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Paddlers still churn to Honeymoon Island

It’s not Hawaii but large outriggers will congregate at Honeymoon Island.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

It’s not Hawaii but large outriggers will congregate at Honeymoon Island.

HONEYMOON ISLAND — Twenty years ago, people seldom paddled around this barrier island that borders Hurricane Pass. At most, if you went to Honeymoon Island State Park on a weekend, you might have to share the water with a handful of snook fishermen after linesiders at the honey hole on the north end of the key.

But Honeymoon Island has seen its share of changes in recent decades. My old snook spot was long ago filled with sand, and the island, once my private paddling playground, has become the go-to place for paddle-sport enthusiasts.

In the early 1990s, when sit-on-top kayaks were introduced to the recreational market, paddlers had few opportunities to meet, swap stories and test their skills.

That changed in 2003 when married couple Karen and Rob Mirlenbrink put on the Shark Bite Challenge, an event showcasing the crown jewel of Florida's coastal park system.

"We started off small," said Karen, who owns a pilates studio in nearby Dunedin. "We wanted to just keep it going and be there the next year."

The Mirlenbrinks were already well respected in the paddling community. In 2010, the duo set a course record in the WaterTribe Ultra Marathon. Competing under the pseudonyms Good Beer Racing and Wicked Wahine, the Mirlenbrinks paddled 67 miles from St. Petersburg to Boca Grande in 10 hours, 40 minutes.

In the early years of the Shark Bite Challenge, the couple and their friends kept the race going.

"We'd have the same group of people come out: the prone paddlers, the outrigger canoes, the surf skis," Karen said. "But then two years ago, our numbers just exploded."

The reason: the standup paddleboard revolution. In sales and participation, SUPs are the hottest water sport in the United States.

"The growth has been just phenomenal," Mirlenbrink said.

Head to Honeymoon Island this weekend and you'll be sharing the beach with more than 300 paddlers of varying skill levels. Even if you don't paddle, you can see some of the state's top ocean athletes. You might even be inspired to sign up for next year.

.fast facts

Shark Bite Challenge

What/where: Paddling races at Honeymoon Island State Park, Dunedin

Saturday's schedule

10 a.m.: Outrigger canoe races. These traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoes are 50 feet long and weigh 400 pounds. Each sits six paddlers and is among the fastest watercraft on local waters. This race typically attracts top teams in the southeast United States.

11 a.m.: Surf N' Turf Kids sprint race. There aren't many SUP races for little ones. This is an ideal event for youngsters because they can paddle in a protected area, turn around at the buoy, then head back to the beach to tackle several obstacles.

2 p.m.: Feeding Frenzy technical course SUP race. New to the Shark Bite, this race features a short "course" race in the water followed by a beach run. The half-mile, time-trial course has several turns and challenges and will feature heats.

Sunday's schedule

10 a.m.: Distance races. These offshore races feature 4- and 8-mile courses and are open to any "sea-worthy" paddlecraft, including standup and prone paddleboards, single (OC-1) and double (OC-2) outrigger canoes, surf skis and sea kayaks.

More information: Registration for racing opens at 8 each morning, and proceeds benefit the Friends of the Island Parks, a citizen organization that supports Caladesi and Honeymoon Island state parks. Contact Karen Mirlenbrink at (727) 510-3493 or visit sharkbitechallenge.com.

Paddlers still churn to Honeymoon Island 04/11/13 [Last modified: Thursday, April 11, 2013 9:16pm]

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