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.