We curse ye, wind: An adventurer racer's dispatches from the gulf

Everglades Challenge

Prologue

Eight years ago, I was sweating, but not because my wife and I were expecting our first child. No, an old rugby-playing, beer-drinking buddy and I signed up for a 300-mile water race from St. Petersburg to Key Largo called the WaterTribe Challenge.

Six days later, burnt, tired and hungry, we arrived in Key Largo vowing never to do something so foolhardy again.

Well, two kids later, I'm ready for more punishment. So me and five other delusional, middle-aged men, a.k.a. "The Insomniacs," will take off in a 45-foot outrigger canoe. No outrigger canoe has ever entered this race, now called the Everglades Challenge.

Our team is led by George Stovall, 64, whose WaterTribe name is Sandspur. Other members include Darry Jackson (Dare-Jack), 60, a triathlete; Aaron Freedman (Air Doc), 43, an adventure racer; Casey LaLomia (Kauai Kid), 38, an accomplished waterman; and Jason Heffron (Money), 38, a surfer's surfer. Me? I'm H.D. Agua, the 48-year-old "idea guy."

Friday, March 6

Sixteen hours before the start, we lost the engine room. Heffron, who we recruited for his muscle, had a 103-degree fever. So we called an audible: Doug Clifford, the St. Petersburg Times ace hurricane photographer, was drafted to take his place.

Saturday, March 7

Dead calm, about 2 miles off Sarasota, I'm now thinking this is going to be a long, hard day. We had hit the beach at 7 a.m. and paddled and sailed our way across Tampa Bay. By noon, the wind had died. Pushing a 45-foot outrigger canoe full of gear down the coast isn't easy. It is hot, and the sun is going to take its toll. We have 45 miles to go to the first checkpoint at Boca Grande. We don't plan on stopping until we get there.

•••

It's 4 p.m. and the breeze has picked up as we're tracking toward the Venice Inlet. We hope to make Boca Grande by nightfall. We were making good headway, and then the wind died. But we noticed that other sailing craft were passing us by. So obviously, wind wasn't the problem. Apparently we didn't know how to sail. But, through trial and error, we are slowly figuring it out.

Sunday, March 8

We finally make Checkpoint One about 2:30 this morning after nearly 20 hours of paddling. This Hawaiian sailing canoe is big and heavy, built to take rough water and high winds. But a few hours after the start, the wind died, which left us with a long, slow, 60-mile-plus slog to Boca Grande.

I knew things were bad when I had to stand up and paddle. After a day and a half of sitting on a hard canoe seat in wet shorts, we have all come down with bad cases of what marathon paddlers call "monkey butt." You've seen those chimps and baboons at the zoo with those bright red bottoms. It's like diaper rash on steroids.

To make matters worse, when we finally hit Boca Grande, the tide was against us, and we had to navigate unmarked channels to a marina where we spent a fitful three hours sleeping on a dock fighting off raccoons.

•••

We left Checkpoint One late this morning. Trying to save time, we took a shortcut near Placida. We tracked across the mouth of Charlotte Harbor into Boca Grande Pass, battled waves and current and finally got a little help from the wind to cruise down Pine Island Sound.

•••

Our vessel doesn't move all that fast when it is not sailing. It's like pushing a wheelbarrow full of concrete through soft sand.

Monday, March 9

Sometime during the night, I curled forward in my canoe seat to grab a few minutes of shuteye. About 45 minutes later, I awoke and began shivering uncontrollably. "Hypothermia," declared Dr. Stovall.

The crew made me eat, drink, put on more clothes and lay down on the canoe's trampoline. I put heat packs under my arm pits and inside my thighs, then wrapped myself in a tent tarp. Around 3 a.m. we made landfall south of Fort Myers. I ate some warm food, set up my tent, crawled in my sleeping bag and slept for four hours.

•••

After a rough night, we stopped for a few hours on Barefoot Beach Preserve in Bonita Springs. Steve Banks, who runs the concession there, checked on us. We've been living off freeze-dried food and energy bars, so it was good to get a hot meal. Kieu Banks gave us coffee and pot roast sandwiches. Our bellies full and our spirits buoyed, we climbed in the canoe and headed to Naples.

•••

It's 6 p.m. We are approaching Marco Island and Cape Romano, an important juncture in our trip. This is our last glimpse of civilization until we hit Chokoloskee, the gateway to the Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands. At that point, we'll have to make a decision: Press on or admit defeat?

We've had three days of tough paddling and little wind. The weather reports are calling for the wind to clock around and blow out of the southeast — straight into our faces. We planned to finish in four days, but that is not going to happen.

Tuesday, March 10

Around midnight, somewhere in the Ten Thousand Islands, our GPS unit failed just as a fog bank rolled in. With no lights or stars to guide us, we drifted for about an hour until we programmed a backup GPS and got back on our route.

Around 2 a.m., we realized that it would probably be daylight before we made it to Checkpoint Two, so we decided to head for the nearest land and make an emergency camp. After 15 hours of paddling, we were tired, hungry and cold.

We made camp around 3 a.m., built a fire to warm our weary bones and made sure the canoe was secured. After a couple of hours of sleep, I awoke to find that the water was about 100 yards from our boat. Now we have to move a 600-pound canoe the length of a football field through the soft mud.

•••

We arrived in Everglades City on Tuesday afternoon, and checked in at the ranger station. After listening to the forecast, we discussed our options. Fight the wind for 120 miles to Key Largo? Or lick our wounds and start planning for next year?

If we were to continue on, we would need at least two days to cross the Everglades. With that in mind, we all agreed that the earliest we could arrive in Key Largo was Friday. The problem was that we all had to be back home Thursday.

So, after four days and more than 170 miles, we decided to pull out of the race.

Epilogue

No sooner had we packed up and headed for home on Wednesday than one of the crew members, Darry Jackson, made everybody promise that we would try again next year, but in a more versatile craft.

"What about you?" Jackson asked.

"I don't know …" I replied.

This trip had taken quite a toll on me. But that is not the reason why I wouldn't do it again.

I'd left my wife alone with the kids for five days. I'll have to watch Grey's Anatomy with her and act like I enjoy it for the next year and still not break even.

But I'll start working on it, and practice every day in my best puppy dog tone, "Honey, please, can I go?"

FAST FACTS

The challenge

Goal: Six guys paddle outrigger canoe fitted with a sail 300 miles in five days.

What happened: With little wind, they cover 177 miles. After four days, they pull out due to commitments.

What went wrong: Too little wind, ran out of time.

Consumed: 60 cans of Red Bull; 100 energy bars; 22 pounds of junk food.

Gallons of sunscreen: 3

What's next: Revenge of the Insomniacs next year.

We curse ye, wind: An adventurer racer's dispatches from the gulf

Everglades Challenge 03/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 7:11am]

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