was able to cajole them into taking me and my boat back to St. Pete at the end of the race.  They were very interesting, and into all kinds of crazy long distance adventure racing on bikes, motor cycles, and hiking.

I kept eating little snacks every couple of hours, and paddling for all I was worth. I had to learn to keep more stuff in the day hatch, and carefully pack so that I could do things on the water without stopping. One of the things I love about kayaking is that you can stop in interesting places, explore, and eat meals, but there wasn’t going to be time for any of that in this race. Once I stopped to get things like lights or food, and got out of the boat it always took 15 or 20 minutes, which easily translated into a 1 mile, and made a huge difference in time.  By 19:00 I was in Venice, and thinking that if I just kept paddling I could make it all the way to the first checkpoint that night, maybe by 22:00 or so.

By 23:30 I was getting really cold, and starting to realize that I hadn’t calculated the distance very well, and the checkpoint was still a long way off. I was probably so tired and cold I wasn’t thinking straight. I stopped and put on a warm dry fleece. A little later I was having trouble staying awake, and starting to wonder what would happen if I fell asleep and capsized. At this point I thought it was only another 4 or 5 miles, but it was much further. I kept on going because the notes said there were showers and a bunkhouse at the checkpoint.

I finally made it into the checkpoint at 03:00AM on Sunday. This was 60 NM, and 20 hours after the start. The checkpoint was just a mass of boats, tents, and people sleeping every which way. The bunkhouse was obviously full, and everyone else had long since gone to sleep. I hung-up some of my clothes to dry, and then passed-out right away in a little corner of the lawn.

In the morning most of the other racers were long gone. I just sort of staggered around eating breakfast, and stretching. Things were already starting to hurt, and  I was almost out of Ibuprofen. The wonderful people at  Grande Tours gave me a bottle with 10 pills left in it, so I didn’t have to walk 5 miles down the road to the store.

As I was leaving a few other racers were coming in. Some of the bigger sailboats probably could get up the channel in the dark. This guy, “Crazy Russian” was in an inflatable catamaran that he brought from New York City on the airline.

I paddled out to the mouth of Charlotte Harbor to the Cayo Costa State Park I got there just in time to see a little tide race with some nice standing waves. The tide was running in, but the wind was from the North so it made some nice little standing waves. I surfed a few, and came very close to breaking my Greenland paddle that was on the front deck. About 4 inches of the paddle extended past the bow. When the bow plunged into a wave it ripped the paddle out from under the bungees and twisted it in the deck lines. I broke a paddle this same way last year, so I know how close I came to losing it.

Cayo Costa is a beautiful natural island, and it was suggested as a campsite for people who made it to the checkpoint early. All I could do was paddle by, but it would be a great place to come back to. I decided to take the outside route along Cayo Costa, hoping I could surf some of the way because the wind was from the Northeast. This didn’t really work very well, and I probably would have made better time on the inside route, but it felt good to be out in the open Gulf for a while.

I cut back inside the barrier islands at the next break and paddled the inside route behind Captiva and Sanibel islands. This was just a huge big bay many miles across. I watched a guy catch a fish called a snook as I made the cut back inside. There was a dolphin right under his boat at the same time, and for a minute I thought the dolphin might bite the snook off of the line. It gave the fisherman a real start when he saw it, or smelled the air coming out of the blowhole.

As it got dark while I was behind Sanibel Island I saw a fireworks display over the land in the distance. It was very far away, but beautiful because it was over the water.

After it got dark it was cold, and I started to look for a place to spend the night. The wind really picked-up, I had to fight my way along the Sanibel causeway. This was especially painful because I realized I was paddling North, the exact wrong way, but in the high winds I needed to stay close to shore, and find a place to stop. Eventually I found a campsite at around  22:00 on the North part of Ft. Meyers Beach. This was a public day use park, so I had to hide my boat, and be sure to leave before the sun came up. I ended-up seeing a great sunrise over the mainland. The West coast of Florida is famous for it’s sunsets over the water, but the sunrises can be beautiful too.

I paddled all morning through Estero bay, and got some directions from some fishermen. I wanted to take the inside route as long as possible, because I was realizing it was easier and faster paddling. The fisherman assured me I could get all the way to Bonita Beach before I had to cut back out into the Gulf, at Wiggens pass. I took a nice lunch break, charged my phone and made some calls before cutting out to paddle along the Gulf. It was getting windy, and I can hear the wind in the audio recording I made before going out into the Gulf to paddle along the beach.

The beach here, Vanderbilt Beach, and Naples contains some very exclusive large houses.

There were people on the beach, but the only people in the water were 2 drunk college kids on spring break. The water was a little too cold for everyone else. I declined their offer of a beer, since I had many miles of paddling ahead of me.

 I was able to reach a few of my friends who live in Naples on the phone, and we arranged to meet for dinner at a restaurant on the river inside of Naples. I was feeling like I needed a treat, and thought some real food in a nice setting with friends would cheer me up. I got into the river just as the sun was setting, and it was a good thing because the wind had made the Gulf fairly rough. There is no swell in the Gulf it’s all choppy wind waves, but when the wind has blown at 15kts for a few days the waves can get pretty big.

I had some trouble hooking-up with my friends since the restaurant was several miles up  the river, and out of my way. I knew I was in for trouble when the put the bartender on the phone to give me directions (he had no clue). I kept pulling other boats over and asking for directions. At one point I met “There and Back Again”, the double amputee. He was coming out of the river as I was going up it. He told me it was too rough for him to paddle safely in the Gulf, so he did the trip along Naples as a portage, towing the kayak behind his wheelchair for 10 miles. This isn’t technically allowed during the race, and he was worried that they would disqualify him.

I stopped at the first waterside restaurant, and had my friends drive up to me.  I really freaked the people running the restaurant out because it was dark, I was wearing my paddling clothes, and was all wet from the swell. I didn’t realize until I went into the restroom that the entire side of my face was white from encrusted salted, they thought I was some kind of nut.

After dinner I started up the inside passage below Naples, but I was tired and not paying attention and wandered out of the channel into the mangrove swamps. This was a little frightening because I quickly became very lost. The creeks inside the mangroves can be like a labyrinth. The trees are 10 to 15 ft tall so you can’t see over them. This Arial Photo from Google gives a pretty good idea. You have to look carefully but some of it is water, and some of it is the mangroves. I was off in the twisty bit to the West. By the time I realized I was lost it was too late. I blundered around in there for a few hours before finally finding my way out. The mangroves are in shallow water, and there is no dry land, so stopping for the night was not an option. The compass was of some help, but I had to follow the contours of the creeks. It reminded me of cave diving.

I camped that night about 01:30 on Tuesday morning on a little barrier island inside of rookery bay. I was totally exhausted and very happy to be off the water. It was only 40 degrees at night and I was cold, even in my sleeping bag.

The next day I continued down the Inner coastal behind Marco Island. My plan was to go to the next checkpoint in Everglades City. This turned into a very long day of paddling, and my body was really starting to hurt. I had worn a big abrasion in my back from rubbing against the seat and my forearms and wrists really began to bother me. My shoulder hurt slightly, I had blisters on both palms, and my toes were being rubbed raw from my paddling shoes.

I switched to my Greenland paddle, and ended up using it for the entire rest of the trip. Every time I tried to use the Euro paddle my wrists started to hurt, and I was afraid of doing permanent damage. The Greenland paddle is much easier on my body, it is light, has less blade surface, uses a lower angle, and doesn’t require any rotation of the wrists. I wished my skills were better with it, because I have a very poor Greenland roll, and haven’t used it much in rough water.

I treated myself to lunch at a dockside restaurant  “The Snook Inn”. The website has a funny little song on it, I just couldn’t resist. It was great to hit the salad bar and eat something green and fresh.

My spirits and energy sagged for the rest of the day. It was very hot in the 80’s and the sun was beating down on me all day, and I was going slower and slower because of my mood and using the smaller paddle. I made it to the channel opening to Everglades City where the second checkpoint was located, at around 23:00, but had to spend the night on a barrier island. I was too tired to deal with navigating the confusing channel and series of islands, and the current was against me. I was dry, but it wasn’t a very good camping spot, just a spit of land in the mangroves. I had to embed the boat in the trees, but did find some sand to sleep on.  I was depressed that I didn’t make it into the checkpoint for the night, then when I tried to drink a shot of bourbon I couldn’t even do that because my lips were so chapped the liquor burned them. I didn’t sleep well because I was worried about the tide coming into my campsite, it got pretty close I could hear the water lapping around me.

I got up early and paddled as fast as I could to get to the checkpoint. I had to be there by 10:00AM, or I was out of the race. I made it to the ranger station by 8:40, got my back country camping permits. Denise and Leon the support crew were there and happy to see I had made it. They ushered me through the permit process. When the ranger was going over the rules with me she got to the fishing section, then looked at me, and said “You’re probably not going to be doing any fishing are you?” so she skipped it. They probably got a kick out of all the other Watertribe people who had been through in the last couple of days. Not their usual visitors. I got to the checkpoint at 09:15 just 45 minutes to spare.

I ate some microwaved food from the little store at the trading post. I was tired, but I felt better having made it to the checkpoint. I loaded-up on water, and was really looking forward to my first trip through the Everglades.

Throughout the trip I saw lots of Ospreys, they have to be my favorite birds, and they are really good at catching fish. Every other bird in flight had a fish in its talons. I think it was breeding season, and most of them had chicks in their nests.

I paddled down the coast. It’s a beautiful place lots of little islands with campsites, shallow water, and very few people. My latest injury was my feet. I had big blisters and raw spots on the tops of my feet from my paddling shoes and/or beach sandals, so I started paddling barefoot. This was also a problem since it hurt the balls of my feet. I devised a method of rolling my sleeping pad over the foot pedals and paddling barefoot. At some point I must have damaged the nerves in my feet because my toes became numb, it actually took about 1 month for them to totally come back to normal.

It was a long paddle along the coast, and even through I started early, the checkpoint processing  really took a lot of time. I was now definitely in last place, but hoped to catch-up to 2 other kayakers I saw leaving the checkpoint. I practiced my navigation by keeping track of the islands and coastline on the chart as I went along. I paddled late into the night, and was concerned because I couldn’t find, or see a lighted channel marker that I was expecting near the beach I wanted to stop at. I was very impressed when I eventually found the channel marker using my compass. The problem was the light was out, so I didn’t see it until I paddled right up to it.

I couldn’t figure out exactly where the approved campsite was in the dark, but I just stopped on the beach where I guessed it was. It was low tide which made for a long slog across the mud. I got to sleep around midnight.

On Thursday morning I could see that this was very nice beach, and it was just wilderness inland and in both directions down the beach. I saw lots of birds and a small group of deer. It was really pretty. It was again low tide when I left which made for a long muddy drag to the water.

For the first part of the day I paddled along the coast, my only visitor was a Coast Guard Helicopter that did a long looping circle around me before continuing on. I decided to cut inland and go through Whitewater Bay It was clearly going to be a lot shorter, and it was marked with channel markers, so I didn’t think the navigation would be difficult. It was nice to have a change of scenery after all the endless miles of beach.

This turned out to be a nice paddle. I was lucky and had the current, so it was nice to just be sucked up the channel. Although it was very peaceful this day, I could tell that the hurricanes must do massive damage to the land. I noticed crab trap floats and tree trunks had been blow high up into the branches of other trees. I can’t imagine the water being that high, but it must have been.

What looks like land in this area is actually dense swamps with no firm land underneath. There are campsites in this area on platforms called chickees. Some of the racers took the entire inside route through the Everglades and camped on them, but I had wanted to camp on the beach and stay out in the Gulf. I’m glad I did because it would have been very boring to spend 2 days in this stuff.

The swamp just went on and on for the entire afternoon and evening. It was just amazing to be in the center of Whitewater bay and see nothing for miles and miles. I made a video of it, but it doesn’t do it justice.

The open paddling and monotony got to me during the afternoon, but I just kept slogging on. I realized I was going to be out here in the dark, which I wasn’t looking forward to. I hoped that I could make it out of the big open areas before it got really dark and, it would be easier to find my way in the smaller lakes and the canal. I saw yet another beautiful sunset, and just made it into the opening of the smaller lake before it got dark. I got some good compass practice paddling across the lake in the dark.

The paddle up the canal to checkpoint three in Flamingo was up a man made canal. It was just totally black because the moon hadn’t come up. There was some wonderful bioluminescence in the very still water that was really pretty. Denise and Leon were at the checkpoint, and I woke them up when I got there at 22:00. There were 4 or 5 other boats there on the dock, their occupants long asleep. I was comfortably in last place.

I got up to use the toilet at 03:00 on Friday morning, and most of the other paddlers were already getting in their boats; I just went back to sleep. When I got up at 6:30, only one boat was left, and they were paddling out. I went to store to get a hot breakfast. I didn’t start paddling until about 08:00. I was looking forward to this last crossing of  Florida Bay The Google map doesn’t really do it justice because there are a huge number of islands.

This turned out to be the most difficult day of paddling. The wind was against me for most of it, and it got stronger and stronger as the day wore on. I knew I should have left earlier, but I was just too tired. The navigation was also difficult because the islands all look the same, and much of the area is so shallow at low tide, that even a kayak has to stay in the channels. The channels are not well marked so I had to be very careful, and pick my way through.

I knew I would be there after dark, and as it got dark I realized I wouldn’t make it. It was rough, cold, and I was worried about capsizing in the dark, and missing my roll with the Greenland paddle. I found an island, and amazingly after hacking through the brush found some dry land to camp on. I had to virtually hang the boat in the mangrove trees. I felt sort of stupid knowing that everyone else was probably already finished, and I was only a few miles away.

It was actually the nicest camp night I spent because I stopped around 19:30, and could make a hot meal. I even got to have some hot cocoa with bourbon, and got a full night’s sleep.

On Saturday morning I saw my last beautiful sunrise and continued on to the finish. One of the sailboats, who had been there for days was out sailing with his girlfriend when I arrived to the harbor. I thought everyone would be gone, but they were all waiting because the awards ceremony was later that day. Everyone came down and cheered me, as I landed.

All in all it was quite a trip, but very grueling. I don’t know if I’ll do it again. If I did the same paddle over 2 or 3 weeks it would have been much nicer. The Chief actually selected my last log entry as his favorite during the awards ceremony, and it sort of summed-up my experience. “I have never been so proud to come in last place”

Release Date 3/26/2007
I released this message off of Atlantic City NY around 12:00PM.

I was working on my Cape May to Brooklyn paddle. We went from Ventnor to Long Beach Island.

It was really an interesting paddle, at the beginning we went by all the Casinos in Atlantic City, but in about 3 miles we were in a totally natural setting. There is a giant wilderness tract along this section of coast, protected National Wildlife refuge. Just miles and miles of empty beach, and behind it swamps and wetlands, what a difference!!

It was overcast and fairly warm, about 50degrees F. The swell increased all day, and it was pretty rough when we went by some very confusing water on some offshore sandbars. This area can generate huge surf, and we did see a few boat crushing waves, 6ft plus.

We managed to sneak in and out for lunch without taking too much of a pounding, and got a little bit of shelter behind a jetty to get off the water.

Sometimes there is no right answer

See Mile's trip report at: