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.
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.
The race will be a huge test (and advertisement) for his boats. Six of the 10 boats in the challenge are Kruger canoes.
Mr. Kruger, who died in 2004, crisscrossed the continent and traversed the hemisphere in a canoe inscribed with the phrase, "All things are possible with God." Having a well-designed, expedition-size boat doesn't hurt, either.
For Dexter Colvin, the roomy storage area in his Kruger boat makes it possible for him to compete in the round-Florida challenge. Mr. Colvin, who paddles under the race name "ThereAndBackAgain," needed a boat large enough to carry his wheelchair.
It is also roomy enough to allow him to sleep in the boat if there is no place to camp.
But that doesn't mean Colvin won't face daunting obstacles. The race includes a 40-mile portage on a country highway through the Okefenokee Swamp between the St. Mary's River and the Suwannee River.
Colvin lost both his legs 22 years ago in a highway construction accident. But he never lost his competitive spirit. He plans to complete the portage by towing his boat on a cart tied to his wheelchair. He says he averaged 4 miles per hour in training.
Colvin says small boat racing allows him to transcend any sense of disability. "I find that when I get in a kayak, I am on equal ground with people," he says. "Once we get in our boats, the playing field has been leveled."
• The Ultimate Florida Challenge begins March 4. Racers have until April 2 to complete the course. You can follow Mr. Richey's progress on the Monitor's website at www.csmonitor.com/floridarace. For more race news, log on to: www.watertribe.com.
Participating in the Ultimate Florida Challenge is not the craziest thing I've ever done. But it's close.
For the next several weeks home will be a 17-1/2 foot sea kayak. I don't know if I can make it all the way around Florida in a month. But I'll give it my best, and along the way I'll discover much I didn't know about Florida and even more about myself. My race name is "Sharkchow." Here is what I'll take with me.
Current Designs Solstice sea kayak (56 pounds empty); two Werner paddles (one spare); spray skirt (fits around the cockpit to keep water out; Inflatable life vest; hand pump; sponge; inflatable paddle float for deep water self-rescue; inflatable seat cushion; downwind sail rig; hand-held GPS unit; hand-held VHF marine radio; EPIRB (emergency beacon transmitter); three flares; compass, watch, and whistle; duct tape; cellphone and battery-operated charger; hypothermia survival kit - including space blanket and fast fire starters; first aid kit; knife; headlamp, two flashlights, and a rear deck running light; reflective vest; lightweight wheels to pull kayak over rocks or tidal flats; charts; batteries; MP3 player; single-use cameras; journal and two pens; reading glasses.
For paddling: straw hat and baseball cap; sunglasses; sunscreen; two O'Neil rash guard shirts; nylon short-sleeve shirt (for night paddling); fast-drying shorts; diving booties; paddle gloves (two pairs); waterproof paddle jacket; bandannas. For camp: fleece sweat shirt; T-shirt; long-sleeve shirt; nylon running shorts; nylon wind pants; wool socks; mosquito head net; fleece hat; Teva water shoes.
Jungle hammock; inflatable air mattress; sleeping bag; four tent stakes; assorted lengths of parachute cord; 8-by-10-foot tarp; bug repellent; biodegradable soap; toilet paper; food for 5 to 7 days (I'll resupply at checkpoints); backpacker's propane stove; titanium pot; three cigarette lighters; matches; containers to carry up to four gallons of water; plastic knife, fork, and spoon; pocketknife with can opener.
For the 40-mile portage
PaddleCart com portage cart (7-1/2 pounds, modified); running shoes; silk sock liners (for use with the wool socks); small backpack with rope to tow the kayak.