A few hours into the first leg of a six-day catamaran race from the Florida Keys to the Georgia coast, 21-year-old Zack Marks began to have second thoughts.
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," said Marks, a member of the USF sailing team. "The first day was definitely the worst.''
The Tybee 500, a grueling, open-water multihull test of endurance, is a rite of passage among catamaran sailors.
"Finish the Tybee and you earn a lot of respect in the sailing community," said Jason Childers, 28, who sailed with Marks in the May 10-15 race. "It is something you have just got to do."
Childers, a native of Maine who works at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center, was looking for a crew for his Nacra 20 when Marks wandered in from practice with USF women's sailing coach and Olympic gold medalist Allison Jolly.
"She said, 'You should do it,' " said Marks, who graduated from St. Petersburg Catholic High. "It sounded a little crazy."
Childers, who skippered the catamaran, had entered the 500-mile race from Islamorada to Tybee Island two years before.
"It is really hard to describe," he said. "It is kind of like battling a grizzly bear in the wild. The only people who would understand are those who have been there and done it."
The Tybee 500, which is more like the Tybee 700 when you factor in the actual distance most of the teams sail, is patterned after the infamous Worrell 1,000. The race from Miami to Virginia Beach, Va., made famous the phrase "iron men in plastic boats."
The Nacra 20 and Formula 18 beach catamarans, the preferred boats in these races, carry plenty of sail. These performance cats are not like the boats you see on the sand behind local oceanfront hotels. They are high-tech racing machines with a top speed of more than 25 mph. While the skipper steers, the crew hangs from a wire "trapeze" to keep the boat from rolling over in heavy wind.
The Worrell 1,000, which ran on and off for more than two decades, was cancelled in 2003 after losing its financial backing. The Tybee, which ran for the first time that same year, is considered by some to be even more grueling because of the length of some of its legs.
"You never know what each day will bring," organizer Chuck Bargeron said. "It can be your best day on the water times 10 or your worst nightmare times 100. It all depends on the wind. But it really doesn't matter, because regardless of the weather, you are going to go."
Childers and Marks didn't get much time to practice. They met in the Keys two days before the start, sailed together a couple of times, then pushed off into the Atlantic Ocean.
On that first day off Islamorada, the teams sailed straight into a head wind. It took some of the cats more than 12 hours to make the first stop in Hollywood.
"I spent more than 10 hours in the trapeze hanging from a wire," he said. "That can really beat you up. It was a long day."
The seas were equally rough the second day, from Hollywood to Jupiter, but, luckily for Childers and Marks, they were not out as long. Many of the teams' support crews worked late into the night repairing the boats so they could sail again on Day 3.
From Jupiter to Cocoa Beach, the 15 teams sailing up the coast finally got to use their spinnakers to their full advantage. "From that point on, it was a real sled ride," Bargeron said.
Marks and Childers maintained a steady speed of around 15 knots with occasional bursts of well past 20 knots. "We were flying," Marks said. "It was a lot of fun."
The conditions held for the final days to the finish, and while the existing record of 1 day, 10 hours was not broken, Bargeron said several teams set marks for individual legs of the race. Childers and Marks finished with a cumulative time on the water of 1 day, 19 hours, 25 minutes, 18 seconds. They were sixth among the Nacras and 10th overall.
"I don't think things could have gone better," Bargeron said. "But next year, it could be like a washing machine turned upside down. That is the great thing about this race. Anything can happen."