My morning started all too early as people started stirring around me at sunrise. I tried to ignore the noise and sleep a little longer but it was just too noisy and I had the urge to continue on. Now I know why Pelican stopped briefly to check in and then headed out to find a quieter place to sleep. I rowed away from checkpoint 1 around 9am and set sail towards Charlotte Harbor. On the way to Charlotte Harbor I eyed some beautiful looking beaches on nearby islands wishing I had stopped there for some sleep. The wind was 10 to 15 from the Northeast.
Leaving Grand Tours. John Bell (aka MisterMoon) watches from the dock. He could only afford enough time to do the Ultimate Marathon which stops at Grand Tours.
I decided to cross Charlotte Harbor well to the east of the Boca Grand pass hoping to avoid the worst of the wind and tide driven waves. The crossing was bumpy but I made good time and crossed over a sandbar into the calmer waters of Pine Island Sound. As soon as I reached these calmer waters the winds decided to take a break and I made slow progress under full sail.
I have only been to Pine Island Sound one other time for the Usseppa Island Catboat rendezvous but I had been looking forward to sailing through again. Only, it is a very long bay from North to South especially when you are limping along at 2 mph and getting tossed by powerboat after powerboat. My mast step didn’ t like the light winds and tossing wake so I decided to sail over to a small white sand beach I saw in the distance. Besides, by this time I was feeling the full effect of a lack of sleep. Here is where I learned how shallow Florida waters can be. I struggled through some very shoal waters only to reach a sand beach rich in mud and bugs. I made a quick adjustment to the mast step and waded across a half-mile of shoal sand, mud, and smelly weed to get back out on the sound.
This short ugly stop persuaded me to keep going later that day instead of seeking a stopping point along Pine Island Sound like so many other Watertribers had. Besides, a call to my wife revealed Lugnut, Crank, Greybeard, and Ridgerunner making great time along the open gulf coast past Sanibel Island. So, I decided to struggle onward in favor of making distance over rest….what an interesting choice. Again, my unwillingness to take down my mast proved a liability as I sailed a couple of miles further than those other competitors to cross under the taller span rather than crossing under the first opportunity. I don’ t know if this had any impact as once I got past the bridge to Sanibel the winds continued to be light and I was only making around 1.5 mph as the sun set. Soon, I found myself dozing off. This was not a good thing as I didn’t want to fall asleep only to wake up and find myself in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico! So, I started munching on snacks, drinking water, and slapping myself silly to stay away as I searched for a good stopping point. At one point I bit down on a capsule of Dayquil and was greeted by the worst bitter taste it had ever been my miss-pleasure to experience!
I finally made it to Big Carlos Pass just south of Fort Myers Beach and turned to head in….only….the tide was coming out and I couldn’t make progress against it. I made a landing a little ways from the pass on Lover’s Key and then towed the boat back towards the pass to get a little protection from the bars that had developed at the mouth of the pass and prepared to get some well-earned sleep. It was 2am in the morning again.
Tuesday, March 6th
Morning I awoke to a lot of curious shell-seekers eyeing my little yellow boat parked on the beach. I was amazed at the number of people walking around. Made it hard to take some of the more personal steps in preparing to get underway but I did get everything packed away and shipshape. It was around 7:30am by the time I got underway and I felt great! What a difference a couple of hours of good sleep made! The winds were still light and coming from the Northeast but were predicted to fill in and swing out of the East. I figured this was a good thing as I could sail along in the lee of the beach and make good progress. It would make the trip East into Chokoloskee Bay a bit difficult however. However, I was still optimistic as I talked to my wife that morning and heard that I was in the middle of the pack! Amazing how heartening it is to hear that there are people behind you.
Launching off of the Lover’s Key proved to be just about as challenging as landing there as by now the tide was coming in. I jumped in the boat, put up full sail, and employed the oars but all of this wasn’t sufficient to break free of the tide flowing into Big Carlos Pass. In fact, the pass was threatening to suck me in! So, I landed the boat back on the beach, grabbed the painter, and walked the boat a half mile South on the beach saying high to all of the shell collectors I passed. Finally, when the boat started sailing faster than I could tow it (I had left the sail up), I jumped in and was off. Once again, the winds were very light and I was making slow progress so I decided to sail out from shore and the wind interference of buildings.
This slow sail lasted for about an hour then the promised East winds suddenly came with a vengeance. I started angling back to the beach as a short and nasty chop developed, the absolute worst kind for a Puddle Duck Racer. I quickly reefed in my full sail but not quite enough as the winds started gusting to 40mph. I was thinking of reefing more but was desperate to bash through the chop and get to the calmer waters near shore. That is when it happened, a huge gust hit me around 90 degrees to the wind, my bow dug in, and ECduck did a slow majestic roll onto her side. I found myself floating in a spreading pile of debris next to my boat. Yes, I hadn’t tied in my stuff being more paranoid about getting tangled in extra ropes than losing something during a capsize. Besides, I hardly ever capsize being a cautious sailor to a fault!
ECduck floated high on her sides thanks to the side airboxes I had designed into her. In fact, she floated a little too high as the heavy east winds tried to blow her all of the way over! I swam around the boat wanting to right her but, oddly, still took the time to notice how well the graphite in the epoxy had protected the bottom from the sharp shells on the beach. I slid out the bottom-most leeboard, then stood on it grabbing hold of the top-most leeboard and ECduck quickly came upright with less than a gallon of water in her cockpit. I grabbed the painter and the handle on front of the boat and started grabbing at items starting with my handy bilge pump not realizing how little water there was in the boat thanks to my design. Having grabbed everything nearby, easily levered my body into the boat, hit the help button on my SPOT satellite locator and started assessing the situation.
It was amazing how quickly the wind started pushing ECduck out into the Gulf of Mexico. I was probably sailing sideways faster than I had sailed forward all that morning! In fact, I was quickly catching up with my clothes bag and bathroom bag but was a bit too worried about an unintended visit to Cuba to worry about grabbing them. I slotted the rudder back in, it had come loose during the capsize, unrolled a bit of sail and starting making my slow way back to shore battling unexpected gusts all of the way. I am glad I was able to sail back as there was no way I would have made progress rowing against the strong wind! I landed on the public beach at Wiggins Island and made some calls to reassure people I was alright.
Being shaken by the capsize, tired from battling the winds to the beach, and still not totally caught up on sleep, I made the decision to pull out of the Everglades Challenge. I rationalized at the time that I had lost too much gear and wouldn’t be able to make the second checkpoint in time so would be disqualified. Might as well pull out where I was. I realized later that being in the middle of the pack I was fairly protected from being disqualified and this was supported by the later (and unheard of) extending of the deadline. I also realized after a good night sleep that I may have been able to make it by the deadline if I had stuck close to shore as planned. Still, I had outlasted all but two class 4 boats in what turned out to be the hardest Everglades Challenge ever.
A sorting of my gear on the beach revealed I had lost my clothes, bathroom bags, and a little bit of food but all of my essential electronics and other items had stayed with the boat. Soon, a very helpful Everglades Challenge watcher who owned a boat rental business in Wiggins Pass came out and gave me a tow in, a beer, and a parking spot for ECduck on his floating dock until I could get my trailer and retrieve her. Pat Johnson came by and gave me a ride to the nearest Walmart where I bought some new clothes and changed in their dressing room. Then we rode back to Tampa where I checked back into the Magnuson Beach Hotel where the real bed and a good night sleep were very welcome!
Wednesday, March 7th
In the morning, after a wonderful night’s sleep and a great breakfast, I drove back to Wiggins Pass to collect ECduck. When I took down the mast I found my light was gone and muddy sand was packed in the sleeve. This told me the mast had been hitting the bottom which is why the boat didn’t go over! In fact, it was so shallow I might have been able to stand on my tiptoes. I definitely could have tossed my anchor out and had some more time to collect myself and my gear after righting the boat. Did I mention that I hardly ever capsize so am not quite used to it? So much for my feeling of surviving in the face of extreme hazard! Heck, I am probably in more danger driving the freeways of Atlanta than I was capsized off the shore of Naples Florida.
After loading up ECduck on the trailer I decided to take the drive out to Flamigo and Checkpoint 3 since I already had taken the week off of work. Might be the only way I would reach CP3 I thought gloomily at the time. However, as I drove I thought about all of the lessons I had learned from this Everglades Challenge and how rewarding and fun the whole event was despite the challenges. I realized how well all the rules and requirements of the Everglades Challenge made me prepare for and survive the challenges I encountered. I started thinking the unthinkable….how about next year?
At Flamingo I spied Lugnut’s boat Oracle tied up to the dock with Lugnut and Crank sorting through a pile of wet smelly gear. We visited for awhile and talked about all of the challenges faced until twilight came and an amazing number of biting mosquitos descended. I learned from them and Noel Davis, who was manning the checkpoint, that Greybeard and Ridgerunner had also capsized in their Coresound 20 but, unlike ECduck, had broken a mast on the bottom so were out of the challenge. At the time we thought Oracle was the only class 4 boat left not realizing that Leatherlungs was still making way in his sailing dory. I slept well in my van that night.
Thursday, March 8th to Sunday, March 12th
Next morning I saw Oracle off in very light winds. Lugnut was disappointed as the East winds would force him out and around Florida Bay rather than sailing straight across. I left driving and made my way to the Finish Line at the Bay Cove Motel in Key Largo. It is amazing how far you have to drive in order to make your way around the Everglades National Park!
I arrived in Key Largo and checked into the wonderful little Pelican resort right next to the Bay Cove Motel. There were a lot of people to visit with and a lot of discussion going on about the difficulties of this year’s Everglades Challenge. After awhile, I felt the call of the beautiful waters and the nice wind and found myself launching ECduck for some more sailing. I had it in my mind to sail out a bit and meet some of the watertribers coming in. However, my hands still hurting from hauling on ropes quickly eroded my determination and I asked and got permission to park ECduck on the finish beach. I admit, it was kinda fun to see the amazement on people’s faces as they sailed up to the finish line only to see the ECduck had beaten them! I was quick to tell them it only had because it came half of the way by road. Lugnut and Crank came in on Oracle around midnight and I helped them check into their room and left Lugnut to his ritual of packing up the boat.
ECduck at the finish line. Never mind how it made the last 150 miles to arrive there!
Friday was a day of relaxation as I spent time with Lugnut, Crank, and the other watertribers who had made it to the finish line both by boat and by car. Instead of making the twelve-hour round-trip to retrieve Oracle’s trailer, we decided to try and load both boats onto ECduck’s trailer. It took some engineering but we got both boats on the trailer and turned in early that evening. Next morning, we rigged trailer lights on top of Oracle, packed up, and made our way to the Everglades Challenge awards ceremony. Lugnut and Crank won class 4 doubles and Leatherlungs arrived Sunday to win class 4 singles. It was during this ceremony that I realized if I had continued on and didn’t encounter any other problems I could have possibly won class 4 singles…in a puddle duck! To be fair, Leatherlungs was slowed down by a visit to the hospital for some stitches and did continue on despite this.
ECduck and Oracle at the finish line.
On the drive back to Tampa where we were to load Oracle on her trailer we talked about next year’s Everglades Challenge. I realized then that I was addicted and would return!
John Wright (aka Crank) sailing ECduck in Key Largo
Gary Blankenship (aka Lugnut) sailing ECduck in Key Largo.