TAMPA — Bill Whale has been in battles with the Gulf of Mexico and expects no quarter on Saturday when he hits the water for a 300-mile paddle to the Keys.
"The ocean will show you no mercy," said Whale, who is about to attempt his fifth WaterTribe Everglades Challenge. "It doesn't matter how many races you have done before, you never know what to expect. Anything can happen."
The canoe/kayak/sailboat race from St. Petersburg to Key Largo can take eight days to complete. For the first half of the race, contestants in a variety of small boats and paddleboards can stick to the relative safety of the Intracoastal Waterway. But once they round Cape Romano near Marco Island, all bets are off as paddlers enter Florida Bay and the wilds of the Ten Thousand Islands.
Back in 2001, the inaugural year, nearly half of the 27-boat fleet didn't even make it across Tampa Bay, and only nine teams finished. But over the years, the entrants have gotten stronger, smarter, and for some, Whale included, it has become an annual ritual.
"It gets in your blood," said the 59-year-old executive with Tampa Electric Co. "I look forward to it all year long."
Whale will be in Kruger Dreamcatcher, a canoe/kayak hybrid and one of more than 100 different vessels that will leave Fort De Soto's East Beach on Saturday at 7 a.m.
Contestants must be completely self-supported in only human- or wind-powered craft. That means they must carry all of their food, water and safety gear, and can only supplement their supplies with what they can buy along the way.
There's a time limit of eight days. All contestants are required to sign a waiver and read a warning: "The physical demands of the race, combined with sleep deprivation, heat, cold, water dehydration and exhaustion often cause participants to become disoriented. Amnesia, hallucinations, hypothermia and other debilitating conditions are not uncommon."
"Obviously, it is a physical challenge," said Whale, who graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy in 1978 with a degree in marine engineering. "But the hardest thing for most people is the mental aspect of the race. You are out there, often by yourself, for days on end. It takes a special mind-set."
But Whale, who once paddled 1,200 miles around the Florida peninsula in 28 days as part of another WaterTribe event called the Ultimate Challenge, enjoys the solitude.
"It is the ultimate management test," said Whale, who recently retired with the rank of captain after 30 years in the Naval Reserve. "You have to solve problems on the go as conditions can change day by day. You really never know what to expect."
If there is a strong wind howling out of the north, the multihull sailors can cover the course in a couple of days. But if conditions are calm, it becomes a paddlers' race and multisport athletes such as Whale have the edge.
"I've done marathons, triathlons and open-water swims," he explained. "But the thing that makes this race so special is all the planning and preparation that goes into it. If something happens out there, you have nobody to depend on but yourself."
All contestants are required to carry assorted "self-rescue" equipment. In addition to the obvious items, such as personal flotation device, signal mirror and flares, Whale packs an EPIRB, or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, and a hand-held VHF radio.
"Getting ready is half of the fun," said Whale, who lives in Apollo Beach. "But once you get under way, that is where the strategy comes in. If you want to win, you not only have to be tough but you have to be smart."
Whale and his fellow racers will gather on Fort De Soto's east beach before dawn Saturday. The start is always a crowd pleaser. If you love adventure and want to plan your own, head down and check out the activities. You will be glad you did.