Last week, as we stood in the darkness overlooking Coffee Pot Bayou, my friends and I wondered whether the monster sail we had bought for our 45-foot outrigger canoe would be too much to handle on the 300-mile run down the coast of Florida. As we talked about the task at hand, I had strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. They call it deja vu. In March 2001, an old rugby buddy named Jon Willis and I entered what was then called the WaterTribe Challenge, an expedition-style canoe/kayak race from St. Petersburg to Key Largo. On a windy Saturday morning, we gathered on the beach at Fort De Soto with 30 or so other paddlers and discussed our options. The National Weather Service had issued a small craft advisory for the waters of Tampa Bay.
Willis and I were not experienced sea kayakers, but we were both capable watermen, having surfed, sailed and swam the open oceans all over the globe. But still, we had second thoughts about proceeding.
Then a local chiropractor named Dr. George Stovall announced that he would head into the fray. Willis and I followed, then tipped over halfway across the mouth of the bay. We climbed back in the tandem kayak and carried on. Then, 6 days, 7 hours, 22 minutes later, we toasted a cold Corona with Stovall on the beach in Key Largo and swore we would never do something so foolhardy again.
Time, however, heals all wounds.
Tomorrow, eight years and two kids later, I will retrace our route in a six-man Hawaiian outrigger sailing canoe. The race has been renamed the Everglades Challenge but it is still run by the WaterTribe organization. My man Willis moved to Destin a few years ago, so I have assembled a new crew. We call ourselves the Insomniacs.
The Everglades Challenge is an unsupported adventure race, which means you must carry all your own food and equipment. Contestants may "forage" for supplies at marinas, convenience stores and waterfront bars they pass along the way.
No outrigger canoe has ever entered this race before, so the organizer, Steve Isaac, a.k.a. The Chief (all WaterTribe members have a nom de guerre), has put us in an exhibition class.
Outriggers are usually used in shorter, day-long races. These boats are not built for comfort. The canoe is 45 feet long but only 18-inches wide, so there is not much room to move around. But that's fine. We plan to paddle/sail all day and night — hence the team name — and camp briefly on barrier islands if the spirit moves us.
Our team is led by the 64-year-old Stovall, whose Tribal name is Sandspur. Other members include Darry Jackson (Dare-Jack), 60, an avid triathlete; Aaron Freedman (Air Doc), 43, an adventure racer; Casey LaLomia (Kauai Kid), 38, an accomplished waterman; and Jason Heffron (Money), 38, a surfer's surfer. Me? I'm H.D. Agua, the 48-year-old "idea guy."
Fire in the belly
When I told a colleague that I was going to paddle 300 miles down the west coast of Florida, his reaction was typical.
"Are you crazy?" asked Boyzell Hosey, the Times' director of photography and multimedia.
"Yes," I answered.
Then he thought about it for a moment, and said, "That must really work your arms."
I shook my head no. The key to finishing the Everglades Challenge has nothing to do with triceps.
It's all about attitude. If you think you can do it, you can. If you think you can't, you can't.
Just ask Dexter Colvin, a.k.a. ThereAndBackAgain. We paddled for a time with him in that first race eight years ago, and we struck up a friendship. It wasn't until we pulled over for the night to camp at Cayo Costa State Park, that I realized Colvin had no legs.
"Oh, that," he said as he dragged his kayak up a steep embankment. "I had a little accident a few years ago."
Colvin, now 48, went on to win the race that year. He pulled away somewhere between Marco Island and Chokoloskee. But it wasn't arms that powered him forward, day after day, night after night. It was the fire in his belly.
Tomorrow night, when our six-man team tries to pull its first all-nighter, we'll be digging deep, hoping to stoke the embers that haven't glowed since our last open-ocean adventure. Hopefully, the fire is still there.
Ye be warned
When you enter the Everglades Challenge, all contestants are required to sign a waiver and read a warning:
"The physical demands of the race, combined with sleep deprivation, heat, cold, water dehydration and exhaustion, often cause participants to become disoriented. Amnesia, hallucinations, hypothermia and other debilitating conditions are not uncommon."
Eventually, even the toughest among us will break down. Five days into that first race, camped at 3 a.m. on a beach in the 10,000 Islands, Willis stopped me as I waded through cold water.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Looking for my laptop," I answered. "It has got to be here somewhere."
Willis, who went by the WaterTribe name Cornish Jon, scratched his head and asked: "Are you awake?"
"Yes … I think so," I said. "I don't know … maybe."
For days I had been operating on autopilot, pushing my mind and body to the limit. Paddling for hours on end had taken its toll.
Writing stories as I went, sending them through pay phones to my editors back home, my only concern was missing deadline. So there I was, stumbling around in a dream state, looking for a laptop that was stowed securely in the hatch of my kayak.
But I have learned my lesson. This time I just won't fall asleep.
Fort De Soto