Friday, March 22, 2013

Today I became an American citizen!

A very nice ceremony this morning, at Raleigh-Durham's new US Citizenship and Immigration Services offices. I was one of 57 new citizens, representing 37 countries. One of the best parts was the Call of Nations, when every country represented was called out and those from them asked to stand. There were folks from Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, Kenya, Panama, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Ireland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Canada, Britain, India, South Korea, and othersa real representation of the American melting pot. That brought a tear to my eyes.

Of course, what really set me awash, was the sign off, with a video of Lee Greenwood's song, God Bless the USA.

As we left, Andrew held my hand and said, Congratulations, Kristen."

Next steps: registering to vote, and applying for a US passport!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

EC2013 Days 6-7

Homeward Bound, as that great ol' song goes!

With FeralCat still snoring soundly as we packed up over him—later moving to a bit more space where SandyBottom's tent used to be—and me feeding DeadCat an apricot as she snuggled in her hammock—we headed off as dawn broke. Destination Flamingo, and Flamingo's WaterTribe-famous microwave hamburgers.

In true EC fashion, the tide was roaring out against us paddling up the Harney River, so we hugged the southern side of the mangroves to find some slack. It's always terribly exciting turning that last long right hand bend of the Harney into Shark River. Often, for some bizarre reason, if you've had the wind against you heading west up the Harney, you'll often still have it on the nose paddling east out the Shark. Not today. We caught the tide out, and even a breeze woke up, to pop sails.

In only one previous EC—my first—have I had the weather opportunity to have a decent paddle/sail down the long, wide expanse of Whitewater Bay. Normally, the winds have been atrocious, and we've had to head right across  east to snake down Joe River—which may shelter you from the seas that kick up on Whitewater Bay—but the winds are only slightly reduced, with only low grasses offering some protection. This was the second time, and what a lovely, sunny ride we had down the Bay, averaging around 4 knots.

Around 1400 hours, we arrived at Flamingo, with Seiche and KneadingWater's family to greet us. We'd decided on the way down to not stay the night at Flamingo—hey, we're not that much on holiday!—but to keep on paddling the last 55 kms (34 miles) across Flamingo Bay, perhaps resting on a key for the night, on the way to the finish at Key Largo. So we took off our for'ad and stern hatch covers, and with four of us hanging on to each side of the rim of each hatch, one-by-one slowly carried our four boats the 200m or so from the northern side of Flamingo's ramps, to the ramps of the southern marina. It was the most walking we'd done in a week.

Then it was burger time! And waiting for SandyBottom to reach Flamingo, to check what her plans were.

One day I'd like to visit Flamingo, in clean, dry clothes, and try one of the Flamingo microwave burgers, just to see if they taste as incredibly good as they do after six EC days. Just 45 seconds in the microwave et voila, heaven on earth. Down we scoffed those, watching SandyBottom arrive. She decided to stay a few hours to rest, and then perhaps head across Flamingo Bay later that evening. We mentioned that we may be on Rankin or End Keys, if she felt like stopping by.

Flamingo Bay. We paddle left to right.
And we were off. The first hour or so felt as though I was paddling in treacle. The tide was heading out, and there's a lot of water moving with that tide. It took us some time to finally reach Tin Can Alley, to truly head south. Flamingo Bay is around 99% very shallow—we're talking 30-50cms or mostly less in many places—with a few strategically placed windy channels—perhaps 60-70cms deep—to make one's way across. This is why speedboats have to stay on the plane to get from Point A to B. And one never leaves one's craft—the mud can suck you down. And without a chart for the day (or great local knowledge), and a GPS for night, you've pretty much had it trying to find your way across. I've never seen a pleasure boat on Flamingo Bay at night.

Seiche powering along.
KneadingWater, I believe pointing to the heavens...
Once past Tin Can Alley, we popped up sails and in dead calm, glassy waters, sped along. The sunset behind us was superb. We reached Rankin Key just before dusk, so decided to keep paddling in such superb conditions. KneadingWater shot ahead, and as night fell, we donned warmer jackets and turned night lights on. It kicked up a bit as we neared End Key, KneadingWater trying to find an appropriate place to make camp for four. HammerStroke, Seiche and I had pretty well decided that we'd keep paddling, but once we hit the beach, KneadingWater was a little less gung ho, mentioning that it would be safer to stay put. Hey, I'm back on holiday!

I was glad we stopped, in no hurry not to miss another last night of camping with great pals. We each found a wee place to pitch a tent in the scrub, and gathered together in the dark to cook a meal and yarn. It was nearer 2200 hours before we hit our pits. Everyone seemed to sleep very well. I was happy to lay there resting, dozing off every now and then. At 0400 I asked KneadingWater to stow his FEK sail, flapping as the wind increased, and around 0500 we were up and packing. The wind had changed more around to the NNW, and I realized that strategically, we should have taken Crocodile Dragover as our route across. If anyone else took that more NW route, they'd be well home before us.

With the wind coming in kicking up the foam in the shallows, the beach looked as though it had snowed in the night.

Of course, once we rounded Manatee Key, the keen NNW hit us, making a fairly typical long, wet—yet satisfying—ride to Key Largo. It's no fun if the last 10 miles or so are too easy!

As always it's great to paddle around that final point and slowly see—and hear—everyone waiting on the dock and beach at the finish line, cheering you in. Just makes you want to come back again next year...

A very happy KiwiBird, at Key Largo.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

EC2013 Day 5

Squeaking through the Nightmare at pretty well low tide.
A really fun day! Only a 46.6 km (29-mile) paddle today, to the next chickee on our permits, Harney River, but we still had to navigate the Nightmare and the eastern reaches of Broad River—all narrow, gnarly, overgrown channels, even more of a challenge when the tide's out...

Knowing that we only had a short paddle—but, hey, I'm on holiday now!—we all decided to sleep in until dawn, around 0600. But, as we have all come to know, as soon as that first zip goes off... Alex O was off first, and then SandyBottom. I soon followed, just as dawn peaked, knowing that HammerStroke, Seiche and KneadingWater would catch us up pretty quickly.

Dawn in the Wilderness Waterway is spectacular. As the mangroves are fairly low, you see everything—and that low sun in the morning can be pretty hard on your eyes as it reflects off the water so low. I hardly wore my sun glasses this year, and could see so much better, not fighting against salt-stained lenses. I found that with my Kokatat sun hat brim low, and my Buff up high under my eyes, I had no problems against the glare; and wearing a Buff, it meant my sunnies didn't fog up.

I shortly caught up with SandyBottom, with AlexO tagging her. The wind picked up, and we had some pretty close sails across the wider open bays. Until we hit Broad River. In true EC style, we doused sails as the blast hit us full on, and for what seemed like hours, hugged the southern side of the mangroves, trying to find shelter from the wind, and some respite against the very strong incoming tide. It's a long stretch of river.

HammerStroke, Seiche and KneadingWater stopped off at Broad River chickee—another favourite of ours—with KneadingWater immediately falling in. SandyBottom, AlexO and I declined and headed around the corner for the infamous Nightmare, afraid the tide would be falling even further. And it was.

There's only one real obstacle in the 13 km (8-mile) Nightmare when the tide's down—a pretty good sized log, right across your path. In a previous year, the tide had been high enough for me to just run it, up and over. Not this year! With SandyBottom and AlexO waiting patiently behind me, I tried to run it—raised about 10-12cm above the water—but got firmly stuck not even half way across. No pushing with my Greenland paddle was going to push me over—in fact, I had to stop trying to pole as the mud kept going on forever, swallowing up my paddle. Not wanting to break the back of my boat, SandyBottom paddled up and brought her sturdy Kruger bow aside my cockpit. I lifted myself out of the ocean cockpit—not as easy as a keyhole cockpit!—lowered my bum onto the bow of the Kruger, and stood up on the very muddy, slippery, narrow log. I then tugged my boat over the log, and managed a variation on a cowboy entry to regain entry into the cockpit. Et voila! AlexO very kindle captured the sequence.

And from my angle, with AlexO in the background.
Then it was Dawn's turn. She had it down pat, until she slipped off the log and fell in. It was amazing to watch her. She said later, knowing how deep and thick the mud was, no way was she going to touch bottom, instead springing right back up, wet to below her midriff, and not a speck of mud on her!

We both turned around and said, "Okay, Alex, let us help you over now." Alex just waved and said, no thanks, he would paddle back and find another route. He ended up heading out to the coast via one of the Nightmare's earlier tributaries, and then coming in Broad River.

Then it was on to the eastern reaches of Broad River. I've always believed that this stretch is far more difficult than the Nightmare. Most of the Nightmare you can paddle; not this section of Broad River. It's more hand-over-hand pulling yourself along. And it's even more fun trying it at night!

A couple more miles and we made Harney River chickee. The tide was a little low, which makes it a bit more difficult to unpack. We got all Dawn's gear out first—we weren't going to drag her Kruger up on to the chickee! By the time we were ready to unload me, HammerStroke arrived, and helped me drag my boat up, gear and all. By this time, Seiche and KneadingWater arrived. We put the boys on one side of the chickee, and Dawn and I on the other. I'm not too sure how long this chickee's going to last. It was starting to groan and sway a bit with us all decked out.

We ate dinner even before the sun went down. AlexO passed soon later, and waved on as he kept paddling to Flamingo—quite a paddler.

Pretty much asleep, we heard a couple of boats arrive, and the voice of FeralCat warning us to move on over! DeadCat strung her hammock to the side of Dawn and my tents, and FeralCat just hunkered down on a three-quarter length of 2mm foam, threw a space blanket over himself, with his paddling boots as a pillow, and slep soundly through the night. I could tell, as his head was only a foot or so from mine, and his snoring loud enough to scare away any pythons. Had to admire the bugger!

Near midnight or so, I could hear someone calling out "here, kitty, kitty," anticipating that the Cats were on the chickee. Seeing everyone else sound asleep and not an inch of chickee to spare, Scareman and OneEyedJake slowly paddled off, looking for a bit more room.

Monday, March 18, 2013

EC2013 Day 4

Wide awake far too early from the thrumming roar of the fishing diesels (an engine sound I normally enjoy), I trotted around to the Rangers Station for a pit stop. Thankfully, the Rangers leave the toilets open 24 hours. It was around 0530, still dark, and very cold, and I got the shock of my life. Two chaps were already standing in line for their permits, ready for the 0800 opening of the station! Fully spooked, I went back to my tent, grabbed my breakfast (one Ensure, seven apricots and a Luna Bar) and fleece liner, and wrapping the liner around me, made two new non-WaterTribe friends over the next couple of hours; very sensibly—and I must try this one day—they were meandering through the Wilderness Waterway on a 10-day kayak paddle.

Over the hours, a couple more WaterTribers showed up, and not as spooked as I, trotted across the road for a more civilized breakfast. I hate being in charge of the permits.

While I cannot for the life of me fault the Rangers at this station—they truly are committed to WaterTribe and helping us through the Wilderness Waterway as efficiently as possible—their booking system for chickees is downright archaic and utterly inequitable. Without going into too much frustrating detail (but I must say that even Google docs could help in this respect!), SandyBottom and I ended up with Lostman's Five for the first night, and Watson River for the second—the latter being out in the middle of plurry nowhere; in fact, I'd never even heard of it before. I normally also pick up permits for Seiche and KneadingWater, but had no idea where they were.

Permits in hand, I trotted back to my tent, packed up the boat and changed out of my dry clothes into damp. While the night sky is out of this world in this part of the world—a Milky Way to salivate over I only remember from my nights in NZ—the dew is not damp, but downright wet.

Just about to paddle off, and who should turn up but Seiche (above) and KneadingWater. They headed off for permits, and returned with Lostman's Five (yay) and Harney River, a chickee I'd asked for but had been told was full. I headed back upstairs to the station and was granted another two berths for Harney River—not ideal, but, hey, I'm on holiday now!

Mid-morning by now—having surpassed all previous records for obtaining permits—off I paddled up the back creek to CP2. This route is a find from years back—it means you don't have to portage your boat over the road at CP2, to start the Wilderness Waterway.

Arriving at CP2, I found that SandyBottom had left a half-hour earlier, as someone in the know had leaked to her which chickee to paddle to for the night. Thankfully, she had left a fried egg and bacon sandwich for me, and all was forgiven.

It's always a glorious paddle through the Wilderness Waterway —I never seem to tire of it. After an hour or so, I caught up with Dawn, who was paddling with Macatawa and his dad, Passaic Paddler. Good company. They were headed for Roger's Bay chickee, and then Joe River—perfectly spaced, which effectively put them about 24 hours head of us to the end, but, hey, I'm on holiday now!

We mostly paddle sailed the 24 or so miles to Lostman's, arriving an hour or so before dark, waving Macatawa and Passaic Paddler on. Dawn and I chose the best campsites and set up a brew of water for a freeze dried dinner. Just before dusk, Seiche and Kneading Water arrived, with HammerStroke for company. The pack was together, again.

One of the many reasons I really like Lostman's, not just because it's a ground site, is because of the marvellous sunsets. With not a breath of wind, and just the sound of porpoises feeding, it's a very special place.

And in the dark of around 2100 hours, AlexO joined us.

Not a lot of sleep my end this evening, as per usual (our fellow male paddlers do snore somewhat), but a very restful evening, and gratefully, my first warmer night. I've come to appreciate that my annual EC fix, while not only feeding the rat, is the only time I have to actually day—or night—dream, while I'm awake.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

EC2013 Days 1-3

DAY ONE: Normally, the IntraCoastal Waterway (ICW) running from Tampa south is pretty busy over the weekend, with pleasure boats of all sizes kicking up a sloshing wake, particularly in the narrower channels. I wondered why it was so quiet, until someone at Checkpoint 1 mentioned that there was a Small Craft Advisory out. And that was the reason for the pretty quick 100km (60 mile) run from the 0700 start at Fort De Soto beach, down to Cape Haze Marina, the new CP1.

Using the FEK sail I had a nice run across the very open eight miles of Tampa Bay, the forecast northerlies pushing us along. Half way across it steadily grew darker as a  wide band of showers ran over, but quickly clearing. The winds calmed a little in the lee of the first bridge, and as we entered the big open expanse of Sarasota Bay, I was wondering if the stronger northerlies had faded out. I didn't have to wait long. About half-way across the bay, they kicked in, and it was all downhill from there. Running down Sarasota I hit my second top speed of the EC, at 8.9 knots, and was consistently running from 5.5 to 6.5 knots, averaging 4.5 knots over the entire day—in fact 4.5 knots for the next three days. Occasionally, the bow of the kayak would submarine, but the surfing was superb. (I so wished I had a GoPro camera to film it all!) A number of times the rudder couldn't cope, and I'd use my Greenland paddle to help steer.

I had one four minute pit stop along the way, drank three litres of 50% diluted Gatorade, and ate about six bars—it was the only day I was really hungry.

11 hours and 50 minutes later—after 100km (60 miles)—and still in daylight, I landed at the new CP1, at Cape Haze Marina (blue roofs, bottom right of the image). I made sure to stick to the channels coming in, as the oyster bars protecting the entrance are pretty bad. A few folks had taken a short cut, and a couple had run aground.

I was a bit surprised to see a few Class 1 and 2 folks out of the water, setting up tents, and not heading on down the coast. After a royal greeting by Floatsome (CP1 manager), who very kindly brought me a cup of hot soup (yum!), and directed me to the water filling station, in about 30 minutes, I was up and off,  gently lowering myself back into my boat—the new checkpoint doesn't have a ramp. It was just dark as I left, and Jarhead in his Sea Pearl paddle sailed out with me—with another Sea Pearl—I passed them as we set off south.

My plan for the night was to paddle the nine or so miles south, to sleep the night at Dog Island, my usual stop just outside the old CP1. I had a terrific calm paddle sail, making the island in about 90 minutes. A large party was camped where we normally pitch our tents, with a huge wind block awning up and behind that a roaring fire. I paddled around to the east, and found a beach and small path up to a raised area. Tent was up in no time. An hour or so later, SandyBottom arrived, just as it started to rain. and it rained all night. It was the best night's sleep I was to have this EC.

Top middle photo by SpeckTater.
Upper top and bottom top photos by Glen Hayes.

DAY TWO: Around 0400, the wind blew! It sounded like a mini hurricane, particularly with trees around us thrashing. I whispered out to Dawn, "Can you hear that?!" She could. We packed up in the dark, and by the time we were ready to leave, dawn had broken and the wind had calmed considerably.

Paddle sailing south, we took a route for Bull Bay, but in trying to make a bit of east for Charlotte Harbour, I had us meandering too far east, finally doubling up and over to the eastern side of Bull Bay. Though we did find some possible camping spots...

We'd decided to stick together this morning, to check out the conditions for Charlotte Harbour—there are times the open crossing can be a bit hairy. About a quarter of the way across we agreed it was nothing, and Dawn gave me permission to scoot on. I had a great run across, and with the wind easing, meandered down Pine Island Sound's Matlacha Pass. I was a mile or so south of the bridge, with a northly breeze pushing me on, when the bolt dropped out of my FEK sail, where the boom fits the mast. It fell about a foot and landed right at the base of the mast. I couldn't reach it, and there was no where to land near me to rescue it. I slowly lowered the sail, and sat there, not taking my eye off the bolt. Looking back, I could just see a Kruger in the distance, and thought it must be SandyBottom. After about five minutes I recognized it as CWolfe/Charles. And for another 20 minutes, I just sat there, too scared to move and roll the bolt overboard! As CWolfe drew up beside me, I explained my situation; he very kindly found his Leatherman (now on my to-buy-list!) and screwed the bolt back in, recommending I purchase a tube of Threadblocker. We paddled on a bit together, but I drew ahead pretty quickly.

I'd been considering whether I'd be running the inside or outside route to Wiggins Pass, which I was fairly sure would be my port of call for the evening. Once outside of Sanibel Bridge, I decided that the inside route—one I haven't made all the way yet—would be the safest—there was a pretty stiff northerly, with seas around a metre or so. A Hobie T1 shot out from under the bridge with me, and soon I could tell it was Chief, reefed down for the crossing to Matanzas Pass. What a ride over to Matanzas—I hit 9.8 knots sail surfing the couple of kilometres across!

It was a very pleasant paddle sail along the back way, passing Big Carol Pass, New Pass, and then on to new paddling territory. The chart has the channel markers stopping at New Pass, meandering on south, but they actually do exist.

And with the tide (going out), about half an hour before dark, I made Wiggins, seeing it from the rear for the first time.

Tent up, can of sardines down, dark fell, and a few more boats started slowly arriving. I hit the sack, and SandyBottom arrived a few hours later.

DAY THREE: Up in the dark, Dawn and I headed off just as dawn broke. We decided to head out Wiggins Pass together, in the interests of safety, with the seas being against the tide. Heading out wasn't too bad, with some breaking waves around two metres. (We later learned that a couple of kayaks behind us had capsized.) I pulled away, and wouldn't see SandyBottom until the next day.

Jungle Jim was paddling his Epic 18Sport ahead of me, and a wee while later, CWolfe passed by in his Kruger, with full Balogh flying and a two-metre PAS. With a pretty consistent 4.5 knots paddle sailing, I later passed JungleJim and then CWolfe. With superb surfing skills, JungleJim was soon to retake the lead.

With the two to three metre swells rolling in along the coast, I stayed about about a kilometre or so offshore. It was quite something, and I kept an ever vigilant eye to sea. Which is probably why I missed Gordon's Pass, and then Big Marco Pass (how does one miss Big Marco Pass?!) and then nearly missed Caxambas Pass! With the conditions they way they were, Caxambas was Plan A, with Big Marco Plan B. I'd run it once before, years back with NatureCalls, and had it plotted into my GPS. And the moral of this story is, to always trust your GPS. As I've written, I nearly missed Caxambas Pass—in fact I was a kilometre past it, on my way to Cape Romano, when I figured out where I possibly was. My GPS said I was at Caxambas, but utterly amazed that I'd missed the huge opening of Big Marco, for some crazy reason, I wasn't sure. All the huge hotels were there, right on the northerly edge, and there were only uninhabited keys to the south—it sure looked like Caxambas... I called FliesWithKiwiBird on my cell phone: "Everything's okay (always good to start with that). Can you tell me where I am?" Having downloaded the app to her phone, the response was, "It looks as though you've passed something called Big Marco Island." I called Floatsome—he figured I was there, too. So back north I paddled, through some pretty exciting surf, and in Caxambas I went. Meandering through the keys, a little while later I passed CWolfe, who wondered how I'd got behind him, and then up behind me came JungleJim, who'd taken a wrong turn after making Caxambas.

I later realized that the reason I'd missed seeing Gordon's and Big Marco was because I was off the coast a way, and had been looking out to sea more, watching the sometimes breaking swells.

From Neal Key to the entrance to Chokoloskee, it's a run of about 12nm. I had a great paddle sail across, and could see PenguinMan inside a bit further, steadily making ground. And JungleJim was off.

Finding the tide coming into Chokoloskee, I just kept on paddling up to the Rangers Station, outside of Everglades City. Just before entering Chokoloskee Bay, a skiff with two Rangers powered past me, on their evening patrol. By the time I reached the Rangers Station, about 30 minutes before dark, they'd returned to the dock. I paddled up to them, took off my hat and signaled I wanted to chat. They spoke first: "Are you with WaterTribe?" "Is it my hair?" I responded. I explained that I was a night ahead of schedule, and not having anywhere to camp, would they mind if I left my boat at the ramp and pitched my tent behind the shed there. "It's against Park regs, you know. But okay." I thanked them profusely and paddled around the corner.

I called WhiteCaps/Toby, manager for CP2, and let him know where I was, and that I couldn't be bothered paddling all the way to CP2, to have to paddle back in the morning for the permits we'd need for the Wilderness Waterway, and then back again. He understood,even though it would mess  up my CP arrival times (as soon as I hit CP2, I'm on holiday!), and was around with JungleJim in about half-an-hour to chat. Always good to see Toby.

I pitched my tent, cleaned up, and staggered drunkingly across the road to the fish restaurant, where I delighted in grilled scallops, shrimp and grouper, washed down with a Heineken.

Terrible night's sleep, and I don't think I'll camp there again! Around 0200, and for the next two hours, all the big dieseled fishing boats left Everglades City, less than a kilometre away. It was deafening!

Friday, March 15, 2013

EC2013 Getting to the Start

Chief has always written on WaterTribe's Everglades Challenge website and forum that getting to the start is the hardest part of all. Once you're on the road, that's pretty much it—nothing can slow you down. But getting on the road... It wasn't as difficult as last year, with the WeeOne being pretty crook, having a colonoscopy on the Monday before leaving Thursday, and a grumbling stomach, which all meant I had to ditch my EC2012 into Day 1, and took another three weeks to regain some element of normal health after that.

This year, the few days leading to departure, I just had a US naturalization test (passed in flying colours!), EC packing, interviews at work for a position I'm replacing on my team, a major federal grant and smaller state grant to submit, and class until 9:30pm the Wednesday night before leaving 0500 Thursday (I'm doing another Masters at Duke).

David (Floatsome), manager for Checkpoint 1, was supposed to drive down to Tampa Bay with me, helping sing along the 12 hour drive, but was held up with some last minute blood tests. He ended up flying down Saturday, all healthy.

Of course, stopping in Midway, GA, has become a ritual now, for the local garage's fried chicken and potato wedges. I made sure to take a photo for those in the know, not with me this year, to express my satisfaction in the meal.

The last two ECs I have slept in the back of my 4-Runner, with an inflatable mattress. What a difference, compared with sleeping in the tent at Fort De Soto campground. Every EC I've lain there, hearing the wind stirring the palm leaves—it may be just the slightest hint of a breeze, but those palm leaves sound as though it's a hurricane, which tends to keep my mind all a flutter. In the truck, with the windows up (it was very cold!), I can sleep and not let my imagination race.

Another tradition we've developed is that every Friday morning before Saturday's start, SandyBottom and I have breakfast together. This year DancesWithSandyBottom and SOS joined us. This is the photo we send off home each year, just to let folks know we're having a rotten time.

The best part of any EC is catching up with old WaterTribers and meeting new ones. And there were a lot of newbies this year, also evidenced by the record number of boats lined up end of the day Friday, ready for Saturday's 0700 start. Quite phenomenal. Over 100 boats from all six classes, all sizes and shapes, with boaties rearing at the bit, waiting for the bagpipes to play as the signal to launch.

After checking in Friday morning, packing all the boats up is a time to contemplate and ruminate, making sure all the gear's in the right place, FEK sail rigged correctly, spare paddle not likely to pop out, water hoses all snug. (I have to say, those CC Gear sand mats are the way to go with packing boats—sand just falls right through them, and doesn't blow around!) And then taking the time to tour all the other boats heading off with you, and attending the obligatory afternoon Skippers' Meeting—the largest ever this year.

IronBob took a terrific series of prestart photos, seen here; as did Dana Clark, with Breathe Magazine.

And then sleeping that last night "on shore"... Not hearing the palm trees furiously scratching...  But cold!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

EC2013 Gear Reflections

An excellent WaterTribe Everglades Challenge this year: terrific but cool northerly tail winds for most of the week; only a night and a few showers of rain on the first day; and best of all, catching up with old and new challengers.

And my favourite post-EC task? Reflecting on what gear performed well for me this year—or didn't—my seventh Everglades Challenge.

The boat: As always, I can't fault my 5.32m Arctic Raider by Graham Sisson. Bitter sweet this year, knowing that Graham has recently retired, after 36 years of designing and making great boats. I cringed doubly, every time (twice) I hit an oyster reef. I really made an effort to keep the weight down this year, and I believe losing a few kilos of gear kept me higher in the waterline and thus less wetted surface, helping to keep the speed up on the down wind rides. (Though I can't be too light a load, as I'll be all over the place.) With the challenging surf conditions on Day 1, running down Sarasota Bay, for example, the boat performed flawlessly.

Greenland paddle: Still using a GP for the race, and loving it. Once again I used a paddle made by EC challenger StripBuilder—a beautifully laminated stick. It was particularly useful side steering when the rudder couldn't cope with fast following seas. And as my spare paddle, I packed along the smaller GP StripBuilder made for my five-year-old son.

Flat Earth Kayak Sail: I cannot rave enough about the Australian FEKS (and I am an agent for selling them in North America!). I did more sailing this year—pretty well having the sail up every day at one time or another—than all previous ECs combined! The first three days, I don't even remember taking it down. Having a FEKS has added a whole new dimension to kayaking, compared with the Pacific Action Sail or other sails designed for kayaking. With the FEKS I arrived at CP1 half-an-hour before dark—100kms (60 miles) after 11 hours and 50 minutes paddle sailing; and did two more record days from Dog Island to Wiggins Pass, arriving before dark on Day 2; and again from Wiggins to CP2, arriving before dark on Day 3. I was beginning to worry I wasn't having a hard enough time! The sail points up into the wind very effectively, bearing in mind you have to keep paddling; the ability to self tack saves much time and energy; and the ability to reef the sail down from 1sq.m. to 0.8sq.m. is downright handy, particularly when beating up to windward, and for rudderless kayaks on a down wind rush.

SPOT tracking system: Thankgoodness for SPOT. Compulsory for some time now for ECs, this handy device means those at home worry far less. I don't paddle without it.

Sleeping system: I tried something new this year, in the interests of saving weight and space. I gave up the sleeping bag (1176g) and replaced it with a Macpac sleeping bag liner (214g), REI lightweight fleece liner (446g), Macpac down Cocoon sleeping bag (all zipless), and a SOL Escape Bivvy (241g) (with an Exped inflatable pillow at 81g). I also replaced the Exped 7 down sleeping mat (which took up its own dry bag and weighs 1165g) with an Exped Airmat Basic 7.5 (550g)—I really like this tiny mat; you can blow it up by mouth (I lie stretched out underneath it in the confines of a one-person tent), and it's not noisy when you move around like the down mat. Everything listed (except for the Cocoon) fitted into one large Sea to Summit dry bag. Most nights were exceptionally cold this year—downright chilly, in fact—often falling near freezing. With all my sacrosanct dry clothes, and all my sleeping layers, including the Bivvy, I was just right. My dry clothes included Macpac fleece leggings and merino socks, a 260 bodyfit Icebreaker top, a Macpac merino top, a NorthFace fleece top, and on top of that a Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover, with an Icebreaker Pocket Beanie on my head (the only lightweight, warm beanie that really covers your ears!). All the clothing fitted into another large Sea to Summit dry bag and weighed in at 1195g.

Tent: As always, my Macpac Microlight, which is not free-standing, but I can string up quite happily on a chickee. At 1.8kg (I have the older version; new is 1.6kg), heaps of solo room, and the inner pitches with the fly. I have been seriously thinking of replacing this tent with the lighter (680g/24oz) Skyscape Trekker from Six Moons Design (or even the slightly heavier and cheaper Scout version at 964g/34oz). In fact, with my encouragement, SandyBottom bought the Trekker version for this year's EC and loves it. But with the very cold night temperatures, I was kind of glad my tent was not a mesh interior, which thus helped to keep a bit more warmth in.

Paddling clothing: Kept it to a minimum, wearing the same outfit every day. This year, I wore a pair of Icebreaker merino boy shorts for underwear (still smelling good after a week!), with a pair of Mysterioso neoprene shorts over those. On top was an Icebreaker 200 Bodyfit Crew top, and for two days in the Wilderness Waterway it was warm enough by day to wear an old long-sleeved REI SPF 50+ polyester shirt. My paddling jacket is a Steve Gurney light racing jacket—sadly he doesn’t make then anymore—and I wore that pretty much every day over my Icebreaker. When it chilled down in the morning and evenings, I put on a Mysterioso fleece top; and for the first time in an EC I actually wore my Mysterioso fleece trousers, over my shorts.

Wet weather gear: Once again, my Reed Chillcheater Coverall cag was invaluable. With the cool morning and evening temperatures, I was snug and warm. The cag is measured to fit my ocean cockpit rim, offering double protection from the waves over the sprayskirt. I've now learned to fit my PFD over the cag—though it's designed to fit over the PFD—as the wind tends to fill the cag and make forward progress pretty difficult.

Lighting system: The head lamp I used the most is the Petzl Tikka XP 2, which I was very happy with. (I usally use the Underwater Kinetics 3AAA eLED Vizio Headlamp, which is excellent—light and comfy—but my son has put it in a very safe place... somewhere.) For spotting camp sites in the pitch black I use a Fenix HP10, which I recommend.

GPS: I use a Garmin GPSMAP 76CSx. For years I've had the GPS on a Ram Mount ahead of me, out of paddle hit reach. After a day or two of not being able to read it—a mix of light and older-age eyes—I just looped the unit to my sprayskirt and had it right in front of me, resting on my sprayskirt. I reckon I'll now pop it into a dry bag, and hopefully get a few more years out of it.

Food: I really thought I'd cut it down this year—and didn't! I made up a daily pack of six Nature Valley Oats ‘N Honey (my favourite), a Cliff 20g protein Builder’s Chocolate Mint, a Honey Stinger Protein Bar, one Larabar (non-fruit), three gels and a small Ziploc of dried mango. That weighed around 670g of snack food a day, totaling around 4720g in total. In the end, I ate less than three days worth, which left a lot of weight not eaten.

I did eat all my breakfasts: per day, 7 dried apricots, an Ensure (350cals) and a Luna bar. 

And for once, I nearly ate all my dinners: per evening, an Ensure (350 cals), and either a tin of sardines (2) or a freeze dried (3)—I never normally have the stomach for an evening freeze dried, but the shorter paddling days helped.

And I still lost around 3.5k (8lbs).

Cooking system: For the first time, I used a JetBoil this year—a few months ago I was extremely lucky to snag a Sol Ti for $38—normally around $150. Loved it—had the water boiling in a matter of what seemed like seconds. Downsides: only boils enough water for one (hence the 'sol", I suppose), and the neoprene cover and handle is downright useless for lifting to pour. I'll be contacting Jetboil for a heavier handle. Having the Jetboil saved 555g on my cooking system.

Personal health: I worked really hard at this this year, and now have my routine down pat—and what a difference. In previous ECs, my derriere has suffered. Every morning I lather myself with Desitin, and I really believe wearing the Icebreaker merino underwear made a huge difference (let alone keeping on smelling fine!). But the evening routine is crucial: pitch the tent; throw in the tent all the gear for the evening (and breakfast); strip and pile the wet clothes somewhere; wipe myself down all over with two wet ones; slap baby powder all over the body—particularly the feet and rump—making sure everything's dry; rub Joshua Tree paddler's salve into my feet (and hands); and pull on all your sacrosanct dry clothes. Reverse in the morning.

As always, I religiously used my SunPaws, from Hydraulics in NZ—anything to cut out the sun on the back of the hands. And this year, I was not going to have my face or lips burned, and with a Kokatat Nor'wester sun hat religiously used a High UV Protection Buff. I cannot swear enough by the Buff.

Pre-race training: I really worked at it this year. Having a competitive derby program to work for against many of my fellow challengers really helped this season, keeping up almost daily four-mile 0500 walks; 25 minutes of core exercises every other day (I can now do 100 full length push ups! in reps of 10), and a 25-mile paddle most Sundays. But much of an EC is all mental, and for that I am well prepared.

Coming up: Day-by-day blows of the race.

Previous EC gear reflections: