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.
I wake several times in the night these days, click on the SPOT map (annoying as it can be), and now that my racers are in range, check the "Find My" app to locate my favorite skipper. Today, the second Tuesday of the Ultimate Florida Challenge I woke groggy at 8:30. Granted, it was 7:30 only a few days ago, but still, lazybones.
Waking the laptop, I found the team of Moresailesed and TwoBeers was still –– actually still –– in the middle of the planned 40-mile portage. It's the likeliest spot to camp: at the base of a power tower, on a patch of mowed grass, a long stone's throw from the highway. I double-checked my data and sent a quick text to my team: Your last SPOT ping was blah blah blah, please press okay, it's 8:30 on Tuesday.
An hour later, I send another text: Your last SPOT ping was blah blah, please press okay, it's 9:30 Tuesday.
I hit refresh a few times, and voilá! movement. Thank you, I text them.
Were there tears? I said.
No, not really, not me, he said. The shoulder was okay, the feet, the back, everything was okay. The calves were pretty sore. I didn't cry. He raised his voice, But JT might still cry, and they both laughed.
Yes, they had slept longer than they planned that morning. At 8, I said his name once, TwoBeers said, but he didn't even stir. He needed the sleep.
It had been a decent day, really: all the passing cars were considerate in sharing the road. No wildlife sightings, but the Chief stopped by!
The Fargo buffet was closed because it's Tuesday, and the long-anticipated steam trays of savory goodness in the convenience mart were nearly empty, but there was a ham-and-cheese sandwich waiting for him when he finished the beer.
Go! Eat! I said. Send pictures!
I don't know if they will dash into the canoe at first light, but I suspect a long shower, a long snooze, and a big greasy-spoon breakfast will set them up for whatever tomorrow brings.
In the official description of the Ultimate Florida Challenge, the 370-mile Stage 4 is described variously as a "foot-shredder," a "heart-breaker," in an event that the organizer promises "is a long and grueling event that will chew you up and spit you out."
TwoBeers and Moresailesed, as I type this from the warm comfort of home on the second Monday of the Challenge, are pulling the Miss Patsie along a country highway between two flyspeck Georgia towns, portaging between the St. Mary's and Suwannee Rivers.
We scouted that road in December.
It's been a droughty year for Florida, which, we feared, meant that Moresailesed and TwoBeers would be dragging The Miss Patsie up or down the rivers in the ignominious fashion of Christopher Robin conveying Pooh down the stairs.
For his part, TwoBeers worked on the tactics integral to those choices, like water-ballasting, a handy sea-drogue, and a righting line on Spawn, while The Miss Patsie has a modest water-proof skirt, tie-down points for cargo, and an easy-to-furl little sail.
They got the okay for these navigational options from the sole arbiter of the event –– the Chief of the WaterTribe –– and then kept a sharp eye on the atmospheric conditions.
What we didn't predict was that a cold front last Saturday would drop a metric butt-load of rain over the 438,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp. There's still a drought, but there's also some overflowing of the riverbeds.
All to say, our fellas started walking early today. In addition to the 40 mile portage they expected to make between St. Georges and Fargo, Georgia, they slogged another 18 or so miles today alongside the flowing St. Mary's.
At 4 pm, my favorite skipper announced that they'd arrived at the long-anticipated convenience store in St. Georges. Hurrah them! They'd been walking since 8 am. They were tired. They were going to take a break.
When I inquired about the state of his feet, TwoBeers' response was uncharacteristically waspish: "They feel as if they have walked 18 miles."
And the road so far? Not bad. Moresailesed chimed in: it was all logging trucks.
Were they wearing the slow-moving vehicle reflective sign? Yes, on their safety vests.
Had they eaten some fine convenience food? No, they had just plopped down on the curb outside the mart.
The mighty paddlers have, at last stuttering SPOT ping (damn its inconsistent heart), something like 27 miles to push or pull The Miss Patsie to the Suwannee –– or, most likely, to that rustic little hotel next to the canoe launch where they'll rest up for a bit.
They plan to carry on walking/resting/walking overnight as much as they can bear, because, naturally, as is par for this challenge this year, they are racing against the weather. A rainy cold-front is predicted to swing through Tuesday afternoon.
Stage 4 of the Ultimate Florida Challenge has begun for Moresailesed and TwoBeers. After two days of weather hold in St. Mary's, Georgia, they loaded their things in to the Miss Patsie and cast off.
The time was 11:40 on Sunday, March 13. Allow me to let photos tell the story...
Extra big thanks to Andy "Andyman" Hayward for coming to hang out and then offer to convey Spawn and trailer back home.
Click on the map to pick up the SPOT track for the MissPatsters...
The river diverges from land, flowing toward Europe –– as if the magic carpet lift would eventually feed you and your rental skis out onto a double black-diamond slope. It's key to remember to exit the lift.
So after a slumbrous night of recovering from Stage 1, the team bolted for the magic carpet ride.
TwoBeers and Moresailesed blasted through the back of Key Largo and achieved the Atlantic at Elliot Key, and were rewarded with a splendid 24 hour's worth of off-the-wind coursing. 270 miles in a single day, which is dang zippy.
They ran their dual-headsail rig: a jib and a screecher, and, as best they remember, a reef in the mainsail.
With a lively 15 knot breeze nudging them from their starboard quarter, the miles flew by. It was so civilized (especially in comparison with the upwind slog of Stage 1) that they were able to keep a watch system, whereby one sleeps while the other sails the boat.
And somewhere off Palm Beach, while one was sleeping, the time just slipped away. Rousing the sleeper from time to time to check that the heading was correct. It was the correct heading, but at a full gallop (18.6 or so was the top speed they recall; before their Tactick electronic compass sighed and passed away), well, that's how they went "to the Bahamas," according to Moresailesed.
Slight exaggeration. They never actually SAW Walker Cay.
More than 40 miles offshore, the sleeper awoke, checked his navigation, and called for a turn, posthaste! I am very glad to report that after the shenanigans of 2019, the boys generally go for a "chicken jibe," which is to say they tack.
The difference between a tack and a jibe is fairly academic as far as navigation goes, each being a roughly 90° turn –– until is isn't. As anyone who has tried to carry a poster board in a windstorm knows, the wind wants to grab things and fling them about.
To tack, a boat turns so that its nose points through the wind. To jibe, a boat turns away from the wind, presenting the boat's stern to the breeze. When a boat is traveling downwind already, one would normally jibe to change directions.
But things can happen on a jibe, especially when it's dark and the sailors are tired, and they are a long way from shore. A sheet can catch on a cleat, a sail loads up, and next thing you know, the boat is ass-over-teakettle (that IS the technical term) and there's a lot to do.
Prudent (cluck cluck cluck) sailors sometimes choose to do the slower maneuver of turning not 90°, but 270°. Even so, it took two tries to get Spawn tacked around and scooting back toward Florida.
Two tries. Back to Florida. Oy vey.
In the notoriously overcrowded waters of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, our sailors were pleasantly surprised by the dearth of poorly-driven and compensatorily overpowered powerboats. Nary a near miss to be seen.
Knock wood the price of gas has a silver lining.
After their champagne day of making 270 miles, Spawn came up against a line of weather and had no place to hide from it. One squall after another with enormous blasts of wind and nearly continual lighting ("Though it never came down. The lightning just went from cloud to cloud," my favorite skipper said, wonderingly.)
The sailors got drenched, of course, and they agreed that they got really good at reefing the main ("I don't even need a flashlight." TwoBeers said.) And then shaking the reef out again when the squall passed, leaving only a whisper of wind.
"It was the most heinous night of my life. And there was nothing to do but <intensifying invective> bear it." Moresailesed pulled a rueful face. "On a big boat, you can always go below, but on Spawn, you are just THERE. We couldn't even put ashore. "
At the time, the boat was off a wide, sandy beach with no handy inlet to inland waterways. Even with the storm wind gone, the water-state stayed wild and wooly. "I'm never going to need to see New Smyrna Beach ever again." Moresailesed declared.
TwoBeers chimed in: "Yeah, it was brutal. I mean, I built this boat, but I don't know how it stayed together. You'd go off one wave RIGHT in to another." It would become a theme, this statement...
We all share a collective silent moment of appreciation for Spawn holding together regardless the conditions. Good barky!
Aboard Spawn they had front-row seating for a SpaceX rocket taking off from Cape Canaveral. I'd texted them an alert after our dear Henry "Oh Henry!" Picco told me about the launch. Of course Henry, being a local, knows that NASA barricades off some portion of the waterways at launch-time. Being a good friend and shepherd, he checked to be sure Spawn would keep clear of the no-go zone.
Nothing like an international incident to slow a racing program.
Spawn did not get the text, and thought at first a blimp was on fire. "The cool thing is that there's a crackling sound after the sonic boom." TwoBeers observed, to which Moresailesed said, "Yeah, but sometimes there's debris, and we were really close to that launch."
Did they get a photo? Nope.
And, by the by, did they mention the electrical fire? "It never was a fire. It just smoked a little, and we disconnected the battery from the water pump."
There IS a fire extinguisher on the boat. I packed it myself.
The team is taking another night to regroup, tank up on sleep and hot showers, and wait for the anticipated weather-bomb to blow through. According to forecasters (now THAT's a job!), Florida temperatures are expected to dip into the 30s over the weekend.
Good thing Moresailesed and TwoBeers have a lot of warm work ahead of them, paddling upstream.
Despite having the boys –– back in cellphone range Wednesday afternoon, and evidently a bit bored –– tell me that maybe I needn't go all the way to St. Mary's quite yet (did that sound like defeatist talk? They said they'd give themselves til midnight Friday night to get to the Miss Patsie And since I can't help them unless they decide they are done and want fetching –– oh, whatEVs!) I went all the way.
Thus we find ourselves in beautiful downtown St. Mary's, Georgia.
That the Ultimate Florida Challenge includes Georgia tickles my sense of Florida identity.
This town is in fact quite lovely: a restored municipal waterfront, a spacious boat-ramp, a daily ferry to the Cumberland Island National Seashore (with wild ponies! I might yet betake myself out there, but not quite yet), an elegant historic lodging, the Riverview Hotel, and even a small locally owned bookstore. Having an independent bookstore, to me anyhow, is the mark of civilization at its height.
TwoBeers got so cold on Wednesday, he reported, that he took up oars in the middle of the night and rowed. BTW, even with the long sweeps and the sliding rowing seat, Spawn maxes out at around 5 knots –– but sustainable rowing is more like 3.5. Evidently when calculating whether that juice is worth the squeeze, one should factor in metabolic benefits as well.
Moresailesed started a story with, "If you ever want to do something not fun with your husband..." and followed it up with, "Hey, don't get me wrong, I like the guy..."
At least they are still laughing. "We're still laughing," Jeff said, and then, "I see wind. Gotta hang up."
And back I went to a leisurely mooch around the bookstore.
Fast forward to the end of the day. The phone rings –– a special ring-tone just for my favorite skipper's Batphone –– and it's an exasperated TwoBeers.
They have been pressing "okay" each time I have asked in the past five hours (the SPOT personal locater is NOT okay. What a regrettable purchase!). The batteries have been changed, it's been powered down and on again. All expected lights are on or flashing in accordance with expectations. And yet it has not worked for five hours again. Grrr.
So the SPOT has provided a little side entertainment from the day's main work: They've chased zephyrs. They've rowed. Zephyrs. Rowing.
And now, gol-dern-it, they are anchored at the mouth of the river. Outside of the 3200-foot-long George Crady fishing pier on Fernadina Beach.
There's zero breeze, squadrons of hungry no-see-ums, and the tide is flowing out like -- well, like a river in flood.
So that would be no to a hamburger on shore this evening?
They'll be having an MRE on board Spawn and will snooze until the tide turns.
Let's hope there's breeze to help them get to Fort Clinch and on to St. Mary's in a civilized fashion. I've got hopes to see them before midnight.
It's a marathon, not a sprint. So we've been telling one another, wisely, for months, as we picked out cold-weather gear, additional electronics, packs of AA and AAA batteries, as we've talked about whether the Spawnsters will stop and camp or press on through nasty weather.
I don't know how the 1,200 miles of the Ultimate Florida Challenge is calculated, though I suppose it comes down again to that old successive approximations under a curve...Even though the event is never about curves.
In any case, the first stage is done. The two boats (catamarans, naturally!) that arrived ahead of Spawn in Key Largo summed up their race: it was the worst conditions for sailing that they remember. Really rough. Really grueling.
I sat with Paula Paddledancer, the race organizer, as she fielded calls from worried family members of the racers, and from the racers reporting in that the wind and the waves were brutal, I thought, well, that's the first leg. I only hope the next four legs are less tough.
Spawn arrived in Key West Monday afternoon. Jeff said, "I'm surprised the boat is still under us. It was –– it was just awful out there."
The word "miserable" was bandied about.
A nice big meal at Mrs. Mac's, a very long night's sleep, a big breakfast at Mrs. Mac's, a bit of light boat-repair (replace blown ratchet blocks and jib sheet. Replace jib hook that straightened during re-entry after flying off a wave. Toss Jahn's defective shoes. Restock food and batteries. Repack everything) and they were away on the tide by noon today.
Spawn's personal tracker –– a SPOT, which brand I do not recommend –– seems to be on an extended popcorn break. The hapless customer service rep at SPOT agreed that it seemed to be acting unusually, and suggested when they got back to shore, he might be able to troubleshoot some things.
Can you HEAR my eyes rolling?
Instead of pinging every half an hour, as advertised and expected, the SPOT tracker evidently will only sing out after I send a text asking Jahn to please please for the love of all things holy press "okay."
This stage should actually be fun!
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