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March, 2007
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Everglades Challenge 2007
By Gary Blankenship

"WITHOUT A PADDLE: Racing Twelve Hundred Miles Around Florida By Sea Kayak" by Warren Richey

The story of Sharkchow's 2006 participation in the Ultimate Florida Challenge. Coming to a bookstore near you. June 8, 2010.

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 978-0-312-63076-8
320 pages, $24.99
Due in bookstores and on Amazon.com June 8, 2010.


UFC 2006 New Release

$25.95 with FREE Shipping!

Jenning has a second version of the EPIC Ultimate Florida Challenge. This is a two DVD set. The first DVD is the same as the first release. But the second DVD contains two very interesting interviews.

First, SharkChow has a long interview giving many details and insights into his impressive win of the first WaterTribe Ultimate Florida Challenge in 2006. His hint about using the tides on the St. Marys river is worth the price all by itself if you are thinking of doing the UFC yourself. Note: this is really a voice recording - no video.

Next there is a shorter video interview of ThereAndBackAgain (aka TABA). TABA isn't a complainer so he had never mentioned many of the real issues he faces in these challenges. This interview opened my eyes and prompted some minimal changes to make things just a bit more fair.

Special Note: The proceeds all go direct to Jenning. Making this DVD took untold amounts of money and time. This would make a nice preview for the UF2010 event.

Lightweight, self-launching Kayak and Canoe Sails

Everglades Challenge 2007

Lots of Reefing, Mud, and Fun in Florida Bay

By Gary Blankenship and Helen Snell (aka Lugnut and Wingnut)

  It was dead low tide and there were 20 yards of mud stretched between Oaracle and the beach at Chokoloskee Island, three miles south of Everglades City, Florida. Noel and I were only a few steps off Oaracle and we were in trouble. The mud was black, smelly, sticky, and soft. We were sinking to almost the tops of our boots as we struggled ashore.

  Disaster hit Noel first. He had spent five hours carefully drying his right hand sailing glove, Now he lost his balance and pitched forward, burying his begloved hand past the wrist. Worse, he couldn’t extricate himself except by plunging his left hand into the ooze for balance. Struggling upright, he wavered for a moment, then lost his balance again and sat down heavily in the muck. After a worrisome moment, Noel roared – with laughter. I knew I had the right crew.

  My fate wasn’t much better. Struggling only a couple steps further, I pitched forward on my hands and knees. A couple steps further, I did it again, half pulling my right foot out of the boot and slightly spraining my big toe. Soon boots were academic as the mud sucked them off my feet. When we finally made the beach, with the boots in hand, I thought we looked like a couple of extras in an old silent movie farce and half expected to see someone hand cranking an ancient movie camera and a director yelling “cut!” It was hard to tell our foul (now in more ways than one) weather pants were yellow through the caked mud. Fortunately, it was almost midnight, and too dark for anyone to memorialize our ungraceful landing on video. Sanddollar and Dr.Kayak escorted us to a hose to clean up (Noel was literally clawing handfuls of the foul ooze off his backside) and then to the lockbox to sign in. SirGordy cooked us the world’s best tasting hamburgers, or so it seemed at the time.

  But, more than 40 hours into the 2007 running of the Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile adventure race from the mouth of Tampa Bay to Key Largo. we were at Checkpoint 2, more than halfway to the finish. Incredibly to us, Oaracle, a Jim Michalak-designed Frolic2 sailboat, was running fourth.

  If the landing was low comedy, we were soon reminded that an Everglades Challenge is serious business. Catching some rest on the beach were XLXS (Carter Johnson) and Manitou Cruiser (Mark Przedwojewski), who were in kayaks (class 2 and 3 respectively) and traveling alone. Sleep was imperative as the tough conditions of the first day and a half had worn them down. Noel (Root) and I (Lugnut) were feeling relatively fresh, so we decided to depart without a nap. We had no illusions about our ability to stay in front of them for the rest of the race, but for a brief shining moment, we could claim to be second overall in the EC.

  It was briefer than expected. We drifted, rowed (slowly) against tide and wind, and sailed to clear the twisty Chokoloskee Pass in the post-midnight dark. Then in the Gulf of Mexico we promptly ran into the strongest winds of the trip – we estimated them at around 30 mph with higher gusts. Aside from the whine in the rigging, there was a moan in the wind we hadn’t heard before, and a confused pattern of waves tossed Oaracle like a wood chip. We had double-reefed the sail as a precaution before leaving, but Oaracle still felt overpowered. The waves threatened a broach and the rolling threatened a gybe. Ominous sounds came from the boat as it lurched through the slop.

  It was the first time in what had been fairly rugged conditions that Oaracle felt in danger of getting out of control. So we dropped the main and used the mizzen to reach back to the protection of the 10,000 islands south of Everglades City. Eventually we anchored behind Crate Key, next to Rabbit Key. Putting our dry bags in the cockpit, we had enough room to sleep head-to-toe in Oaracle’s small cabin, waiting for the winds and waves to die.

  So it went for WaterTribe’s 2007 Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile competition for kayaks, canoes, and small sailboats. This year, 37 craft left the beach at Ft. DeSoto Park on the northern side of Tampa Bay. (About another 15 were in the shorter Ultra Marathon). See the Everglades Challenge section of this site for a description of the course and the “filters” that competitors must deal with. As Root commented, part of the (evil?) genius of Chief’s course and filters is that each type of craft will have its advantages and disadvantages. Sailboats can eat up the open parts of the course with reaching and running winds, but getting in and out of narrow inlets and the checkpoints – especially CP 1 – can be an exercise in frustration. Canoes and kayaks can excel in the protected parts of the course, but can have trouble on the open water parts if its rough. Both types can struggle in Florida Bay where the courses are pretty much pre-chosen through existing channels and passes and the competitor may be doomed to a long day of padding into a stiff wind, or sailing against it in shallow and constricted water. Contrary winds are the norm here.

  Add to that the weather, which can be nasty in the Florida spring. Veterans counted 2007 as one of the rougher challenges, and about a third of the competitors who launched from Ft. DeSoto dropped out before the finish, in both the Everglades Challenge and the Ultra Marathon. (By my count, it was a bit higher in Class 4 for the EC; 17 boats left the beach and 10 finished.)

  This year Noel Davis, of the www.FurledSails.com sailing podcast, had agreed to crew with me; ironically I never knew that Noel, wife Christy and their children lived in the Tallahassee area like we did until I invited him after he did a podcast on WaterTribe. Small world.

  My wife, Helen (Wingnut is her tribe name, but known to the crew of Oaracle as the Admiral) assumed the role of ground contact and chief cheerleader. She also gave us the terse and oft-repeated orders for the EC: We were to sleep in shifts and in good weather keep Oaracle going 24/7. Root and I were not sure she would accept shipwreck, alligator attack, or broken bones as an excuse for not pressing on.

  Our landing and departure from Chokoloskee was a microcosm of our challenge. There were few easy miles, and the further we went, the tougher the miles got.

 

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Launching day had me in my usual nervous state. The winds the previous two days had been from the southwest, frequently as high as 20 to 25 mph. That’s bad as the course down the coast is just east of south. A strong southwest wind means high seas on the outside, being close hauled, and perhaps long and short tacks to make progress. The inside route to CP 1 is restricted by narrow channels and shoals for much of its length, with trees and buildings blocking such a cross-course wind in many places.

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I contemplated not launching and waiting for more favorable winds, but by the start, Saturday March 3, the wind, as forecast, had swung around to the north and northeast. The velocity had dropped slightly, but was still a strong wind. We left with a reef already tied in the main. The launch morning was the normal last minute rush of loading supplies, getting a group picture, and prepping the boat. At the pre-launch roll call, Chief issued a prescient warning: While the water appeared calm close to shore, the strong offshore breeze meant it would get rough quickly. Our last decision was to raise the main while ashore so when we hit the water, we could jump in and go. And suddenly it was 7 a.m. The kayaks headed for the water, and soon so were Roo (Graham Brynes) and Tinker (Randy Marshall) with Roo’s custom designed Everglades Challenge 22 – an impressive sight. (After the first checkpoint, Roo and Tinker simply ran away with the race.) We followed Roo to the water and by 7:05 a.m. we were launched and underway.

  Chief was right. About a half mile offshore, things did get rough. In front of us, a sit-on-top kayaker in the Ultra Marathon (which ends at CP 1) had flipped. Every time he got back on the narrow craft, it rolled over. We rounded up as another kayaker pulled alongside to help. Wizare (Matt Layden) stopped with his new eight-foot pram, in perfect control. And then another kayak overturned a few yards further out. We went back to the first overturned one. The rescuing kayak asked us to escort the troubled sit-on-top kayak, its owner acknowledging it was the wrong craft for such a rough day, back to shore. Root and the kayaker kept a firm grip to keep the kayak alongside and aimed as straight as possible, while we slowly headed back to shore, eventually dropping the competitor about a mile up the beach from the start. Then it was back to the race. (This kayaker wasn’t alone, there were at least four or five boats that sustained damaged and were out of the race by the time they crossed Tampa Bay, or shortly thereafter.)

  The north wind meant the inside ICW route was practical, and maybe even preferable. The northerly wind tends to funnel through the waterway in the narrow areas, and Oaracle’s short mainmast means there are only two swing bridges and one drawbridge on the way to CP 1 that have to open for her. The cool temperatures and strong northerly wind also kept the powerboat traffic at a minimum, at least until mid-afternoon.

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  The further we got across Tampa Bay toward Sarasota Bay, the rougher the seas. By the time we crossed, we were surfing down the 3-to-4 foot chop and had caught up with the back end of the fleet taking the inside route. Wizard got several pictures in the grey morning as we passed his Sand Flea. The water calmed a bit as we left Tampa Bay and was positively placid behind an island that protected us from the chop and most of the boisterous wind. Our “five-minute vacation,” as we dubbed it, was interrupted by a Coast Guard RIB passing close by, dragging a big wake. (I think you can see the Coast Guard boat in the video Wizard shot of the RAF team.) The wave rolled Oaracle violently; the worst wake of the entire trip.

  As we left the calm and entered the more open Sarasota Bay the waves began to churn up. Wingnut’s report for us on the WaterTribe website had it right: Tampa Bay was like being tossed in a commercial washing machine, Sarasota Bay was like a home machine.

  Many WaterTribe participants have spoken about hallucinations, and I had them in my first contest in 2004. But a mere four hours after the start, as we sailed through Sarasota, I had reason to worry about Noel when he said there was a boat approaching carrying . . . palm trees. In fairness, it should be noted that Noel’s eyesight is much better than mine. But palm trees? It turned out he was right. A barge type boat was outfitted to offer tours of the Sarasota waterfront, including palm trees on the upper deck. We shook our heads.

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  By then we had passed most of the paddlers who had opted for the inside route; most of the Class 4 boats appeared to have chosen the open Gulf or launched behind us. Once through Sarasota Bay, into Little Sarasota Bay, Roberts Bay, and the channels leading to Venice, the wind eased, or maybe it was just blocked more. We unreefed the sail and continued to make good progress, albeit a bit slower. Some of the faster paddlers, led by Manitou Cruiser resolutely padding and sailing, began to catch us. Then team RAF, two trimarans built by engineering students from North Carolina State University who launched after us, slid by effortlessly. Obviously they had very fast boats. Shortly thereafter, a cluster of kayakers caught up, including Sandy Bottom, mother of one of the RAF team.

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  At Venice Inlet, the RAF guys chose to go outside, while we and the kayakers opted for the manmade channel that leads to Lemon Bay. Salty Frog (Marty Sullivan, one of the most skilled, experienced and fastest of the WaterTribe paddlers) snapped a picture as he went past. We settled into a group, sort of an ad hoc, ad hoc team (see the EC rules), consisting of us, Savannah Dan and Paddermaker in a double kayak, Sandy Bottom in her Class 3 sailing kayak, KiwiBird in her Class 1 downwind kayak, and a solo pure paddling kayaker whose name I never got.

  The next 90 or so minutes were one of the highlights of the trip as we chatted and cruised down the channel. Oaracle is a spartan craft by sailboat standards, but compared to the kayaks, we were a luxury liner – a contrast that drew some comment from our compatriots. Root and I tried not to be too ostentatious as we stood and stretched, and talked about having hot cocoa.

  As the channel emptied into Lemon Bay, the wind became less blocked and we began to pull away from the paddlers. Stump Pass came abeam and the light began to fade, and by the time we were at the narrow channel at the end of Lemon Bay, it was dark. Dodging a ferry on the way, the channel led to the start of Gasparilla Sound. Following the twisting channel the mile or so to the swing bridge isn’t easy in the dark. The bridge tender acknowledged our call, but was a bit late opening (at one point he called to ask if we were a sailboat approaching from the south; there was no sailboat on the south and we were about to run into the bridge from the north!), we had to gybe around with Root at the helm alertly avoiding Manitou Cruiser who had appeared at our side. We finally slid past the bridge, and the gap in the railroad bridge a couple hundred yards further on. Then it was to the flashing red channel light that marked the turn into the side channel that would take us to CP 1. The wind was enough northeast that Oaracle could not sail up the side channel, so we lowered sail. We began drifting back toward the flashing marker, but got the mast and sail down and deployed the oardles (Oaracle’s oars, made from a cast off aluminum double paddle) in time – our only mild panic party of the day.

  As we rowed up the channel, Savannah Dan and Paddlemaker passed us and we had a pleasant, short chat. We rounded a corner, pulled out the oars to use as paddles under the fixed bridge (see the course description elsewhere on this site), reshipped the oars, and what seemed like a few strokes later, Root at the helm eased us to a perfect landing at Grand Tours in Placida, the eagerly sought CP 1. It was 8:58 p.m., just shy of 14 hours after the start.

  Decision time. We hadn’t made any long-term plans but left the decision on how to proceed until we reached CP 1. We could go back under the fixed bridge and anchor for the night, or we could (heeding the Admiral’s orders) press on. We both felt in good shape and had made time during the day to take turns lying down either in the cockpit or below. I don’t think either of us actually slept, but we felt rested. We decided to take our time at CP 1, eat a hot meal, go over the chart, stretch our legs, and then keep going. We would also double reef the main, since the wind seemed to be picking up. During the easy parts of the upcoming course when we both weren’t needed to sail and navigate, we would take turns at the helm, with the off watch resting below. If we got tired, there were plenty of good anchorages past Cayo Costo, on the south side of Charlotte Harbor a few hours ahead. Otherwise, we would continue down Pine Island Sound.

   The plan worked. We were each able to get rest below as we headed south. While I don’t think either of us slept soundly, we both dozed and we never felt tired. We were also glad for the double reef – our speed stayed around 5 knots despite the reduced sail.

  The closer we got to Charlotte Harbor, and the mouth of Boca Grande Inlet, the rougher the water got, not surprising since there were miles of fetch for the waves to build up in the north-to-northeast wind. Root was below and he soon came up to marvel at the motion. (He later told me as he came out of the cabin, he was amazed at the size of the waves coming from astern, dimly illuminated by the stern light; I was too busy looking forward for anything but an occasional quick glance aft. His next thought was he hoped he wouldn’t be called on to steer. About  45 seconds later I announced I was tired, wanted to lay down in the cabin, and could he take the helm? Root gamely did, without a word, and did fine as I went below and actually fell into a light sleep. Root has experience on a number of small boats including his own Sea Pearl, but had only been on Oaracle for two daysails prior to the EC and so was a bit nervous. But his helmsmanship was superb and never gave me qualm.) We agreed it was our third “washing machine” of the day. The water settled down as we got around Cayo Costo. Since we both had had some rest and still felt fresh, we continued on down Pine Island Sound, taking turns steering and resting. By early morning, we had reached the sound’s south end where the ICW jogs east. The winds went light and we had to do some long and short tacking, once scraping the bottom with the leeboard when we got south of the channel. With the weather forecasts calling for strong winds, we decided to leave the double reef in rather than do a lot of sail handling in the dark. About sunrise, we rounded the corner in the channel and bore off for the entrance of San Carlos Bay, with the wind picking back up. By midmorning, we had scooted under the west side of the causeway over the bay, headed ESE to the channel and turned out into the open Gulf. The directions for the next several hours were easy: keep Oaracle a couple miles off the shore and head south. The winds were on the verge of where we could shake out one reef, but we decided for the moment to leave things as they were. Seas were 3 to 4 feet and we were making 4 to 5 knots. We used the time to eat, check charts, and again catch up on rest. Neither of us had yet managed any protracted sleep, but we weren’t feeling tired. Our rest periods and short naps seemed sufficient. Shortly after 2 p.m., with Noel below, the seas had calmed enough to try the tiller locking system Chuck-the-Duck (Chuck Leinweber of Duckworksmagazine.com) had suggested the year before. It held course very well if we didn’t move around or the seas weren’t too rough. Unfortunately, that the seas were low enough for the tiller lock to work well meant the wind was easing. Although the forecasts still called for strong winds, our speed was down to between 2-3 knots; the winds were probably around 12 mph. At that pace, we wouldn’t reach Cape Romano in daylight, which I wanted to help us through that area of shoals. With Root snoozing below, I decided to give the tiller lock an acid test.  I set it on course and then went to lower the main and shake out both reefs. Amazingly, the lock kept Oaracle acceptably on course while the sail was eased and lowered, the reef points undone, and then reraised. Root, who got up as the sail was being hoisted, couldn’t believe it. But we did it again the next day when taking out a reef. Adding sail proved to be the right choice, as our speed picked up to between 4 and 5 knots, and sometimes higher. Cape Romano now looked easily doable in daytime.

  The winds stayed moderate, but the seas picked up as we passed Marco Island, enough that we started surfing again and I began to think a reef might be necessary. But when we passed Coxambas Inlet, on Marco Island’s south side, the seas immediately calmed. Apparently the bottom had shoaled on the inlet’s north side, even out to the half mile or so where we were offshore at the time. Things stayed favorable – this was to be our longest stretch of moderate winds – as we rounded Cape Romano. We dragged the leeboard tip a time or two and had to take a couple short tacks around a visible shoal, but otherwise it was an easy passage. Root took the helm and I went below to get some rest, and the sun set behind us. Ahead 10 miles or so was Indian Key Pass and the entrance to CP 2. I came up as Root brought the flashing green light marking the entrance to the Indian Key Pass in sight. We caught a break entering the channel, which heads about NNE for the first part. The winds had been predominantly northerly or northeasterly, but at the moment they had backed to west of north. We could just lay the course and made the first leg without tacking. The rest was fairly straightforward, until  the mangrove islands blocked the wind about halfway in. Out came the oardles and we rowed when the wind died and sailed when it filled in. Towards the end of the channel we were overtaken by a paddler, XLXS. Exhausted by the rough conditions, he talked of crossing Charlotte Harbor, probably a few hours ahead of us, with waves coming over the bow of his slender Class 2 craft and smacking him in the chest. Root and I shuddered at the thought. As he paddled ahead into the dark, XLXS said he needed at least four hours of sleep to recover from his physical depletion. Noel and I looked at each other. We figured if we were in his state, we’d need more like four days. We reminded ourselves that XLXS holds the 24-hour world distance record for paddling a kayak.

  Soon the channel brought us to the north end of Chokoloskee Bay, and we turned south for the final run to CP 2, and our date with the mud and then the high winds. We landed at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday.

  One of the reasons for the quick departure was the glimmer of hope for an even better finish than we achieved. I calculated if we had a perfect run down the Everglades coast and into CP 3 at Flamingo and had a fast turnaround, we might have enough daylight left to get through the treacherous channels in Florida Bay, if we had a favorable wind. As long as we cleared the channels before dark, we could beat if necessary to the finish at night in the deeper and relatively uncluttered waters near Key Largo. I had ruled out trying the channels in the dark as the markers are unlit (some have reflective tape, some don’t), the channels are narrow and one is named Twisty Mile for good reason. At best it was a slim chance, but we didn’t want to rule it out.

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  We cleared Chokoloskee Pass between 2:30 and 3 a.m. and after our adventures with the wind, anchored at Crate Key around 5 a.m. We didn’t bother with an alarm, because now it would be Tuesday during daylight before we could attempt Florida Bay. We slept until around 10:30, rising stiffly. The order of the day was to take our time getting underway. The wind was still brisk, but it had dropped to a manageable velocity. The underlying moan was gone. And after two days of mostly clouds, the sun was finally out. We also, ad hoc, adopted a new motto for the rest of the race, based on our early morning adventures and our now preferred conditions: 5 knots of wind and a double reef in the sail. (We never did see a mere 5 knots of winds for the rest of the race, except maybe in the lee of Key Largo.)

  Water was heated for breakfast, and we changed clothes and got ready for another day. While we were eating, Manitou Cruiser passed by a mile away, heading south under sail. We finished our preparations and followed around 12:30 p.m.

  It was to be a symmetrical day. We started out double reefed and after a couple hours, the wind eased and we shook out a reef. A couple more hours, it eased a bit more and we took out the last reef.  During one of the unreefing operations, we had our most exciting few seconds of the trip. I was lowering the sail and holding the downhaul line, which controls the boom, when the downhaul slipped of my hand. The sail and boom, now only held by the halyard and sheet. whipped out nearly horizontal from the masthead. Then it twisted around and Root, in the cockpit, realized he could see only the end of the boom as the sail began to drop back toward the boat, with the apparent intention of spearing him with the boom. Fortunately, it dropped into the water a few feet off the boat and we had it back on board and under control in a few moments, our heart rates slowly returning to normal.

  Our speed stayed at 5 to 6 knots for most of the day and we made good progress – it was to be our last bit of easy sailing. The wind began to pick up and one reef went back in by late afternoon. The sun set as we went by Middle Cape at Cape Sable, and the wind blew stronger. A bit later we watched the moon rise over the peninsula. After rounding East Cape (Florida’s southwest corner) and heading east and clearing Middle Ground Shoal, where the water was more protected, we put in the second reef (which would stay in for the rest of the race). Once past Middle Ground Shoal, we couldn’t quite lay course for the channel into Flamingo, and a couple short tacks were required.

  We paid close attention to the compass as a course of 70 degrees would be required when we hit the first couple of channels in Florida Bay – and we were just doing that. If the wind were northeast, we wouldn’t be able to sail in those long channels, and a long detour around Florida Bay  – and probably another day on the water – would be required. We were just making 70 degrees, which took us to the Flamingo channel about one third of the way in from the outer flasher. We struck sail and rowed the mile or so into the harbor, arriving around 2 a.m. It took a couple hours to find the lock box and sign in, find the restrooms, get the boat tied up at the dock for the night, and get something to eat. By 4 a.m., we crawled below to get a couple hours sleep, vowing to be up and moving at first light to take advantage of the wind, if it held.

  It did. We were up at 6:20 and underway an hour later, fortified by a couple cups of hot chocolate Noel bought at the local convenience store. We spotted Manitou Cruiser at the launching ramp, preparing for the day. He had gotten in a couple hours before us, camped nearby, and was now packing and stowing. His sailing rig and outriggers were stored; Manitou Cruiser would paddle into the winds and currents on the last day.

  A little rowing soon had us out of the harbor, into the channel with the sail – still double reefed – up. We reached Tin Can Channel a few minutes later . . . finding we could hold course to the ENE for the first critical leg, after which the channel curves to the ESE and then east. 

  A notable event was encountering an osprey on one of the channel markers, clutching a sizeable fish. Obviously, he thought we wanted his fish and every time we came up to a marker, he took flight for the next one, deaf to our assurances we didn’t want sushi for breakfast.

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  By 9 a.m., we were almost through Tin Can and I was feeling a bit cocky about our prospects. Florida Bay provided a reminder it is not to be taken lightly. We had just passed Buoy Key when we hit a narrow area of the channel where the water was no more than a foot or so deep. We could keep the sail full, but with the leeboard almost completely up, the leeway set us over to the south bank. From the boat, Noel used an oardle to lever the bow off the bank and we turned downwind into deeper water and gybed around to try again . . . and again . . . and again.

  For the better part of an hour we failed to catch a favorable slant or at least find a deeper part of the channel, always ending in the mud. Finally, I remembered that sailboats sometimes used their motors to help reduce leeway. We didn’t have an engine, of course, but we did have oars. We fell off the bank again heading downwind, deployed the oars, and gybed around again for another attempt, with me at the oars and Root at the helm. We slid through on the first attempt. I reflected on my tendency to learn valuable lessons the hard way.

  We were ready for Dump Keys and their channel. The wind held and a few strokes of the oars eased us through between the two keys where the wind was mostly blanketed. Although the chart indicates a channel after the Dump Keys, we found it a wide, shallow area, albeit with enough depth to use all or most of the leeboard, with the markers limited to a couple shoal areas shown on the charts. We also noted that the wind had shifted and was heading us. It was now difficult if not impossible to hold a true easterly course, and we had to make a couple short tacks to clear End Key so we could bear off to the southeast and Twisty Mile Channel.

  Twisty Mile now worried me. Although it generally trends to the ESE, it’s well named with lots of bends and turns in its length. We would be required to head east, and maybe a little north of east for some short distances, courses that now looked iffy. The approach was made at battle stations, with the oars out and ready to go. And we actually did pretty well, making it about halfway through. But a channel turn to the east, the 15-20 knot headwinds, and an adverse current of at least a knot and probably more, did us in. With the main slatting, we couldn’t make progress under oars, and so beached on the north bank to consider our options.

  First we lowered the main and tried rowing, but still couldn’t make progress. Root got out and tried towing, sinking almost to his knees in the muck. I reluctantly got out to help push, but after only a few yards, it was obvious this was too hard. Before the race, I had told Noel walking 50 yards in the Florida Bay muck was like running a mile on land. Now after his first-hand experience he accused me of underestimating the difficulty. We beached the boat again to catch our breath and consider our options.

  Manitou Cruiser caught up to us at this point, efficiently moving with his single paddle, he paused for a few minutes to chat. He, too, found the conditions rugged, but he planned to plug on and finish.

  I was getting concerned about our prospects. It was now about 2 p.m., and we were still stuck in Twisty Mile. Even assuming we got free soon, we would have to beat to Jimmie Channel against wind and tide, get through that, and then beat to Manatee Pass. With the wind shifted more easterly, we should be able to sail through Manatee, but we needed daylight to do it – and the sun would set around 6 p.m. And with the necessary double reef in the main, Oaracle doesn’t point as well as she does with an unreefed or single reefed sail. We really had only two choices: Drop the mast and try rowing again with the reduced wind resistance (the mizzen had to stay up to help keep the bow pointed into the wind), or wait a few hours for the current to change direction – and count on anchoring that night in Florida Bay.

  Since we would have to wait anyway, there was nothing to be lost by dropping the mast. We shoved off again, and it was like Chokoloskee Pass again, only slower. We managed headway, but often only inches per stroke. Occasionally, we would catch an eddy or get out of the worst of the current and we might make a couple feet per stroke. Slowly, we inched our way to the end of Twisty Mile, a passage that probably took 30 minutes but seemed a lot longer. (We were passed by a power boat during this part whose skipper actually knew about the Everglades Challenge and what we were doing.) Then it was up mast and up sail and beat to Jimmie Channel. At least we now knew what to do. We actually sailed a couple hundred yards into Jimmie but lost most of it drifting back when we tried to lower the sail, so we sailed in again and anchored while we took the sail and mast down. The GPS recorded 35-40 minutes of rowing time, with speeds varying between 0.0 and 1.2 mph, probably an average of under 1 mph. But progress was steady. Nearly to the end, Root tossed the anchor over, saying we weren’t making any headway and it was time for a break. Later he told me the further we went into the channel, the redder my face was getting as I pulled at the oars. He was afraid I was about to blow a gasket and thought a rest appropriate. It helps to have a considerate crew.

  After about 10 minutes, the anchor came up and in a few more minutes we were free of Jimmie Channel. There was no good place to beach the boat, so we reached off to the south under mizzen alone while the mast and sail were hoisted, and then began the beat to Manatee Pass, our last real obstacle.

  It was now 5 p.m. and we had maybe 90 minutes of light. We arrived at Manatee at 5:55 and had our last, but fortunately minor, obstacle. We could indeed sail the course through Manatee, but there was a shoal at the entrance that kicked the leeboard almost completely up. In a replay of Tin Can, the leeway set us on the mud on the west side of the channel. Noel levered us off and we headed back out to try again. This time I was sure we could sail through, and on the third try, we made it. We sped off north in the lee of Manatee Key and discussed our options. It had been a tough day, and we could anchor behind Manatee and catch some rest before finishing. On the other hand, the weather forecast didn’t indicate the 15-20 mph winds would be diminishing anytime soon, and it looked like a long beat to the finish, whenever we did it. “We’ll sleep when we get to Key Largo,” Root said.

  The next three hours proved to be  rugged sailing, hard on the wind in breezy conditions and double reefed. Oaracle handles rough water well, but any flat bottomed boat will do some pounding and each of the closely spaced waves we hit sent a generous portion of spray over the cabin and into the cockpit.

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  But we did catch a break when the wind, which had at one point seemed to be almost due east, backed to the northeast. We sailed north of Manatee Key far enough to tack and clear it and Stake Key. Then one more tack to the north, and we were able to lay a straight course to the ICW inside of Key Largo. Our course would have taken us almost directly to last year’s finish line (and knocked a couple hours off our finish time), but this year it had to be moved a couple miles to the north, in Buttonwood Sound. So we tacked up between the ICW and shore, losing some wind as we closed the beach, and picking it up again when we neared the waterway. At least the water was much calmer and we took only the occasional dollop of spray. A little rowing was necessary to get through the closely spaced mangrove islands protecting Buttonwood Sound, and then it was picking our way around Pelican Key and through the moored boats (some unlit) outside the finish line. We beached at 11:41 p.m., tired and exhilarated. We were fourth overall, second is Class 4, and had finished on Tuesday, 3 days, 16 hours, and 41 minutes after the start. Our Admiral’s orders had been heeded and we had pressed on whenever possible. We earned our sleep.

 

 

 

Some technical thoughts . . .

 

  Every race is a combination of the experience of doing it and the technical aspects of getting the job done. Here are some technical thoughts and data from our EC 2007.

  According to the GPS, we were underway for not quite 69.5 hours – and that may understate it a bit, since it’s possible the GPS didn’t register some of our slow crawls through the channels and passes in Florida Bay and when leaving Chokoloskee. The moving average was 3.8 knots. Subtracting the times under oars, mostly fighting wind and current, and when we were creeping in and out of checkpoints, it would be over 4 knots – a very good speed for a lightweight, 20-foot boat with about a 16 foot waterline. It’s an indication strong winds were about. Chuck-the-Duck and I in 2006 estimated that the sails were reefed about half the time we were under sail. In 2007, most of the veteran ECers accounted it as one of the rougher years. Totaling it up, Root and I spent less than 20 hours with an unreefed sail. Subtracting the hours under oars, we spent well over 40 hours with reefed sails and the majority of that with the main double reefed. The National Weather Service had small craft advisories for most of the time we were out. We hit our peak speed for the trip the first day, crossing Tampa Bay, at 9.7 knots. We averaged nearly 6 knots until we got to Sarasota, which is over Oaracle’s theoretical hull speed. (Oaracle’s all time record is 10.8 knots from the 2006 EC). The second day we had a burst to 9.4 knots and we had spurts to 8.5 and 8.8 knots the third day, running down the Everglades coast. Root hit one burst during that run that was over 8 knots and lasted 20 to 25 seconds, our longest surf of the trip. For all that, we only felt overpowered once, on Monday morning coming out of Chokoloskee.

  Oaracle proved itself well up to the task. Jim Michalak designed it for rough water and it certainly proved it can handle that. There were only two minor items of damage. One is in the lightweight foam and fiberglass hatch I designed to cover the cabin slot top, which I cracked when I leaned heavily against it once. The other is a small crack in a 1/4 inch ply cockpit seat, which occurred when Root lost his balance and stepped heavily on it.

  Possible changes include adding a small storm trysail for when the winds are too strong for a double reefed main. Under the mizzen alone, we couldn’t sail higher than a beam reach and a trysail might improve that. I might also experiment with a Chinese lug, if one can be made inexpensively from a polytarp kit. I don’t think it would be as aerodynamically efficient as Oaracle’s balanced lug, but the enhanced ease in reefing and unreefing might make it a worthwhile tradeoff.

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  A big improvement this year was having a color mapping GPS, a West Marine Garmin 76 CS Plus, with detailed charts. Paper charts are still better for a quick overall view, but the GPS proved invaluable. It made it possible for one person to steer and navigate at night – at least in the less complicated parts of the ICW – rather than having one steer and the other watch the chart and pick out the upcoming marks. At night, it was easier on the night vision to check the GPS (the GPS light is adjustable in intensity) rather than turn a flashlight on a paper chart. There were only a couple minor drawbacks. There was a gap in the Garmin Blue Chart coverage of Florida Bay, which included most of Twisty Mile and all of Jimmie Channel and Manatee Pass. As on the paper charts, the Florida Bay channels are not completely accurately charted; I wouldn’t use a GPS to run them at night unless I had a track and waypoints from a successful daytime run. And a couple times we found spots where there were side-by-side red and green ICW channel markers where the number of the green marker was written on top of the red (flashing in both cases) marker. That made it difficult to see on the screen. A minor annoyance and a reminder to be careful with technological gizmos. But overall it worked so well that Root took to calling it the “magic box.”

  Perhaps the biggest surprise for me this year was the terrible conditions in which Oaracle would continue to make progress under oars. If someone had told me before the race it was possible to buck a 1 to 2 knot current and 15-20 knot headwinds under oars, I would have said they were nuts. But we did – albeit at a speed of less than 1 knot. A key is the small mizzen, as Oaracle’s bow tends to blow off when rowing in winds of 10 mph or more, and a sheeted in mizzen counteracts that. I am not an expert rower and while in good physical shape for the race, I wasn’t in superlative condition. That I could keep Oaracle going in such conditions speaks volumes about the design. As always in such an event, I learned more about handling Oaracle, this time in particular about sailing and rowing at the same time and handling under mizzen alone.

  I also followed a tip from Chuck-the-Duck for balanced lugs, moving the downhaul forward when I expected a day hard on the wind (which counteracts some lee helm I occasionally get) and moving it aft for an offwind day, which counteracts the weather helm that builds up when a balanced lug is eased. Raising the leeboard also helps reduce the weather helm off the wind.

  There’s always a debate about the best boat for an EC, and I think this year’s event showed there are a multitude of answers. Look at the finishers in Class 4. Graham Brynes, Roo, of B and B Yacht Designs designed and a built a special boat for this year’s EC. Sailing it superbly, he smashed his EC record of last year by 9 hours. If you take into account a couple of bad breaks that cost him time, (overall, Root and I were pretty lucky and I think Roo had more bad breaks than we did) he has shown that a 48-50 hour EC is possible. We were second in a stock design for home builders and which is intended for ease of construction, low cost, and good all around performance. Next was Team RAF, in their two home built trimarans. They had fast boats and had they not been plagued by some problems (including a broken leeboard) and newcomers’ unfamiliarity with the course, they likely would have been ahead of us. And there was the always incredible Wizard, who finished less than half a day behind us in a eight-foot pram, and with considerably less apparent effort than we expended. All of the remaining Class 4 boats also were single-handers, and included an inflatable beach catamaran, two Hobie Island Adventurers and a pair of Sea Pearls. (Both double-handed Sea Pearl entrees ran into problems and had to drop out.) In that group, there’s plenty of room there for anyone to find a boat they like for an EC.

  Finally, it must be pointed out that sailors have a different race than the paddlers. This year was probably the most physically challenging, protracted event I’ve ever done, yet the energy I expended was likely only a small fraction that any one paddler used in completing the course. One thought I had during the EC is that while we are divided into four classes, each boat and each crew forms a unique combination of traits and abilities, and that every vessel is really in a class of one. The competition is to deal with the water and weather, and complete a safe and efficient voyage. Everyone who does that is a winner.

Copyright ©2007 Gary Blankenship and Helen Snell

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