PORT RICHEY — With gusty winds and patches of rough seas, the skills of local kayak enthusiasts were challenged over the weekend at the fifth annual Salt Springs Classic kayak race.
The race on Saturday coincided with the Cotee River Seafood Festival in Sims Park, where the finish line was. The event is one of several annual fundraisers for the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, providing money to maintain the park amid state budget cuts.
"Once we exceed the park budget, that's it," said Burt Golub, president of the Salt Springs Alliance, a group of park supporters who organized the kayak race. "Unfortunately, the park needs things beyond what the budget will allow. We've used the funds we raise here for everything from signs out in the park to cameras that allow us to monitor restricted wildlife areas."
The 6-mile race attracted experienced kayakers and novices, but a solid foundation in the sport would prove helpful on a day when the wind roused rough conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.
Even without the elements adding to the difficulty, paddling 6 miles is no small task. For many participants, the finish line represented an achievement in itself, regardless of where they landed in the standings.
"It was tough getting through that really rough patch out near the gulf," said Felicia Webb, who made the journey with her 11-year-old son. "Two years ago, my son and I did this and I couldn't lift my arms up for a week. You really have to be in shape for a race this long even without battling through the whitecaps. We figured since he's two years older this time we'd have more strength, but we had more weight, too."
Participants enjoyed the challenge, and many were delighted to have a chance to attend the seafood festival afterward. Casey Pot, who drove up from Fort Myers for the event, said the drive was a small price to pay for one of the best races he's had since moving down from Michigan this year.
"The route here is very pretty, and there aren't so many people that you don't have a ton of people battling for position," Pot said. "It's just fun — and unlike the races I did up in Michigan, the water is not freezing."
To add to the weekend's festivities, the alliance organized a second paddle on Sunday night, a 4-mile journey out to Durney Key to watch the sunset before heading back in the dark.
"We usually only do it once a year, but after last month there was such an outcry for us to do it again that we decided to have a second one this year," Golub said. "It's really a neat experience being out there and seeing the sunset. Coming back at night is beautiful and you see all kinds of wildlife."