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.
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.
Outsiders may not understand this. But those who enter these events include some of the most interesting people I've ever met. They are rugged individualists, folks of integrity and courage. To use the old cliché, they are the kind of people I'd feel comfortable sharing a foxhole with. The battlefield analogy is a good one because the UFC was a physical and mental battle from beginning to end.
For me the challenge began well before the launch. A month before the race, I injured my left shoulder while training, and in the week prior to the race I struggled with thoughts of having to drop out. On the first day of the race I covered 67 miles in a little over 13 hours, but when I awoke the next morning I was barely able to lift my left arm. Again, I considered dropping out. But then I decided I didn't need to actually lift my arm, just move it back and forth like a piston. I pressed on.
By Day 4 my shoulder was no longer a problem. But I had other concerns. I got lost in the Everglades - twice, traveling several miles out of my way before realizing my mistake. And I spent a cold, cold night on a mud bank in the middle of Florida Bay.
At the time, I was traveling with Mark "ManitouCruiser" Przedwojewski. We were zooming across the bay toward Key Largo when we approached the tricky Twisty Mile Channel around midnight in near total darkness. I've taken this channel many times without incident, but when we arrived we couldn't see any channel markers. Mark went north. I went east. In what seemed an instant, strong north winds accelerated the falling tide and left us on different sides of an emerging mud bank.
We could see each other 100 yards away, but could not hear each other over the roar of the wind. We each assumed, wrongly, that the other was stuck in the mud.
There is an unwritten code among WaterTribe challengers that we will come to the aid of anyone in distress and stay with them until they are safe. That code kept us in the mud for seven hours that night, each for the other - though neither of us was stuck. The next morning I paddled out into deep water. When Mark saw me, he took the channel across the bank. Together we paddled and sailed into the rising sun to Key Largo.
After about a week, the UFC became two races rather than one. At the front of the pack was Matt "Wizard" Layden in a 12-foot sailboat he had designed and built. Matt brings a potent combination of intellect and physical toughness to these races. His plan was to build up as much of a lead as possible sailing almost nonstop up the east coast to help him get up the St. Marys River, across the portage, down the Suwannee and back into the open waters of the Gulf before anyone could catch him.
The "anyone" turned out to be Mark and me. Mark, with his expedition sailing canoe pulled away from me near Palm Beach. A strong paddler, he eventually caught and passed Matt on the Suwannee River. But I suppose the bigger surprise is that I eventually caught and passed them both. More than 1,000 miles into the race, three vastly different boats were suddenly neck and neck in a race that would be determined in the next three days by a combination of seamanship, endurance, and weather.
The turning point came just after noon on March 21 when I plunged into a 20 mile-per-hour head wind in the turbulent Gulf of Mexico in a final push to Cedar Key. The next day, after seven hours of blissful sleep in a motel, I began a final run, knowing that both ManitouCruiser and Wizard were not far behind.
I covered 120 miles in 30 hours of nonstop paddling from 7:30 a.m. Wednesday to my arrival at the finish line at 1:48 p.m. on Thursday.
ManitouCruiser arrived a mere 50 minutes later. Wizard came in five hours after him. It was a remarkably tight and exciting finish in a race that had begun 19 days and 1,200 miles earlier.
Of the 10 challengers, three dropped out. Two others, Nick "Pelican" Hall, and Donald "Doooobrd" Polakovics reached the finish line on March 30. The final two challengers, Leon "Dr. Kayak" Mathis and Dawn "SandyBottom" Stewart completed their journey together on April 2 after 29 days, 13 hours, and 33 minutes.