FORT DESOTO — Jon Willis was skeptical. "Paddle to Key Largo?" he asked. "Why?"
"Why not?" I responded.
Willis, an old surfing buddy, had been on one of my adventures before.
"Twenty degrees and we're stuck in the middle of the Okeefeenokee Swamp," he recalled. "You call that fun?"
Great fun. Plenty of fresh air, good food and lots of exercise. My proposed 250-mile jaunt along the west coast of Florida to the Keys would be even more entertaining, I promised. "Come on," I pleaded. "I promise you won't get killed. And I'll buy the cigars."
He agreed to go. But it was a decision, he said, he hopes he will not regret. And, oh yeah, I told him, "We leave Monday."
If you look at a road map, St. Petersburg to Key Largo doesn't look that far. But study a nautical chart, and you'll see how daunting a task it is. "If you have the right boat and equipment, you shouldn't have a problem," assured Steve Isaac, creator of the WaterTribe Challenge. "Just take your time and have fun."
When Isaac got the idea of staging a race from St. Petersburg to the Keys, he had no idea how many people would respond. But sea kayakers are a hardy bunch. They'll endure long hours in a cramped kayak, day after day, just to paddle with the dolphins far from shore.
"We'll have at least 30 teams from all over the country," Isaac said. "That is a pretty good turnout, considering this is a first-year event."
Willis and I paddled sit-on-top kayaks together for years, but those plastic boats are impractical for a long trip. Paddling one along the west coast would be like trying to ride a beach cruiser cross-country. You'd make it, but at what cost? We consulted Jean Totz of Sweetwater Kayaks, and she suggested a tandem kayak.
"That way if one person gets tired, the other can paddle," she said. "Then the boat never stops moving. And that is the secret. Keep the boat moving."
To make it from St. Petersburg to Key Largo in less than eight days, we must cover 35-40 miles a day. If we spend 12 hours a day on the water, 10 of it traveling at 4 mph, we will be in Key Largo in seven days. But that doesn't take into consideration wind, tides, storms, fatigue and a long list of other annoying things sea kayakers deal with daily.
"If you have the right boat, you'll make it," said Totz, who has taught hundreds of people to paddle at her Tierra Verde shop over the years. The 22-foot tandem sea kayak Totz suggested, the Aleut Sea II, is patterned after the baidarkas the Aleuts have long paddled in the waters off Alaska, some of the most inhospitable water on Earth.
This seaworthy craft can carry more than enough food and gear to supply two men for a week. The only problem was our dream rental didn't arrive until the weekend before the trip.
That meant Willis and I had to spend the majority of two months training with the plastic sit-on-tops. These boats, a favorite of anglers, birders and triathletes looking for a cross-training alternative, are light and easy to paddle. The downside is they are wet.
Paddling Tampa Bay on a January morning when a brisk north wind has kicked up seas of 3-4 feet, you are bound to take a gallon or two of cold water in the crotch, which can be quite uncomfortable and at times discouraging.
But to truly enjoy sea kayaking, as with all other outdoor activities, you must "embrace" the elements, such as cold water, or you will be miserable. "Thank you, sir," Willis yelled as a wave soaked his shorts. "May I have another?"
In addition to helping me achieve the proper mental attitude to complete the race, Willis, a certified personal trainer, attempted to fine-tune my diet for maximum athletic performance. "No pizza. No beer. No coffee. No doughnuts," he ordered. "Those are my four basic food groups," I pleaded to no avail.
After two months, we are ready for anything. Totz suggested we attend a few sessions at the Florida Gulf Coast Sea Kayak Symposium. The first thing we needed to learn was how to save ourselves in an emergency.
Nigel Foster, a man who paddled alone around Iceland, took us into the lagoon at Mullet Key and did his best to make us seaworthy. "When you turn over in open water the trick is get back in the boat as quickly as possible," he said. "Let's see how you do."
We turned over and over, again and again, as Foster watched and critiqued our efforts. After a half hour or so, we got our time down to less than a minute, acceptable but far from perfect. "Let's just try not to flip," I told Willis. "Yes, that should be avoided if at all possible," he quipped in his perfect Queen's English.
Russell Farrow, another instructor, tried to improve our paddling stroke.
"The key is to stay loose," he said. "When it gets rough, loosen up. When it gets flat, loosen up. When you want to go fast, loosen up."
Willis and I studied the nautical charts and weather reports. We picked the other competitors' brains for any worthwhile intelligence. "They are calling for 20- to 25-knot winds and 5-foot seas on Monday," said Lawson Mitchell, a team paddler for Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure. "That is good for me. I plan to stay on the outside and surf the 60 miles to Caya Costa."
But Mitchell is a veteran expeditioner, and I began to have second thoughts about what lies ahead.
"So do you think we'll be alright?" I asked Totz, who has become our surrogate den mother. "What do you think our chances are?"
No worries, she said. "You'll do just fine."
Thirty-one hours after leaving Tampa Bay, a motley gang of salt-caked paddlers arrived at Cayo Costa Island State Park Tuesday afternoon and thanked God to be on dry land.
The two-day, 70-mile trip, which completed the first leg of the Water Tribe Cruising Challenge, was no leisure cruise. Ten-foot seas and 20-30 mph winds knocked out several teams before they got out of sight of land off Fort De Soto Park.
Those of us who kept paddling faced sharks, whitecaps, overturned boats and many other dangers inherent to riding a kayak in open water. And we lost gear. "We are going to start the race on time," said Steve Isaac, organizer of the 250-mile kayak race to Key Largo that began Monday morning. "But I think you are crazy if you go."
The National Weather Service had issued a small craft advisory, and our 22-foot tandem sea kayak had no business being on the water. But standing on East Beach at Fort De Soto with my partner, Jon Willis, the water didn't look that bad. We decided our two-man team, the Ocean Warriors, would not back down.
"I think if we head north and use the beach as a wind block, then cut across to Egmont Key, we'll be able to turn south and surf all the way to the mouth of the Intracoastal Waterway," Toby Brown of Team Sweetwater Kayaks said. "If we stick together, we'll make it."
Willis and I had never had our rental boat in rough water, but we are fairly competent watermen. We were willing to give it a try. "Just stay loose," Lawson Mitchell of Team Bill Jackson said. "It will be fun."
The majority of racers remained on the beach, but six boats pushed into the weather, whitecaps breaking over their bows. Within 15 minutes, the party split up. Three boats went south across the bay, and our group of three boats headed west into the waves.
"Be careful when you hit that stretch of water between Egmont and Passage keys," Isaac had said at Sunday's captains meeting. "You don't want to tip over. There are lots of sharks. Big sharks." The area is known for its bull sharks and hammerheads. But in March, the water usually is too cool for them.
At least that is what I tried to convince myself of as I clung to my overturned kayak drifting toward the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. "Going for a swim?" Brown said as he paddled over to check on us.
We tried to right the boat but flipped it again. It took Mitchell's and Brown's help to get us back into our boat. Ten minutes later, we paddled past a shrimp boat at anchor and watched the fins of several small black tip sharks cut through the waves. "I'm glad we didn't tip over there," Willis said.
A half-hour later on a south-side beach, I thanked Brown and Mitchell for their assistance. "What kind of beer do you drink?" I asked Mitchell. "The cold kind," he said.
With the rollicking swells of Tampa Bay behind us, Willis and I hoisted a small sail and headed south through the Intracoastal Waterway. We made good time, about 6 knots, and felt confident we eventually would make it to Key Largo.
But the sail forced the nose of the kayak deep into the water, hindering steering, and we dumped the boat again. Water seeped into a bag advertised as waterproof, frying a digital camera and pager, but we managed to get everything back into the boat.
"We have to be careful with that sail, mate," Willis said in his British accent. "Or this is going to be a long trip." By midday, the northwesterly wind had picked up. Seas kicked up to 4-6 feet, compounded by various tidal rips, as we ran south through Sarasota Bay.
Finally, by late afternoon, we put the bad water behind us. We stopped for a short break. "Hey, guys, how are you doing?" a voice from nowhere announced. George Stovall, a St. Petersburg chiropractor and paddling animal, was standing on a sandbar in his long underwear, eating a sandwich. "Wasn't that fun?" he said.
We had hoped to make Venice Inlet the first night, but the delayed start and unanticipated dunkings put us behind schedule. Shortly after sunset we pitched camp on a spoil island.
"I hope the wind dies down tomorrow," Willis said. "I don't want another day like today." After a feast of freeze-dried curry and hot herbal tea, we hunkered down in the tent to study the maps and listen to the weather radio.
"Winds out of the north, 20-30 knots with gusts up to 40 knots," the computerized recording said. "Small craft are advised to stay in port."
As the wind roared through the beach trees, I could barely sleep as I considered the next day. It was another 35 miles to Cayo Costa, and we would have to cross Boca Grande Pass, a body of water known for its currents and tarpon-eating hammerhead sharks. When dawn arrived, we discussed our options over a cup of steaming coffee.
"Let's just go for it, mate," Willis said. "We'll do the best we can; that is all anybody can ask of us."
Stovall, Mitchell and Dexter Duval, a paddler they had befriended along the way, stopped by our camp as they headed south. Duval is attempting the trip even though he lost both legs in an automobile accident 10 years earlier. "We'll catch up with you guys later and cross the pass together," Stovall said.
We caught up with the rest of the crew midday, and together we paddled the last 8 miles to Boca Grande. We agreed the best strategy was to stay close to the mouth and the gulf and let the tide push us back to Cayo Costa, the first of three check-in points.
We followed Stovall's lead and charged into the washing machine-like Boca Grande Pass. It took a rocky half hour to cross.
With two tough days behind us and an anticipated five days to go if the weather calms, we plan to keep rowing. Whether we will all make it to Key Largo, only time will tell.
The sunshine and calm water of Everglades National Park brought welcome relief after four days of wind and waves. "We might be able to just push on after lunch, paddle as far south as possible, then still make it to Flamingo tomorrow night," said George Stovall, the reluctant leader of our little band of kayakers. "It will be an adventure."
Six paddlers started off across the stormy waters of Tampa Bay on Monday morning, and five days later four of us paddled together in a 250-mile trek to Key Largo in the WaterTribe Challenge.
After braving the cold and the storms, we had lost our competitive selfishness and vowed to finish the race together as a team, "Stovall's Rangers", as we entered the final days of the trek across the flat backwaters at the tip of Florida.
Stovall had kept our group together, boosting spirits when each of us wanted to quit at one point or another. My partner, Jon Willis, and I had thought of throwing in the towel after the first day, when we capsized our 22-foot tandem sea kayak twice on the run from St. Petersburg to Venice. "Let's try to make it to at least the first check point," Willis, 41, said as we studied the charts in our tent on a spoil island near Venice. "We owe it to ourselves."
The next night, Dexter Colvin, 41, a double amputee attempting the trip, talked about stopping. "I usually paddle alone," he said. "I don't like being out in the rough water."
But on the long paddle south past Captiva and Sanibel Island and across the open water of Estero Bay, we hung together. Wednesday night, after a particularly tough day, we realized the distance between checkpoints was at least 20 miles longer than we thought. "The mileage is way off," Stovall said. "We should just load the boats up on a trailer, drive to Chokoloskee, then keep paddling from there."
The thought of abandoning the cramped kayak and moving toward our goal with the help of a combustion engine was very appealing. "If we are going to get a ride, we might as well just quit," Willis said. "I say we just keep going."
We were beat up, sunburned and caked with salt. Cold, wet and tired, it's easy to say, "enough." But dry clothes and a warm meal can do wonders for the soul. That night we sat on the beach at New Pass and watched the stars light the southern sky, beacons leading us on. Thursday morning we woke to see the Gulf of Mexico had finally settled down. The stretch of open water we had been dreading suddenly seemed passable.
We broke camp, headed south and four hours later found ourselves at the Naples Pier, where we immediately raided the snack bar. After living on Power Bars and freeze-dried food for four days, anything tastes good.
"Where are you guys coming from?" the woman behind the counter asked.
"St. Petersburg," Stovall said. "We heard you make the best grilled cheese sandwiches in Florida."
We wolfed down our food and filled our water bottles while onlookers gathered to gawk at our boats. "You paddle those out there?" a man asked, pointing to the gulf, which had grown choppier because of the afternoon sea breeze.
"Yes," I said. "We're going to Key Largo."
"Why?" he asked.
"Why not?" I responded.
Just as we prepared to leave, another member of original crew paddled in from the north. Toby Brown, 30, was separated from the group in the stormy waters of Sarasota Bay on the first day of the trip. Reunited four days later, we felt like we had found a long lost brother.
Late Thursday afternoon, we made the mouth of the Marco River, the entrance to the Ten Thousand Islands and a new phase of our trip. It felt good to be on flat water. Heavy seas in a small boat take a toll physically and mentally. Among the islands, we could take a few moments to enjoy the sights.
We watched a bald eagle and an osprey fight over a fish and two dolphin work together to herd a school of mullet onto a sandbar, where the mullet were easy prey. "This is why I like coming out here," Lawson Mitchell, 39, said. "It doesn't get any better than this."
We paddled into the night using the full moon to guide us to our campsite at Gullivan Key. After four days on the water, most of our gear was wet, lost or damaged.
Sand was everywhere: in the food, the tents, the sleeping bags, but we didn't care. We had made it through the hardest part of the trip. We were more than halfway there.
"We might be able to make it in seven days after all," Willis said. "I'd like to be in Key Largo on Monday."
The weather report called for more severe weather moving in fast. We knew if we could ride the incoming tide into Chokoloskee the next morning, re-supply, then follow the outgoing tide south, we might get back on schedule.
"Those mare's tales don't look good," Stovall said, pointing to foreboding streaks of clouds in the northern sky. "We are going to have to make some time."
It was at least 70 miles to Flamingo and the next check-in point. Again we would try to paddle well into the night. Once safely at the third checkpoint, we would plan our next move.
All of us wanted to make it to Key Largo. But who got there first didn't matter anymore. We were a team. We would make it together.
The end in sight
We stopped a mile off the beach and lined up our kayaks four abreast.
"We made it," George Stovall said. "Let's look good at the finish."
We had paddled more than 250 miles through wind and waves, braved sunny days and bone-chilling nights, camped when we could, pressed on when we couldn't, fueled by only a few swallows of tap water and soggy energy bars.
As we paddled toward shore, I suggested we sing the theme from Bonanza; then somebody reminded me it didn't have words. Then Stovall suggested we sing Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries''. "You know, from the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now," he said.
I reminded Stovall that song didn't have words, either. But it was an honest mistake. Little or no sleep, combined with 12 to 14 hours of strenuous exercise seven days in a row, will do that to you. Your mind detaches from your body. It's the only way to deal with the pain.
"I know. How about 'Long, Long Way to Key Largo?'" Mitchell suggested. Good choice, we all agreed, and started singing.
Me and me pals, we took a trip
Down the coast for a little bit
The little ditty, sung to a calypso beat, had powered us across the water of Florida Bay on the final day of our journey. Without each other, we would have never made it. Back in Chokoloskee, the halfway point of our trip, we were saddened to learn that Dexter Colvin, an original member of our little band we called "Stovall's Rangers," had moved on without us.
Colvin, a veteran kayaker who paddled despite having no legs, liked to travel alone and often through the night. We knew that two sailboats competing in the WaterTribe Challenge had made it to Key Largo, but we all agreed it would be only fitting if Colvin was the first kayaker to cross the finish line.
"Good for him," Stovall said. "He deserves to win."
But for us, the race was far from over. We still had to make it through the Everglades, a distance of more than 70 miles, in less than 24 hours. So we set out with the afternoon tide and paddled through the 10,000 Islands well into the night.
About 10:30 p.m., with a full moon on the horizon, we stopped at Highland Beach and pitched camp on a narrow spit of sand, a few feet from the water. We pulled our boats up next to our tents, knowing the spring tide would be high.
A few hours later, as I tossed and turned in a damp sleeping bag filled with sand, I dreamed that the water had rolled over my boat and carried away the dry bag that held my laptop computer. So, half asleep, I rushed out of the tent and waded into the knee-deep water. I found nothing.
"What are you doing?" my tentmate, Jon Willis, asked as I slammed a knee into the side of his head.
"I had a nightmare," I said. "I thought I lost my laptop."
"Go back to sleep," he grunted.
After five days, I was beginning to wear on my paddling partner's nerves. They call tandem kayaks "divorce boats" because of the inevitable arguments they create.
"Go left," Willis would say from the bow. "I am," I'd respond from the stern.
"Not that much," he'd say. "Then how much?" I'd ask.
The next day, dragging after no sleep from the night before, I reached my limit as we paddled down Joe's River toward Flamingo.
"My shoulders hurt," I said. "My back, too."
Willis didn't want to hear it. "You want some cheese with that whine?" he said. "Keep paddling."
Ten minutes later I started complaining again. That's when my friend read me the riot act. "You think you have it bad . . ." he began.
As the director of Treasure Island Charities, Willis organizes a variety of events to benefit numerous non-profit organizations, including the Tampa-based Camp Good Days for children who have cancer. Willis' wife, Darline, has been fighting the disease (and winning) for more than two years.
"So think about that next time you are tired and hurting," he said. Now, sufficiently shamed and feeling like a total wimp, I dug deep and pressed on. A few hours later, we landed in Flamingo, and I rushed to the nearest phone to call my pregnant wife, Kanika.
"I had to go to the hospital today," she said. "They thought the baby was coming early."
So now, feeling like a wimp and a jerk, I vowed to get to Key Largo as soon as possible. That meant a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and a pre-dawn start. We made good time for the first few hours, but by mid morning we began to run out of steam.
"Okay, what am I?" Mitchell asked. "Animal, vegetable or mineral?" That game was good for a few hours of paddling through the keys of Florida Bay. Eventually, we lost interest.
"You guys know the words to "Bohemian Rhapsody'' by Queen?" Willis asked. We did our best to butcher the song and sent every wading bird within miles flying for cover.
Then Mitchell started laughing to himself. We all thought the sun had finally gotten the best of him.
"Don't worry, guys," he said. "I do that sometimes especially when writing a song."
We spent the next two hours adding to, then fine-tuning his little Caribbean ditty. We sang it again and again, until the afternoon sea breeze picked up and blew in our face; then we sang louder.
It's a long, long way to Key Largo
It's a long, long way to Key Largo
Once on shore, we congratulated each other on our shared success.
"Gentlemen," Mitchell said, "it's been a pleasure."
And an adventure, we all agreed, we might someday repeat, after a hot shower and a cold beer.