In the 14-year history of the Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile small-boat race from St. Petersburg to Key Largo, people have tried to make it in every craft imaginable, including kayaks, canoes, catamarans, even paddleboards.
But nobody had ever made it on a windsurfer — until this year.
"We are humble, happy and proud," said Tony Vandenberg, a former Eckerd College sailing team member who now lives in Charlotte. "It was a survival race."
Vandenberg, 48, and his friend and former Tritons teammate, Sean Hawes, 47, finished the trek in seven days.
If the wind is right, the fastest competitors — those competing in high-tech sailboats — can cover the course south along the west coast of Florida, along Everglades National Park then across Florida Bay to Key Largo, in less than two days. But if the wind is wrong, it can take longer than a week to finish. Some don't ever make it to the end.
"The straight-line distance may be listed as 300 miles, however, we are guessing with all the head winds and beating, and some critically dumb navigation in the last moments of the race, we probably traveled 375 miles," Vandenberg said.
The two windsurfers had to spend a full day holed up in Flamingo waiting out a storm. They had been sailing 12 to 14 hours a day, and at times, all night.
"The winds were not what we wished for, mostly light, which made it tough and slow going for the first five days," Vandenberg added.
Vandenberg said he has enough stories from the adventure — such as knocking into a sea turtle and then losing a GPS unit as they tried to avoid a saltwater crocodile — to write a book.
At one point they found themselves stranded in shallow water and had to follow dolphins to get through unmarked channels. Then the wind died as they headed into Chokoloskee, so they had to paddle against a ripping, outgoing tide.
"At one point we sailed into the no-man's land in the waters off the Everglades," Vandenberg said. "You should have seen the look on fishing boat captains' faces. … What the hell are two windsurfers doing out in the middle of this desolation?"
At 9 p.m. one night, sailing about 2 miles off Cape Sable, the windsurfers ran into a cloud of thousands of mosquitoes. "Seriously … how did they know we were out there?" Vandenberg said.
On the last day, the longest stretch of the race — a 36-mile open-water run from Flamingo to Key Largo — the loss of the GPS caused problems.
"We were in survival mode," Vandenberg said. "I got a visual on a radio tower that I thought was on Key Largo, but ended up sailing past Key Largo to the wrong island of Islamorada."
Vandenberg missed his mark a second time, then, totally spent, went head over heels after he buried his bow into a big wave. Exhausted and hypothermic, Vandenberg eventually made it to shore, 40 minutes behind his friend, where he was greeted by more than a dozen family members.
"My body is pretty beat up, hands are a mess, right forearm is swollen like a watermelon, both big toenails are blue and dead three days ago and ready to fall off," Vandenberg said. "I ache all over, but it was the greatest challenge I've ever been through. Life is really wonderful and how blessed we are."