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Around Florida in 19 days - by kayak

Our reporter's goal was simply to finish the 1,200-mile race, but in the end he did much more than that.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2006



ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.

Traveling 1,200 miles around the Florida coast in a small boat isn't particularly difficult. Thousands of sailors, canoeists, and kayakers have made the trip.

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But attempt to complete the circumnavigation in 30 days or less in the context of a race, and the journey is suddenly more daunting, even downright dangerous.

A casual traveler can wait for daylight and sit out severe storms, cold fronts, and head winds. But a strict deadline and the pressures of competition undercut the luxury of avoidance. And that - plus a 40-mile portage - is what puts the "challenge" in the Ultimate Florida Challenge (UFC).

As one of 10 participants in this year's inaugural running of the 1,200-mile small-boat race around Florida, I knew I would have to cover at least 40 miles a day in my 17-foot sea kayak to stay on pace to finish the race before the April 2 deadline.

Most recreational kayakers consider 25 or 30 miles the outside boundary of a good day's journey. In organizing the Ultimate Florida Challenge and a series of other races, WaterTribe founder Steve Isaac has shredded such conventional concepts, forcing participants in his races to reach far beyond what they once thought possible.

It was that aspect of pushing the envelope - breaking physical and mental barriers - that drew me to the event. The race proved every bit as challenging as I had anticipated.

I wore holes through two pairs of leather paddling gloves, yet never had a single blister on my hands. Some days I paddled to near collapse yet somehow awoke most mornings ready - even eager - to do it again. And, as in other challenges, I experienced glorious moments completely alone in the wilderness or far from shore in the middle of the night, feeling content and at peace in my surroundings.

The challenge began on March 4 with the boats pulled above the high water line on a beach at Fort DeSoto, south of St. Petersburg, Fla. The course ran south to Key Largo, then north up the Atlantic coast past Jacksonville. It turned west against the current of the St. Marys River and then over land on a country highway for 40 miles to the Suwannee River. The race then proceeded down the Suwannee to the Gulf of Mexico and back to Fort DeSoto.

The event was open to any small boat powered by paddle, oar, sail, or paddle and sail. No motors. No towing. Racers would stock up on food and water at four resupply points en route. Challengers were required to report their positions at least once a day.

The entrants included: three sea kayaks with one-meter downwind sails; three expedition canoes with one-meter downwind sails; three expedition canoes with large sails, inflatable outriggers, and leeboards; and a 12-foot shallow-draft sailboat.

Although I had never paddled my kayak anywhere close to 1,000 miles in a single trip, I did not enter the race as a complete rookie. For the past three years I have competed under the race name "SharkChow" in a 300-mile version of the UFC run from St. Petersburg to Key Largo. It's called the Everglades Challenge. The same rules apply, and it offers good training for the longer race.

In those previous races I had set a fairly brisk pace, covering more than 60 miles each day. While I knew I could repeat that performance over three or four days, I wasn't sure I could maintain it for three weeks. That's what it would take to go 1,200 miles in 21 days. That was my pre-race goal.

My working assumption was that a sea kayak with a one-meter downwind sail simply could not keep pace with sailboats. My motive was not to do battle against sailors or to "beat" anyone. My challenge was to see how quickly and efficiently I could complete the course, testing my own limits and expanding my concept of the possible.

To me, motive is a critical aspect. It empowered me to compete at my highest level and yet freed me to rejoice in the success of other racers.

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