To Part Two
In 2010, I fulfilled a years long dream of participating in the Everglades Challenge in Florida - a 300 mile endurance race that starts in Tampa Bay and ends in Key Largo. I did it as crew in a sailboat; a Jim Michalak-designed Laguna that had been built and captained by master boat builder and very experienced sailor, Mike Monies. In 2010, I did it, and even though I complained and tried to drop out every day, I finished it. I put the tick in the checkbox of my list of accomplishments and vowed to never do it again.
As the old saying goes: Never say never. In August of 2010, I called Mike at his home in Oklahoma and asked him if he was considering the Everglades Challenge again. He said he had signed on as crew, but the deal had fallen through when the boat owner/captain suffered an injury, so Mike was going to do the event solo - perhaps in one of those new SCAMP boats that is being touted in Small Craft Advisor.
Mike is a good and experienced sailor, and together, we had completed the Everglades Challenge before, but I didn't think it was a good idea for him to do the challenge alone. Almost offhandedly, I offered to join with him in a sailing team - each of us in our own boat, so long as he built two SCAMPs. To this nearly impossible task (the plans were not yet finalized,) Mike readily agreed. Almost immediately, Small Craft Advisor pledged to provide the plans free of charge and sponsor us in the event - paying the $350 entry fee for each of us. On top of that, Chuck "the Duck" Leinweber, an Everglades Challenge veteran himself and owner of the excellent on-line boat chandlery, Duckworks Boat Builder's Supply (duckworksbbs.com) offered to provide all the hardware and rope required by the boats, and Dave Gray of Poilysail International offered to make sails.
All of the sudden, what had been a casual comment had turned into a plan, and from plan, into action. Mike, in constant consultation with the SCAMP's designer, John Welsford, and prototype builder, set out to build two SCAMPs in just about 100 days. As I am in Oregon and Mike is in Oklahoma, all I could do is check in on the progress every once in a while and worry about the little things - like outfitting and navigation.
Time and weather contrived to interfere with Mike's boat building, the winter of 2010/2011 was long and bitterly cold in Oklahoma. Epoxy cured slowly and paint cured not at all. Friends came and helped and Mike's wife, Jackie, documented the progress while the world watched. Eventually, it was agreed that one finished SCAMP in the Everglades Challenge was better than two unfinished SCAMPs in the Boat Palace in Oklahoma. All the principles agreed that this was a better situation as the Everglades Challenge is notoriously difficult to finish - it's not called a 'challenge' for no reason - also, the SCAMP is uniquely large for a 12' sailboat and having two men sail one in an extended expedition would better showcase the boat's capabilities.
As Launch Day approached, preparation reached a fevered pitch: food, drink, clothing, sleep systems, emergency gear, medical kits, hypothermia preparedness, communication, and each and every turn of every possible course entered into the GPS units - backed up by charts with each waypoint identified and backed up again by a listing of each waypoint printed on waterproof paper. Mike's wife, Jackie, and his mother-in-law, Pauline, were our shore crew and would follow us along our route. Ready or not, it was time.
I stepped out of the plane, into Mike's truck, and went to the hotel for my first view of the SCAMP, sitting high and proud on her trailer. Mike and I immediately set about getting her rigged and ready: Mike set about attaching they myriad 'fiddly bits' while I turned to, lashing the sails to the spars and figuring out the running rigging. We worked until after dark; then picked it up again in the morning. When all that could be done on land had been done on land, we took her to the public boat ramp at Fort De Soto and took a peek at how she floated. And she floated well indeed.
After a quick float, we loaded her up and took her to the launch beach, got some help to unload her from the trailer and position her above the high water mark, prepped and loaded to the upcoming adventure. A SCAMP can hold a shocking amount of gear - our requirements for up to an eight-day expedition left room to spare. Food, water, bags of clothing and sleeping gear - it all disappeared neatly into the dry storage areas under the seats and in the forward cuddy. We could have brought half again as much gear and still had room to spare.
The Everglades Challenge is primarily a canoe/kayak race that has grown to allow monohulls and multihulls - there is even an experimental class, so any human or wind powered boat can participate, so long as it can make it to the checkpoints and meet the time requirements. For the 2011 challenge, 70 boats were lined on the beach: 40 kayaks and canoes, 11 monohulls, and 19 multihulls, and these they spanned the gamut from high end expedition trimarans to two guys that entered in standup, sailing paddleboards, from Meade Gougeon's i550 to Roger Mann's biplane-rigged Puddlecat.
One more hot meal, one more night in a soft bed, then it was Launch Day.
There is no bell or cannon; just a collective "Whooop!"
The Everglades Challenge starts at dawn on the first Saturday of March - there is no bell or cannon; just a collective "Whooop!" has the racers push their boats down to the water. We knew with our 12' waterline, we weren't going to be winning this race, so we didn't rush our launch. With a dry weight of about 350lbs and loaded with about 150lbs of supplies and gear, we stuffed 6 inch diameter boat fenders under the skegs of the SCAMP and rolled her into the waters of Tampa Bay. We'd used this method on the much larger Laguna we used in the 2010 challenge and it works wonderfully. When not acting as rollers, we tie the four fenders to the outside of the gunnels on each side of the boat to provide additional knock-down resistance.
From the start at Fort De Soto State Park to Checkpoint 1 at Placida, we had a pretty simple navigation choice: Either go 'inside' down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) that runs between the mainland and Anna Maria island, or go 'outside' around Anna Maria and into the Gulf - and the wind makes the choice for anyone in a sailboat. If there is any north component to the wind, you take the more protected ICW. If the wind does not have a northerly component, you run outside where the waves are bigger, but you have room to tack and maneuver. For us, the winds were from the east and blowing in the mid-teens, we chose the outside. We had no trouble rounding the point of Anna Maria - even in the skinny waters between Anna Maria and Passage Key (the larger, deeper draft boats take a slightly longer run to the north of Passage Key,) but some of the others weren't fairing so well. We watched as Roger Mann battled wind and waves as he dropped first one, then the other of his sails on his Puddlecat, then hoisted just one sail and struggled on. We lost sight of him as we scooted down the coast and heard later that he had been forced to drop out before Checkpoint 1, and he was not the only one, it was proving to be a very difficult Everglades Challenge this year.
The winds were against us and the SCAMP, with her short waterline, was quickly falling behind the leaders of the sailboat pack. By 2:30, we had made it all of 14 miles and we off of Longboat Pass, at least the wind had backed to the south west so we didn't have to tack any more, but the seas became even lumpier than before as they got confused. By 4pm, we were becalmed off Big Sarasota Pass, and even though evening was approaching, we dare not risk taking the pass inside to the ICW for fear the wind would return and be from the south, forcing us to do hundreds of short tacks as we battled our way along. As the sun went down the wind indeed picked up from the south east, and we set up two-hour watches, getting ready for a long night of beating against the wind and waves. And a long night it proved to be, too. By morning, we'd barely made it to Venice Inlet, a scant 13 miles from Big Sarasota. The winds had been blowing stink all night - right in our teeth - and I was very discouraged. One of the race requirements is to reach Checkpoint 1 within 30 hours of the launch and there was just no way we were going to make it. I was ready to run the boat ashore and go home. Mike, however, was not, so we pressed on, reaching Checkpoint 1 without incident at about 3pm, where we met Jackie and Pauline, rested a bit, used the facilities, and pressed on.
I had not been alone in my feelings of discouragement, Scott Widmire, who was sailing the C12, Little Gem, had passed us in the night and made it al the way to Stump Pass by morning. As he tried to enter the pass, he was buffeted by waves over four feet tall and nearly rolled. He considered his situation long and hard, and finally decided "It just isn't fun anymore" and dropped. He was joined by 11 others, trimming the competitors to 59 boats.
Mike and I set off at about 5:30pm, and the wind was blowing strong and from the east again, and the water inside Charlotte Harbor was nasty with two-foot seas coming from any direction. These weren't 'waves' as I understood them, they were random lumps of angry water, looking for something to slam in to. I dreaded another night of fighting the elements and asked Mike to shorten sail, to which he readily agreed. Then, just as twilight was fading, I asked to reef again. Mike said "You are just like those merchantmen in the Hornblower novels, always reefing at night even when it wasn't necessary." I said I was sorry, but I felt it was necessary - the wind was coming from our aft quarter and causing the boat to corkscrew in the waves. Mike grudgingly agreed and we shortened to our final reef, and the boat steadied quite nicely.
I spent most of the night at the helm, riding the soldier's wind through Charlotte Harbor and the Pine Island Sound. I had expected to run this course during the daylight, when I could see the channel markers, so my GPS waypoints were few and far between. As the night wore on, we were making such good time I didn't really see the need to follow the great curve of the Pine Island Sound, so I kind of straightened the course out a bit. At around 11pm, we ran hard aground on some shoals - that 'shushing' sound I was hearing had been waves lapping against small mounds of fairly hard sand that were exposed by the tide. I had been watching my GPS religiously, but I had been zoomed out so far, the small islands didn't appear on the screen. It took us a good 30 minutes of vigorous struggle to free ourselves, and then we were underway again. Mike went back to sleep and I stuck to the channel, waking him when we got to the confusing area at the last bit of the sound. There was only one more moment of terror on my part: when we passed under the bridge at Point Ybel at 1am, our 17ft mast looking perilously close to underside of the bridge, just 23ft over the water. Never had five feet looked so much like five inches to me. We had to cross a fairly big patch of water after Point Ybel, shooting across San Carlos Bay to Fort Meyer, where the land curved off to the south east - into the wind again - requiring us to stand offshore a couple of miles. Never once did I doubt the capabilities of our little SCAMP - the boat floated like a Dixie cup on the waves.
An hour after sunrise, we were passing the public pier at Naples, where the Gulf Stream and Lear jets take off and land with alarming frequency - from the water, Naples appears to be a town of great wealth where the world's prosperous come to play in the sun. Later, as we approached the city of Marcos and rounded Cape Romano, I was once again confronted with the differences between Florida and my native Oregon: There was a 20 story high rise right on the beach - like 30 feet from the water. At home, the sea is an angry monster, just waiting to devour the puny works of man. In Florida, they seem to make the bottom three stories as parking and almost mock the hurricanes, taunting them to do their worst. Further evidence of this were the ruins of the Dome House at the end of Cape Romano - property that had been valued at over a million dollars in 1980 had been laid waste by hurricane Wilma and now stands rotting in the sun like an abandoned sci-fi movie set.
Evening saw us within spitting distance of Indian Key, the route into the Ten Thousand Islands and Chokoloskee, also known as Checkpoint 2. We were at the very end of the high tide, so I hit the sweeps and rowed us as far in to the channel as I could. A pair of fellow Everglades Challenge racers came up behind us in the gloom, Ocean Diva and Pelican Man (Elena Barnett and Jim Czarnowski) in a Hobie AI. They, with their pedal power continued while I suggested we tie off to and sleep until the tide change in three hours.
At 11pm, we started out again - this time with a light wind dead on our nose. I rowed while Mike steered and slowly, I watched yet another challenger slowly appear in the darkness behind us - this time, it was Dances with Mullet (Channing Boswell) in his 16' sailboat, named Mullet. We navigated the channel together, and as we exited into Chokoloskee Bay, he stayed in the marked channel while we set off on a short cut, running aground not once, but twice before finally arriving at Chokoloskee at about 2:30am - just in time to watch Boswell sail off on the next leg of the race.
This year's Everglades Challenge was proving to be very difficult for everyone involved. Of the 59 boats that had made it to Checkpoint 1 and continued, 15 dropped out. The constant battle to make forward progress was eating the competitors left and right - the starting line-up of 70 boats was now down to 44.
We slept at Chokoloskee until after sunrise, and knowing the tide was going to change at noon, stranding us at Chokoloskee until 6pm - and with only an hour of daylight after that, I was pretty sure we'd get lost trying to get navigate back out to the bay. I did not want to continue, I wanted to drop out and go home, but something (pride? resignation? obligation?) compelled me. Reluctantly - so very reluctantly - I prodded Mike to get up and get moving. He quickly refilled his cooler with ice from the nearby store, and we were off. Getting out of Chokoloskee Pass is tricky - I had nine waypoints identified for the three and a half mile pass, and I should have had 20. Still, we made a flawless exit under sail and oar in very light winds and we were back out into the Gulf by 9:30am, getting 4.5mph out of a fine, ESE wind. It was looking like a glorious day, so I laid down for a nap. The next thing I heard was "Stand by, we are about to be boarded." As Mike nodded off to leeward, and within seconds, a Park Ranger was alongside us with his boat, asking if he could grab on to us. I had been resting, sitting up in the SCAMP's 'veranda' and when I heard his voice, I came out and looked at him - the ranger seemed genuinely shocked our tiny boat could fit two people so comfortably. He quizzed us as to where we had come from and where we were going, asked to see our flares and safety gear, and let us go, but I think our encounter with him cast a pall on us - the wind soon died and the clouds began forming angry thunderheads.
Up ahead, we could see a curtain of rain and mist under bruised looking cumulus cloud formations. The NOAA weather radio was telling us to be on the lookout for waterspouts and Mike pointed out a formation that was likely to produce such a phenomenon, fortunately off to the west. I looked behind us and could barely make out a sail approaching. After a long time, it resolved itself into a sailing canoe, being rapidly paddled by the occupant. From about three miles away, I watched as this boat gained on us, eventually calling out and discovering it was captained by Whale (Bill Whale) who was on his way to Ponce De Leon Bay, where he wanted to enter the Everglades while it was still light. Without breaking his rhythm, he said his helloes, told us his story, and just kept right on going, paddling out of sight in the mists 2 miles ahead. I marveled in his strength - I'd never paddled that long or far in my life, and I like paddling.
The winds began to pick up again a puff or two from here or there - on our nose, of course - raising the requisite short, confused seas, further inhibiting our progress. Waves would come and waves would go, the SCAMP took them all in style - Mike and I both commented on how nice and dry she was. We'd spent the morning "bobbing and baking" as a bright red bit of flotsam on a wide and endless sea, making a trifling 11 miles in 8 hours, and were off Pavilion Key when we passed under our first thunderhead. The winds went from nearly non-existent to gusts over 25mph in less time than it takes to read this sentence. There was a spattering of rain with the winds - the first rain we encountered on the trip - and things looked ugly under the darkening sky and threatening clouds. As we had been trying to catch any hint of breeze, the lug sail was completely free and unreefed and while Mike was handling the tiller with ease, I was getting a little freaked. We passed that thundercloud and kept battling our way south
- tacking, always tacking, against the headwinds. By this time, evening was approaching and I did not like the looks of the clouds at all.
We changed into our nighttime clothes (warm clothes over our regular clothes, and raingear over all to keep the wind out) and Mike took first watch while I lay down to sleep. At about 10pm, we switched places and I took over the helm - unsurprised we still had strong winds directly in our face and lumpy, two-foot seas all around. Progress was still slow, and off in the distance I could see the flashing red light that identified the marker off Lostman's River. I tried holding a course towards it as well as I could, but I was getting frustrated by the long, slow, tacks. I requested we shorten sail, and Mike agreed. I passed the Lostman's River marker and sailed on until the next flashing marker at Broad Creek came into view. My watch eventually ended and I turned the helm over to Mike, pointing to the flashing marker and giving him a general compass heading. I slept fitfully as the winds increased. When I took over again, we'd passed the flashing marker at Ponce de Leon Bay and were striving for the corner of Cape Sable. I'd been sailing for about an hour before I just couldn't take the frustration of tacking any more, roused Mike, and pretty much demanded to shorten sail again.
There we were, in the blackest part of the night with a bare sliver of a moon showing through the clouds. I dropped the sail and yanked on the jiffy reefing lines - in less than 30 seconds, we had the sail ready to haul back up again. Mike was aft, I was forward, and the boat was bobbing - wallowing, really - in the confused seas. I hauled the halyard, the sail rose into place; I snubbed off the downhaul and stepped back, just as the boat pitched a bit. I stumbled into Mike and both of us fell into the cockpit sole as the wind grabbed the sail and jerked the boat around. In the blink of an eye, we were heeling over - me on top of Mike and both of us flopping and flailing. Mike shouted "Sheet! Sheet!" and just as I heard water start coming over the coaming, I popped the mainsheet and let the sail fly free. In a flash, the little SCAMP popped back up and was riding the waves like a cork in a bathtub. We'd shipped a bare quart or two - almost like nothing had happened at all.
Rather than being assured and confident in the seaworthiness of our little craft, I was badly shaken. I pretty much mutinied, more or less forcing Mike to take the helm while I pretended to be useful, mopping up the water. Without a word, I lay down on the seat, and pretended to be asleep - all the while thinking how stupid it was to be in this situation. Who was I kidding? Did I really think anyone was going to come rescue us if the boat had turtled? We were off the remotest point of Florida, over a mile from the coast of a gigantic national park. We hadn't seen any indication of civilization for hours. Had I pressed the 911 button on my SPOT satellite locator, would the signal even be received? What about the pitiful signal from my handheld VHF? The ranger station at Flamingo was still some 30 miles away. If it had been received, would anyone respond, or would they think it was a mistake made by some rube, messing about where no sensible person would ever be? If they did decide to respond, we happened to be right at the boundary to the Everglades National Park, would they argue about whose jurisdiction it was? How long would it take? If they did settle their arguments and send a helicopter, would they even see our dark red boat with a black bottom, or would we just see the helicopter search light pass over us and listen as the 'copter faded off into the distance? Why was I even doing this stupid race, anyhow? As Scott Widmire had said, all the way back at Checkpoint 1 (where I had wanted to drop out, by the way,) it certainly wasn't fun anymore, and now we were going to dump it and be pounded to flinders by these damnable lumpy waves.
I think that must be the worst part of a tragedy at sea: The time it takes for you to die. In a horrific car crash, you are out almost instantly and a fall from a cliff takes a few seconds at most, but death at sea? I doubt very many people die quickly at sea. It can take hours or days - weeks, even - all that time to sit there, remembering what you did wrong, trying trick after futile trick, hoping to better your situation, thinking about how idiotic you were to get into that position in the first place.
I was in a bad way that night. I vowed to never do this kind of stupid thing again. I'd sell all my boats, my canoe, my motors and trailer. Instead, I'll take up some other, more terrestrial activity to satisfy my masochistic tendencies - maybe I'd join my wife as a marathon runner, marathons have the same general stupidity as a long distance boat race, only you get your life changing injuries on dry land and the local fauna rarely gets a chance to feast on your innards. In short, my new philosophy was to follow those immortal words of the Randy Newman song "I will go sailing no more."
People say "Things look different in the light of day." I'm here to tell you things didn't look any different the morning of Wednesday, March 9, 2011. In all actuality, things looked worse. We still hadn't rounded Cape Sable and the winds were really blowing stink now: 20mph right from where we needed to go. The waves were worse, too. What had been two-foot waves were now three-foot waves and they were coming at us from all angles. We could see where we needed to go, and we could see how difficult it was going to be to get there. I tried to give Mike some relief at the tiller, but was so frustrated at our lack of speed, I turned the boat right around on her track and zoomed backwards - actually losing ground on that tack. Frustrated, angry, and scared, I shoved the tiller back into Mike's hands and sulked, staring at the point of land that marked the end of Cape Sable, about 3 miles dead to windward.
I have no idea what was going through Mike's mind - he is an excellent sailing companion because he rarely speaks. He just took the tiller and continued tacking our way around the point. I examined out GPS track and was enraged to see we were making just 500ft forward progress on some of our tacks. I started thinking about how I could sabotage the boat, causing the least damage while still requiring a rescue - the easiest thing would be to cut the halyard up as high as I could reach.
Out and back, out and back, out and back. Over a dozen tacks to weather the point, and when we did, it got worse. While we had been off Cape Sable, we had been in the protection of the land. Out in Florida Bay, we had unrestricted wind and waves were now hitting four feet. The SCAMP was taking it all in stride - the SCAMP was the best part of the trip, actually. Like most well designed and well-built boats, she was capable of much more than the humans piloting her. Even with all my worry and fear, I was able to marvel at how she handled - pointing very well into the wind and shrugging off the random waves. I actually got to where I enjoyed seeing her take a wave dead on her pram bow - seemingly without slowing, she'd take a hit and mash right through, tossing the water out in a wonderful, flat spray - none of which came on board. In fact, the only spray we got was when we took a hit on the aft quarter, where the coaming was the lowest. A SCAMP is a very dry boat, indeed.
Florida Bay is nothing more than a huge mud puddle, barely a foot or two deep in most spots. We had to tack deep into the bay, then come about and zoom towards the mainland to make progress towards Flamingo. I kept a close eye on both the charts and the GPS, having Mike tack any time we began approaching water that was marked less than two feet. The SCAMP draws a bare seven inches, but Florida Bay had me scared spitless and I didn't want to take any chances.
Mike had been sailing since before sunup, and we were well into the afternoon by the time we made our approach to the channel into Flamingo. The whole area is notoriously shallow, and all the powerboaters were zipping down the marked channel off to leeward. Mike had looked at the charts and the tides and was confident we could skim over the shallows, shaving a minimum of two miles off our route. We only bumped once on our approach, and we sailed into Flamingo at 3:30pm on Wednesday. Jackie, Mike's wife, was there to greet us, but she'd missed our entrance. Both Mike and I just started blankly at her when she said "Go back out and come in again - I want to get some pictures."