Everglades Challenge Race Report 2013
Luck, Grit, Laughter, Bliss
Everglades Challenge 2013 Report by Robert Finlay (IronBob):

Druce and I would paddle our boat Sunshine (at night her name is Ranger), a SEDA Triumph, a 3 seat kayak, using Quick Blade Sydney paddles in Class 2, paddle craft without a sail. Our eyes would be protected by NUMA Points. The sun shirts on our backs would be Haeleum, although this year it would be too cold for sun shirts except for day one.  

I had trouble getting to this EC. I had surgery in December. The 30 day post op recovery didn’t end until mid January. That gave me just 5 good training weekends before the start. Walking around East Beach on Mullet Key on Thursday and Friday I just felt so lucky, so lucky to be here, so lucky to have such a good teammate, so lucky to have what was looking to be good weather for the upcoming challenge. 

Druce Finlay (TheJuice), my son, and I set our boat down on the beach next to SandyBottom and KiwiBird. It was fun talking to them about old times, upcoming weather, route choices, and gear as we got our boat and ourselves organized. SandyBottom reviewed for us; how to use and usage of a VHF radio. KiwiBird and SandyBottom are very knowledgeable paddlers.

After setting up our boat, I walked the beach taking these photos; Start Beach EC 2013.  It is truly beautiful; the variety of craft on the Everglades Challenge Start Beach. It is amazing to me; all the knowledge and experience that gathers on this beach every year. Sailing must be so wonderful. I don’t know anything about it. I’m a Class 2 guy. I just try to paddle in the right direction. 

I saw a hand held kite hovering and traversing the front of the Start Beach. I didn’t know at the time, it was creating this video, http://youtu.be/BFxqxAKzCV4. Go ahead, play the video and music while continuing to read. It's fun.

Friday night Druce and I had dinner with PaddleDancer, Dana, Ridgerunner, and Graybeard. It was fun and inspiring listening to Ridgerunner and Graybeard relate old Everglades Challenge stories. It was especially educational listening to Graybeard’s knowledge of the sea breeze. Over the next few days, we would make good use of this new knowledge and have some fun with it.

Saturday/Day One:
Standing on the start beach in our underwear and t-shirts, waiting for the start, SharkChow asks us why we’re dressed so lightly. Looking around, it’s true most people are dressed more substantially. We didn’t really have an intelligent answer.

As we cross Tampa Bay, “Where is”, everyone is asking, “the forecast NW wind? The breeze is out of the East”. Ah, the sea breeze! 

We head straight out to the Gulf passing Passage Key at around 0800. I look out at the rollers breaking on the beach of Anna Maria and I tell Druce, “I’m scared”. I’m not scared like a 10 or abject fear but certainly a 3 or moderate concern. There is, of course, no advantage to taking a paddle craft on the outside route. Except that, we always learn stuff when we go out there.

The anticipated NW wind picks up around 1100. By noon the waves are developing. We make our way from the vicinity of Big Sarasota Pass, down the coast, into Venice Inlet, and to the top of Roberts Bay; a 17 mile run in 3 hours. Good fun!

Cruising down the Ditch, we run into a Sea Pearl, the Allez, manned by Excitableboy and Runswithbeers. We draft them a little bit and introduce ourselves. We duck when a boom swings our way. Learning to draft a sailboat is fun!

We arrive at CP1 right on our schedule just a little before 6 Bells or 1900. GrayBeard helps us dock. As we stand on the dock soaking wet in our paddling clothes, which are ExOfficio boxers and Haeleum long sleeve t-shirts, GrayBeard asks, “Why don’t you guys wear any clothes?” Druce replied, “Why? They’re just going to get wet anyway”. I about died laughing listening to that answer and at the same time seeing GrayBeard’s dark eyebrows arch up to the brim of his hat.

We jog up to the shower, still quite full of that Day One buzz, where we run into Excitableboy and Runswithbeers again and exchange some fun banter and we also run into TideTraveler whereupon I gave him his new name, Big O. Well, he does have some awfully big tires on that truck of his.  A shower, dry suits, hot soup and pizza; what a perfect checkpoint!

While kicking back sipping hot soup, we’re listening to JungleJim discuss with someone the morning’s winds and how they didn’t jive with the forecast and how everyone was confused by that. GrayBeard is slouching back into a chair, his ever present safari hat pulled down over his eyes, seemingly taking a little nap but when he hears the controversy about the winds and the forecast, he immediately sits up straight, his right index finger pointing straight up, and announces like the eccentric professor, “Ah, but they didn’t account for the sea breeze”. Druce and I couldn’t believe that one, we laughed, off-and-on about that, for hours.

We were in and out of the checkpoint in about an hour. We wanted to get in 30 more miles before we ended our day. The next 20 miles went smooth enough, but the last 10 were a bit of a drag; head winds, dropping temperatures, and cold, cold rain.

Sunday/Day Two:    
Ynel Point is in our wake at around 1130. We have the intention, or Float Plan as they say, of driving straight to Cape Romano, an open water paddle of 50 miles. Winds are forecast for 15 to 20 mph, and are supposed to subside in the late afternoon into the evening.

The first 30 miles go smooth. This leg starts off with the water relaxed and so are we. The wind gradually picks up a little, as it is supposed to, and we have a few hours of off-and-on and yet very relaxed surfing sessions. Sometimes we were making some good speed. Having fun, yet always slightly fearful, always wary of getting carried away with the exhilaration of surfing and suddenly finding ourselves broached and rolling. Having fun, making speed, yet fearful; we call these miles “fear factor bonus miles”.

It is so nice to feel our kayak, a displacement boat, planing somewhat with the waves, even if for just a few yards at a time, rather than having to be physically pulled through the water. These surf sessions are dreams come true. But they are short lived and you have to wake up. The simple reality of Class 2 is, the reality that you have to wrap your head around is, the only reality is more paddling.  

So - around 1800 the wind is picking up and not subsiding. Of course it is. I mean, it is really picking up. Seas are getting, what do sailors say?, getting angry. We are tired, having paddled now about 130 miles. We are wet, paddlers are always wet. In the increased wind, we are getting cold. None of this is unmanageable, yet we are 14 miles from Cape Romano and have to make a decision; continue to the cape or head in to say, Big Marco Pass. We decide to head in. In retrospect, we would continue for the cape if given the same circumstances. Making it into the pass turned out to be quite ‘hairball’. It was “all hands on the paddles boys!”

It is dark now. We're about 2 miles out from safe waters; the seas are over our heads, and moving fast, and sounding loud! They are roaring and frothing as they pass us. Druce, on the rudders, is steering a brilliant zig-zag course, thus keeping the waves on our port and starboard rear quarters rather than directly on our stern. This allows us to know the direction of a likely broach and so it is more controllable. We start to broach a few times and rudder away from the broach just like we know what we’re doing.

But of course as we gain shallower water, the waves get bigger, and we do broach a few times, high bracing ‘just like we know what we’re doing’ and side surfing a bit in the bargain. 

One wave broaches us, a particularly strong wave. We brace and we sideways surf a long time, probably 200 yards worth of a long time. Yeah, I’m not kidding. Now, we find ourselves in a surf zone. There is no sorting ourselves out of this one and simply continuing on our merry way into the pass. One wave after another hits us broadside, and we brace and we brace and we brace, time after time after time. At some point in the middle of all this Druce announces as we are sideways surfing, “Sideways surfing is fun”.

Finally a wave, like no other we’ve seen thus far, is roaring in to greet us. I yell so that everyone can hear me, although Druce is the only one who can hear me and he is only a few feet away, “We’re f….ed” (of course enunciating the word correctly). Druce, the man on the rudders, and the guy in charge of the boat, replies calmly, “No, no, we’ve got this”. We watch it approach, and we expertly lean our boat to it, and we high brace, setting our paddles perfectly against the white froth, and so this one too, we ride sideways. Wave after wave continues to greet us in our sideways profile until one finally pirouettes us and we find ourselves facing back out to sea. Without hesitation, we both begin the sprint forward to greet the rushing monster, and the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Finally we’re out of the surf zone, we reorient, see the channel marker lights off to our left front, and begin a long slow curving turn towards them, bracing as we go.

We’re in the channel now, making our way towards the harbor-like-safe-waters inside the pass, zig-zagging and bracing, zig-zagging and bracing, until finally, anticlimactically we capsize. At this point we are still about a mile out. Kind of calming really, capsizing; the stress of trying not to capsize is finally over. We try two rolls. They both fail.

Between rolls, upside down, I arch my head back so as to look down, I watch my headlamp, with the beam on, spiraling towards the bottom, making an interesting pattern of light in the green gulf waters, kind of pretty actually. Ah but shucks, both rolls fail so it’s time to exit and get it together.

Out of the boat, both of us flipping the boat over, me clutching the coaming of my cockpit, I look to Druce, he immediately announces “I’ll go under”, meaning he’s going to the other side. This is part of our well practiced self-rescue procedure. I hold the boat for him, he’s in. Simultaneously, with all this self-rescue stuff, my emotion is of one of elation. Sure waves continue to lift us and move us towards shore, a good thing really, better than being moved away from shore, but, I am sublimely happy. I’m calm because that hectic session of broaching and bracing is over. I’m happy because I’m warm. I was cold in the wet and wind. But now in the relatively warm gulf waters, I’m content. And mostly, I’m so happy because my feet no longer ache from pushing against the foot pegs. But, this little bit of luxury must end, so I get in the boat and we continue our way towards safety.

At 2031 hours, I push the OK button on my SPOT Tracker GPS device announcing, “We’re safe”!

The only thing on our minds now is a warm meal and a warm sleeping bag. By 2130 we are tucked away in our sleeping bags.

Monday/Day Three:
At 0100 hours on Day Three, I wake up and announce to no one in particular, “Practice your high brace boys or the Sea Breeze will get you”. We laughed so hard. I cannot describe how hard we laughed. Laughter is very healing and after this laughter session, we were healed.  We check our GPS for the tide situation of the Big Marco River and by 0200 we are paddling again.

An uneventful paddle gets us to the Everglades Park HQ’s where we secure our Wilderness Permit and then we meander over to CP2.

We come in the back way behind the causeway and our arrival is a stealth-like surprise to the CP personnel; WhiteCaps, PaddleDancer, Dana and to my favorite videographer journalists; SaltyFrog and SharkChow.

Druce runs off to the Havana Café for our favorite Everglades Challenge meal; shrimp, rice, bacon and an ice cold Coca Cola while I lay out our stuff to dry and do a few routine boat chores.   

We had a hilarious time interacting with the EC journalists, introducing ourselves as Team Sea Breeze Ninjas. My pithy comment in the log book was, “To: GrayBeard, From: IronBob and TheJuice, Subject: Sea Breeze, Message: We have applied our sea breeze lessons. Thank you.”

The Night of Day Three/Day Four:
This was the most beautiful night I have ever experienced paddling; magic moment after magic moment: the wind; light to nonexistent...  the light of the setting sun; reflecting on the small waves looked, when I stared at them long enough, as hundreds of horses swimming along with us... the moonrise; a dark burnt orange half moon rising over the mangroves to the east and the dark burnt orange reflections in the water looked liked an artist’s oil painting... the bioluminescent, chartrouse green of the plankton; glowed off our bow as we moved forward and in the disturbance in the water of each paddle stroke... the Southern Cross; visible low on the southern horizon... most surreal of all; the solar pillar of light rising vertically from the horizon up into the stars... this was the light of the already set sun, setting now over the western gulf, reflecting off the water and back into the sky so observers like us on the eastern gulf could revel in it. That night was like paddling on an ocean on an Outer World.

Tuesday/Day Four:
An hour or two before sunrise, in the pitch black and absolutely smooth waters of Ponce de Leon Bay, KayakVagabond caught up with us. He is a great sport and a gentleman and a champion paddler. At one point in this EC, Druce and I had 25 or so miles on him. He made that up. He made that up by paddling about 110 miles almost nonstop at 5 or so mph. When he started that heroic run he was already 120 miles into the race. Impressive and superhuman and at Key Largo I asked him for a forward stroke clinic and I meant it.

We spoke briefly and then our courses diverged. He chose Whitewater Bay and we chose Little Joe River. We arrived at the entrance to Coot Bay literally together, KayakVagabond leading by maybe 50 meters.

At Flamingo, there was the standard boat portage for paddlers coming in from Buttonwood Canal, a hot shower (why not?), and a hot pizza (yeah!). While wandering around fiddling with gear during the portage, I noticed Kayakman7’s boat and remarked to him how handsome a boat it was. Again, I am continually impressed with sailors, their sailing skills, and their sail craft. I am a Class 2 guy.

We arrived at Flamingo at 1116 hours but I neglected to hit my OK button until about an hour later, whoops. Anyway, at 1400 Druce and I were paddling again. The fact is, at this point we were tired, feeling good but tired. Therefore, our plan was to break up the final paddle to Key Largo into small, manageable legs. At the end of each leg we would rest and stretch briefly, first at Dump Keys, then Big Key (at the beginning of the Crocodile Crossover), and then at the end of the crossover.

Our course in 2013:
Click the image above or here, to see a gallery of similar images as the one above.
At the start Everglades Challenge 2013...Having just passed Ana Maria Point...Out there somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico...Nice one of Druce after entering the Gulf of Mexico... Morning Day 2, 93 miles into the race, getting ready to do it again...
The first morning getting ready to paddle again....Day 2 of the Everglades Challenge...Looking out to sea off the Naples Coast, Day 2...
Druce, Day 2...Morning Day 3...Morning Day 3....Working up Indian Pass morning of Day 3....Sunset Day 3 looking northwest across the Gulf...Druce Sunset Day 3....Morning Day 4 somewhere in Little Joe River of the Everglades...In the Little Joe River of the Everglades...In the Everglades, Day 4In Buttonwood Canal aproaching Flamingo, FL, Check Point 2...
 Little rest and eat in Buttonwood Canal aproaching Flamingo, FL, Check Point 2...Resting every 10 miles as we cross Florida Bay...Late afternoon Day 4 in Florida Bay...Near sunset Day 4, Florida Bay...Sunset Day 4...Last light on Florida Bay, sunset, Everglades Challenge 2013, Day 4..Robert at the Finish of the Everglades Challenge 2013, Key Largo...Druce at breakfast after the race....
The Everglades Challenge - Race Report 2013
Druce and I getting dumped off the mouth of Big Marco River in the evening of Day 2.

In the middle of the crossover, I have this to relate, as if there wasn’t enough magic in this race already:

I had what I feel was more than an hallucination. It felt very different than that. It felt very special. It felt as though I was being allowed to view something. I had this experience at about the midpoint of the Crocodile Crossover during the last bit of twilight and into the dark. It lasted for a couple of hours. On the preceding two nights at around the end of twilight a certain plasma or indefinable shape or shapes would appear to me from the horizon up into the darkening night sky. On this night, that plasma began to take shape and did take shape, forming itself into a dome which covered not just the sky but the entire heavens. The stars existed below this dome. And this dome was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. And I felt at complete peace in viewing this. I felt at peace, I felt at home, I felt not afraid of death, I felt so not afraid of Death that I felt death may be imminent and I felt happy about that, I felt childish about so many of my actions on Earth and in my Life. I could look at this and I could speak of it lucidly with Druce. I could ask if I was still grabbing water and he answered that I was. It was important to me that I was grabbing water with my paddle. I could lower my eyes and see the reality of Florida Bay and my strokes in the  water and yet look up and revel in this Vision. As I looked up each time, I would see more details, intricate beyond my ability to describe. I even saw how the stars were all connected by an intricate Vine. Yes, a vine, like a grape vine and the stars were the fruit. And then as I looked down at the water of Florida Bay, we began paddling through gates; gate after gate after gate. Druce asked what they looked like and I told him, "intricate, like wrought iron and beautiful". Druce asked what color they were and I told him, "whitish", and he said, "Of course, the Pearly Gates". I started to cry. I could look up from the Gates, up to the Vine, and past that to the Dome. And I have never, ever experienced anything like this...

We arrived at the Finish Beach, Bay Cove Motel, Key Largo, Florida at 2336 hours Tuesday 5 March 2013. We were the first paddle craft to finish. We finished ninth overall behind only eight sail craft. At the finish, Druce, seemingly was still in control of his mind. His strength and leadership were instrumental in helping us get through the last 13 miles because my mind was gone. But, at the Finish, I was very, very happy in every imaginable way. 

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