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!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

There'll Be a Next Time

KiwiBird called FliesWithKiwiBird shortly ago. She's still feeling poorly, her tent blew over early this morning, and the winds are awful--major white caps in the marina. The fact that she was having scrambled eggs on a yacht may have made that decision a little more comfortable.

SandyBottom is on the way to pick her up and return her to Ft. DeSoto. SB and SOS don't plan to head out until tonight, at the earliest. It's not a long drive, as you can see. KB is on Longboat Key at the bottom of the map, and Ft. Desoto is on the spit of land at the top left.

For now, I'm signing off. Hope to be doing the North Carolina Challenge with KiwiBird, SandyBottom, SOS, DancesWithSandyBottom and the rest of my WaterTribe friends in the fall.


Sunday Morning Update

I have not heard from Kristen this morning, but I'm not surprised. When I checked the weather at the Venice NOAA Data Buoy, winds were 32 kts. out of the NW, gusting to the 39 kts. For those not familiar with nautical winds, that's moderate to fresh gale, 32 to 45 miles per hour. Time to hunker down.

Only a few boats are underway at this point, with only two competitors (Class 5 catamarans) past Checkpoint 1--and not far past it. My history with the Everglades Challenge only goes back to KiwiBird's first, six years ago, but this is by far the worst weather I've seen.

Update: Just talked to SandyBottom, who is still at Ft. DeSoto and doesn't plan to leave until this evening at the earliest. KB called her this morning, to find out what they're up to. KB's still trying to decide what to do. Her health is still not 100%, but she knows it will be a downwind sail for at least a couple of days. KB will call in to Dawn or me at 0900 with a plan.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Bedding Down

Just had a call from KB. She is having some stomach issues and has decided to stop for the night. She is in a populated area where she has been given permission to pitch her tent, and is cleaning up and settling in for food or rest.

The conditions today were horrible, and many people are having trouble.

Entering Sarasota Bay

She's at the top of Sarasota Bay, and I expect she'll stay east of the mangrove to avoid the powerboats in the intracoastal waterway. Conditions have gotten considerably tougher. Winds are out of the south and have built to 18-19 knots at the NOAA data buoy at Venice. As far as I can tell, she's still paddling with TwinSpirit, and Hammerstroke and Sundance may be there as well.

Across Tampa Bay

I had a Check OK message from KB a few minutes ago; the above shows her position at 1012. She appears to be near TwinSpirit but among many other paddlers as well. Speeds were not very high crossing the bay, so it must have been pretty tough going. For the rest of the day she'll have protection from seas, if not from winds.

I missed a call from SandyBottom about 0900. The last Spot message was yesterday at 17:14, so I judge they are still working on the boat and haven't started. That's not necessarily a problem, since they can easily make Checkpoint 1 by noon tomorrow if they leave by dark tonight.

On the Way

KB activated her Spot about 0630 and launched at 0700. By now she should be crossing the Tampa Bay shipping channel. The weather in St. Pete is overcast, some fog, 74 degrees F, with winds out of the south at 10-15 mph. Winds are predicted to increase to 15-20 with gusts to 30--just the sort of conditions she thrives in.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Quick Update

Had a short talk with KB about about an hour ago. All is well with her, but SOS and SandyBottom's test sail this afternoon turned up some leaks. Undaunted, they were all still headed out for Italian food.

This is my first attempt at posting from my iPad, which will be my only means after Tuesday. Hope it works!


On the Beach

Looks like a nice day at Ft. Desoto, although it's a bit nippy or the mozzies are fierce (or both). Behind KB's boat, that's TwinSpirit's craft. Note the white Pacific Action Sail. TS has been a sailor all her life and wasn't satisfied with the shape of the standard PAS sail, so she made her own out of a high-tech product called Cuben fiber (should I spell that "fibre"?). Farthest away, that may be Scareman's double, which he paddles solo. I've never met him, but I know he's a big man (1.93 m or 6'4" if I recall correctly). He was checkpoint manager for last year's NCC and according to all accounts did a bang-up job, including helping clear trees from Harlowe Canal.

Safely Arrived at Ft. DeSoto

Although a might fuzzy, this photo documents presence at Ft. DeSoto State Park. That's SandyBottom approaching the camera and the Stewarts' van to left. I am mystified by the red vessel on the trailer.

One of the stronger traditions of the EC is breakfast--specifically, eggs benedict--at the Village Inn in St. Petersburg. Only fried chicken in Georgia can rival the ceremony. Once again, that's SandyBottom on the far side of the table. To Dawn's left is TwinSpirit, also a Triangle-area paddler. This will be TwinSpirit's first EC, but she finished a very difficult NCC2011 in good form.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

She's off!

KiwiBird departed for Florida and the Everglades Challenge about 0500 this morning. Sorry, no photographs to post, as I was still at home and fast asleep.

Unfortunately, FliesWithKiwiBird and the (not so) Wee One stayed behind. In the end, it seemed wiser to keep him near Duke and medical care, despite his great progress toward recovery from PSGN.

It's about a 1,100-kilometer (700-mile) drive, so she should arrive at Fort DeSoto before dark, including a stop for fried chicken in Georgia. Tonight will be spent in reunions and introductions to new WaterTribers. Tomorrow is for boat loading, inspections (from which she is exempt) and the competitors' meeting. A trip to West Marine is also pretty standard, so maybe she'll shag parts for SandyBottom, SOS and DancesWithSandyBottom, who are still working on Mosquito, their SOS-designed and team-built trimaran. My hunch is that Mosquito will feel right at home.

I'll post here as I have news, but I also encourage you to visit the new WaterTribe web site, where racer logs and and position maps are housed.