Monday, March 29, 2010

Photos from Ultimate Florida Challenge at Cedar Key Checkpoint

Manitou Cruiser (Mark) (1st Place)

Whitecaps (2nd Place) and Doug

Wizard (Matt) (3rd Place) and Doug

First three finishers at the Finish on Mullet Key, Ft. DeSoto Park

Photos by Jack Bayha and Michael Collins 

Sunday, March 21, 2010

2010 Everglades Challenge

 Leaving home in the snow

The Scene
As the starting day for the 2010 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge approaches, Michael Collins (my racing partner) and I watch the weather closely.  The first few days should be ideal, with winds from some aspect of North to push us down Florida’s Gulf Coast.  This is one of the coldest winters in Florida history, and we packed a lot of fleece and our dry suits to stay warm.  This was Michael’s seventh WaterTribe Everglades Challenge and my sixth.  We will be sailing the Core Sound 20 that I built, designed by Everglades and North Carolina Challenge winner Graham Byrnes.

The Everglades Challenge (EC) is a 300 mile race/cruise down Florida’s west coast from Fort DeSoto Beach on the north side of Tampa Bay to Key Largo.  There are three checkpoints (Placida, Chokoloskee, and Flamingo) where the participants must stop and sign in.  Otherwise, the skippers must make their own decisions about going inside the barrier islands on the Intracoastal Waterway or outside on the Gulf, whether to sleep for a few hours or to keep going through the night.  It’s all about judgment and knowledge about your craft and your limits and capabilities.

The organizer of the WaterTribe, “Chief” Steve Isaac, states that "the purpose of WaterTribe is to encourage the development of boats, equipment, skills, and human athletic performance for safe and efficient coastal cruising using minimal impact human and wind powered watercraft based on kayaks, canoes, and small sailboats."

There are six classes of vessels, cruising canoes and kayaks (Class 1), racing canoes and kayaks (Class 2), canoes and kayaks with upwind sailing rigs (Class 3), monohull sailboats (Class 4), multihull sailboats (Class 5), and experimental/electric boats (Class 6). 

The Players

Like a running marathon, some participants are out front, trying to win or place high, and many just want to finish.  Double winner, Tybee 500 winner, and current record holder Bumpy (We all have “tribe names”, much like the CB radio “handles” of the 1970s; Bumpy is Jamie Livingston) is back with a new partner, Macho Man (Kenny Pierce), to race his Olympic Tornado catamaran.  SewSew (Randy Smyth), a round-the-world record holder America’s Cup skipper, is back with his 175 lb trimiran to try to break the equipment failure jinx that had plagued him the last two years.  Many regulars are returning: Kiwibird (Kristen Greenaway), SandyBottom (Dawn Stewart), and KneadingWater (Steve Bailey) were in kayaks with small sails.  Nitesong and Nitenavigator (Janet and Bob Bradford) brought along four friends in a 6 person outrigger canoe, and Ultimate Florida winner and author of Without a Paddle Sharkchow (Warren Richey) is in his kayak.  Solo monohull EC veteran sailors Lugnut (Gary Blankenship), DaveonCudjoe (Dave Combs) and DancesWithMullet (Channing Boswell) are in attendance, and double monohull sailor Jarhead (Bill Fite) was here with a new partner, HonestJohn (Jonathan Arthur).  Chief’s old Matt Layden-designed catamaran, Tridarka Raider, is here with its new owner and a bigger sail, Iszatarock (Hal Link).  Yellowthing (Meade Gugeon, the co-founder of West System Epoxy) brought his scow-like fishing platform modified into a sailboat, and another competitor, and Windwalker (Trey Flemer) brought a Matt Layden-designed expedition sailboard.


Several WaterTribers are doing the whole 1200 mile trip around Florida (The Ultimate Florida Challenge). Wizard (Matt Layden), known for his very small cruising boat designs, is here with his new Elusion, a 9 foot cruiser, and his older design, Enigma, is also on the beach for the Everglades Challenge, skippered by its new owner, Freebyrd (David Bolduc), a veteran of cruising the Bahamas in Matt’s Paradox design.  Manitou Cruiser (Mark Przedwojewski), the manufacturer of Kruger Canoes is going the whole way, as were Kruger paddlers and EC veterans Chief (Steve Isaac), Whitecaps (Toby ), SnoreBringGator (Bill Herman), and Running Mouth (Jonathan Coble).  The other Ultimate Florida Challengers were Pelican (Nick Hall) in a new Hobie tandem Adventure Island and Crazy Russian (Vladimir Eremeev) in an inflatable catamaran.  In all, there were more than 70 boats and more than 90 competitors, a new record for the event.

The Start

Friday is spent seeing old friends and setting up our boats on the beach at Fort Desoto.  The bows were set a foot back from the high tide mark, and the bigger boats set up rollers or other devices to get their boats into the water.  Competitors and Spectators walk up and down the line of boats, commenting on the designs and their variety and talking with the sailors and paddlers.  At 3 we go to the pavilion for the Captains’ Meeting.  Chief regales us with tales of stealth camping admonishes us to not quit until we are warm with a full stomach and a night’s sleep.  All of us will have doubts somewhere along the way, and it is important that we are able to make a rational assessment of the challenges and the resources.

 Ridgerunner and GreyBeard the evening before the start

Michael and I grab a quick supper and settle down to an early night’s sleep – the best we will get for at least three days.  It’s up at 4:30 AM and driving back to the beach.  We raise sail, answer the roll call, pose for the group picture, and we’re ready to go.  It’s calm just off the beach, with the island protecting us from the moderate 10 knot NE winds.  The sun breaks the horizon behind the Skyway bridge.

The word, “Go,” must have been whispered, but everyone starts to move at 7 AM just the same.  We easily slide the Core Sound 20 into the water, walk it over the bar 20 feet offshore, install the rudder, tighten the sheets, and we’re off!!  We raise the mizzen staysail and bear off a bit to the east to avoid sailing straight downwind toward the exit to the Bay at Anna Maria Island.  Behind us, Meade Gugeon in his Yellowthing scow raises a spinnaker and keeps up.  We are amazed with this turn of speed.  He is headed straight for the exit, as are the fast multihulls of MachoMan and Bumpy and SewSew.

Day One

We make our turn when we hit the lay line to the exit and carry our speed through the pass against a light incoming tide.  Yellowthing turns south just off the beach, but we draw more so we maintain our westerly course another half mile to avoid an offshore bar.  Turning south, much of the sailing field is in sight, but there is not much to do except trim sails, reapply sunscreen, and maintain course.  Graham Byrnes, the boat’s designer, had called Michael several times the previous week with advice, and we heed it staying closer to shore than we had done in the past.

The NE wind remained steady at 8-10 knots all morning, then had the expected mid-day lull as the pull of the heating shore pulled it to Northwest.  Jarhead and Honest John passed us in late morning, also flying their mizzen staysail.  Their Sea Pearl is faster than we are in light air because of its thinner profile and canoe stern, and Jarhead has become a fine sailor.
 Jarhead and HonestJohn passing
As the afternoon progressed, the wind built steadily to 12-15 knots, and the swells grew to 3-4 feet as we turned more to the east below Sarasota.  We were building speed and surfing, but feeling very confident in the boat’s ability at 8-10 knots of speed (more when surfing).  Jarhead struck his mizzen staysail and headed offshore, making it difficult to determine where we were relative to him.  By now we had realized that we were the two leading monohulls.

Off of Stump Pass we decided to go on to Gasparilla Pass before going inside for Checkpoint 1.  We did strike the mizzen staysail at this time because the seas were becoming steeper and we wanted to be in full control when entering the Pass in a few miles.  As we came alongside Gasparilla Pass, we say CaptJackOtter in his WETA trimaran waiting to see what we were going to do.

The deeper channel into Gasparilla is to the south side of the Pass, going NE just off the shore of the island.  As we neared, we saw that there were breaking waves everywhere.  The NW winds cause breaking waves, even in the channel.  We turned east most of the way to the south side and began to surf in.  I had done this with impunity in a Sea Pearl in the 2003 Everglades Challenge.  Michael yelled, “Look to your left!”  There was CaptJackOtter on a wild surf on the breaking wave to our left.  I took a quick picture with the waterproof camera on my life jacket, then threw my weight to the starboard side as our boat tried to broach.  Michael threw the helm over and we managed to get away with about ten gallons over the side.  We maintained speed and I was able to open the automatic bailer to quickly suck the water out.  We pulled back north parallel to the Boca Grande causeway, checked to make sure CaptJackOtter was OK (his rudder was broke, as he pulled onto a sand bar, but he waived us on.).  We had lost the special cleat holding down our rudder, and the rudder hold-down was broken, but we could improvise and continue on.

 CaptJackOtter surfs into Gasparilla Pass

[We later learned that the fleet behind us had suffered from the waves and wind this afternoon.  Two sailboats had turtled (all were rescued and both later recovered their boats.).  Windwalker and Yellowthing had mechanical failures and dropped out.  Chief would flip the next day off of Fort Myers.]

We beat up to the Boca Grande Bridge, and the bridge keeper was happy to open the bridge for us as we did a 360 turn in the building sunset breeze to await the opening.  Then we were able to sail up to the small beach before the Placida bridge where we took down our masts and sails.  The 8 foot high and 10 foot wide bridge just before Checkpoint 1 is an important filter in the Everglades Challenge, keeping large boats out.  The other two filters are the beach launch and the shallows of Florida Bay.

Night One

The Checkpoint only took a few minutes.  We made it in before Jarhead, who had come in at Stump Pass.  We passed Jarhead coming in as we headed out, and he passed us again as we were re-rigging.  He yelled that we were rude not to wait for him, and HonestJohn rerigged while Jarhead rowed away. 

There was no moon, and it was dark as we sailed out of Placida, trying to dodge unlighted day marks.  Because of the difficulty in seeing day marks and with winds moderating, we decided to go back outside at Boca Grande Pass. 

Once we were on the open Gulf, Michael took over the helm and I went under the dodger to get some rest.  Not able to see the waves, he had to surf the 2-3 foot waves by feel.I had a sore throat and ear ache and I was feeling a bit nauseous.  After an hour, I woke up shivering.  It was 40 degrees and Michael said he was warm enough.  We both had several layers of fleece under our dry suits and a watch cap.  I added more fleece and another watch cap and ate a granola bar, then I went back to sleep.  Winds built some over night, and Michael woke my up just after moonrise (about 1 AM) to help with reefing the sails.  I was still feeling bad, so he let me go back to sleep.

A Slow Day

About 4 AM Michael woke me up to take over, and I watched the sun lighten the earth at Marco.  At 24 hours from the start at 7 AM, we hove to raise the sails and congratulate each other.  We had never been this far this early.  This was our fifth Everglades Challenge together.  In the year we won and set a course record we were not yet to checkpoint 1 at the beginning of the second day. 

Then . . . we looked out into the Gulf.  There, with his sails catching the rays of the rising sun, was Jarhead and Honest John.  They were rowing and sailing at the same time.  They entered an unmarked passage just south of the marked Caxambus Pass entrance through what looked to us like breaking waves.  The tide was low and we were caught in the lee of the big condos.  We had to watch them pull away as we rowed and sailed against the tide in the circuitous channel.  When we finally entered the open water of Gullivans Bay, we could barely see their sails on the horizon.  Michael went to sleep and I sailed on in moderate winds.
We turned the corner at Indian Key and beat into the wind and tide, occasionally rowing, until we emerged into shallow Chokoloskee Bay.  We could see Jarhead’s sails near the Checkpoint 2 beach as we raised centerboard and rudder, got onto the lee rail to heel the boat, and reached across through the 1-2 foot water as Jarhead headed out.  In an hour we reached the checkpoint and were greeted by Leon and Denise, the Checkpoint volunteers.  We had an efficient stop, dumping trash, visiting the head, and getting an ice cream sandwich at the marina to raise spirits. 

Night Two

For the second EC in a row, we had to beat in and out of Chokoloskee against light wind and tide.  We got to the open Gulf just before sunset and turned south on light to moderate winds dead astern.  We ate something and Michael, still tired, went to sleep under the dodger as I sailed by feel in the dark, moonless night.  It was difficult to trim without being able to see the sails, but with no boat traffic, I could douse the running lights to help a little. 

Sometime during the night the main gybed and I saw the boom float by in the water.  I quickly hove to, awakened Michael and headed forward without dropping the dodger.  The snotter (my favorite sailing term) had pulled the pad-eye that held it out of the mast, stripping the threads.  I found some line in the forward hatch and fashioned a jury rig while holding onto the mast on the tossing deck.  The boat was tossing about in the confused seas and I slipped returning to the cockpit, but Michael held onto my arm and kept me aboard.

 Michael Asleep in his space blanket cocoon

The rest of the night was without any remarkable events, but it was cold and clear and beautiful.  Michael woke up several times shivering, even with his space blanket bivy sack.  We watched the sun lighten the earth as we rounded Cape Sable, and we rowed into Checkpoint 3 at Flamingo around 10, 3 hours behind Jarhead.
We spent almost no time ashore (signed in, dumped trash, and got a cup of coffee) and were off.  We sailed out of Flamingo, but we never saw the predicted N to NE 10 mph winds.  Jarhead told us he sailed across Florida Bay to the finish, but we had to beat and row the whole way.  What a difference a few hours made.

Florida Bay

We sailed through the first part of Tin Can Pass, but we were dead against the wind for the second half.  We beat to the Dump Keys, having to contend with several speed boats in the narrow pass, and we were beating again in Whipray Basin.  That is where we hit the low point of our trip. 

Beating across the seemingly featureless basin, we found ourselves behind a shallow shoal, and the only option was to go back the way we had come.  At about this time, two cat ketches with square topped sails emerged from the Dump Keys and headed north toward Crocodile Dragover.  We could only conclude that these boats were the Laguna sailed by Woodcutter and Krunch and Lugnut’s Frolic 2 (both Michalak designs).  How did they catch up – especially Gary, who was sailing solo.We rowed like crazy and finally caught them at the entrance of Twisty Mile.  They were two Outward Bound pulling boats, and we only caught them because they were stopping for the night.  What a relief!

We were able to sail and row through Twisty Mile, then row to the Jimmy Channel.  By then it was dark and a mist was forming over Florida Bay.  We could see the Keys in the distance, but the shallow maze of Florida Bay made it impossible to go directly there.  The markers of Jimmy Channel have no reflectors, so it was slow going as we searched for the next mark with a flashlight.  Then, following our GPS route in the dark with the tide way down, we ran aground trying to get to the entrance of Manatee Pass and the clear water beyond.  It seemed as though every way we went, we just got more aground.  Michael pointed out that midnight had passed and we could no longer finish on Monday.

Finally we went for Plan B.  We rowed to the small break in the bar just north of Low Key, then on to Bottle Key.  By then Michael was feeling sick (probably from dehydration), so he laid down while I sailed, nodding occasionally, on to the finish.  We landed at the finish at 3:43 in the morning.  A total time of 2 days, 20 hours and 43 minutes.  We were 5th overall (later changed to 4th because of a penalty incurred by an earlier finisher) and second in class.  It was a personal best for us.

The reward?

 Everyone who finishes gets a shark’s tooth necklace and a miniature paddle.  Those who go through the Wilderness Waterway also get an aligator’s tooth.  There are also funny awards.  Ours was The Ancient Mariner/Old Man and the Sea Award: The 2010 award went to two sailors who have been tribe members so long some of the new guys see them as dinosaurs. Sailing dinosaurs. Ridgerunner and Greybeard.  We got small dinosaurs for that

Chief always asks, “What did you learn; what would you do differently?”  I finally was giving the Core Sound 20 the respect she was due.  She always took care of us and never even almost capsized, even in the broach.  I think that she could be sailed harder than we have ever sailed her.

I would have come in at Stump or, maybe Venice, in that strong NW wind.  Too much risk of breaking something at Gasparilla in a NW wind.  And I would have flown the mizzen staysail down Gullivan’s Bay and through the second night (along with gybing in and out rather than sailing so straight downwind).