Friday, March 16, 2007

Everglades Challenge report: Day 1

DAY 1: Fort De Soto to CP1
I hadn’t quite appreciated that there was a small craft advisory out that morning when at 0700 on March 3rd Chief yelled, “go, go, go!” But it was flat calm on our sheltered shore when I dragged my boat down the beach, pulled it over a small sandbar directly in front of the shore line, and immediately swamped the cockpit with the smallest of wash. Probably from SandyBottom as she’s hauling butt out of there! Back to the beach I go, raise the bow to take advantage of the boat’s pod seat, drain her out, and head back on out, Chief calling in my ear, “Go, Kiwibird!”

Tampa Bay very quickly got pretty lumpy, with a good 15-20knot NNE. I had my Pacific Action Sail up smartly, and as I zipped and zagged across the bay, the conditions made for an interesting passage.

Fairly quickly I could see the capsizes around me. I tried to help ManitouCruiser at one stage with a chap out of his solo kayak, but realized I’d probably be a quick casualty myself if I tried to turn up into the chop to aid him.

I hit my top speed for the day crossing Tampa Bay, reaching 9mph.

The brightly coloured sails of SandyBottom and Manitou Cruiser were a good reference point in the distance as the chaos of Tampa Bay receded into the calm of the lee at Sister Keys. I caught up with SandyBottom here, but she slowly pulled away as we headed down Sarasota Bay, and with that, the wind also picked up again for a good reaching breeze. Team RAF finally passed me, smoking along, each other crew member perched out on the akas for balance – felt so proud of the boys as they whooped past. “Mum’s up ahead!” I yelled.

Etchemin and Porky pulled up in a speed boat, and I was to see them a couple of times that day, taking photos and temptingly offering beers as they wished us well.

At Roberts Bay I caught up with KneadingWater and joined him on the beach of a small wooded spoil island for a quick break.

For a first-timer, both EC-wise and this part of Florida, it was interesting seeing all the development crammed along the sides of the channel - what folks do for a sea view.

Towards Venice Inlet, I’d caught up with SandyBottom, and passing Snake Island, CrazyRussian had pulled up, rummaging through some gear. Snake Island had been one of my possible campsites. A couple of tents were already pitched there, but they weren’t WaterTribers.

Through the Venice Canal ‘ditch’, I paddled with SandyBottom, SavannahDan and Paddlemaker in their Pygmy triple, with Oaracle sailing along beside us. Into Lemon Bay, and I left the paddlers behind me.

Nearing dusk, just before the Manasota Key bridge, I pulled over to the left for a change of GPS batteries and another layer of warmer clothing. Lo and behold, head poking through the scrub, Etchiman appeared, asking if everything was okay and that he’d seen me pull in.

And from there I didn’t see anyone else until arriving at CP1. It was pretty dark heading up those last miles to Gasparilla, and also started to rain. At one stage I missed the channel and ran aground – it took a few minutes to get off against the wind wanting to blow me back again. A little while later, I’d missed the channel again and with the raised sandbar between me and the correct channel, I hopped out of the boat and dragged it the 15 to 20 feet over to the correct side.

I also met up with a barge coming up towards me through The Cutoff and hopped over pretty smartly to not incur any wrath.

It was pretty dark negotiating the final twists and turns into CP1 – I’d spent some time pouring over Google Earth and the route from Placida Channel, under the bridge and around to Grande Tours, and that memory served me well.

Arriving at CP1 at 21:10hrs after 14hrs and 10mins paddling, to cries of “go right, go right”, I was happy to camp for the night – I hadn’t quite planned to reach CP1 the first day, but the conditions had been perfect for it. I’d averaged 5.5mph, whereas I’d been anticipating 3.5-4mph. I felt absolutely stoked, and when phoning home to check in, said that if I was called home right now for some family emergency, I’d be a happy KiwiBird.

Half-an-hour later, KneadingWater and nearly an hour later, SandyBottom arrived. By then I’d had a hot shower and a hot meal and the tent was primed ready for a snooze.

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