By John Haugen-Wente
Navigating by night in backwoods Florida is a prerequisite for success in the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile “adventure race for small boats” from Tampa Bay to Key Largo. It’s like paddling into a black hole. There are no earthly lights, only the twinkling of stars in the sky. It’s eerie, magical and still. You’re suspended in your own world of motion, always moving forward, trying for the coveted shark’s tooth prize that’s awarded to all finishers. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done,” is a common refrain amongst its sleep-deprived finishers. The WaterTribe website spells it out: “You should be an expert kayaker and/or sailor before you consider this challenge.”
On the Water
Every racer has his or her “Tribe” name. Mine’s YukonJohn and my paddling partner’s is GreySmile. Our goal is to finish; we have no illusions of winning. That honor will be awarded to the superhuman. Ninety-two catamarans, monohulls, sailing- and nonsailing-kayaks, rowing shells, and multiple crafts inspired by their builders’ imaginations gather at the starting line in Fort DeSoto State Park in Tampa Bay, on March 2. The starting bell rings at 7 a.m. In the back of everyone’s mind is that fact that we have until 10 a.m., on March 10 to reach Key Largo, 300 miles away.
The water is unusually kind as we head five miles across Tampa Bay to Anna Marie Island. Seas build in Sarasota Bay and I reef the sail as we surf down the waves, ruddering with our paddles. We cover 60 miles to Stump Pass, the first checkpoint, by 8 p.m. After a meal we’re back on the water, headed in complete darkness toward Dom Pedro Island. Cruising along by GPS, chart and compass, we run headlong into a rigid navigational aid marking shallow water. The crunch jolts me. Like a dagger to the heart, I know I’ve destroyed my sail rig, and possibly our boat. We limp ashore and set up camp.
The light of day reveals a pleasant surprise: The center crosspiece of my sail rig is broken in two, but all other parts seem solid. Gorilla tape welds the busted parts together. We nickname our boat “Broken Wing.” Today’s weather promises another exhilarating downwind run. We’re aiming for Picnic Island. We sail until it seems too dangerous in the following seas, and then paddle to our camp for the night.
The next morning we dawdle, and we pay for our slow start when we take a wrong turn at Indian Pass. There’s little celebration when we finally make it to Checkpoint 2. GreySmile says he’s done. He’s exhausted, cold and sore. I don’t question his decision, just numbly say okay. The race director clears me to continue solo and I rig the boat for single-handling. I sail through the Wilderness Waterway at the whim of the wind, through Sunday, Oyster, Huston, and Last Huston bays. Late at night, I’m greeted on a dock by 12 headlamps—an Outward Bound group. “We have plenty of room for an extra tent,” says the instructor. Thank you.
I’m back in the Gulf, sailing and singing Jimmy Buffet and Beach Boy songs under a cloudless sky, aiming offshore for Cape Sable. I end this glorious day camped just past the Little Shark River, setting up for once in daylight.
The Final 40 Hours
After days of sailing my luck has run out. Now I’m faced with paddling a 22.5-foot tandem kayak solo, into the wind. I’m buoyed by the greetings of friends at Checkpoint 3. Back on the water, Dolphin Gal, a three-time Everglades Challenge finisher, waits for me and proposes we join forces to conquer the 35-mile crossing of Florida Bay. We prepare for a marathon to the finish line.
Florida Bay is probably one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. It’s all mudflats and mangrove islands—a navigational nightmare. There’s no possibility of exiting your boat without sinking waist-deep in mud. In total darkness, we’re illuminated by millions of stars, the only sounds, the splashes of sea life and the rhythmic dipping of our paddles.
It’s a welcome relief when the sun peeks above the horizon. Six miles from the finish, I get stuck in the mud. I step out of my boat and sink to my thighs. I try again on my knees, and crawl my boat (renamed “The Beast”) for 100 yards. The wind has picked up and Dolphin Gal has disappeared. I hail her on the VHF: “We are on our own.” I can’t turn my boat into the building wind so I head for the nearest town—Fort Largo—eight miles from the finish. My race is over, I think, as I eat an entire pizza. I prepare to take a taxi to the finish line.
But then Whitecaps, a longtime elder WaterTriber, stops me in my tracks. He insists I get my sissy butt back into my pee and saltwater-encrusted wetsuit and paddle to the finish line. Inspiration enough. It’s 10 p.m. by the time I’m ready to get back on the water.
Mercifully, the wind has calmed. Heading up the coast in pitch darkness, my map having blown away in yesterday’s gale, I land for a break—without realizing I’m about 100 yards from the finish line. I’m confused, disoriented and sleep deprived—how else to explain the fact that I turned around and paddled in the wrong direction? I’m hallucinating: I see Christmas lights and people dancing to jazz—I can actually hear their laughter. I drift off. My spiritual journey ends the next morning when, after eight days and two hours of intense effort, I land at the Bay Cove Dock—the finish—3.5 hours ahead of the cutoff. Finishing was winning. I wear the shark’s tooth around my neck with pride.
— As told to Conor Mihell. Check out the final results from the 2013 Everglades Challenge.