On Saturday, eight daring men will leave St. Petersburg for a 1,200-mile kayak/canoe race around Florida.
The Ultimate Florida Challenge, held just once before, in 2006, will send them south along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, through the Everglades, across the Florida Keys, north along the Atlantic beaches, on the St. Mary's River to the woods of north Florida, where they will carry or tow their watercrafts 40 miles to the Suwannee River, then paddle back to the gulf.
The rules are simple: The first person back to the beach at Fort De Soto Park wins. The course record is 19 days, 6 hours, 48 minutes. Contestants, who paid $995, have 30 days to finish.
The UFC and two concurrent races (the 68-mile Ultra Marathon and the 300-mile Everglades Challenge) are organized by the WaterTribe, a tight-knit group of paddlers who live for adventure in small boats.
Members of "The Tribe" — they number in the hundreds — have tribe names that often reflect their paddling personas. Organizers anticipate more than 70 boats to launch from Mullet Key at 7 a.m. Saturday.
You can track the racers' progress at www.watertribe.com.
Meet the eight intrepid adventurers signed up for the UFC:
Steve Isaac, a 61-year-old computer consultant from Clearwater, founded the WaterTribe in 2000, inspired by an adventure race called the Eco Challenge.
"I wanted the first Everglades Challenge to be an event that anyone with a week or so of vacation could do and get a taste of expedition-style adventure racing in kayaks, canoes and small boats," he said.
Isaac grew up in Austin, Minn., spending most of his time in the woods, marshes and cornfields behind his house. As a boy, he read the account of Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 crossing of the Pacific Ocean on a raft, Kon-Tiki, and decided that he wanted a life of adventure.
In 1966, the U.S. Marines offered him just that in Vietnam. He took a bullet in the knee during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and was shipped stateside.
Isaac moved to Florida in 1979, and over the years he bought a half-dozen small sailboats and kayaks, and he built a half-dozen more.
He has been unable to truly enjoy many of his own races, having to organize them and track hundreds of participants. But this year Isaac plans to paddle and sail around the state in the Ultimate Florida Challenge.
"This race is at the very top of my bucket list," he said.
Nick Hall is a 61-year-old university professor and speaker/consultant from Tampa who finished fourth in the 2006 UFC.
He was born in Suffolk, England, and moved to the United States when he was 10. He lived and attended school in Massachusetts, but at age 14, he took a bus to South Dakota, where he spent the summer milking rattlesnakes.
An accomplished alligator wrestler, Hall has competed in numerous endurance events, including the Baja 1,000 Off-Road Race (on a bicycle) in 1968.
He took up kayaking in 2001, after reading a series of stories about the inaugural Everglades Challenge in the St. Petersburg Times.
"I opted for the Hobie sit-on-top so I could use the pedal drive," he said. "I was worried that an arthritic thumb due to a bad alligator bite would keep me from doing long stretches with a paddle."
Hall teaches part-time at USF, where he directs the school's Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and travels the country conducting continuing education seminars on mind-body topics.
Married with two adult daughters, Hall has used the various WaterTribe challenges to "test new ideas about how to deal with stress and ways to stay motivated to reach goals."
Snore Bring Gator
Delray Beach's Bill Herrmann, a 55-year-old field superintendent for a major South Florida city, started paddling in the early 1990s. Since then, he has explored every creek, bay and backcountry campsite in Everglades National Park.
Herrmann, who paddles a Kruger Dreamcatcher, was recently asked why he entered this particular long-distance race. "Because," he replied.
Then he added: "It really is pure sport. … No coaches, not a whole lot of rules, just you, the elements, your boat, the course and your skills."
Matt Layden, 48, is a boat designer and drafter from Jensen Beach. He has participated in numerous WaterTribe events. Layden usually paddles/sails a vessel of his own creation.
This year, Layden plans to travel around Florida in a self-designed, self-built, 9-foot sailboat with enclosed cockpit and lug-rig sail.
Layden finished third in the first UFC in 2006. When asked why he entered, Layden replied, "I just want the chance to get out on the water for a few weeks."
Jonathan Coble, a 35-year-old commercial pilot from Raleigh, N.C., comes from a sailing background. For a while, he lived aboard a 31-foot sloop that he refurbished while attending school.
He entered his first WaterTribe event in 2008, sailing a Tarpon Springs-built Sea Pearl 300 miles from St. Petersburg to Key Largo. This year, he plans to paddle and sail a Kruger canoe.
"It's epic, and bigger than anything I've ever done before," Coble said. "I like disappearing into the boonies and tuning out for a while."
Toby Nipper, 59, is retired and lives in Fort Myers. A knife- maker and long-distance paddler, Nipper is a veteran member of the WaterTribe.
A man of few words, Nipper will be paddling a Kruger expedition canoe with full sail, outriggers and a leeboard.
According to colleagues, Nipper is a "force to be reckoned with." When asked about this year's race, he replied, "I've been waiting for this one."
The Crazy Russian
Vladimir Eremeev is a 45-year-old truck driver from Staten Island, N.Y. Like the other competitors in this year's race, Eremeev is no stranger to long-distance events, having entered and finished the Everglades Challenge several times.
Eremeev plans to use an inflatable catamaran to circumnavigate Florida. When others questioned his sanity, Eremeev replied, "I have always liked to do impossible things."
Mark Przedwojewski, a 39-year-old boat builder from Irons, Mich., finished second in the 2006 UFC, 50 minutes behind the winner.
Married with one son, Przedwojewski has logged more than 4,200 miles in various WaterTribe events and holds the Class III solo record for the fastest time in the 300-mile Everglades Challenge.
Mentored in the arts of canoe travel and canoe construction by world-famous paddler and canoe designer Verlen Kruger, Prezedwojewski took over the business in 2004 after Kruger's death.
His canoes will be used by five of the eight challengers in this year's around-the-state paddle.
Mark Przedwojewski was already an accomplished paddle bum when he met the legendary Verlen Kruger.
"I had heard about his trips growing up … we lived right near each other," Przedwojewski said. "But it wasn't until I was heading out on a trip of my own that I actually got the chance to meet him."
Kruger, who didn't start paddling until he was 41, has probably logged more miles by canoe than any other person in history. His Ultimate Canoe Challenge (April 29, 1980 to Dec. 15, 1983) took him from Red Rock Lake, Mont., to Lansing, Mich., via the Arctic Ocean, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and most of the Great Lakes, a distance of 28,043 miles, it was and still is the longest journey ever undertaken by canoe.
"A lot of people call Verlen's canoes, kayaks, but that is okay," said Przedwojewski, who took over Kruger's business after his death in 2004. "They are both slender boats that are pointed at both ends."
Five of the eight contestants in this year's Ultimate Florida Challenge will be paddling Kruger canoes.
"They are versatile, seaworthy, durable … the ultimate long-distance canoe," said Przedwojewski, who has no need to advertise (there is a waiting list for Kruger crafts). "But I think the biggest selling point is they are comfortable. In the last race, I averaged 60 miles a day for 19 straight days, and I could have kept on paddling for another 19."
To learn more about the Irons, Mich.-based Kruger canoes, go to www.krugercanoes.com.
Editor's note: Terry Tomalin, a.k.a. Hombre de Agua, completed the first Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile journey from St. Petersburg to Key Largo, in a tandem kayak with his friend Jon Willis, a.k.a. Cornish Jon, in March 2001. Tomalin and four friends, a.k.a. The Insomniacs, entered a 45-foot outrigger canoe in last year's race but made it only as far as Everglades City.