Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Everglades Challenge 2012

It was my sixth Everglades Challenge (EC) this year, and for the first time Chief’s words rang true: the hardest part of the Challenge is getting to the beach. My family was going to make a holiday around the race this year, seeing me off at Fort De Soto, and then spending a relaxing week on the beach at the finish line at Key Largo. But days before we were to depart our son was diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal kidney ‘disease’, and the night before we were to leave my partner developed a terrible case of strep throat. It was only that Wednesday night before we decided I would indeed make a go of this year’s EC, leaving the next morning at 0500 for the solo 12 hour drive from Durham, NC to Tampa Bay, FL.

The best part of any WaterTribe event is catching up with all the old salts who are now firm friends. After loading up all our boats on the beach at Fort De Soto on Friday, everyone met up for that afternoon’s Captains' Meeting. This year was a record number of entrants with 15 boats registered for the 70-mile Ultra Marathon to Checkpoint One, 60 boats entered for the 300-mile EC, with another 11 registered for the 1,200-mile Ultimate Florida Challenge (UFC), all spread across five classes.

My stomach developed a few grumbles that night, but I thought nothing of it. I’d had a bout of the norovirus sweeping Duke’s campus a few weeks previously, and a colonoscopy on the Monday before leaving, so attributed it to my stomach returning to normal.

Saturday morning, we were all on the beach before sunrise, waiting for the 0700 gun—or in this case, bagpipes—to go off. We were facing a pretty stiff southerly, so at least warm, of about 35 knots, so it would be a bit choppy heading across Tampa Bay. Chief even walked down the line, shouting that we didn’t have to leave the beach if we deemed it too rough. But we were off--not all of us--a few decided to stay on the beach, one of them being a UFC entrant.

For the eight miles across Tampa Bay, it was quite a slog. Average speed was only around 1.5 to 2.4mph, and it was very wet ride, with waves rolling in around 3-4 feet at times.And then there were the tides...

To keep me going, I need to eat every hour or so, and I sip regularly on my Gatorade. My stomach started feeling queasy after about 30 minutes of paddling. I know sea sickness, and this wasn’t that. After a couple of hours of hard paddling I was hungry, but could only manage a few mouthfuls of energy bar before feeling even more nauseous. For the rest of the day, every time I tried to eat or drink, I felt sick. One of my personal “challenges” is that I have a very sensitive vagal nerve: if I vomit, or inadvertently swallow something that hits the nerve, I pass out (and I’ve really beaten myself up in the past, with some uncontrolled landings). And I can’t do that in a kayak in the middle of a rough sea.

After eight hours of paddling and only 20 miles of distance covered in very strong headwinds, I decided to pull over at Longboat Key, around 1630 hours. Little did I realize that this was Longboat Key Club & Resort, a gated AAA “luxurious and private setting for boating enthusiasts, resort guests and members at our exclusive Florida resort”.

I dragged my boat up a sandbagged ramp between the rip rap (to the left of the photo behind the shelter of the mangroves), and bumped into Doug and Leslie, who were on winter break from Minnesota, staying with Leslie’s mum, just a mile or so up the road. I explained my situation and did they think it would be possible for me to stay the night somewhere here, to see how I felt in the morning? Come along to the restaurant they said, and perhaps there’s someone there who can help. Come on in, said Kiki, the restaurant manager. You’d better come out here, I responded as I dripped all over the walkway (I’m still fully garbed in kayak gear at this stage). Once again I explained my plight and why I was indeed here. No problem, Kiki responded. Pitch your tent anywhere you like over there, and I’ll let the night manager know you’re here.

Saying good evening to Doug and Leslie, I wandered back to my boat, to find Whale pulling up to fill up his water bottles at one of the marina’s hoses. I let him know that I’d be staying the night here, to see how I felt in the morning. And off he paddled, around Florida.

I pitched my tent behind the lee of an electrical box. Don waved at me from his 65 footer launch just across from me, and asked if I was okay. I told him my story. We have to go to the theatre this evening, but if you’re awake by 10:30, you can shelter in the cockpit here, and then have a shower and spend the night with us.

The kindness of strangers is extremely heartwarming.

I was in my tent by 1930 hours, so missed Don’s hospitality. All I could eat, or in this case drink, was an Ensure Plus (350 calories), which with half of a Nature Valley oats bar forced down around six hours previously was all I’d eaten all day.

It blew pretty consistently all night. Around 0500 the expected northerly front hit. First a few drops of rain, then some thunder and lightning, and then the wind. I had a bit of my tent inner zipped down for some fresh air. “The” gust tore up under my fly and not only unzipped the entire entrance but took down the inner of the tent and lifted the windward side of the fly. I lost three stakes. There was dust and sand flying everywhere, and for about ten minutes I lay against the fly to keep the entire tent—and me—blowing off the marina. During a lull I made a dash to my kayak—which had been turned 180 degrees in the wind—and dug out my deeper sand stakes to restake the tent. An hour or so later I emerged, to see some pretty impressive white caps running down Sarasota Bay. It would have been just fine to leave, with a following wind and sea, but I still couldn’t eat, and my stomach still felt terrible.

Don emerged from his boat and waved me over. Come and have a cup of tea and some scrambled eggs. And for the next four hours Chicagoans Don and Sue looked after me extremely well. I can’t thank them enough. Their heartfelt generosity and terrific life stories very much made up for the fact that I knew my EC had come to an end.

On SandyBottom's trailer, with Don and Sue's launch in the background.

And to cap it all off, SandyBottom and SOS—in Mosquito—still hadn’t left the beach, and she would be at the marina soon after noon to come and pick me up. (Thank you, Dawn!)

We also picked up TwinSpirit on the way back; with OneEyedJake helping.

I never thought I’d feel so… relaxed, about dropping out. I surprised myself. Perhaps because you have to be fairly rational in such a situation. If you can’t eat or drink when you need to be paddling at least 15 hours—mostly more—a day, if you’re feeling pretty damn crook, if you can at least drop out when there’s somewhere--and someone--nearby to help you and you don’t have to endanger other folks in the middle of nowhere, then it’s really a no-brainer.

It took me another ten days to come right.

The conditions for this year’s EC were the worst ever in the ten-year history of the event. Only 25 boats completed the event, with eight of those entered in the UFC. More than anything, I feel a bit sad not having had the experience of paddling in those conditions, and completing the hardest ever EC.

I can’t wait until next year!


FloridaRobot said...

Kiwi, First I want to say that my wife and I hope your son is doing better.

Also, your enthusiasm and energy for the Watertribe is contagious. I've enjoyed reading your comments and unique insight on the wt forum the past couple weeks. I'm glad i was able to meet you @ the captains meeting this year (mistakenly thought you were in the ufc). Hopefully I'll see you out there next year. CaptnChaos

Frank said...


Great site! I'm trying to find an email address to contact you on to ask if you would please consider adding a link to my website. I'd really appreciate if you could email me back.

Thanks and have a great day!

Jimmy Corporate said...

Hi Kristen,

Awesome post. I'm from Bradenton and know Sarasota bay well.

I'm actually messaging for another reason. My company used to offer a "free hit counter" for blogs "years" ago. You are using it at the bottom (footer) of your blog. Unfortunately it no longer works. It also drops a "text link" that says "electric fence" at the bottom of your site.

Is there any way you could remove the hit counter code and the text link that says "eletric fence" for us?

We would REALLY appreciate it.

Thanks for your time,
Jimmy Ellis

P.S. If you have questions, just email me directly