To Part One
In Flamingo, everything was different. We were now just 27 "crow flying" miles from the finish at Key Largo. By now, the course and conditions had brutalized the majority of competitors, 11 more dropping out between Checkpoint 2 and Checkpoint 3. The field had slimmed from the original 70 to 33, just 47% of the original lineup. I, on the other hand, was starting to think we might be able to finish this. I was not enthusiastic, but I was marginally willing to continue (which was a huge improvement from my attitude at the previous checkpoints.) As evening was coming on, we decided to stay put and see that the next day would bring.
There are three routes to the finish, and sailboats generally take the "outside" route - leaving Flamingo and sailing west out to the edge of the park (and to deeper water) then down to the Keys, and running the Intercoastal Waterway along the Keys for a total about 70 miles. The "middle passage" is a bit shorter - a more southerly route from Flamingo, but it requires navigating through some channels, and if you miss the channels, you can easily end up high and dry in the mud during low tide. Shortest of all is the easterly route through the tangles passages of Tin Can Channel, Dump Key Pass, and Crocodile Drag. Much more difficult to navigate, this easterly route is the real cheese - it's the way the kayakers go and if the winds are right, you can leave Flamingo in the morning and be in Key Largo in the afternoon.
NOAA was reporting the winds would shift around to the north - or even northwest - late Thursday night - perfect for us to the easterly route. In fact, a easterly or northeastern wind would make the outside and middle passages difficult for sailboats - they'd be stuck in the narrow confines of the Intercoastal Waterway as they battled their way against the winds to make the long run along the Keys. This was looking very well for us, indeed, and we rested, ate, and re-provisioned in good spirits. Our grand plan was to sail out on the evening tide and drop a hook near Joe Kemp Key, perfectly positioned for jumping into Tin Can Channel at first light. We were going to do this thing and do it in style.
As the sun sunk into the west, we followed fellow competitors Kiwibird and Seiche (Kristen Greenaway and Denney Thorley) as they paddled their kayaks out into the gathering dusk. We sailed out and positioned ourselves to be in the lee of Joe Kemp Key just in case the winds picked up overnight. We snuggled into our sleeping gear and watched the fiery display of a magnificent red sunset, secure in the knowledge we'd be at Key Largo for tomorrow's afternoon tea. As the last of the red faded from the bottom of the clouds and we felt the wind shift form east to north, I was delighted, indeed.
Morning came not a moment too soon - we were actually up and getting ready just as the sky was beginning to lighten in the east. The winds were from the north and in the low teens - perfect for our plan. The charts indicated the channels were marked, so we began scanning the horizon for the tall, white poles that would show us the way. Our first goal was a branching of three channels: Joe Kemp Channel off to the northeast, East Foy Channel to the southeast, and the path of our desire, Tin Can Channel to the east - but we could see no markers. We stared and scanned, shielding our eyes from the rising sun just like generations of sailors had done for millennia, yet we could find nothing to mark our way. We were heading south, the direction we needed to go to find the channel entrance when we noticed we were dragging our rudder. Where the charts had said there would be two feet of water, there was about 18 inches. My GPS indicated we were near deeper water to the south, so we skimmed our way to safety and kept going. It was about this time I discovered we had missed Tin Can and entered East Foy - we were off course, going southeast instead of east, and there was nothing but skinny water all around.
We could see where we needed to go. We could see the twin spoil islands that make up Dump Keys. All we had to do was was navigate a straight line that would allow us to skirt behind Palm Key, skim the southeastern shore of Cormorant Key, pass just to the west of Curlew Key, and slide in just to the east of Buoy Key, and we'd be right back in the channel and still in Key Largo in time for skittles and beer. The charts showed depths of one to two feet, which our seven-inch draft could handle with ease. After this tiny little bobble, we were on our way to being home free.
We'd just gotten to the edge of Cormorant Key when I noticed I could see sea grass a couple inches below the surface of the water. Within a hundred yards, we grounded for the first time. I tried stepping out, but sunk up to mid-thigh without encountering any resistance in the mud. While Mike worked the sail, I got on the oars and stroked with all my might, driving us further and further into the shallows between Cormorant and Cerlew Keys. It didn't take long to exhaust myself, so I started thinking of other solutions. I tied a couple of seat cushions to the bottom of my feet, hoping to increase their surface area enough I wouldn't sink into the mud - sort of like snow shoes for the Everglades, we jokingly called them 'Glades Shoes. I hopped out and with Mike working the sail, we were able to force the boat to within about 50 yards of Curlew Key before I had completely exhausted myself and we had to call a halt to our efforts at about 11am.
We were on a dropping tide, so we sat in the boat and watched the tide go out, expecting it to come back about 6pm. It was a lovely day with temperatures in the low 70s and very light wind from the north. We spent our time quietly waiting for the tide to come back but it never did. I was particularly perplexed as I thought we ought to be experiencing a tide shift of at least two feet. Mike looked at the tide chart I had printed out before leaving home and said "Those are not foot markers on that graph, they are inch markers. We should be getting just over two inches of new water under our keel."
Two inches? Who ever heard of a tide of two inches? Two inches is not a tide, it's how much the water rises when a fat kid gets in the pool.
But the two-inch tide was not the worst of it. As the daylight began to wane, we realized what we thought had been a blessed north wind was actually a curse - the wind had blown the water from Florida Bay, and as long as the wind had any component of north to it, the water was staying out of the bay. It was beginning to look like we might be stuck for a while.
We poured over the charts and GPS to see if there was any way we could better our situation. We finally decided the best possible course of action would be to go around the north end of Curlew Key and get on the eastern side of the island - the chart showed a fishing spot there and the water looked slightly deeper.
I tried to improve my 'Glades Shoes by using fenders instead of seat cushions
The only way to move the boat was to lighten the load, and that meant getting me - the heaviest thing in the boat - out and standing in the mud. This was a very tricky proposition because the mud had the consistency of chocolate pudding and couldn't support weight in any concentration at all. I tried to improve my 'Glades Shoes by using fenders instead of seat cushions, but any improvement was incremental - I still sunk up to my mid-calf and the mud tried to suck the fenders off my feet. Getting out the boat was risky, too: the wind had picked up to where it was in the low teens and there was a very real possibility of the boat floating enough to sail away if it slipped from my grasp. If it got very far away at all, I could have been stranded, slowly sinking in the glop, while Mike fought to halt the boat and somehow rescue me.
It was very hard going, but through an enormous expenditure of effort and energy, we wrestled the boat from one side of Curlew Key to the other, where we stuck fast in the mud - same as it ever was, just a couple hundred yards difference. There was one particularly scary incident when we got to the deeper water that surrounds most keys and the boat took off while I was too weak to climb back aboard. Had Mike not been able to grab me and pull me aboard, I would have spent the rest of the adventure stuck on a two-foot by six-foot patch of mud that was the beach of the mangrove-covered Curlew Key. We gave up for the night and before turning in, heard more bad news on the radio: A cold front was coming through that would bring more northerly winds and it would drop the temperatures down into the 40s. We had gear, but the cold still affected us, making it difficult to get any real sleep at all.
Sun went down, sun came up, and we were still stuck, surrounded by nothing but miles of water so shallow the sea grass floated on top. Mike's cell phone worked (AT&T has exclusive coverage for the area around Flamingo - my Verizon phone was useless) so I called the park rangers at Flamingo to find out what our options were, and they were slim indeed. We were smack in the middle of a sensitive, protected area. The rangers needed to come out and assess the situation.
While we waited for the rangers to show up, a for-hire fishing boat showed up and we waved frantically to them. The guide came over to within about 20 yards of us and asked if we needed help. We explained our situation and asked for a tow, he said he couldn't do that (we were too far away) but he would take us off the boat if we wanted to abandon it. Since the rangers were coming anyway, and we assumed the rangers were going to provide assistance, we thanked the fishing guide and politely said no, we'd wait to see what the rangers had to say.
A few hours later, we got a call from the rangers saying they had gotten as close to us as they could and decided there was nothing they could do unless there was a medical emergency, in which case they could call the Coast Guard and get a helicopter to pick us up. If we chose that option, we would have to abandon the boat and all our gear, and the boat would be declared derelict and salvageable by anyone, once it drifted free of the protected area. Even if they could have gotten close to us, they would not have towed us ("We are not in the boat towing business" is a direct quote.) We were advised to save ourselves.
Mike called Jackie and asked her to check into things from her end. The news was not good from there, either. There is a Sea Tow franchise down in the Keys, but since we were inside the confines of the Everglades National Park, they could not come and get us without the express permission of the park service - they were even required to have a park ranger on board for the operation. Since we knew the rangers wouldn't allow anyone to come that close, we knew spending the minimum non-refundable $500 fee just to get Sea Tow to come look was a waste of money. Once again, we needed to try and figure out how to save ourselves.
There simply was not enough water in the bay and there simply was no tide. I pushed a stick into the mud and made a mark on it at the water level. In two tide cycles, the water level only changed 1/8 of an inch - and it was an 1/8 of an inch lower.
We were not idle this whole time, we were thinking and rejecting plans all the time. Scribbling in my notebook, I figured the boat displaced about an inch for each 200lbs of payload. We had about 120lbs of gear in the boat, Mike weighs about 150lbs, and I weigh just under 200. One plan was to offload all the gear and me and see if Mike could sail out to deeper water. There were two problems with this plan: First, we'd probably lose all the gear when the Coast Guard came and helicopter me out. Second, Mike wasn't too hot on leaving me standing in the mud and thirdly, there was no guarantee it would work - we were in the middle of a very large shallow area, and at one point, both Mike and I donned 'Glades Shoes (Mike in seat cushions, me in fenders) and the boat still didn't float free.
Yet another idea was to fake a medical emergency for one of us and have the Coast Guard evac that person, lightening the load and possibly freeing the boat. As heaviest, I would be the one taken off, but as noted above, this would likely have little effect on the boat's ability to free itself from the mud. Plus, what medical emergency could I fake that wouldn't land me in the hospital for expensive testing
(ultimately proving I had lied in the first place)? Asthma? Anxiety? Sure, hypothermia was a very viable option, but we only got cold at night and I wanted no part of a night rescue - helicopters in proximity to the ground is dangerous any time, but especially so after dark.
One of the more unconventional plans I came up with was to prevent anyone from salvaging the boat by setting it on fire. I had it all figured out: Use Mike's stove to catch the boat on fire so it looked like an accident, and claim that while we were able to unload all the gear, we were unable to douse the flames. The tricky part was going to be convincing the helicopter crew that taking our hundreds of dollars of gear with us was in the best interest of the national park - I mean, why litter when we have a perfectly good helicopter on which we can load everything? Mike liked this plan even less than the first one.
That night, Saturday, March 12, was supposed to be the biggest tide for the next seven days. We went to bed hoping we could free ourselves, but the tide never came, and morning brought nothing but the same: Same sun, same wind, same no water in the bay.
Behind the scenes, Jackie had been hard at work getting together a rescue mission. I had a plane to catch on Monday and obligations at home - schedules, more than anything else, have been the bane of sailors all over the world. Jackie got in touch with fellow Everglades Challenge participants, Whirlwind and MosquitoMagnet (Esther Luft and Wayne Albert) to arrange an extraction. Esther and Wayne are starting a paddle guide service called Paddle House and are on very good terms with the park rangers. Together, they created a plan to take a kayak and a canoe and paddle out to us, taking one of us and as much superfluous gear off the boat so the other could sail it back in. At the same time, Lonnie Black, who had been watching the events unfold over the internet, got his Boston Whaler, an inflatable raft, food, water, 1000ft of rope, and Jose, one of his workers, and began driving the 200+ miles from Tampa Bay to Flamingo.
Mike and I knew there were extraction plans in the works; we just didn't know when they were going to be put in place. In preparation, we pulled out all the gear and went through it, dividing it between essential and non-essential, then bundling the non-essential up into easily moved packages. After a re-examination of the charts and climbing as high up as we could on the SCAMP and assessing the possibilities, we decided we'd have a better chance sailing out to the west (more or less the direction we had come in) and trying to get back to Flamingo by going back through East Foy Channel again. To do this, we needed to be back on the other side of Curlew Key, so it was 'Glades Shoes once again and back to wrestling with the boat. We'd done this and had gotten well and truly stuck again by
At about 4:30, I noticed activity way out past Buoy Key. It took some time, but after a bit, we were able to see a kayak and canoe headed our way. When Esther and Wayne got to us, we had to decide what we were going to do. The winds had come around from the east again, so there was no hope of getting back to Dump Key Pass and going to the finish at Key Largo. Our only hope was to sail west, past East Foy Channel and on to Conchie Channel, that would eventually land us about eight miles west of Flamingo, requiring whoever had stayed with the boat to tack it against the increasing wind, at night, through the skinny waters to the docks. As unpleasant as that sounded, it was our best option, but we sent Esther out to scout the route to see how far the SCAMP was from water any deeper than where she was now. It turns out we were about 700 yards from water that could conceivably float the SCAMP.
This was discouraging news. Wayne told us the rangers had said if we anchored the SCAMP and secured all the loose bits, they would not call the boat abandoned if both Mike and I went back to Flamingo with Wayne and Esther. Mike would have to wait until the rangers told him it was OK to return to the boat, and that could be as long as two weeks, but someone would have had to wait that long for the water to come back into the bay anyhow. With very few other viable options, we loaded a large portion of our gear into the canoe, along with both Mike and I, and we headed to where the rangers were waiting out past Buoy Key, about two miles away, and, of course, dead to windward.
Three people and the gear pretty well overloaded the canoe and we scraped bottom the whole way back to the ranger boat. Wayne was standing in the front and I was in the back, both of us straining with all our might, poling the canoe along through the mud. Wayne is a professional kayaker and could really lean into his paddle while all I could do was try to keep up. This two-mile passage to the ranger boat was one of the most physically demanding things I have done in recent memory, and by the end, I would have been happy to be back on the SCAMP, waiting for the tide.
Just as we were approaching the ranger boat, we saw Lonnie and Jose were motoring their Boston Whaler up to join us. We all met at the ranger boat, and Officers Brandon and Steve were very angry with Lonnie for showing up. "I told Jackie not to let you come out here - this is dangerous enough without other people getting in the mix."
As it was, with two rangers, five passengers, a kayak and a canoe, even the ranger boat was stuck in the mud. I had to get in Lonnie's boat so the ranger boat could float free. Once we were all free and back in the channel, I was transferred back to the ranger boat (I think Officer Brandon wanted to make sure I didn't escape - where would I go? I was the mud puddle also known as Florida Bay!) and we all headed back to Flamingo - but the fun wasn't over yet. On the way back, Lonnie's engine fouled and his boat started to drift. You could almost see the steam coming out of Officer Brandon's ears. The rangers decided to take us on to Flamingo, then go back for Lonnie and Jose ("Now you two stay put once we get to shore! I have your contact information, you know!")
Back on shore, we were greeted by our enthusiastic shore crew and then went about quietly sorted out the gear while we waited for the rangers to return with Lonnie and Jose. We tried to get Esther and Wayne to take some money in gratitude for the service they performed, but they wanted nothing to do with it. "Maybe you'll be inspired to help someone else." Is all Esther would say. Both Mike and I smiled because that is how we met - my friends and I help Mike after he had capsized in Corpus Christi Bay during the 2009 Texas 200. When Lonnie came in, we tried to press money into his hands, too - if just to offset the cost of gasoline, and he refused it as well.
I returned home, but the saga of the SCAMP in the Mud continued. She was still stuck out there, all alone, and Mike and Jackie had stayed behind to rescue her. Chuck "the Duck" Leinweber of Duckworks Boat Building Supply set up a Save the SCAMP fund and donations poured in from all over the world. There is more to the final rescue of the SCAMP, but that's a story for Mike and Jackie to tell.
If nothing else, this experience has reaffirmed my faith in my fellow man. In this age of 24-hour news coverage and wall-to-wall war, famine, and disaster, it is easy to get discouraged, but all it takes is a little adventure like this and I am once again proud to be a member of the human race.
By the time all was said and done, only 30 of the original 70 starters finished the 2011 Everglades Challenge, and this 57% drop-out rate makes it one of the most difficult on record. It was only slightly better for the monohulls with five of 11 making it to Key Largo.
As for me, are my sailing days over? Well, as my drinking buddies like to say "Never again . . . until the next time."
For a nice set of captioned photos by Andrew Linn, follow this link: