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Around the coast in 30 days

On Saturday, 10 intrepid mariners will compete in what might be the world's toughest small boat race.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2006


Each year on the first Saturday in March, a group of middle-aged men and a few women gather at sunrise on a beach near St. Petersburg, Fla. Arrayed across the white sand just above the high-water line are more than 50 small boats - kayaks, canoes, catamarans, and other light sailing craft.

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At exactly 7 a.m., Steve Isaac, an ex-Marine, stands at the water's edge with his arm raised and yells: "Go!"

The participants drag their boats into the Gulf of Mexico and head for the southern horizon, oars and paddles flailing, sails fluttering, the sea churned suddenly into a frothy wake of earnest motion.

Most of the boats are part of the Everglades Challenge. They head for a finish line many days and 300 miles to the south, at Key Largo. But this Saturday, for the first time, 10 of the intrepid mariners - including this correspondent - will compete in what Mr. Isaac bills as the world's toughest small boat race. He calls it the Ultimate Florida Challenge.

Instead of finishing at Key Largo, the 10 boaters will continue around the state, heading north past Miami, the Kennedy Space Center, and Jacksonville, then down the Suwannee River, eventually circumnavigating most of Florida before arriving back at the beach near St. Petersburg.

It will be 1,200 miles of relentless head winds, tidal rips, and blazing sun. But it will also take the challengers through some of the most spectacular scenery in North America, past roseate spoonbills on remote beaches and towering cypress trees draped thick with Spanish moss along the banks of the Suwannee.

The rules are no-nonsense: First one back to the beach wins. The circumnavigation must be completed within a month. Human power or sails, only. No motors. No rides in cars or tows from power boats. No help from family or friends outside identified checkpoints. And at least once a day, participants are required to acknowledge by cellphone or radio that they are still alive.

It is up to each challenger to decide how far and how fast to go each day. Some may paddle, row, or sail more than 24 hours straight at times, grappling with sleep deprivation, fatigue, and unpredictable weather.

Alaska's Iditarod dog sled race covers roughly the same distance but includes three mandatory stops. The required rest breaks are for the well-being of the dogs, not the mushers. In contrast, there are no mandatory stops in the race around Florida. It is up to each challenger to decide when to get off the water and when to push on.

Ultimately, the race will be a replay of the parable of the tortoise and the hare. The trick, if there is one, is to be a tortoise and just keep moving forward. But the one-month deadline means that being too much of a tortoise may result in disqualification. So challengers have to be a little bit of a hare, as well.

"This is sort of an Ironman event for paddlers," says Isaac, referring to the swim-bike-run races first held in Hawaii. He started organizing long-distance small boat races six years ago when he formed a group called Watertribe.

The 300-mile Everglades Challenge draws 30 to 40 racers each year. Isaac says he wasn't sure anyone would want to try the much longer Ultimate Florida Challenge.

"That is such a tough race, I'm surprised I have 10 people in it this year," he says. "First you have to have people who can get away for a month. Then you have to have people who are able to paddle that distance. Then you have to have people who are crazy enough to do it."

Many of the participants have grown accustomed to the inevitable questions. "You are doing what in a what? Waddaya - crazy?"

"My husband just kind of rolls his eyes," says Dawn Stewart, a fiftyish biostatistician and mother of two from North Carolina who is paddling an expedition canoe under the race name "Sandy Bottom."

"Most of my friends and family, they pretty much don't ask me anymore," says Mark Przedwojewski of Irons, Mich., who has finished seven Watertribe challenges under the race name "Manitou Cruiser." Mr. Przedwojewski has an extra incentive to participate. He builds expedition canoes designed by legendary paddler Verlen Kruger.