Like the Olympics, one of the toughest races in paddlesports only happens once every four years. On the morning of March 6, eight solo competitors will set off from the mouth of Tampa Bay on a 1,200-mile race around Florida. Canoes, sea kayaks and sailboats are allowed, with only two regulations: Boats must be light and small enough to portage, and the first competitor to get back to the starting line wins. Racers have 30 days to circumnavigate the state; the winner of the 2006 Ultimate Florida Challenge finished in just over 19 days.
The race around Florida is the brainchild of Steve Isaac, a former U.S. marine and founder of the WaterTribe, a group of marathon paddlers that have been organizing adventure races since 2001. WaterTribe's original event is the Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile race from Tampa Bay to Key Largo, which occurs at the same time as the around Florida race and a shorter, 67-mile ultra marathon. The group has also organized events in Michigan and in 2009 launched a 100-mile race in North Carolina's Pamlico Sound. Races are open to solo competitors or teams.
"We were inspired by the EcoChallenge but we wanted to create races that ordinary guys and gals could do," says Isaac, whose WaterTribe handle is "Chief". All WaterTribe members have nicknames that represent their "alter ego," says Isaac. "We have some unique characters in the WaterTribe and often you can look at their name and get some insight into them."
The Ultimate Florida Challenge was Isaac's original goal, but it took him until 2006 to work out the logistics of organizing a race around the state. With the details sorted out, Isaac will be competing in this year's event. "I was just in awe of everyone who was able to complete the race [in 2006] and I've wanted to do it ever since," says Isaac. "I'm 61 years old and I'm not getting any younger. This is something that's definitely on my bucket list."
With the navigational challenges of the Everglades, open water and unpredictable weather on the state's Atlantic coast and a healthy population of water moccasin snakes on the St. Mary's River, WaterTribe president Marty "SaltyFrog" Sullivan says competitors will have their work cut out for them. After paddling around the Florida coast counter-clockwise, the race heads inland on the St. Mary's along the Georgia border. Then it involves a 40-mile portage and 220 miles down the Suwannee River, and a sprint back down the Gulf of Mexico coast to the finish line at Tampa Bay. Along the way, competitors will pitch tents or string hammocks for the night.
"Sleep and food management are big deals," says Sullivan. "They can stay in hotels or motels but that takes too much time and there's always the lure of sleeping too long."
The majority of competitors in the 1,200-mile race will paddle partially decked canoes with sailing rigs, a design made famous by the late long-distance paddler and canoe-builder Verlen Kruger. This year, Sullivan says the WaterTribe website will contain regular updates from race competitors, videos and real-time tracking of competitors using SPOT global positioning systems.
Sullivan, who will compete in the 300-mile Everglades race, says all WaterTribe events are non-competitive, with the objective being completing the race. All that's awarded to the winner are bragging rights. Adds Isaac: "Everyone in the WaterTribe are kindred spirits. It's a race, but we're all looking out for each other."
- Conor Mihell
Keep pace with the race at www.watertribe.com