One day, 17 hours, 31 minutes later, and the 2018 Everglades Challenge is in the books...
There are a thousand stories on the high sea, and this is just one of 'em.
The race started after a two-hour delay while the weather simmered down out of the “Small Craft Advisory” range.
Which gave the fleet of small-boat racers the chance to double-check their knots and fiddle with their navigational gear under the anxious eyes of their ground crews.
The Everglades Challenge is a 300-mile long unsupported expedition race. Racers adapt a WaterTribe name and have to check in to various spots along their route from St. Pete to Key Largo.
Among the vessels I watch is the diminutive (and frankly adorable) Elusion 9' sailed by Wizard. This boat looks like a cross between the bow section of a Maxi racer and the costume worn by my nephew for Halloween 20 or so years ago.
Spawn was third to CP1.
I send them a text telling them to change the batteries in their personal locater device (SPOT).
In his inaugural Challenge, our buddy Andyman sailed his SeaPearl to victory in the UltraMarathon, which is essentially a sprint to CP1. He reported in wearily that, "It was a LOT hairier than I expected out there."
From shore, the evening was the usual mélange of walking around with nervous energy, reading Facebook posts, considering and rejecting an actual meal, and clicking the “regenerate” button on the Watertribe tracking website.
In my sleepy delirium, I kept reading the word as “degenerate.".
I send a voicemail to the Spawn team to please change the batteries in their SPOT.
Sometime in the early evening, news came in that one long-time WaterTribe competitor, SewSew, had to be plucked from the water by the Coast Guard when his speedy experimental multi-hull met with catastrophe.
It was not bitterly cold, and the moon was shining like a spotlight, which was something of a comfort.
But each time I got up to check the computer and peep out the windows, the bright moon showed the trees bowing and dancing in the howling wind. I didn’t sleep a lot.
I got a message that the boys had maybe broken a rudder. I got a message about the Coast Guard rescuing someone, not them.
They were taking a nap, someone said. Someone had seen them tied up in the mangroves.
On the tracker, Spawn went from first by a long stretch to second, and then third. I didn’t pinpoint where they had paused for whatever reason, but whenever I checked, they were moving. Their speed looked good.
Their SPOT was still working (low batteries and all), and when the sun came on Sunday, they checked in at CP2 (Chokoloski) and I motored south in the Winnebago with the trailer.
By the time I got to that nice rest stop in the middle of Alligator Alley – the one with parking AND good cellular coverage –– I was hearing that Spawn had capsized multiple times. Their SPOT showed that they were making decent progress. They hadn’t made a distress call, so I pretty much ignored this data.
There’s only so much a ground-crew can handle.
THier Side of the Story
They were finding it all too easy to stuff the bow in the waves without the sun showing the sea state. Stuff the bow, and things get slow and damp.
So they put up the screetcher wing-on-wing and went zipping along at maybe 10 knots heading right toward Marco Island.
Nice enough conditions that TwoBeers caught a little shut-eye.
Then the wind shifted to the northeast, and they needed to jibe onto port. Which is where things got, you know, swimmy.
That first capsize was quick and they recovered without much drama.
They got the boat upright -–– albeit on the still on starboard gybe –– and sailed on for fifteen or so minutes.
They still, however, needed to be on port gybe. In hindsight they, “probably just should have said 'screw it' and tacked.”
But they jibed again.
And flipped again.
And this time, even the Eyes of Horus could not hold gravity at bay.
The distant glow of lights on shore 10 or 12 miles distant.
50 or more feet of water underneath the gently bobbing upside-down belly of the boat.
Bio-luminescent plankton sparkling in the disturbed water.
Waves playfully slapping at our heros as they considered their options.
Here’s how the conversation went over breakfast in the Winnebago in Key Largo:
“So you were upside down in the Gulf of Mexico at night?”
“The good news was that the SPOT was swimming around at the end of its tether, and we knew where the VHF radio was,” said my favorite skipper.
[The implication being that the authorities would have been able to find and rescue them without undue trouble.]
“I knew we’d be okay,” Moresailesaid chimed in. “We knew our options, and we weren’t ready to give up.”
“The boat won’t sink” Jeff told me, perhaps responding to a certain something in my expression. “Nothing about that boat says, ‘Sink.”
“It wasn’t even cold,” Moresailesaid added, wing-manning it like a pro. “Although I was thinking about rescuing the cooler as it drifted away.”
“I didn’t see the cooler go,” said TwoBeers. “I was on the board. Ooh, remind me to thank Chris Morgan –– we were both standing on the board and it held up without making a peep.”
I said, “So okay, you didn’t respond to my text because Jahn’s phone was dead. And that’s when you lost the electronics –– before Caxambas?”
“Yeah. And the cooler, and all the snacks, and the inflatable rollers. And both trapeze harnesses. And the battery died. And all the stuff in waterproof boxes got wet. And the paper charts went away too.”
TwoBeers’ litany of loss continued. “And everything in the bow switched sides. The storm jib was on the port side, and ended up on the starboard side. The Code Zero was on starboard and ended on the port side. It all changed places"
I shook off the internal jukebox suggestion of “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Code Zero over,” and said, “ALL the snacks got washed away?”
“Oh, there were still some in the bow. But the beer floated away with the cooler.”
TwoBeers tone took a decidedly bitter turn, “Hope some shrimper enjoys that.
“And I guess Bob [aka The Eyes of Horus] wasn’t rated for that many atmospheres of pressure. I mean, he was like 31 feet down. He got all crumpled.”
“Probably Cuba,” TwoBeers' voice took on a speculative air. “–– maybe the Dry Tortugas.”
Into the heavy silence that followed, Moresailesaid offered up this observation: “The worst thing was that my dry suit filled up with water and my legs were like THIS big around.
"And the first thing that happens is that the water burps your shoes right off your feet.” Shaking his head, “I was THIS far from slicing open my booties.”
“Did yours do that too?” I asked TwoBeers.
Sweet mother of–– some things I guess I would rather not know.
“But JT gets the swimming award,” TwoBeers announced cheerfully.
“Yeah, the boat wasn’t going anywhere until we got the bow pointed into the wind,” Moresailesaid offered by way of explanation.
“But then I couldn’t figure out how I was going to get back into the boat. I couldn’t climb on over the transom, ‘cause that would just make the bow swing around.”
That single statement shows the kind of presence of mind that I fear I might lack in the event of an offshore mishap.
I once used my friend Mark’s head as a step when we flipped the Lightning.
We were buoy racing in Miami, and so determined was I not to be the person who had to swim out and fetch the spinnaker back into the washtub that I shinneyed right up Mark’s person –– last rung, his scalp! –– on my way to the centerboard.
Yup, that’s when it would be.
“Oh, but the phosphorescence!” TwoBeers interjected.
“There was a TON of phosphorescence in the water,” agreed Moresailesaid.
“Yeah,” said TwoBeers. “When we got the boat upright, it was full of light. Luminescence on everything. And also, those cheap flashlights? When they get wet, they don’t die – they light up and you can’t turn them off.”
He sketched a jaunty wave: bye-bye Harbor Freight flashlight, glowing into the depths of the deep blue sea!
“And I DID find JT’s other GoPro. That was kind of cool. One stayed tethered, but the other came loose and then it was just lying in the bottom of the boat.”
Moresailesaid looked up from his nonworking phone and added, “The store at Chockoloskee was open at 7 am, and after I asked if they had any food, the guy at the bait store said, ‘We have bait, and you can catch yourself a fish.’
"When I told him we’d lost our fishing gear, he came up with Crumb Cakes, and little bags of peanuts, and water. So we didn’t go hungry.”
Note to self: Crumb Cakes. They’re not just for breakfast any more.
TwoBeers stayed on narrative track. “Somehow the boom-bag got loose, but it tangled itself up with the water hoses. Good thing, too, because it had the VHF and the iPad and the solar charger. Don’t know if the charger works. The bag was full of water, but we used the iPad to navigate Florida Bay.”
Moresailesaid added, “I wiped the solar charger dry. We didn’t try it.”
He shook his head and repeated, “Everything in the dry-boxes got wet.”
“I was shivering,” admitted Moresailesaid. “So we anchored in the mangroves for a while.”
“Did you just lie down and sleep?” I asked.
“No,” said TwoBeers. “We stripped down, dried the inside of our dry suits, put on dry clothes –– the Ziplock bags worked. And so did the garbage bag – the sleeping bag stayed dry through everything! Weird. I don’t know why the dry boxes filled up.”
“We should have had everything in the dry boxes packed in Ziplocks.” Moresailesaid added darkly, “Wish I had the patent on the Ziplock.”
TwoBeers continued, “I don’t know how long it took, but the tide changed while we were anchored. And DeSea sailed past us.”
“Yeah,” I said, “He said that he saw you and checked to make sure you were okay.” I didn’t mention how DeSea expressed his alarm. Or how we’d shared an awful moment of camaraderie on the topic of human frailty and our own TwoBeers..
“So we had foul current all the way to CP2. We sailed and rowed. Rowed and sailed. Rowing warmed me up.”
As it does.
The rest of their trip was – by comparison – tame. They got out of CP2 on a favorable tide and enjoyed hot soup and a beer at CP3 thanks to the check-point captains. They skated over some skinny skinny water in Florida Bay in moonlight –– noting that it might be easier to blast through when the depth is less visibly inadequate. If you can’t see how shallow it is, you might worry less about it.
They bumped into two manatees along the Keys and finished at one am or so on Monday morning, a couple of hours behind MokoJumbie, setting a new double-handed monohull record and finally collecting their shark’s teeth.
Thanks to Paula Martel –– that organized and steely-eyed den mother to the WaterTribe –– to JT for encouraging this nonsense and keeping it on track, to Cheryl and Jim Signor for being our awesome local team and general Keys royalty, to OH Rodgers for designing a sleek boat with purpose, to Chris Morgan for making that centerboard bulletproof, to Mark Taylor for keeping an eye on us, to Rappin Rod Koch for all the news and updates, to Mamma Pat and Mamma Sue for not fussing more than they had to, to Andyman and DeSea and CCock, who made up a fine triumvirate of heroes from home, to our siblings and friends, and to the supportive crowd of boating enthusiasts who cheered the team on from near and far.
Fair winds and following seas, y’all.