Two Grandpas Win
the Everglades Challenge
By Doug Cameron (aka RidgeRunner)
Originally Published by
Small Craft Advisor, July/August 2004
At midnight I turned my Sea Pearl into the wind and dropped anchor at the Key
Largo finish beach for the 2003 Everglades Challenge (an account of which was
published in the July 1, 2003 issue of Messing About in Boats). It had taken me
five and three-quarter days to finish the 300 mile run from Fort Desoto in
Tampa Bay. GreyBeard (Michael Collins), who had finished two hours earlier,
waded out to the boat and handed me a beer. Within an hour we were beginning
the discussions that led to our winning partnership for the 2004 Everglades
One of the challenges of the Everglades Challenge is to figure out what craft is
best for the task. I was happy with the comfort and performance of the Sea
Pearl, but it was difficult to move by oar during long periods of calm or
adverse tide. In the 2003 race, my strategy was to throw out the anchor and
rest during those times. Before all of the other competitors had arrived at the
finish, I was talking with fellow competitors ManitouCruiser (Mark
Przedwojewski) and ZigZagWanderer (Omar Beceiro) about the advantages of their
Kruger Sea Wind canoes with a Balogh BOSS sail rig – you can still sleep aboard
and you can efficiently paddle when the wind dies.
It all depends on what cards the weather deals. In dead calm, a sleek sea kayak
would be the ticket, or maybe a skinny rowing scull. But the wind always blows
part of the day on the Florida coast, even if it is just the sea breeze driven
by the day's heating. Most winter weather fronts stop around Tampa, but in
three out of the four years of Everglades Challenges, a front has pushed
through to Florida Bay and the Keys bringing with it stronger winds and cold
Michael Collins and his son Brian (ChefRamen) have been trying to solve the
Everglades Challenge riddle since 2002. The Everglades Challenge is for small
boats that can be launched by the crew from above the high tide mark on the
beach at Mullet Key, and the race always starts at low tide. The boat must also
pass through an eight foot wide and ten foot tall bridge opening before
Checkpoint 2. Chief calls these limitations filters. There is a class for
cruising kayaks and canoes, which allows small downwind sails but no leeboard
or other lateral resistance device for upwind travel. Another class is for pure
racing canoes and kayaks (determined by a length-to-width ratio). Class 4 is
for small sailboats. And then there's Class 3, the class for canoes and kayaks
with unlimited sails and leeboards. The Class 3 boat is a compromise: not the
best sailor and not the best paddler, but able to do each reasonably well.
Michael and Brian Collins have always believed that the right Class 3 boat could
win in the right circumstances. For part of the race, the winds must be low so
that the sailboats can be left behind. For the rest of the race, the winds must
be strong enough for the Class 3 boat to leave the faster canoes and kayaks
behind. Michael and Brian had competed in two Everglades Challenges and one
Michigan Challenge in pursuit of this elusive goal. Weather was never perfect,
and they pushed their equipment so hard that it sometimes failed (no
manufacturer envisioned this kind of strain).
Time for a Break
Beefed Up Rudder
Downhaul and Thwart
Mark Balogh, the man behind Balogh Sail Designs, had always planned on a sailing
canoe or kayak reefing when the wind was strong enough to bury an ama. Michael
added hiking decks to the boat so that he could keep sailing with more sail up
rather than reefing – the bow person would seal the skirt over the bow seat and
get his weight outboard. Mark Balogh suggested substitution of carbon fiber
masts for his original sectional aluminum masts and the use of half of a
windsurfer wishbone boom for each of the two 36 sq. ft. batwing sails. Michael
then added a jib (for a total of almost 100 sq. ft.) for better windward and
reaching performance, using the jib and main halyards for the forestay and
shrouds. The heavy, sturdy Kruger Cruiser canoe took all of these strains in
stride, with a beefier rudder, wider oak thwarts that doubled as mast partners,
and a push- pull tiller being the only structural modifications.
Then Brian decided to join the Air Force and Michael was left without his
partner in engineering and expeditioning. Michael asked me to join his effort
for the 2004 race. We had become friends when I helped to manage the 2002
Challenge, and we finished close together in the 2003 race. My background was
in whitewater canoeing and kayaking and in sailing. I already had a Sea Wind on
order from Kruger Canoes for a 2004 Class 3 solo campaign with a standard
Balogh BOSS rig. Knowing how much thought and testing Michael had put into the
boat, I signed on.
Michael and I participated in the 50-mile Suwannee River Race in the fall in
order to learn to work together. We spent another weekend sailing and camping
from the boat so Michael could teach me how his systems worked. We exchanged
ideas by phone and email, and I paddled the Sea Wind almost every day for
By the predawn gathering on the Mullet Key beach on Saturday, March 6, we were
ready. 26 boats, carrying 32 Challengers waited on the start beach at Fort
Desoto, along with 21 competitors in the "Ultra Marathon" race to checkpoint
one. In the Challenge there were twelve single kayaks, one double, seven Class
3 boats (including two doubles), and six small sailboats, including two Sea
Pearls and the first (and so far only) NorseBoat. Most were production boats,
but there was a smattering of homemade sailboats and kayaks. All but one of the
21 Ultra Marathon racers were single kayaks – the exception being a sailboat.
Winds were predicted to be from the south for the 7 AM start, veering to the
southwest by the afternoon. Our plan was to head west on a reach out of Tampa
Bay to quickly escape the incoming tide, turning south with the wind shift. All
the other competitors headed south or southwest into the wind, depending on
whether they were taking the inside route along the Intracoastal Waterway or
the outside route in the Gulf. We did not see another boat until Checkpoint 1,
making us wonder whether we had made a mistake and were far behind.
The wind shifted a little, but not enough. We turned south about eight miles off
Egmont Key, but we had to motorsail to maintain our planned route. (Michael
calls paddling while sailing motorsailing. With the extra speed, we can get a
little more lift off the two leeboards and gain five or more degrees to
windward. With a boat that tacks through about 120 degrees, that is a big
By late afternoon off Sarasota a dense fog settled in. Visibility was a quarter
mile or less. Winds dropped to maybe five knots, and we paddled on in the
bright, moonlit fog, keeping a weather ear out for the sounds of motorboats and
of waves breaking on the beach. The stern paddler had to keep his eyes fixed on
the GPS to keep from paddling in circles, a tedious duty. It made for a long
The fog burned off by mid-morning on Sunday, and the wind shifted ever-so-slowly
toward the west, allowing us to sail more and more. By the time we sailed into
Gasparilla Pass around noon, there was a strong and building west wind. We
slipped around the big breakers brought by the west wind and lowered the masts
to fit under the bridges of Placida. A quick two-mile paddle on an incoming
tide brought us to Checkpoint 1 at Grande Tours.
I now know that we were in fifth place at this point, but that wasn't obvious at
the time. Many Ultramarathon racers milled around, causing us to think we were
way back in the pack. We did know that none of the sailboats were in yet. We
washed up, refilled our water bottles, had a hot dog, and replaced the downhaul
on the rudder. Shortly after two we were on our way again, riding an outgoing
As we rigged the masts and sails again on a small beach outside the narrow
Placida bridge a manatee nibbled on the plants on the bottom. We were
deliberate, but not in a hurry – we were cruising and enjoying the scene, not
The west wind and outgoing tide should make the passage to the outside rough. We
discussed the situation and decided to alter our plans and instead to sail
inside Cayo Costa and Sanibel Islands through Pine Island Sound. I was
constantly gratified by our decision making process. It was a search for the
best idea, not a contest to get my idea accepted over Michael's idea. We were
looking for solutions, not at problems. Each of us had the better idea at one
time or another.
For the afternoon, I removed the bow seat, struck the jib, and lay down for a
few hours' sleep. Michael sailed down Gasparilla Sound and across Boca Grande
while I slept. I woke up at sunset near the lower end of Cayo Costa. After a
tuna fish supper and a change into warm clothes, we switched places and Michael
went to sleep. It was a beautiful, moonlit night. There was almost no traffic
on the Sound this Sunday evening. We reached and ran at 3-5 knots. There was
little sound besides the leeboard hum. We sailed under the Ft. Myers-Sanibel
causeway against the tide and out into the Gulf. We re-set the GPS for Cape
Romano Shoals below Marco.
We were on a broad reach in a 15-knot wind, the moon was bright, and everything
was working well. When Michael woke up, we switched positions again and I went
below for my second nap – you can't do that on a solo boat. Safety was always
an issue, and now that darkness had fallen, safety was even more important.
When only one of us was "on deck" the helmsman wore a harness and was clipped
I awoke sometime after midnight south of Naples. We were screaming along on a
run in 20-knot winds and 5-7 foot seas. After a short discussion, we shortened
sail and closed the bow opening. I was now the "deck monkey," moving my weight
around to keep the amas out of the water. Winds built, waves grew another foot
or two, and we hit speeds of over 10 knots. Later, we found that the GPS had
recorded a top speed of 12.2 knots.
Michael became better and better at avoiding stuffing the bow into the next
wave, and I imagined the 60 foot ocean racers who sail on 40-50 foot waves in
the Southern Ocean – the scale is about the same. I felt a little exposed on
the deck and constantly remembered to keep one hand on the boat for my own
protection. Michael's helmsmanship was excellent. All of the equipment held up
to this strain – a tribute to Michael and Brian's development and testing over
the years and to the quality of the gear.
Dawn was beautiful as we left Marco behind – the last city before Key Largo. We
were anxious about the Cape Romano Shoals because northwest winds are the worse
you can have through here, and that is what we had. Michael had set three
possible turn points into the GPS, and we were approaching the first. Seas
seemed to be lying down a little, so maybe the wind had clocked slightly north
and we were getting some protection from the tall buildings of Marco. Then, as
we were committed to the shoals, we saw big, breaking waves to our left. We
were in 2-3 foot waves, just missing the big stuff. That charting software is
Emerging from the shoals onto the shallow bay that separates the Ten Thousand
Islands from the Shoals, we encountered 25-knot winds on our beam. When waves
would hit the side of the boat, water would curve over the surface like smoke
in a wind tunnel. We pinched a little to avoid the results of excessive leeway
– it sure would be rough to have to beat back north into this wind!
Finally, around noon, we got into the protected water of Indian Key Pass. The
wind was a little contrary here, but the tide was easing, so we were able to
motor sail and get away with just a few tacks. Then it was a run across
Chokoloskee Bay to the Checkpoint 2 beach. I called home to check in with my
wife, leaving a message on the machine. It was now about noon on Monday.
We landed on an empty beach. Tchemon (Emily Drouin), a race volunteer, Kruger
Canoe manufacturer, and Watertribe Challenge veteran, told us that we are in
first place! I called home again to update the information for Ann. After
cleaning up the boat and restocking on water Michael called Janet. He told her
that we are in first and that we were going for lunch at J.T.'s. Janet told him
to get back into the boat and get going. (This was the same woman who was
so apprehensive about her boys racing just two years ago.)
Michael and I have had lunch together at J.T.'s during the Everglades Challenge
since 2002. We love their grouper sandwich. We needed a little walk to stretch
out our legs, and the tide was still coming in, so we went to lunch in spite of
We got back to find SharkChow (Warren Richey) on the beach. He is a solo kayak,
so he should have to stop to rest. We were amazed to see him here so soon –
what an athlete! We congratulated Warren and prepared for departure.
We pushed off at about 2:45 PM against the tide and a 20-knot wind – this was
hard work! We were making less than one knot. At one point Michael, in the
stern, said that we were going backward. I could not see the channel marker
beside Michael and the water was rushing past the bow, but we were, indeed,
inching backward. Doubling our efforts and getting out of the main flow, we
were able to make headway, but not before SharkChow had passed us with his
graceful, easy stroke.
We raised sail and sailed out through Rabbit Key Pass until it was a straight
shot to the Gulf. Wind and one foot waves were rolling down the channel toward
us. We pulled into a little side bay to reef sails and to put on more warm
clothes. While there, a couple of park rangers checked us out, but we had life
jackets on, were reefing sail and were both properly equipped and determined.
To their credit, they let us go on with best wishes. I hope the authorities
will always allow us to have adventures, even when the adventures involve
taking risks. The job of the rangers should be to make sure we know what we are
getting ourselves into, not to keep us as safe as we would be on the couch at
With the day waning, we sailed out past the shallow water waves and into the
open Gulf. Right at sundown, we pulled into the lee of a small key near Turkey
Key to put on even more clothes and to make an adjustment to a rudder cable.
Then it was back out to sea. The waves were smaller than the previous night off
Marco, but these 3-5 foot waves had a much shorter period. At one point, while
bearing off to prevent the bow from burying, we stuck an ama into a wave and
tried to roll the whole boat up onto it. Michael corrected hard and I leapt
across to the other side of the boat. We remained upright. Only later did we
discover that we had bent the aka about 15 degrees.
In the pre-moon darkness, the stars were brilliant. I always have to readjust to
seeing Orion overhead, and the Milky Way is especially bright in the darkness
away from cities. At about ten, there was a glorious moonrise over the
Everglades, with a big orange ball appearing through the mangroves. I slipped
under the spray cover to take a nap.
I awoke shivering, lying in several inches of water. The short waves were coming
over the bow and into the rear cockpit. I was cold now and shivered every now
and then. I tightened up my clothes and stuck my head out of the cockpit,
pulling the spray skirt up under my armpits. Cape Sable was visible off our
port beam in the moonlight. The forecast of wind chills in the 30s in the
Everglades was probably correct – we were both cold.
We rounded Cape Sable in a couple more hours and reached into Flamingo under the
north wind, arriving at 3:17 AM. We changed into our sacrosanct camp clothes
and cooked oatmeal out of the wind in the lee of the store building. After
bailing and straightening up a bit, we put our paddling clothes back on and set
sail at about 5:15 AM. There was no lock box here yet, so we called Marty, the
race manager, to make the required sign-in. We were supposed to get his voice
mail, but we got him instead (sorry Marty).
Michael ducked below for a nap, and I steered across Florida Bay in the
moonlight on a beam reach with a 15-knot north wind. The markers on Tin Can
Channel were clearly visible in the moonlight, and there was no boat traffic,
only a few Ospreys with the fish they had caught. The sun rose gloriously
behind towering clouds as we popped through the Dump Keys. In the middle of
Twisty Mile, Michael's head popped out.
It was on to the Jimmy Channel in a dying breeze. Then we had to paddle through
Manatee Pass against a strong tide. The wind was on our nose now, so we shook
out the reefs that had been in since Naples and tacked back west to gain some
northing to get around Manatee Key. Then it was back onto the reach as the wind
dropped even more and the day grew warmer. We shed our layers of clothes, and
found ourselves paddling the final six miles.
As we talked and paddled, the realization surfaced that we had not only
finished, but had won. It was as though it was bad luck to acknowledge those
feelings earlier. Michael even teased me by saying he saw Wizard's (Matt
Layden's) grey sailing kayak coming up behind.
We pulled up onto the beach at Key Largo and were greeted again by Tchemon. She
told us that, not only had we won but we bettered all previous times. I had
been at the finish to greet DevoMan (James Devoglaer) and SheaDog (Mike Shea)
when they finished at 2 AM in 2002, and I knew we should be more tired. Mike
and I shook hands – it was a good run.
In the next 30 hours, five boats came in: SharkChow's solo kayak, three more
class 3 boats, and the new NorseBoat. Then the door slammed shut. The
prevailing east winds returned with a vengeance, and it would be 36 hours
before the next boat arrived. Those who fought the twenty-knot easterlies
across shallow Florida Bay were the valiant ones this year. In all, only six
boats failed to finish.
The campground on the finish beach is an important part of the whole experience.
Each new arrival is greeted with cheers, and stories of adventures are swapped
again and again. Families arrive to join in the fun (most of them kept up with
things through the web site – it got 50,000 hits a day during the race!).
Saturday night brings a cookout and awards and, this year, gator toe cocktails.
Each finisher gets a shark's tooth necklace and an engraved paddle. Those who
take the Wilderness Waterway also get an alligator tooth. It's the same for
first and last finishers. We are all "kindred spirits" as the logo says.
What were the factors in the win and what would we do differently?
The weather was just what Michael had been waiting for: a period of calm
early to leave the sailboats behind, and then favorable winds strong enough to
outstrip the kayaks. One cold front right after another gave us two whole days
of N and NW winds in an area that usually has E and SE winds. In an east wind,
it can take two days to cover the 30 miles across Florida Bay. 36 hours
separated sixth and seventh places because the wind shifted back to the East.
Luck was a big factor!
We kept going straight to Checkpoint 1 in spite of the lack of wind. Winners in
three out of four Everglades Challenges have done well by getting out ahead of
weather that trapped later competitors.
There were two of us. We got along well and both had Everglades Challenge and
coastal cruising experience, so we could continually readjust plans based on
conditions. We had a craft where one could sleep while the other sailed. We
were able to stay rested and keep moving. A solo boat could not do this, though
SharkChow's amazing second place finish is a testament to what a determined,
fit single can do.
Equipment met the need. Michael and Brian had worked for years with Balogh and
Kruger to get everything right, and they had tested it in adverse conditions in
Everglades and Michigan Challenges. The submersible Garmin 176 GPS and the
software that allowed us to plan routes through areas like Cape Romano Shoals
continued to amaze me, a paper chart and compass navigator (we had backup
charts, two compasses, and two backup handheld GPS units).
If I could change anything, I would add even more clothing for warmth. We were
well set up to camp and stay warm in the 30s, but I needed more to sail with
wind chills in the 30s. I had fuzzy rubber clothes, including hat and booties,
but a full dry suit would have been better. If you're going to stay out there,
you must be prepared – making good judgments is critical to this race, and
hypothermia clouds reasoning. A dry suit will be in my kit next time.
Next year, I want to ease up a little on the pace and enjoy the cruise more.
Finishing the Everglades Challenge is a great achievement in itself. I want to
camp at night, savor the experience more, and go inside through the Everglades.
© Doug Cameron 2004