Bill Fite is no stranger to adventure. But the 73-year-old Tampa man, who just sailed and paddled 1,600 miles around and then across Florida, doesn't like to talk about himself.
"I'm an old guy in good shape for my age who can sail pretty well," said Fite, who goes by the nom de guerre "Jarhead." "I just think you should live your life to the fullest."
When contacted recently about his latest accomplishment, Fite mentioned a dozen other WaterTribe contestants — America's Cup sailors, Olympians, Hall of Famers — more deserving of a story.
"It would be embarrassing to be compared to those guys," said Fite, who spent more than 27 years serving in the Marines. "Write about WaterTribe and how much we all love it."
The organization, a loose-knit group of canoeists, kayakers and small-boat sailors, sponsors a variety of open-water races, including the 300-mile St. Petersburg to Key Largo Everglades Challenge, as well as the new Coastal Challenge that Fite recently completed in 26 days, 3 hours and 45 minutes.
"He started at the Alabama-Florida border then paddled around the state, then up the St. Marys River at Fort Clinch," said Steve "Chief" Isaac, who founded the WaterTribe in 2001. "Then there was the 40-mile portage and the paddle down the Suwannee River to Cedar Key to close the loop."
Fite, one of only a few Marines to have the distinction of completing the British Royal Marines' Commando Course, read about Isaac's initial race, the Everglades Challenge.
"I thought, 'Wow, Fort De Soto to Key Largo with no motor, wish I was good enough to do that!' " Fite recalled. A few years later, he went down for the start, which occurs the first Saturday in March, and "was hooked."
Fite teamed up with an old Marine Corps buddy in 2007 but their boat hit pilings in the dark at the railroad trestle near Boca Grande and they had to leave the race. He came back the following year and finished. Then he did it again, this time alone.
"I love the challenge of it," Fite said. "Being out in the wilds makes me feel more alive, more like I'm getting the most out of the time I have. I love it all — the wading birds, the live oaks, Spanish moss, otters, manatees, sea turtles, gators, storms, sunsets/sunrises."
When he's racing, Fite said the enjoyment of all good things seems to be enhanced. "The chance to sleep is heavenly," he said. "Nearly everything you eat tastes wonderful. When you are cold and wet, Ramen noodles seem like a gourmet dish."
Fite used two vessels on his most recent adventure, a 21-foot Sea Pearl sailboat for the ocean legs and a Krueger canoe/kayak for river travel. "The 'Bama to Fort De Soto first leg, which is the new part that others have not yet done, was 440 miles," Fite said.
Then he joined the rest of the fleet at Fort De Soto, the starting point for the annual Everglades Challenge, which finishes in Key Largo.
"When this year rolled around I couldn't resist trying again to do the full coast of Florida, this time alone," Fite said. "It was kind of a bucket list thing."
Non-sailors might think a trip down the coast in a small, open sailboat sounds easy. "But with no motor, headwinds, heavy winds, light winds, calm, shoals, currents and tides, inlets, bridges, powerboat traffic, etc. … even with good luck on the weather the trip will call upon all the skills most sailors have and maybe a few they don't have," he said. "So the term 'challenge' really fits."
But Fite, like so many other WaterTribers, decided to train for his first "challenge" after reading about it in the newspaper. Have what it takes? Visit watertribe.com and find out.