Rides: Mary Mangiapia’s Epic 18X Sport

Katie McKy

Meet the shark-bitten boat that took Mangiapia around Florida


Mary Mangiapia with the Epic 18X Sport that took her around Florida.
Mary Mangiapia with her Epic 18X Sport. Photo by Bobbe Belmont

  All photos courtesy of Mary Mangiapia unless otherwise noted.

The sleek rudder of Mary Mangiapia’s Epic 18X Sport might look Lamborghinish to us, but to a hungry, six-foot bull shark, it apparently looks finny or fishy. Sharks have taken a chomp at kayaks before, but this one liked the taste of the Epic’s Kevlar so much, it returned for seconds. Mangiapia of Tampa, Florida, fled for shore and safety, though later in her trip, the shore would prove to be equally eventful when a pelican seized her paddle as she was attempting to launch. From the moment she set out to become the first woman to paddle the 1,500-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Traila government-led program highlighting campsites on a continuous route around the state’s entire coastline–the 28-year-old sea kayaker knew adventure was to be expected. In addition to the harrowing sea-life encounters on the 100-day journey, wind took a toll on her traveling time, as did her 140 pounds of gear. Still, she managed to knife through an average of 25 miles of surf each day as she successfully circled Florida.

CanoeKayak.com: Your shark wasn’t the first to taste an Epic 18X Sport, right?

Mary Mangiapia: Freya Hoffmeister used the same make and model to paddle around Australia. Her boat was attacked by a Great White Shark, but it also came through it just fine.

Do you have any plans for your shark-scarred rudder? I don’t know if I’ll get to keep the boat, but I’m tempted to pull the rudder and keep it as a souvenir. I just wish he’d left me some teeth in it too.

Epic 18X Sport rudder after being damaged by a bull shark.
Epic 18X Sport rudder after being damaged by a bull shark.

You had the shark and pelican attack, but you must have encountered some critters that weren’t lunging with teeth and beak.

I was going through this bad storm in a wildlife refuge. It was raining so hard that I couldn’t even see the coastline. The waves were breaking over my boat and on my body when these dolphins appeared and stayed with me for a couple hours. I’d seen dolphins every day; they’d come and go, but these dolphins stuck with me in the storm, even jumping beside me. Other times, I saw manta rays leaping and hitting the water like a bomb, sea turtles, and cannonball jellyfish, which fascinated me. They were heavy like basketballs in the water, and there were so many in places that you couldn’t paddle without hitting them. I once scared a manatee and it almost knocked the boat over. I would paddle at night sometimes, so I saw the bioluminescence of microorganisms that make the sea glow; that was incredible. Ironically, I never saw a black bear in the wilderness, but I did see one walking by as I was coming out of the women’s bathroom in a very nice RV campground.

Chomping at the bit: Pelican clamps down on Mangiapia's paddle.
Chomping at the bit: Pelican clamps down on Mangiapia’s paddle.

Is loading a speedster like the Epic 18X Sport with an expedition’s worth of gear a little like putting a roof rack and luggage on a sports car?

Well, they’re primarily racing boats, but they’re also used for endurance and expedition precisely because they’re very fast boats.

Cannonball jellyfish.
Cannonball jellyfish.

How did it perform given its load and the demands of so much wind and water?

It’s just a great boat. I was sponsored by Epic, so they loaned me the boat for the trip, but I’ve owned an Epic 18X Sport since 2007. My version is lighter, but the expedition layup I used has Kevlar and carbon fiber in the bow and stern and is built more heavily than a standard Epic. I liked its comfort too. Of course, it’s not maneuverable like a play boat. It’s all about moving forward fast. It’s got a plumb bow. A lot of kayaks have a sweptback bow. The 18X looks like a racing yacht’s bow. It’s skinny with a 22-inch beam and only extends 19.75-inches at the waterline, so it’s a very efficient kayak. I could easily cruise over four knots. At times, I paddled alongside a motoring sailboat and could comfortably chat with them. That speed wasn’t me; that was the kayak.

Sunset in camp.
Sunset in camp.

You mentioned storms.

I had a lot of stormy weather. I’d used this kayak before in bad weather, so I knew how it’d respond. When I saw a big storm coming, I didn’t have to worry about the boat. It has a rudder that comes down like a skeg because it’s tucked up underneath, so the rudder remains in the water even when the waves get big. However, it turns like a rudder. You just have to watch it like you would a skeg so it doesn’t jam up.

Sunset on the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail
Radiant clouds on the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.

Where did you sleep?

I’d usually camped on spoil islands. They’re essentally the excess mud and rock that are left over when they dredge out a channel, but they’re nice for camping because trees and plants grow on them. I never had anybody bother me on the islands. I also camped in state parks and the occasional RV park or stayed in a motel or with friends, but it was mostly camping. I felt safe in the Everglades because there are so few people there. It was the off-season and was supposed to be hot and buggy, but I caught a breeze, so it was paradise.

Any advice for other women contemplating a long distance solo trip?

Don’t be afraid. You will be alone out there, so you have to be self-sufficient, but that’s okay. Don’t worry about the people. Use common sense, but it’s not the big, scary world you see on TV. I hated turning the TV on whenever I’d land because it’s nothing but horrible news and so far from the reality I was living. There are a lot of good people out there. There’s not a boogeyman around every corner.


Watch the embedded video Mary Mangiapia took of the bull shark coming back to her kayak for seconds: