The tarpon shot out of the water like a fleshy javelin, intent on gobbling a bait fish. Four shiny feet of muscle and eyeball, it landed all willy-nilly in the water a scant boat-length from Spawn. Then another silverking leaped and belly-flopped. Then another. And another.
"Whoa," commented one of our weary sailors.
"Yeah," replied the other.
Just another day off Cape Sable.
TwoBeers and Moresailesaid brought their 22-foot boat, Spawn, safely to harbor in Key Largo on Monday, March 6 at around 6 pm –– after a 300-mile, 50-hour Everglades Challenge.
They were first to finish, having worked through a pack of boats that started ahead on the course. The event is unique in many aspects, including the sometimes-fluid starting line. This year, for instance, the weather on Friday before the start was fairly gnarly, with an on-shore gale and a big surf pounding.
In fairness, it was not awful by tee-time the next day, but as Moresailesaid has said, "To finish first, first you must finish."
Of the 80 or so boats competing, only about 20 (including Spawn) chose to start traditionally, pushing off the beach at Fort DeSoto park in St. Petersburg. Others drove down the coast and put in where they felt comfortable.
At checkpoint 3, a spot deep in the Everglades National Park notable for poor cell coverage and a resident salt-water croc who likes to keep an eye on the boat-ramp, Spawn had unwelcome congress with a manatee.
Tethered to the dock, with the sail up while Moresailesaid went to check in, Spawn suddenly began moving to windward. Then there was a bit of gentle gyration until a quick-thinking TwoBeers raised the centerboard.
The manatee mating frenzy continued apace, but without the non-consensual participation of the boat.
Without a "yes," o manatee, it's "NO."
Departing Flamingo, our sailing heroes used their wiles and ways to get past their last forward competitor by splitting tacks around Joe Kemp Key. Instead of using the usual channel, the boys went east.
Skittering along in the very skinny water, says TwoBeers, "Is not for the faint-hearted. There are lots of wading birds. You have to ask yourself, are they seagulls or are they herons? If it's herons, cool."
Among the spectators on shore, eagle-eyed Rappin Rodney Koch called it: "No risk-it –– no biscuit."
For around three miles, the team navigated by appropriate sea-birds. Perfectly innocent sharks minding their own sharky business were startled out of their wits, half-climbing, half-swimming to get out of the way of the boat as it whistled over the shallows.
But the route cut off enough distance to put Spawn in the overall lead.
Says TwoBeers of navigating that section of Florida Bay, "My socks were dry the whole way until the end of Twisty Mile. We had to get out and push the boat for the last 100 feet to get to the deep water toward Russell Key."
How much sleep did they get?
A princely three hours a night! The conditions were favorable for the odd daytime nap and even a rough watch-system.
Did they run out of food?
No! They enjoyed fried chicken dinner twice, plus plenty of granola bars and other snacks. At the dock, there was ample water and ––ahem–– two beers left in the cooler.
Why does their track have long time-gaps?
Mostly because their SPOT tracker is not very good at its job, but also because the entire SPOT system (so we hear) went down briefly on Sunday night. And yes, FULLY AGREE, a Garmin Inreach is the better option.
How much rowing did they do?
More than a few hours, TwoBeers admits.
But it made the difference between first and fourth place when they were able to navigate in no wind and foul current, especially in the passes around Choko and Flamingo
How long did it take?
50 hours. Saturday at 10 through Monday afternoon. Two full nights's sailing.
It's not their longest trip (60 hours), nor their shortest (33 hours). On the eye-of-the-beholder scale, I give it about a four out of ten: They looked tired, but not wrung-out; raspy but not death-defying; creaky but not gimpy. Neither fell asleep in his dinner.
Amy's favorite anecdote so far?
Typically, I don't hear all the most "exciting" details for a day or two. My favorite skipper is a considerate husband and doesn't like to alarm me all at once.
Still, I liked this, overheard over breakfast at Mrs. Mack's: "Yeah, I was glad to be going out Gasparilla in the dark. We could hear the waves breaking, but we didn't have to see what we were getting into."
What's it like at the finish line?
The finish line is a pocket beach at a little 1950's style resort on Buttonwood Sound (the inside of Key Largo); the welcoming committee included Paula Paddledancer, the Chief, our dear Flying Scot friend Jim Signor, some extra WaterTribe shore crew, and a sprinkling of hotel guests who get a surprise floor show as the boats arrive amidst cheers and a random conch moo.
Evidently, one of the liveaboards in the Sound has a conch and he's not afraid to use it.
And the big question, of course, is Will they do it again?
We shall see.
Meanwhile, it's not a joke that Spawn is available for purchase.
Turn-key operation. Proven winner. Complete Ultimate Florida program available! No tire-kickers please.
It's Day 2, but it feels like the second month of this unsupported adventure race from St. Petersburg to Key Largo.
Over the past nine years, this Sunday in March is traditionally the day when I juggle my electronic tracking stuff and hustle myself to Key Largo. Toting a boat-trailer and fresh clothes and such trappings of society as fit in the vehicle, I drive distractedly while my favorite skipper and his communications officer JT slalom down the left side of Florida aboard Spawn.
I often joke that after checking their SPOT locator from the rest area on Alligator Alley, I have to skedaddle in order to get to Key Largo ahead of my sailors.
This year? No skedaddling required.
They might, as I type this Sunday night, have another 18 hours to go.
Slowly, slowly are they making their track south.
So it's a draggy race this year, one might say.
Draggy but not without drama: what with having some Challengers start half a leg or a leg ahead because of Plan B, and the tracking a bit of a mess –– and with the extra complication of having Spawn's personal locator SPOT suffering some form of hysteria that makes her operational lights flash as if she's working... but lemme tell yah: she ain't working like she flashing.
Anywhahoodle, the Spawnsters seem to be in good spirits.
I am a bit concerned that they might run low on snacks (for once), but since they once fueled half the event on Little Debbie Snackcakes and salted peanuts in a packet, I trust they can fend for themselves.
And didn't TwoBeers pack a fishing line?
As Paula Paddledancer (organizer and all-round-Mamma Bear for the event) pointed out –– the racers are going to have a pretty night of it anyhow.
Have I mentioned the wracking of nerves that is the Everglades Challenge Experience for Shore Crew?
No, we shore-folk aren't taking red-tide flavored breakers over the bow. No, we aren't sitting in our damp sport clothes for days at a time (I speak for myself anyhow). Neither are we watching for flotsam, marine life, and poorly-driven powerboats.
While waiting for team Spawn to reboot their malingering SPOT personal locator this afternoon, I channeled my nervous energy to good: I washed and refueled the van, I vacuumed, I pressed the reload button several dozen times. I texted and e-mailed Moresailesed and resisted the temptation to leave a frustrated voice-mail about CHECKING the dang SPOT.
I knew they had their hands full. I knew they THOUGHT the SPOT was working.
I knew they were cheerfully squeezing as much speed from the wind as they could, knowing that the conditions are liable to turn flat and light overnight.
When one of the other shoreside crews called to inquire my opinion about how many half-gallons of ice cream were recommended to help her through the week, I said, I didn't know, I only purchase pints at a time. [On reflection, it was a brace of pints today, which––Huh!––adds up to a half-gallon. Never considered that math before. Answer: one per day, I guess.]
This is not the time to keel over from starvation.
I jest only a bit.
I hope my water-bound Spawnsters have snarfed many pieces of cold fried chicken, homemade chocolate bar, and savory chunks of home-dried beef jerky.
Neither sailor is especially food-motivated, but they too have a smorgasbord of things to tempt them. Jelly beans, dried whole tiny bananas (monkey guns, baby!), jars of trail mix, banana bread, a stash of strawberry-yogurt-covered pretzels.
Of course, I cannot make those sailors of mine do anything from here on shore. Not eat, not check the dang SPOT, nothing.
We can but watch and wait and keep fingers crossed.
Here's their SPOT link, which seems to have had a revivifying nap and is back to work.
The WaterTribe website has been working for approximately 15 minutes over the course of the past 6 hours by my reckoning.
And so it goes.
In light of past years' performance, I anticipate a few cri de coeur about the failings of SPOT as a personal locator, but new year clean slate, right? The personal locator is how the tracking maps keep track of the 100+ adventurers. So, while sometimes the locater maps are slow, sometimes it's the personal locators corking the bottle.
The SPOT is a hockey-puck sized piece of kit that promises to ping a satellite every 20 minutes or so. It also has a couple of buttons for specific messages ("We're OK!" "We're in trouble, but we're safe," and of course the panic button that calls the Coast Guard). It's proven finicky.
Yes, we have heard that GARMIN makes a superior product with far nicer interfaces and reliability. Had we the option ten years ago, we would have chosen differently.
The SPOT hasn't failed, really, but it's disappointed me by not performing as I hope. We weren't ready to invest in yet another piece of expensive electronica for Spawn, so we'll be SPOTTING again this year.
Here's a link to that website. It follows Spawn only.
How long will the adventure last?
I have an entire country-western song bemoaning that exact question. It's already playing in my head.
The short answer: we hope the gang starts arriving in Key Largo on Sunday evening, but the awards ceremony and official end of the time limit is the following Saturday. It's really anyone's guess.
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