Everglades Challenge 2007  
By Noel Davis - Tampa, Florida - USA

Charlotte Harbor

The sound is what woke me. A gurgling sound of rushing water. Sort of like the being in a washing machine on the heavy wash cycle. Crawling out of the tiny cabin into the cockpit I could see in the faint illumination of the stern light what looked like giant waves bearing down on our little boat. The night was overcast and other than the navigational lights in the distance it was all black. Gary was just sitting in the cockpit calmly surfing each wave as it passed underneath us. I crawled up into the cockpit seat and thought, "God I hope he does not want me to steer".

Seconds later he says "Think I am going to get a little rest, mind taking over?".

I reply "Sure". After all what else could I say. He tells me our course, warns me about the approaching Boca Grande Inlet, then crawls below for some rest.

At the helm I find that the waves are not nearly as high as they looked at first. A combination of the low freeboard of Oaracle, the pitch black overcast night, and the illumination of the waves by our stern light had made them into monsters towering over us. Hours pass without incident. We regularly surf to over 7 knots as we run downwind.

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Gary and I on the beach at Fort De Soto the day before the start of the race.

My memories of the 2007 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge are a kaleidoscope of images and events. I will not describe in detail our voyage as Gary has done a very good job of that in his article. Instead I will tell you some stories of my adventure to illustrate what the Everglades Challenge means to me and what conclusions I have drawn from it.

Before the Race

The story really begins before the challenge. Earlier in the year my wife and I interviewed Steve Isaac AKA Chief of WaterTribe for our Furledsails Sailing Podcast. I had heard about the WaterTribe events before, but Chiefs enthusiasm was contagious and I said on the air that though I did not have time to get everything together for the 2007 event and I was planning to participate in 2008.

A few days later I received an email from Gary inviting me to crew on Oaracle a 20 foot Frollic2 designed by Jim Michalak. He said he had all the gear and all I would have to get together was food and clothing. A couple of days later we were in Oaracle floating around a lake near Gary's home.

The challenge was only a few weeks away so we only had time for one more sail before leaving. This was a Saturday that may have been one of the coldest days all winter. We put in on the St. Marks river and beat out to the river mouth. The tide was coming in, and we had a good stiff breeze the entire way. It took two hours of short tacks to get to the mouth and then 20 minutes to get back to the ramp. This gave me a good chance to try out my new fleece clothing and showed me something else. I had been a fair weather sailor. You know, one of those guys who looks at the weather forecast for ten minutes before deciding that it's: too windy, not windy enough, too hot, too cold, too wet, etc. to go sailing today. Under normal conditions I would have never gone out on a day like this but because it was the only day we could go we went out anyway and it was great. I told Gary that my reluctance to sail in "imperfect" conditions had prevented me from having a lot of fun.

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The day of the race: Gary sorts out last minute details.

Just Before the Race

I rode down to the race start with Chuck (who publishes Duckworks Magazine), Gary, and Gary's wife Helen. We set up camp and started talking to all of the other WaterTribers as they came around. By nightfall there was a whole bunch there and we ordered some pizza. I wandered from camp to camp talking about the race, getting advice, looking at boats. I had a great time. Everyone was friendly and encouraging. They were without exception a nice group of people.

I also met Matt Layden the designer of Terrapin, Swamp Thing, Gjac, Little Cruiser, Paradox, Enigma, and now a 8 foot long decked pram named Sand Flea. Sea Flea was nosed up to the shore a few campsites down and we had wandered down and taken a short look at her earlier. I had been reading about Matt for a while. Christy and I had interviewed Dave and Mindy Bolduc for the podcast and they had told us a lot about Matt. In addition, a couple of years before we had both attended the annual West Coast Trailer Sailor Squadron meet up in Cedar key but not knowing who he was at the time I had not talked to him, a situation that had caused me some regret. So when I saw him walking down the road I jumped up and introduced myself. I think I may have been a little to excited when I introduced myself because Matt looked a little concerned, like he had just met someone crazy who had just been let out of an institution and was perhaps not taking all their medication. I can't be sure that was what he was thinking because Matt was very polite and gracious. But I did have my suspicions.

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Sand Flea and Matt on the beach before the race.

When we went to bed the wind was blowing hard from the south which gave us a little bit of concern, but the forecast was for it to change to a more northerly direction as the front came over during the night.

Launch Day or Into the Washing Machine

Within moments of the launch there were people in real trouble. The wind was coming from the north which flattened out the water near the beach, but when you go farther out it was blowing against the tidal flow causing Tampa Bay to be somewhat lumpy. We saw several kayakers go over. Most concerning was a kayaker on a surf ski who went over, got back on and then went over again. Gary slowed Oaracle down and started going back and forth to watch and make sure he was o.k. Nearby I saw Matt stop Sand Flea and just bob up and down in the chop under perfect control also watching the events. Another kayaker who did not seem to have any trouble handling the seas helped the swimming kayaker back onto his surf sky and then ferried him over to us so we could tow him back to shore. I reached out of the cockpit to hold his kayak against the side of Oaracle and the kayaker held on to our cockpit coaming. Heading back to the beach I was face to face with the kayaker and over the five or ten minutes we towed him his lips slowly turned blue. I asked him if he was OK, if he was cold, and he said he was fine. Close to the beach he said "This is good" and Gary replied "We will get you closer". This was wise. When we finally let him go he only stayed on his kayak for less than 20 feet. After he went over again the kayaker just grabbed his bow and swam to shore. Gary tacked back and forth waiting on him to get to the beach and muttered about how we should have gotten him closer. I was just glad that we had not let him go further out.

We crossed the bay and went south on the Intracoastal coastal waterway without further incident. Sometime along the way Matt took this picture:

The other interactions with kayakers on the first day were much different. There was a long idyllic period were we would pass a group of kayakers (including Kiwibird and Sandybottom) when the wind would pick up, then be passed by them as it would drop off. The conversations and company we had during this period were the most pleasant period of time I had during the challenge. After check point one when we kept sailing and the group of kayakers stopped for the night we never saw them again until they reached the finish. Makes a big difference when you can take naps and you don't have to paddle for every foot of progress.

Opening the Bridges

The first bridge we opened called us on the radio about twenty seconds after the wind was blocked and Gary started paddling while I steered. The bridge tender radioed "Are you under power?". Gary set down the paddle, picked up the radio and said "We are under sail and oar". Then continued to paddle. When we passed by her the bridge tender had an amazed look on her face but still wished us a nice day.

Just after dark and much further south we were running from the north downwind towards a bridge that Gary had talked to on the VHF about opening. They told us to come, they were opening the bridge. It was dark, but as we got close we could still see that nothing was happening with the bridge. I slowed the boat and continued towards the bridge. Just as I was thinking we should start making circles before we got to close to the bumpers, the bridge tender came back on the radio and said "Oaracle are you the small sailboat south of the bridge." (remember we were north of the bridge) with this I threw over the helm and started turning to port. Shit! There in the darkness was a kayak with a sail rig only 10 or 20 feet to our port (well now almost in front of us). I throw the helm back over and we turn to starboard and circle a couple of times until the bridge finally opens. It's a good thing we did not run into Mark. His Kruger canoe would have been the end of us. Just bits of shattered plywood and fiberglass floating out to sea. We may have had three times the weight and size but Mark makes those canoes and kayaks like battleships. O.k. perhaps I exaggerate. But Mark did tell me (in our first and second interviews with him) that they are designed and built to ram a log fully loaded, be levered onto the log see-saw on the log, then go down the other side without any damage.

Oh and I swear Mark was in my blind spot!

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One of the many bridges we passed on the ICW.

Moon Over the Glades

My most precious time was sailing along the coast at night and watching the moon rise over the Everglades. We were running down the coast about two or three miles offshore right at the edge of the park (I would see the markers in the moonlight every once in a while). The stars were out for the first time. Gary was down below sleeping or just resting and the moon slowly rose over the Glades and a shimmering road of light stretched from shore.

The swell was still up and we were surfing, but by now I had gotten somewhat used to it. I think we were hitting about 7 knots on the surfs which would last for 2 or three seconds. A couple of them lasted longer and after one that must have lasted 8 to 10 seconds Gary came up from the cabin. On shore we would see what looked like a cell tower, so Gary tried several times to call Helen and check in. The signal was so weak that the flap of his hat was blocking it. But once he took the hat off he managed to call in.

Wind Sprints in Florida Bay

I had been told that people have walked their boats through some of the channels in Florida Bay. I am now very skeptical about this claim. If they did they are made of much tougher stuff than a mortal man or have some secret pact with the devil. I pulled Oaracle about 50 meters and was so tired I just hung on the bow gasping for Gary to stop pushing. I say if your not a duck or a wading bird stay in the boat. However if you ever need to do 3 meter wind sprints I know just the place.

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Gary at the helm in Florida Bay.

Race of One

I have come to several conclusions relating to the racing aspects of the Everglades Challenge. The primary one is that the competition in the race is in the most part yourself. The other people provide a good benchmark to measure yourself against. But there is to much variation in boats and in conditions to worry to much about how fast the other people are going. There is also no reason to race unless you want to. There is enough pressure from the week schedule to make it a challenge at a cruising pace.

Leaving the beach at the start of this years race was an accomplishment all on its own. It took drive, personal commitment, and planning to get to the beach. Then it took guts to launch off the beach with the intention of sailing three hundred miles in a small boat. I do not look down on those that failed to finish. Each person had their own situation and should evaluate their own performance based on that.

Training and Preparation:

The following are some of my thoughts on how to prepare for doing the Everglades Challenge. If your nowhere near Florida you could look in your local area for similar shaped bodies of water. I think that the hardest navigational / boat handling problems are generally at the check points and the passes.

Don't let the race start be the first time you have sailed or paddled your boat. Don't let it be the first time you have paddled or sailed your boat when it was raining, choppy, cold, or windy.

Tampa Bay:

There are markers and clear charts, don't stress it. Sail somewhere close by your house where the ocean gets lumpy (the Intracoastal coastal on a Saturday?). Don't plan on passing in front of the container ship in the main channel. Remember the rule of Gross Tonnage.

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Here I am at the helm somewhere near Venice.

Check Point One:

If you were to put in around Venice you would have about 20 nm to Grande Tours. You could go out a pass then back in on the way, then you could row your boat up to check point one. If you did the down the sails, out with the oars, then down with the mast drill in the dark it would be even more realistic, because it is almost certainly going to be dark when you get there on race day. (note there is a 7 sq foot "beach" to the right of the bridge going inland that you can stick your bow on while you take down the mast.

A shorter version of this would be to drive to Grande Tours rent a kayak or put your own boat in and go in and out of the channel a couple of times (seeing how it looks in the dark would be good to).

Check Point Two:

Sail from Everglades city or Chokoloskee in and out of Indian Pass, between Indian Pass and Chokoloskee and out the Chokoloskee Pass or the other pass (rabbit?) to the Pavilion Key area. If you're going inside the Everglades paddle down the trail for a while.

Check Point Three:

Flamingo is not really hard to navigate see the next one

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Oaracle at the finish line on Key Largo.

Florida Bay:

If you have never been on it, your either way smarter than I am or you don't really understand what it is like. I thought it was a bay before we got there. Forget bay; think swamp without many trees. Just a swampy muddy area with creeks flowing through it and a few ponds. Sail between Key Largo finish and Flamingo and back with no motor. You will be fine come the race. Use your motor and you will still be better off than if you have never been there. (Take way points) Enjoy, it is beautiful.

Once when you run aground in the mud get out and sink to your knees (or higher) push the boat 3 yards, catch your breath climb in boat, lay down, take your heart meds, then vow to never ever get out of the boat again. (I heard a rumor that someone trained for FL bay by sprinting through the mud pushing their boat - perhaps but are You an Olympic class athlete? Roo used a set of boards as stepping places to move his boat. I have been thinking poles might work well. I have seen rowing work. Unless you are amazingly lucky you will not be able to sail the entire distance, but you should not have to row very far.

The power boats often cannot stop, if they came off plane they would go aground. Shallow water at its best.


PS: I just finished reading the current edition of Small Craft Advisor. There is a full page advertisement for Watertribe. It says: "A life-changing experience". All I can say to that is yes.