APOLLO BEACH — Manatees appear to be so darn cute.
Bill Whale shared that widely held belief while out training for the upcoming Ultimate Florida Challenge, a roughly 1,200 mile canoe/kayak race around the state.
Until the unexpected occurred.
Peacefully paddling along one dark night, Whale ran smack dab into one of the lovable creatures.
"Scared the absolute living daylights out of me," he said.
Manatees, as well as potentially uncooperative weather, fatigue and lack of shelter, could hamper Whale when he tries to complete this grueling race in March.
"It's quite a challenge, to say the least," Whale said. "I can't say there is anything quite like it."
The Ultimate Florida Challenge is a kayak/canoe race that starts and ends at Fort De Soto Park.
In between, racers will travel south along the Gulf of Mexico, through the Everglades, north up the east coast of Florida and onto the St. Mary's River. From there, competitors must carry or tow their vessels 40 miles to the Suwannee River, which leads to the gulf and ultimately, Fort De Soto Park.
"There are many tough races and challenges in the world and they all have their own unique aspects," race organizer Steve Isaac said. "But none are tougher."
Isaac started WaterTribe, a tight-knit group of adventure-seeking paddlers, in 2000. Since then he has helped to organize a number of smaller contests, such as the 68-mile Ultra Marathon and the 300-mile Everglades Challenge. Isaac's inspiration derived from adventure races like the Eco Challenge, a multiday test of endurance. The 2012 UFC will be the third installment. The first took place in 2006.
"I was inspired by expedition kayakers like Nigel Foster along with adventure kayakers," Isaac said.
Racers have 30 days to complete the course, which features five checkpoints along the way. In between, participants will have to divvy up their time and resources to last between those checkpoints. They will rely on the Global Positioning System, survival instincts, endurance and their wits to reach the finish. The course record is 19 days, six hours and 48 minutes but Whale said it is impossible to predict how he'll finish.
"You really can't tell because the conditions are unknown," he said. "The weather can just kill you."
Whale, a retired captain in the Naval Reserve who is currently an executive at TECO Energy, has been training for this unusual event and detailing his efforts in a blog. Whale, 56, does everything from weight lifting to cardiovascular training to paddling to prepare for the UFC 2012.
"If the weather cooperates, I can paddle 60 miles in a day," he said. "If it doesn't, it might be five."
Whale, an Apollo Beach resident, is also hoping to raise awareness for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Each one of his blog posts are titled with name of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty and a link for readers to donate to the foundation.
"It's a way for me to pay tribute and bring attention to this great foundation," Whale said. "Freedom comes with a price that these young men paid."
Brandon Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.