Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Everglades Challenge Report: Day 1

Leaving a chilly Durham, NC at 0530 in the morning, with SandyBottom and Floatsome, we headed off on the 12-hour drive to Florida, to compete in 2010’s WaterTribe Everglades Challenge: a 300+ mile race over six to seven days of sea kayaking or sailing, from Tampa's Fort De Soto to Key Largo, via the Everglades' Wilderness Waterway. As the rules state (p22, in red): "you may DIE".

Prepared to endure Florida’s coldest winter on record, we’d packed many a fleece, down jackets and sleeping bags for the first two nights camping at Fort De Soto, before the race started March 6, at 0700. And downright chilly it was, too.

Seventy boats slowly appeared on Fort De Soto’s beach over the Friday leading up to the late afternoon’s Skipper’s meeting: 20 for the 67 mile UltraMarathon to Placida’s Check Point 1; 42 for the 300+ miles Everglades Challenge; and another eight for the every-four-years Ultimate Florida Challenge—1,200 miles around the state of Florida.

And what a variety making up the races’ six classes: sea kayakers—solo and tandem, an expedition windsurfer, self-designed and -built prototypes, stock Sea Pearls and class racing boats, Kruger canoes—something to mull over for everyone.

And the word must be getting out about the race, as this was the biggest crowd I’d seen on a Friday viewing the craft and chatting with skippers, and seeing everyone off early on a Saturday morning.
Saturday, March 6, 0700: a cry goes up for the start. The kayakers are quick away, having just their boats to drag from above the highwater line. The bigger boats have a variety of ingenious methods to get themselves into the water, but whatever they use has to be taken with them for the entirety of the race. The first filter of the EC.

The weather was perfect. Cool and sunny. For the next three days we enjoyed predominantly northerly winds, pushing us along with our one square-metre Pacific Action Sails. For those craft that today headed to the outside, they were later to experience more severe conditions, resulting in two capsizes and rescues, both by fellow WaterTribers.

With the weather being so unseasonably chilly, following the Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW) for the first day was the calmest I’d experienced in my four ECs—hardly any pleasure boats were ripping up and down, normally contributing to a frustrating confused wash.

As night fell, SandyBottom, Floatsome (his first EC), Seiche (also his first EC), KneadingWater and I fell in together and paddled the last 15 or so miles to CP1. We finally made it at 2355 hours, the 68 miles taking us 16 hours and 55 minutes. We dragged our boats up amongst a sea of other boats, and set to pitching tents right there. After my first EC I have no interest camping at CP1—it’s too noisy and the hard coral ground makes pitching tents a chore. But no one else was interested in heading a mile or so away for a better spot.

It was very cold. Again I am grateful that FliesWithKiwiBird insisted that I pack a stack of handwarmers. I changed into every stitch of dry clothing I had and thrust a handwarmer down each sock against my solid white feet. Bliss. And still I experienced uncontrollable shivering.

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