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.
With less than a week until the WaterTribe is set to push off the beach for the Everglades Challenge, it's now all about the weather.
Every year, it's the same backing-and-forthing with my favorite skipper and his gang. What will the future hold? Will there be a cold front and a line of disturbed weather, or will a high pressure stall over us. Will it be the dreaded easterly? Or more exactly: WHEN will the cold front roar through, and WHEN will the dreaded easterly kick up.
Each sailor seems to have a personal preference: Sailflow. Predict Wind. Windy or Wunderground. NOAA avionic or the local weather.
My opinion, and soothsayers will confirm, predictions are only as good as the memory holding them...because que sera, baby, sera.
Not so much challenging as Challenging. The Everglades Challenge to be precise.
Each first Saturday in March, a swarm of small and eccentric craft takes to the water and head south from Fort De Soto Beach toward Key Largo. This year, on March 4 (casual National Military Day, let's say), the starting conch will moan at 10:00 am, a few hours later than usual.
Among the WaterTribe's many members will be my own beloved skipper TwoBeers aboard Spawn with his doughty partner-in-adventure Moresailesed (Jahn JT Tihansky). Again.
NO they will not be racing around the entire state of Florida this year. That event is held in alternate years.
YES, there is serious talk about bidding a fond adieu to both Spawn and the speedy canoe Miss Patsie.
Anyone in the market for a battle-tested and record-breaking sail-and-canoe platform for adventure races? You can be the next owner!
Step right up!
Because of the success of last year's Ultimate Florida Challenge –– longing to recall those times? Here's a link to past blogs –– Spawn has required little to no modifications for 2023.
Spawn went to the spa at the Morgan's place and came home looking all fresh and Mediterranean bluey.
As usual, the WaterTribe concors d'elegance will be open on Friday afternoon, March 3 at the beach at Fort DeSoto, for those who want to check out all the dreamers' machines.
The variety and diversity of ideas in action on the beach boggles the imagination. People approach the challenge from such different places and with such novel solutions!
I recommend taking the afternoon to soak in the enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, between 2.4Meter races, Flying Scot events, Merlin, Moth Midwinters, AND the upcoming Challenge, our house is humming with activity.
It's command central for the annual big pile-up of survival gear. Checklists and girthy blue Ikea bags full of waterproof duffles have begun multiplying. Floorspace is starting to close in.
Perhaps because Spawn is more or less turnkey at this point, (aside from some tidying and refreshing), my sweet skipper has been able to sail with fellow WaterTribesfolk.
He and Andy "Andyman" Hayward sea-trialed the Dovekie, a generously-beamed creature that was first sailed by a cheerful Kiwi team a few Challenges back.
Andyman will again hit the beach with Nate "Natedog" Vilardebo; spousal hopes are high that this will be a less dramatic year for team Dovekie.
Mr. Linton came back considerably wind-blown after a morning with Dave "DeSea" Clement on the Prindle 19. A catamaran will do that to a person.
DeSea will be competing as a trio this year, with teammates Chris "CCock" Growcock and Ed "SailEd" Ruark. They are also hoping for low drama/high fun.
Crossing fingers and knocking wood.
If past performance is any kind of predictor, this month will slip under our keel like the tidal surge at Fundy.
They pressed the "okay" button on their SPOT locator at 3:19 pm Sunday, March 20, fifteen days and 9 hours after pushing off from shore and accepted the hero's welcome from a gang of family, friends, and supporters at the Fort DeSoto boat ramp.
The final 27 hours of their circumnavigation of Florida took them down the Suwannee and finally –– finally! –– back to the Gulf of Mexico aboard Spawn. Mother Nature, who, by the way, ALWAYS wins, gave them a few additional affectionate swats during this last 84 miles.
At the mouth of the Suwannee, after a long day of tacking down the river, the team thought they'd anchor and have a meal and wait for the westerly to fill in. Alas this put them in the lee of a pestilential island at sunset. Swarmed by gnats, which managed to find a way to bite, even around a dry-suit. The margin between cuff and glove is particularly vulnerable.
Still, the wind came along, and the team headed to their Cedar Key checkpoint, knowing that some weather –– oh, yes, another cold front! –– was due. The cold front, they hoped, would give them northerly winds to scoot them down the coast to Fort DeSoto.
Around midnight, as they tried to check in to Cedar Key, the promised weather arrived, They had shortened sail already as they counted Mississippis between lightning and thunder. Even with radar coverage on the coms, "You just never know how it's going to be." TwoBeers said. "It started piddling, and then it was like Ut-OH, even though it didn't look so bad on screen."
Spawn grew restive, so they rolled up the jib, and as the wind built and built, they took the main down as well. They found themselves making 8.5 knots under bare poles –– in about 8 inches of water.
When the second line of squalls came along, the guys were anchored and snuggled under their boat-tent, ready for it, they thought. But in the teeth of the squall, it became obvious that the anchor was dragging. If it wasn't onto a lee shore, it was a decidedly shallow lee area.
Moresailesed let the centerboard down, TwoBeers found enough steerage to head into the breeze, and the anchor caught again. The two went back to sleep, and let the storm blow itself out.
Later, still in the predawn hours, they put up a headsail until the boat started planing. Two weeks into the challenge, less than 100 miles to go –– prudence is the virtue you want to court. Reduce sail again.
They sailed this last leg conservatively (as Moresailesed has been known to say, "To finish first, first you must finish."), giving the conditions their fatigued best attention. No doubt they knew that the record of 17 days was well within their grasp –– as long as they didn't have to, say, ROW all the way from Clearwater.
And suddenly, there they were –– a sliver of black sail on the horizon, flanked by an honor guard powerboat (the SPOT did some good after all!). Sailing under jib alone, the team made a stately entrance, docking at the same Fort DeSoto ramp where they had put in weeks before.
Champagne was popped, cheers sounded, and at least one person heaved a mighty sigh of relief.
Will they do it again next year? Thank goodness the event runs only every OTHER year.
Will they do it again in two years? I heard them say, "Well, that's one thing off the list." and "We don't have to do THAT again." but also, "If we had a little better weather..."
But I rather think not.
It's been a whirlwind 35 hours since the previous blog. Our manly paddlers –– my sweet spouse TwoBeers and his friend Jahn "Moresailesed" Tihansky –– have now completed Stage 4 of The Ultimate Florida Challenge. One more to go!
When last we left them, the guys were taking a break at Blue Springs state park. They grabbed as much shut-eye as they could before midnight on Thursday, and then took back to the river.
The moon was nearly full in a clear sky, and as we know from our pal Lucky Jack Aubrey, "There is not a moment to lose!"
So they paddled 70 miles down the river without much break until Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile back on shore, several restless Watertribespeople and some impatient fans started to converge on the lower Suwannee, at south side of the route 19 bridge in Fanning, Florida.
After drinking his sundowner beer, TwoBeers had clearly made up his mind; after gathering intel and contemplating the state of his person, Moresailesed concurred: it was time to put a fork into Stage 4.
So they decanted gear from the Miss Patsie, accepted additional beverages from adoring fans, and loaded all into the waiting van.
Mike Walbolt, Cindy and Chali Clifton, and the gang of three Spawnsters hit the nightlife of Fanning hardcore for the 45 minutes it took to order, receive, and snarf our dinners at the Suwannee Belle Landing.
Thanks, Rappin' Rodney for the dining recommendation and weather thoughts!
Thereafter, we retired to the modest property that somebody pronounced a roach motel (I saw clean shower, bleached white sheets, and –– in my room, anyhow –– any untoward creatures kept their teeny heads down), where the Sandman lambasted us all before 8:30 pm...
Saturday morning found us deciding against a leisurely big breakfast. Thanks Cindy and Chali for bringing breakfast sammies for the sailors so they could rig and launch with as much alacrity as they could muster.
Spawn designer and occasional Spawnster, OH "Ninjee" Rodgers showed up to provide moral support with and his nearly-anonymous buddy Ray. Both were happy to also offer the odd bit of heckling and Ray, who is a bit of an electronics wizard, addressed the wayward SPOT with little hope that even he could manage to make it behave any better.
For me, the takeaway lesson of the morning: do NOT –– as you love life –– do NOT take an experimental sniff of any item of clothing found in the van.
At around 11:30, we wished Spawn a bon voyage and watched them dodge speedboats as the current swept them rapidly around the bend.
According to one local, the boat-traffic was nothing special, "No, not a race. Some of us is just havin' a river run."
When a 40-foot Scarab blows by on a stretch of river only a couple of hundred feet wide, I can tell you who's going to run.
The Challenges are various and vast.
Cindy and Chali leapfrogged Spawn from overlook to overlook and reported at 2 pm, the guys were maxi-tacking down the river, making excellent progress.
At his 6:30 pm phone call, TwoBeers reported that according to Moresailesed, their team is the first and only (including natives in their dugout canoes, et cetera.) to ever, in the whole history of time, ever, EVER sail upwind down the river the whole dang way.
Spawn was at anchor while the boys awaited the promised westerly, ate some dinner, and got suited up for the possibly snorty/sporty weather expected tonight.
Home stretch! Knock wood!
The idea of Florida being home to Class III white-water seems, even to native Floridians, somehow absurd.
There's so little altitude (just ask anyone with actual mountains! Hi Granite State!) it's hard to imagine how the rapids could develop.
But they do. And I was so happy to receive photographic proof that our tough adventure fellas took the smart way around the Shoals.
The Ultimate Florida Challenge started Saturday a week ago, which makes this (quick finger-calculation) Day 13.
So yesterday afternoon, our intrepid adventurers, Moresailesed and TwoBeers portaged around Big Shoals. Buoyed by the experience, my favorite skipper told me by phone that they planned to take a break, and then paddle some more using a two hours on/two hours off system. It was hard to resist the lure of the positive current.
Late last night, he called again. He started with, "I don't know how we didn't biff."
These are words that do not soothe.
What happened, I asked, keeping a level and cheerful tone. "Well, we were going along pretty good –– you know, we never even saw Little Shoals? It just wasn't even there," he paused to paddle and then continued, "So we were going and then we broke the mast. We never saw the limb."
I take a moment to process the moment: dark, flowing river, abrupt stop in a canoe that neither flipped nor swamped.
"The moon is amazing!" my favorite skipper added. Splash, splash of the paddle. Then, "The watch thing isn't really working. Airplane seat naps –– we'll try to camp later. I'll send a picture."
And then I tried to get back to sleep.
The SPOT tracker continued to disappoint overnight, so that I found myself doubting the late-night phone call.
As it turned out, the Miss Patsie continued downriver with only a short camping break. The ground was too hard and sandy for comfort, so the boys took Jarhead's wise dictum to heart: If you don't fall asleep, you're not tired enough.
Late the next morning, the SPOT was revived by a second new set of batteries...Just in time to document another long day of paddling.
Their 4 o'clock call (Circadian rhythm disruption?) sounded as if they were hitting the metaphorical wall.
TwoBeers is a never-say-die guy, but he said there might be tears today.
They were discouraged; they'd hoped to get to Branford for a hot meal.
They were worried about Moresailesed getting back in time for work (there's a flight reservation, about which I've maintained a strict need-not-to-know).
Headwinds––and it's still a <expletitive + intensifier> 100 miles more of this.
As the Chief and Paula Paddledancer say: get some food, get some sleep, and it will look better in the morning.
I told my favorite skipper my version of that same thing. Their location has not changed for nearly five hours. I bet they could sleep another 10, but I suspect they'll be paddling under the stars by midnight...
Our intrepid adventure racers started Day 12 by rising fresh as daisies from their bowers at the Suwannee Outfitters Lodge (alas the storied Gator Motel is no more!) and leaping energetically into their Miss Patsie at the crack of dawn.
Okay, that might be all poetic license. Nevertheless, I'd bet any amount of money that they were fresh, and I can tell by SPOT that they set off down the Suwannee River at a civilized 8:00 am.
How far Moresailesed and TwoBeers get and when they can be expected to arrive at the end of the Suwannee? That's an excellent question. I do not have an answer, though I am actually pretty interested in that topic.
It's 82 miles as the crow flies from Fargo to the end of the Suwannee. The event rules suggest that the distance on the water is 220 miles. When I try plotting points on the SPOT map ruler, nobody is going to be surprised when the ruler taps out before I get to the I-10 bridge.
When I spoke to himself at around 3 pm today, Wednesday, TwoBeers reported that they were making good progress. The rainwater flushing down to the Gulf was giving them sometimes 2 knots of push. Altogether more comfortable than walking.
We are delighted to hear that the reptilian residents of the river are keeping their snouts down. The weather today was around 75 and bright sunshine. Maybe not quite warm enough to liven up the cold-blooded locals.
The Miss Patsters hope to navigate Big Shoals before dark -- it's a short portage around the Class III rapids –– and have supper. Then Little Shoals, and after that, if they can do so, they plan to start their watch system (one person is awake for two hours, while the other sleeps) as they float down the river.
Perhaps not an ideal method to navigate a river after rain has dumped, but it's the method they are going to try.
Knocking wood some more.
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