Saturday, December 24, 2016

Team Kayak Lake Mead - Everglades Challenge 2016

Druce and I the day before the race on the start beach, Everglades Challenge 2016
Druce and I the day before the race on the start beach, Everglades Challenge 2016 

Paddling and Sleeping and the Ernest Shackleton Award
Everglades Challenge 2016 Report by Robert Finlay (IronBob):

It took me nine months to finally write this story down. 

This is our seventh story of the Everglades Challenge (the EC). Our WaterTribe names are IronBob and TheJuice and once again we paddled Sunshine in Class 2 (at night her name is Ranger). She's a SEDA Kayaks Triumph; 24' by 24", arrow like, agile for her length, and in the right hands quite seaworthy. For an explanation of our tribal names and classes of boat in this race, see my write up of EC 2014

Sometimes in writing up our EC story I've delved into my thinking and experiences, my emotions and passions, and even how I act and interact with fear and pain. My write up of the EC 2015 is a good example of all that. This time I think my story is going to be simpler. 

This year there were 90 boats on the start beach. There were 26 boats in Class 1, which are paddle craft in which 1 square meter of downwind sail per paddler is allowed. There were 10 boats in Class 2, which are paddle craft in which no sail is allowed. 

This year we would finish first among all paddle craft, our fourth time doing so, and seventh among all boats. This year we would receive the Ernest Shackleton Award for nautical excellence. 

But all we did was just paddle south and sleep a lot. 

Everglades Challenge 2016 Course Overview IronBob and TheJuice ~ 266 miles
Everglades Challenge 2016 Course Overview IronBob and TheJuice ~ 266 miles

Notes: Speed Made Good (SMG) for a paddler without sail is overall average speed, includes time spent on the beach, time spent eating, time spent doing anything other than making forward progress with a forward stroke. You will see references to Morale Checks (MC). These are the running tally of positive 'thumbs up' moments.      

The start of the Everglades Challenge always seems festive. This year with 90 boats on the beach, sail boats and paddle craft of every description and color, competitors making last minute preparations, onlookers and loved ones - well onlooking, race officials announcing things, and everyone waiting for the call to start - it's very exciting. 

Tides were not favorable for heading out to the Gulf, so Druce and I, along with most of the field, headed across Tampa Bay. Once out on the bay, I remarked to Druce as I do every year a few miles into the race, "well, here we go again..." 

Ninety boats on a relatively small stretch of beach, on average about 3 feet apart, all slipping into the water at the same time, seems hectic. But, it doesn't take long for the field to disperse. Once underway and after only a few minutes, the field is already spreading out. We saw other craft on the bay, some in front of us, some heading out to the Gulf, some to our left, some to our right. But, by the time we passed Longboat Pass, we would see very few WaterTribers for the next three and a half days. 

Everglades Challenge 2016 Mullet Key to Cape Haze ~ 60 miles
Everglades Challenge 2016 Mullet Key to Cape Haze ~ 60 miles

START to CP1/Cape Haze:

Just after crossing Tampa Bay, something popped. I had sprained or strained, a ligament, a tendon, or muscle, not sure which, in the ring finger of my left hand - OUCH, causing me to modify my stroke some. Anyway... 

Bradenton Bridge, 11 miles, 1h 50m , speed made good (SMG) 6 mph, not bad. At the bridge we interacted with Mark and Lauren (WindwardMark and LeewardLauren), just calling out "hi". They always have great smiles.  

Once down to the vicinity of Longboat Pass we paddled between Sister and Longboat Keys to benefit from the incoming tide of Longboat Pass, thus effortlessly keeping our speed at 6 mph for another few miles, occasionally hitting speeds close to 8 mph, Morale Check + 1.  

Sarasota Bridge, 23.7 miles, 4h 15m, SMG 5.5 mph,  shaving off about 20 minutes from our best previous time, MC +2.

My left hand continued to be a pain, just another something else to deal with.   

Snake Island, 40 miles, 7h 15m, SMG 5.5 mph. The intercoastal down to Venice was not so exciting, but we bettered our best time by about an hour, which suddenly made everything seem very exciting; MC + 3.  

We held a speed through The Ditch of about 6 mph, interacting a little with Jim (junglejim) and Bob (BustedRudder) who was on the very beginning of his quest of the Ultimate Florida Challenge, 1200 miles all the way around Florida. Though working against a negative tidal flow, we kept a decent speed by hugging the shore or, on several occasions, sprinting with and taking advantage of  boat wakes. 

From the START to CP1/Cape Haze, 60 miles, 11h 10m, arriving at 1810 hrs, SMG 5.4 mph, getting us there, for the first time ever, in daylight, fading though it was, MC + 4. Druce handled everything for us; signing us into the checkpoint, replenishing our water, securing us each a cup of soup; while I took an ibuprofen for my hand and bandaged various friction rubbings. We were grabbing water again by 1840 hrs.        

Everglades Challenge 2016 Cape Haze to Big Marco Pass ~ 77 miles
Everglades Challenge 2016 Cape Haze to Big Marco Pass ~ 77 miles

CP1 to Picnic Key/First Bivy:

Charlotte Harbor, 9 miles, 1h 43m, SMG 5.2 mph. 

Matlacha Pass, 19 miles, 3h 42m, SMG 5.1 mph.

A gentle sea breeze and a flooding tide of Charlotte Harbor allowed us to keep a nice steady pace to Matlacha Bridge. 

Matlacha Bridge, 24 miles, 4h 35m, SMG 5.2 mph.

From CP1 to Picnic Key, 34 miles, 6h 35m, SMG 5.2 mph. A good day for sure, 94 miles from The Start with a SMG of 5.1 mph, MC +5.

By 0130 hrs Sunday morning, we were organized, fed, and in our tent for a two hour sleep. Gusts were kicking up! Just as I was relaxing and looking forward to some potential REM sleep, Ranger was blown into our tent and into my head, OUCH! That was okay, she was just saying, "I'm right here with you guys".  

Two hours later, 0330 hrs my alarm goes off. We eat, pack up, it was a two man effort taking the tent down with the breeze still gusting, and were just about done stuffing dry sacks, when I heard voices, then saw lights. It was Tom Perron (spiritwalker) and Wayne Albert (MosquitoMagnet), making for Picnic Key and drawn to our head lamps I suppose. Tom asked if we were making camp. I replied, "we just did, we've slept for two hours, and are preparing to leave". Though my intent was polite, there was of course a psychological edge to my answer that I'm sure did not go unnoticed. Wayne asked if we were going to follow the coast or do the crossing, I answered, "we're probably doing the crossing". 

By 0400 hrs we were underway, but were only 100 feet into this new day when a violent thrashing occurred in the water, our bow was lifted up, we were rolling to starboard, some quick bracing prevented a capsize, Druce lost overboard his under the deck bag which wasn't under his deck yet, and we were drug along for about two boat lengths before the poor creature dislodged us. Wayne yelled, "what was that, a shark"?! I answered that I didn't know, but I's guessing we disturbed a sleeping manatee. With a few backward strokes and some scanning of the area with our headlamps, we soon recovered the lost dry bag. 

Picnic Key to CP2/Chokoloskee: 

We were passing under Sanibel Causeway at 0428 hrs, MC +6.

Around first light, Druce asked how my hand was doing. I lifted it with the paddle and reflected out loud, "It still hurts". I continued, "the whole time my mind has been rebelling against this pain, and yet all the while, the pain was really my body evolving and becoming a better paddler", MC +7. 

Gordon Pass, 32 miles, 7 hrs, SMG 4.6 mph.

Our goal was Big Marco, but we weren't going to make the tide there and I needed bandaging again anyway. So, we headed into Gordon Pass - dumb idea! I'd rather be out to sea in near gale winds riding rollers than dealing with the washing machine boat wake turbulence of Sunday boaters behind Keewaydin Island! We stopped briefly for bandaging and twice Sunshine was swamped. 

Marco Pass, 44 miles, 10.5 hrs, SMG 4.1 mph.   

The tide is in full ebb so, we beach up on that little strand on the north end of Marco Island, hang stuff out to dry, eat a nice meal, and lay down to sleep waiting for the tide change. It is warm and sunny and we're laying down for a nap, life is pretty good, MC +8. 

Josh Morgan (TideTraveller) and his wife Jacquie show up. They were cruising the course and just stopped by to say hi and wish us well. That was awesome. We were underway again at 1800 hrs. Unbeknownst to us Greg (KayakVagabond) was right behind us having just entered Big Marco.

With the flooding tide we make good time to Goodland, Coon Key, and Gullivan Bay. We opt for the route through West Pass, allowing us to arrive at Chokoloskee 0130 hrs Monday morning.    

Picnic Key to Chokoloskee/CP2, 21.5 hrs, SMG 3.4 mph. We are the second paddle craft to arrive at CP2, Wayne Albert (MosquitoMagnet) having arrived a little over an hour before us, MC +9. 

We set up camp and eat. I bandage. I have a serious problem developing, morale check slightly dented. We're closing our eyes around 0200 hrs. About a half hour later we hear Greg (KayakVagabond) making beach. Wake up is 0430 hrs. We are underway at 0505 hrs and flying out to sea with the last of the ebbing tide, MC +10.   

Everglades Challenge 2016 Big Marco Pass to Graveyard Beach - 69 miles
Everglades Challenge 2016 Big Marco Pass to Graveyard Beach - 69 miles

CP2/Chokoloskee to Graveyard Beach:

We are catching the last of the ebb, the water is low, we come close to grounding up a few times, but we are moving at near 6 mph, MC +11. At the mouth of Rabbit Pass, at the very beginning of morning nautical twilight we see an anchored small boat with deck lamp, it's Alan Stewart (sos) whose quest is the 1200 mile Ultimate Florida Challenge. We don't call out, but we wish him good luck. 

We have a mission this morning. Significant southeast, read horrendous, winds are forecast. We will probably see them today. Our goal is to make the shelter of Shark River before the winds arrive. We won't.

Passing Pavilion Key 0700 hrs, 11 miles, 2 hrs, SMG 5.5 mph, MC +12. 

A wind picks up on our port quarter giving us 18 to 24 inch waves. For the next 18 miles, we work with these waves with our best effort giving us occasional speeds of up to 7.7 mph! 

At 10 AM Chokoloskee is 29 miles behind us and we have only 9 more miles to Shark River when the forecast winds hit. The wind picks up and begins clocking around to our port beam, waves now 3', continues picking up and now on our port bow, waves 4', continues increasing and now right on our nose, waves 5 to 6' - all in about 15 minutes. Our speed goes down to maybe 1 mph, probably not even that.      

 Master the Wind and Waves
Master the Wind and Waves

This is an image of wind and waves. The guy in the image is the Master, the head of the order of the Sea Breeze Ninjas, master of wind and waves. He is there to remind us that the wind is our friend. It wants to make us stronger. He is full of such tenets; pain and fear are friends, they too want to make us stronger, etc. The guy is a lot of fun. One could argue with his logic. Certainly, one could adopt a different philosophy. But his creed is simple, persevere.

Druce brings us around ninety degrees left towards shore, putting us at right angles to the waves and we make for Highland Point. It's a hard battle.

We make the 2.5 miles to Highland Point in about an hour. 100' out from shore we are still fighting the wind. You have to be 50' or less from this shore to find reasonable shelter.

We make beach, I pick up Sunshine's bow by the carrying handle, I know better than that, to pull her a few feet further up the beach, when WHAM, the strap breaks and her knife edge bow drops across my foot. How could it not be broken? I recite every swear word in the dictionary of swear words. Morale check is dented, though actually it's my foot that's dented. My morale will be just fine, once I stop hopping around.

About 30 minutes later, after a little rest and food, and some stretching, and after my foot no longer feels like it's broken, we are underway again. We continue south hugging the shore, staying in the lee, but crossing the open water bays of Broad River, Broad Creek, and Harney River. 

We turn Shark Point and make for the bit of strand east of Graveyard Creek. We make beach at 1430 hrs.  

Graveyard Beach from Highland Point; 9 miles, 3 hrs, SMG 3 mph; from CP2, 39 miles, 9.5 hrs, SMG 4.1 mph, not horrible. 

Approaching Graveyard Beach, we've been weighing out options. Option One, we can press on across Ponce de Leon Bay against the wind, against the tide, and fight the tide all the way up the Joe River. Option Two, we can island hop from lee to lee across Oyster and Whitewater Bays. Both of those options seemed unproductive and miserable. With either option, we would likely arrive at CP2/Flamingo about 12 hours later and quite physically spent. Option Three, we could lay around the beach for four or five hours, hope the wind might abate, but regardless what the wind might do, leave for Joe River with the flooding tide and make CP2 around the same time in the morning, but not nearly so worn out. Option Three makes sense. We would lay on the beach on a warm, though windy, sunny day, eat, dry things out, and relax, MC + 13!

We put up a line to dry our clothes. We set up a ground cloth, eat a nice meal, and nap for awhile in the sun. Though, I keep sitting up to scan the waters of Ponce de Leon Bay looking for other Tribers. I don't see any, but my mind is ever on their whereabouts. I wonder if anybody is taking some interior route. Druce tells me to relax, there's no interior route that will put somebody in front of us.

Why am I so competitive? I have no idea. I guess - cats chase, peregrines dive.

Finally I see a sail boat making its way across the bay towards Shark River. Looks like a Triber.

Our plan is to leave around 2000 hrs putting us in good position for positive tide flow. It's hard waiting that long, really hard. At 1800 hrs I am up bandaging myself in preparation for departure. I'm holding my balls in one hand and a roll of gauze in the other and wondering what to do. They are in deplorable shape. Druce remarks they are like peeled and boiled beets. I'm thinking more like squished plums in the making of jam. Looking at them, it seems I will need to visit a hospital once I reach Key Largo. There is no morale check involved, it's just - it is what it is. Still, I need to figure out a way to bandage these things.

Right at about 1900 hrs Monday evening, we slip quietly into the water and paddle a leisurely pace, not wanting to out distance the tide, into the fading twilight.    

Everglades Challenge 2016 Graveyard Beach to Key Largo ~ 60 miles
Everglades Challenge 2016 Graveyard Beach to Key Largo ~ 60 miles

 Graveyard Beach to Pelican Motel on Key Largo/The Finish:

We cross the 3 miles of the bay in about an hour. As we enter Shark River we see an anchored sailboat. It's Alan (sos), so it was a Triber crossing the bay earlier. He asks if we have some mosquito repellent, we do, and dig it out for him.

CP3/Flamingo, 27 miles, 8 hrs, SMG 3.4 mph, a very leisurely night of paddling.

On the edge of the marina to greet us is Alan (sos) again. He has already arrived and completed his portage to the Gulf side. He asks if we need a hand with our portage. Good guy!

We complete our portage in about 20 min, are making a meal, and getting ready for a couple of hours sleep when Michael (GreyBeard) the Checkpoint Captain comes over to say "hi" and share some cold pizza with us. Awesome!

I set my alarm for 0600 hrs for a 0630 planned departure but get up a half hour earlier to do - some more bandaging. I'm near the last of my neosporin and Alan has shared some butt butter with me, so I'll be in good shape for this last crossing.

Laurie Sanders, Jr. (Aleutian) is cruising the course in his truck and wishes us luck as we begin our push across Florida Bay.

Last Day, Sunrise on Florida Bay, Everglades Challenge 2016
Last Day, Sunrise on Florida Bay, Everglades Challenge 2016

Created from memory, this is the sunrise we saw as we began our transit of Florida Bay. Of course this image does the reality of that morning no justice. It was the most beautiful sunrise I've ever witnessed. I think Druce said the same thing. The dragons receding left and right from center represent the pains, fears, and disappointments of my life receding from the center of my consciousness - so that all that was left was my perception of this light from God, the beauty of his universe, the beauty of my life, and of all that I've been given, and of course, the beauty of crossing Florida Bay once again with my son, MC + 14! 

It is a typical Florida Bay crossing for a paddle craft - tough. The wind starts off gentle enough, but gradually increases in ferocity until at times all forward efforts seem futile. But, they're not. 

After a physically tough crossing and yet a remarkably beautiful one; a sensory overload of hues of blue and green and milky white rollers, we finally put our paddles to rest and glide into the cove of the Pelican Motel. We're greeted on the finish beach by Steve (Chief) and Paula (PaddleDancer) and Joe (Santiago), also Randy (SewSew) and Doug (RidgeRunner), and I believe other WaterTribers who were on the beach at the time. It's a warm, fuzzy feeling to receive such a greeting after hundreds of miles on the water. 

Pelican Motel from Flamingo, 33 miles, 13 hrs, 40 min, SMG 2.4 mph, adequate. 

We have taken off almost 4 hours from our previous best time, Morale Check + 15!!     

Are Druce and I Sea Breeze Ninjas? Hardly. We're apprentices, which The Master would be quick to point out. The Master? He is a fictional guy, no he really is! He embodies all the knowledge there is to be had in making a best time passage in a small craft from Mullet Key to Key Largo. Each year in challenging ourselves to this passage we strive to become better paddlers and hopefully perhaps, better human beings. 

The walkaways from any challenge are; did I improve? and if so, how? 

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