the website of Greg Stamer

KayakVagabond — Everglades Challenge 2020

Posted by Greg on April 18, 2020

I nudged the right rudder pedal and reminiscent of a vintage fighter plane peeling off to dive, my kayak heeled over as the bow dropped sharply into the wave trough just ahead of me. The acceleration was instantaneous. I had to stand on my foot-pegs and lean back to keep the bow from pearling. Soon I was surfing faster than my arms could spin;  I even stopped paddling completely — holding the paddle blade skimming just above the water ready for a low brace. The GPS recorded 11 mph as my exuberant shouts of “Woo Hoo!!!” were drowned-out by the wind!

I was in the deepest part of Tampa Bay, about 5 miles from the starting beach with still a mile and a half to go to reach the shelter of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) near Anna Maria island.  During the crossing my speed was averaging 5, 6, and even 7 mph. The conditions were such that I could point my bow into the next wave trough and surf almost at will — although not always directly toward my destination, weaving a zig-zag path toward Anna Maria.

Due to high winds the 2020 Everglades Challenge (EC), a 300 mile small boat race from Tampa to Key Largo, did not start at 7 AM March 7, as scheduled. Roll-call came and went as the darkness faded and paddlers gritted their teeth into the wind. Launch day is always exciting, but waiting is torture, especially when you aren’t certain when, or even IF, you will race that day. Anticipation, excitement, nervous energy, adrenaline and even boredom ran their course. Each hour Chief (Steve Isaac) notified us if we might be starting soon; “Maybe in an hour”.

After a punishing three hour delay we were finally given the conditional go-ahead to start! Optionally, plan “B” was also in effect. If you preferred, you could start south of Tampa Bay to avoid the long open-water crossing.  I really didn’t consider Plan B. Although there were large, lumpy waves on the horizon I have experience in these conditions, my roll is strong, and I was ready to GO NOW!

At 10 AM a sailboat just to my left proceeded to launch and cheers erupted from the beach.  I quickly dragged my kayak into the water.  Our efforts were short-lived as Chief, who was patrolling the beach, shouted in no uncertain terms for us to cease and desist as the shipping channel was not completely clear.  Deflated, I pulled my kayak back to the high-tide mark, and the sailboat, still being berated by Chief, struggled to get back up the beach.  At 10:18 AM, with no starting horn (or bagpipes as in the past), boats started to launch.  The captains started tentatively at first, and then with more confidence. After having one false-start already, I cautiously looked up and down the beach before joining, and then dragged my kayak over the sandbars and into the bay.

Once off the beach, the flood of emotions quieted, and all attention was focused on the crossing. What I love about expeditions and long events like the EC is that you live fully in the present, wave by wave. Life is simplified and you adopt a laser focus. You aren’t thinking about work, retirement funds, or the Corona virus. You become a seabird in the wind, or a dolphin surfing a wave. The ultimate state is when you’re fully in the “zone” and perform without thinking, your mind and body are fully engaged and the miles fly by. By contrast, the opposite is feeling that you’re crawling, bored, you watch each mile tick by on your GPS, you dwell on everything that hurts and want to be anywhere else. Mentally you’re a bored toddler. A lot of long distance training is to discover how to prevent and stop this negative thinking before it devastates your performance. I find that counting strokes, paddling for a while with eyes closed, and music will keep “the brat” at bay.  Much of the challenge is mental.

Tampa Bay had strong quartering winds requiring solid sea kayaking skills, but the conditions weren’t as chaotic as in 2015, the year the event was cancelled due to high winds colliding with a strong current. Surfing conditions were much better this year. Unlike 2015, I never had to fight the kayak from broaching and only twice did I stall in a trough, allowing the following wave to flood the deck. Fortunately my Reed skirt was bone-dry.  Surfing comes with a price — I could feel my heart rate skyrocketing and had to force myself to slow my pace and my breathing. You don’t want to go anaerobic – too hard and too fast, especially so early in the race. That can lead to a bonk or worse.  While it’s common to see kayakers sprinting off the start beach (and it’s understandable considering all the pent-up-adrenalin) you don’t win a 300 mile race by being the first across the bay, or the first to checkpoint one. However, the race can certainly be lost there, quickly, if you don’t settle into a sustainable pace.

Sarasota Bay is big water and was lively but it wasn’t the washing machine like some years — where reflected waves around the bridges can have your eyeballs on sticks.  Approaching the big Ringling causeway bridge, and appearing like an ant at the top of the span, I sighted my partner Pauline (aka “Bridge Walker”) who was waving enthusiastically. Pauline drives from bridge to bridge, taking pictures and yelling encouragement as I pass beneath.  If you see her, then you know I’m close by somewhere! At one bridge meeting I thought Pauline shouted “Bobby’s on your tail”, and I upped my pace. Later I turned, expecting to see “JustKeepPaddling” (Bobby Johnson), but instead found Bob Waters (BustedRudder), closing in. Over the next few hours we would draw close and chat, separate, and then repeat.  Neither of us were looking to form an adhoc team (although we could have gone significantly faster had we drafted) and neither wanted to be a remora. After trading the lead several times, we finally relaxed our concerns, and paddled together for awhile. After Sarasota Bay we spied IronBob and TheJuice (Robert and Druce Finlay). Their black double kayak was beached, and they were working on their sail. They launched immediately as we came into view. Already this year had been unusual, with the lead pack close together. By the time it was over, each of the first three kayaks that finished would have all been in the lead at some point.

As you paddle long distances your energy ebbs and flows. Sometimes you feel like you could sprint all the way to Key Largo and your mood soars, and at other times it feels like you can’t lift your paddle for another stroke and look enviously at sailboats, powerboats, and yes, even jet skis.   As you navigate the ICW your speed also varies as you approach and pass each inlet, and it’s give and take.  For example, passing Blackburne Bay and approaching Venice Inlet the quartering wind and unfavorable current slowed our progress. The water was flooding into Venice Inlet and then branching out in all directions. Once past the inlet we got a “turbo” boost, and our speeds rose back up to 5-6 mph again.

Bob was having issues with sciatica that had started before the EC, making it painful for him to sit in the kayak. As darkness fell he announced that he wasn’t going to make it to CP1; he had to stop for the night. After a quick goodbye he paddled off to explore Snake Island.  I continued alone and was surprised when he came alongside again ten minutes later.  I was joking but half serious when I asked, “Damn! Is my cruising speed so slow that you can catch me at will?”  Bob stopped for the night at the boat ramp near the highway 41 bridge at the start of the Venice canal.  This is also where Pauline normally starts her run along the entire length of the canal, shadowing my kayak, but not tonight. Due to the delayed start it was already dark and she was heading to checkpoint one.

I had a boost from the tidal current in the Venice canal and was occasionally hitting 7mph (the best assist in the “ditch” I’ve had). It was dead quiet, with the waters illuminated by the moon.  There had been no power boats for over an hour, when my headlamp reflected off something coming toward me.  I couldn’t figure out the scale of it, or what in the world it was.  Was it a tall sailboat far away or something small right in front of me? Moving fast or slow? The reflection moved in an eccentric figure-8, going down to the waterline, to above the horizon and back down. As we passed I finally discovered it was a SUP going the opposite way. It was odd to me that someone would be paddling the ditch at this time (or any time for that matter) — “Watertribers aren’t the only crazies out here tonight”, I thought.  It was only after the EC that I learned that “Plan B” for the Ultra Marathon had an option to start from Cape Haze (CP1), head north and circumnavigate Snake Island and return to CP1 (going through the ditch twice).  I had seen Flamingo (Whitney Sanford).

Reaching Stump Pass and nearing the end of Lemon Bay the waterway narrows abruptly. WindwardMark and LeewardLauren (Mark Rowe and Lauren Fry) were close, tacking in their sailing canoe. I frequently lowered my gaze to allow my headlight to illuminate my kayak deck, hoping they could clearly see me.  Landing at the tiny beach at checkpoint one, 11:30 PM (Saturday 3/7), I was the first solo kayak to arrive. I tied off to the same mangrove root as Mark and Lauren, grabbed my transition bag and headed for the checkpoint.  I was surprised to see IronBob and TheJuice’s tandem kayak just off the narrow trail through the mangroves, with their bivy camp nearby.  Seeing their camp made me recall something Robert said the day before, “You have to sleep at some point. We sleep when the currents are against us, and go when they are in our favor”.

Pauline was helping at the checkpoint, we shared a hug, and she handed me a hot bowl of Ramen noodles. I was on my second bowl when Bobby Johnson arrived. We shared a few laughs as we recounted our stories of surfing on Tampa Bay and downed our soup. Bobby had a lightning-fast transition — I didn’t see him fill any water or even head to the bathroom.

I was pondering my strategy – how far to go for the night, where to rest.  Normally I arrive at CP1 at 7 PM and now it was almost midnight. Complicating things even more was that we would lose an hour at 2 AM to daylight savings time. I had made prepared schedules, to solve the chess game of when to sleep to take the most advantage of the major tidal currents. I even prepared a schedule for a two hour delay, having watched the weather patterns earlier in the week.  Unfortunately my carefully prepared schedules were virtually useless due to the three hour launch delay.  Improvisation added uncertainly but made the event more interesting in many ways, and a better challenge.

Some years I prefer to paddle through the first night, thinking that I’m as fresh as I’ll ever be, but I had slept poorly the night before the race, and was already dragging. The question was where to stop. Matlacha, that has a fantastic water park, was still a good 23 miles away. I prefer to wake to the sunrise but it would be daybreak by the time I got there. My choices narrowed to Bokeelia, on the northern end of Pine Island, or somewhere in Bull Bay. I figured nearby sites such as Hoagen Key, near CP1 would be too crowded.

The current in Charlotte Harbor went slack at midnight, but by the time I reached Bull Bay I was fighting the wind AND the current. I decided rather than crossing Charlotte Harbor and fighting the maximum current (3.4 mph) that I would rest 4 hours and sleep during the worst of the current. I reached Cayo Pelau at 4 AM (Sunday 3/8).

Heading to CP2; Haunted Cayo Pelau

BustedRudder had told me about stopping at Cayo Pelau with JungleJim (James Collins) during a previous EC.  I had scouted it on Google Earth creating waypoints for promising sites with white-sand beaches.  I had explored there before, decades ago, with my sea kayaking buddies.  At that time there were strange carvings in gumbo limbo trees and treasure hunters had dug a number of crude pits into the white sand, shored-up with rotten wood beams.

Local legend (long disputed) has it that the pirate José Gaspar (Gasparilla), died in the waters off Charlotte Harbor while attacking the USS Enterprise, that had disguised itself as a merchant ship. The survivors buried their hoard of treasure on Cayo Pelau and at sites along the Peace River. Generations of local treasure hunters have searched for the cache. Tall-tales abound of pirate ghosts and strange happenings. “There’s something wrong on Cayo Pelau”, the treasure hunter Jack Beater has said. “If you want to know the truth, I’m half afraid to go back there. You can’t tell what might happen”.

As I approached shore I was alarmed to see an eerie light glowing on the beach but no boats or people. Maybe I would have to push through the night? As I pressed closer the light revealed itself to be the intense moonlight reflecting off a patch of brilliant white sand.  Jumping out in shallow water, I strapped my experimental “sled” — (a short piece of UHMW plastic) to my stern, that enabled me to drag the kayak harmlessly over the mud and jagged oysters to shore.  The beach that had looked so inviting turned out to be a short white ribbon six feet wide and strongly sloped, but it would do. I quickly setup my tent and as I downed a cold spaghetti MRE, I saw BeaV and MAKK (Bob Vollhaber and Kendra Leibel) pass by in their expedition canoe.  I later found out that IronBob and TheJuice were close behind, but I never spotted their black double kayak in the moonlight.

It took awhile to drift-off. My cortisol levels (flight or fight response from the exertion) were still sky-high; when I put my head down, I could hear my heartbeat pounding.  I counted my breaths to relax.  After a short time my pulse and breath calmed, and I slept. Unfortunately my sleep was frequently interrupted, not by the haunting of pirate ghosts, but due to the sloped beach that caused me to wake up repeatedly, curled into a ball at the foot of the tent.

Crossing Charlotte Harbor in the morning was wet, windy, lumpy and slow, fighting wind and current my headway dropped to 2.5 mph at times.  Once in the more protected confines of Matlacha Pass, around 10:15 AM (Sunday 3/8), the headwinds bent around the shoreline and for awhile were at my back. With the current now flooding into Charlotte Harbor at 3.8 mph I got an additional boost and maintained 5+ mph until I was past the Matlacha Bridge. There I ran into the opposing current pushing north from San Carlos Bay, and my progress slowed once again.

“Hey Buddy!  Are you OK!? Hey! Hey! Buddy!”  My nap at Picnic Key abruptly ended as I was awakened by shouts from the water.   I was in my paddling clothes laying on a foam camping mat and huddled close to my kayak to block windblown sand from stinging my face. I wasn’t yet fully awake. As I shook off the cobwebs I was certain I was hearing a prank from my good friend Rod Price (RiverSlayer); I had been wondering how he was faring in his experimental three masted sailing canoe. With my broad-brimmed hat still covering my eyes I shouted back, “Damn! What does a kayaker have to do to get some fucking sleep around here!!”  With that I raised up and was mortified to see it wasn’t Rod at all, but a bunch of college dudes in a powerboat. They weren’t fazed at all; I apologized and gave a thumbs up. Discovering I wasn’t dead they promptly ran their boat up the beach close to me, cranked up a boom box and started to party. Sigh. I thought seriously about bringing a sign for future events, “I’m not Dead. I’m Sleeping. Go AWAY!”

CrazyRussian and ZippyChick (Vladimir Eremeev and Johna Till Johnson) arrived, pulling their inflatable catamaran behind.  We chatted for a bit, there was concern on Vladimir’s face. Johna explained, “We broke the mast, not exactly sure where it happened, but need to find a way to fix it”.  We agreed that the wind reports, that were for 25 mph were wildly wrong. It seemed that the winds were being funneled into the bay and were gusting much higher, in the high thirties. Wishing them luck I left the shelter of Picnic Key to fight the headwinds. My plan was to island hop to the Sanibel causeway staying in the wind shadow of the islands as much as possible.

I reached Punta Rassa and the Sanibel causeway at 5 PM (Sunday 3/8). The wind was fierce and tenacious, forward progress dropped to 2.5 – 3.5 mph.  If at any time you stopped paddling you were immediately blown backwards, so the only option was to paddle hard or shelter in the lee of shore.  My objective was to reach the gulf side of Estero Island, only 4.5 miles away, where the wind should be blocked.  That effort took 1 hour 45 minutes, clawing forward at only 2.6 mph.

Arriving, I leaned forward in the cockpit and rested for a few minutes. It was a huge relief to be out of the wind — not just the physical effort, but also the noise. Now paddling close to shore, my pace felt easy, around 4.5 – 5 mph, but it felt as if I was flying because now there was a background to gauge my progress — buildings, dogs, docks, girls in bikinis, joggers, more girls in bikinis… People-watching made the miles pass quickly. The air was exceptionally clear and it wasn’t long before I could see Naples. The mountains of tall condos and buildings, appeared to be well offshore and to my right, like Atlantis, surrounded by water. I had to stifle any thoughts about how long it would take to get there — Marco Island (the end of the concrete condos and the gateway to the 10,000 islands) was still more than 30 miles away.

I stopped paddling to watch the sunset, hoping to see the “green flash”. The occasion was met with cheers and honking cars from shore. Temperatures were cool and the paddling was pleasant.  Far offshore a sailboat, probably a Watertriber, was tacking in the wind, occasionally getting within shouting distance and then zooming far offshore again. I stayed with him for a while, but eventually he disappeared in the darkness.

I kept grinding down the mileage. At 10:40 PM (Sunday 3/8) I glided into Wiggin’s Pass to an empty beach (north side).  It was too early to stop for the night but I needed some rest. To save time I decided to “wet bivy”, something that I had first tried last year. Taking off only my PFD, I slid into a large garbage bag (to keep water and sand away from my dry quilt and bivy) and then crawled into my quilt inside my bivy bag. A foam camping pad provided just enough comfort (too much comfort is a liability) and a fleece cap added warmth.  This setup can be surprisingly comfortable for short powernaps, and saves a huge amount of time and hassle as compared to getting out of wet layers, getting into sacrosanct camping clothes, setting up camp and then reversing the whole process.

The ruffle of the wind woke me before my alarm and I took a few moments marshaling the willpower to get going.  Soon afterwards I heard a “whoosh” that sounded like a hull gliding up onto the beach, and then silence. I soon dismissed the sound as I didn’t hear anything afterwards — the normal disturbance of voices and flashing headlights.  Only after I was putting away my bivy did I hear tent poles gently clanging together. WindwardMark startled me by saying “Hello” as I was closing my hatches. I spun so quickly at the sound of his voice that I almost fell, realizing how tired I still was.  “I really hope that we didn’t wake you”, he said politely.  I replied that they were impressively quiet, and that I was already up. We wished each other well and just after 1:00 AM (Monday 3/9) I was on my way. The moonlight illuminated the curved path back to the Gulf.

Speed improved after some rest, I continued toward Marco until Keewaydin Island 5:45 AM (Monday 3/9). I found a smooth section of beach (there are tall ledges a foot or more high in some areas there), strapped the portage wheels on the kayak, rolled up the beach and made camp. I got out of my wet clothes and slept soundly, this time in my tent. The alarm sounded all too soon, but I had a current schedule to catch!  I relaunched at 8:41 AM (Monday 3/9).

The sun was up as I entered Big Marco River, and I was starting to feel some boost from the current. To my right, at the beach on the north end of Tigertail Beach, IronBob and TheJuice were just launching, they must have picked the same tide “schedule”. I shouted “Ahoy” and waved as they took off.  I was close behind until they deployed their sail, and then began losing ground on them.  Big Marco is great for dolphin encounters and today did not disappoint. A pod of dolphins gathered on both sides of me and from time to time one would half-roll up and gaze at me out of a single black eye. I fantasized about drafting them, or having one pull me along by my painter. Not sure what the rules say about that…

Approaching the Goodland Bridge I pulled even with PenguinMan (Jim Czarnowski — Hobie engineer who helped create the mirage pedal drive), in his yellow Hobie Adventure Island who was sailing and pedaling.  As usual with sailboats I felt like we were playing a game of cat and mouse —  I moved down the center of the channel and we met after each zig-zag tack of the sailboat, taking care not to collide. We chatted when close, “My whole family will be at Chokoloskee. I’m really looking forward to that!”, Jim said.  “With this wind you will be there before I will”, I added.  The wind picked up as we neared the Gulf and both PenguinMan and IronBob and TheJuice disappeared as they left Coon Key Pass and turned the corner to the 10,000 Islands. I was about a quarter of a mile behind.

Heading to fully exposed Gullivan Island, was a slow uncomfortable grind. While only 3.8 miles away, I was pouring on the power but only making 2.8 mph.  The waves were streaked with white and I was showered in salt spray that coated my sunglasses making the world a blur. I experimented with tucking as close to the deck as I could, while still being able to push with my legs and rotate my torso. My speed increased but it was hard on my lower back. Slowly the island grew in size. Oddly, as I pressed closer and passed some invisible boundary, the wind suddenly become even more violent. Maybe that was the “eddy line” of turbulent air forced over the trees, I wondered? I clawed close enough to shore that I could easily make out individual trees, branches, even leaves, but the wind was having none of it; it was tenacious and just not giving up.  Finally, within spitting distance of shore the wind finally surrendered and it was calm.  Taking a break and looking downwind there was no indication at all of the commotion just a short distance off-shore. It looked deceptively serene.

Past Gullivan, there were islands along the route to provide wind shelter.  I worked the lee of the islands to stay out of the wind, cutting close to shore near Dismal Key and Hog Key, and then headed straight toward the center of Panther to block the wind.  It was already past high tide, the current was still flooding in, but soon the current would change and I would be fighting it. I decided that the clever move would be to abandon Indian Pass or West Pass and take nearby Fakahatchee Pass, to catch the last gasp of the incoming tidal current and dodge the wind as much as possible. From trips to Panther in the past I was aware that it’s bisected with a serpentine channel that is easily navigable and would be completely sheltered (dark blue on the image) and headed for it. Approaching Panther Key, I spotted IronBob and TheJuice heading the same way. Were they also aware of the channel?  After exiting the channel I expected to be on their tail but did not see any trace of them.

Sheltered from the wind and with some favorable current I rapidly reached Fakahatchee Island. Similar to Goodland, Marco, Chokoloskee and other high ground sites in the area, it’s another site created by the Calusa Indians. Later it was home to pioneers and there’s Indian mounds, a cistern, cemetery, tropical vegetation and ruins to explore.

Fatahatchee Bay meets up with West Pass Bay and eventually drains into Chokoloskee Bay. While the start of Fakahatchee Pass was sheltered, the final nine miles were straight up into the wind making for slow going, but it was better than fighting the unimpeded headwinds on “the outside”.

With just 3 miles to Chokoloskee I was resting in the lee of a small spoil island when IronBob and TheJuice pulled up at 7:30 PM (Monday 3/9). The sun was just setting, and we chatted as we rested.  I remarked, “The last time we paddled together was in 2013 at the mouth of the Shark River”!  Suddenly the wind died completely, for the first time during the EC.
Spirits lifted we paddled together the remaining 3.3 miles to shore, the first kayaks to arrive.

Our kayaks plowed into thick mud at 8:33 PM (Monday 3/9) accompanied by a shout of “Welcome to Miami!”, from shore. The tide was still going out, with low tide in another two hours. Robert and Druce jumped quickly out of their double to make a fast transition before slogging through the mud got any worse.  The mud pulled at my shoes and I was sinking as I grabbed my water bladders and transition bag and came ashore.  I chatted with some of the ‘Tribers who had watched us land. “There’s some hot food in the trailer, if you’re hungry”.  I got the very last hamburger, with chips, but felt guilty about having the last one to myself and walked over to the fish cleaning station to share with Robert and Druce. My paddling shirt was encrusted in so much salt that it was like chainmail –stiff and abrasive. I washed it in the bathroom sink but that soon proved to be a mistake as I began shivering in the cool night air. The property manager must have seen my discomfort. He rode up in his electric cart, “Doing OK? I see you got wet!  Well, take care out there!”

Chokoloskee to Flamingo; The lead changes

I loaded the kayak quickly, trying not to sink too deep in the mud while being swarmed by “swamp angels”.  My calves were splattered with mud and the blood from swatted mosquitos, as I got underway. There was very little water left in the channel around the island. I didn’t think there was much chance that anyone behind me could get through. I knew that Bobby Johnson was close but I was thinking that anyone behind would probably be delayed by a tide cycle.

Paddling away from CP2 and approaching Chokoloskee Park Marina, the water was brightly lit-up and the dock was crowded with several fishermen.  They saw me coming, and shouted, “Careful, we have lines out”. I could clearly see the reflection off the monofilament lines and carefully avoided each one.  The last line was hanging about a foot above the water, requiring me to tuck and lift it aside with my paddle. Clear, I started moving out when my kayak stopped and one of the fisherman shouted “Woah, Woah, Woah, I snagged you!” In retrospect, I probably should have just cut the line – but I was just relieved that the hook had not found my flesh. Cursing under my breath, I reversed, needing to get closer to shore, and hit oysters in the foot deep water. “Shit”!  I tried to unsnag the line with my extended paddle but it didn’t work and I jumped out. A meaty chunk of mullet on a hook had grabbed my deck rigging just ahead of my rudder. I quickly removed it.  The fisherman thanked me and then added, “You’d best get your feet out that water as soon as possible, Son, this is a shark-infested area!”

Heading out Rabbit Pass a gentle breeze kept the mosquitos away. Conditions were perfect for putting in miles and the sea was calm with the moon lighting the way.  It was one of those occasions where you just knew that the winning strategy would be to put in as many miles as suffering allowed and to get to Shark River before the headwinds arose in the afternoon. But just knowing that isn’t enough. I was running out of gas and needed sleep.

I landed on an unnamed speck of land just north of Little Pavilion Key that I had “scouted” on Google Earth previously. There’s a sand spit good for landing, and a handful of trees surrounding a flat, sandy micro-site with just enough room for a tent.  The scant vegetation didn’t provide much wind shelter and any wave action would’ve made for a wet night, but it worked.

Setting up camp I became frustrated getting the tent up, normally a 5 minute job. The fly and tent body twisted in the wind, inside-out, and being mentally tired the simple task became a Rubik’s cube.  I ate an MRE and set my alarm for 4.5 hours. Finally inside, I struggled to sleep until I used the earplugs. They helped to silence unwarranted fears that the tide was encroaching on my tent. I netted about 3 hours sleep.

I was on the water at 6 AM (3/10 Tuesday), winds were calm with scattered clouds and some light localized rain. Headwinds were expected to increase around noon, and Shark River was still 30 miles away. I had an inkling that I would regret not making more distance last night when the conditions were perfect…

Headwinds starting blasting as I neared Highland Beach. I stopped for a quick break on the flats just offshore the beach and was surprised to hear chainsaws. After the EC, TohoTim (Tim Finkenbinder) also mentioned hearing chainsaws there. However, as I continued toward Shark River, well offshore, the dissonant buzzing of chainsaws, now accompanied by the high-pitch scream of leaf blowers continued. I was hallucinating. As soon as a paddle blade entered the water, I heard the commotion. As soon as the blade exited the water, the sound stopped cold. Until now all my past EC hallucinations had been relatively pleasant. This was irritating as hell. Louder music was the only cure.

From time to time I turned and scanned the horizon for anyone chasing.  No one in sight. I wondered were Bobby Johnson was – did he get delayed at Chokoloskee when the tide turned? Even if that didn’t happen, I was thinking that I must be the last kayak heading into Ponce de Leon Bay for this tide cycle as it was nearing high tide. Maybe he passed me in the night? My best guess was that he must be a few hours behind. I was sure that IronBob and TheJuice entered Shark on the same tide schedule, a few hours earlier, after getting a rest at Plover or Graveyard.

Shark River during 2015 EC

My plan was to hit Shark River at high tide. Given that the wind was blowing against the tide (delaying the flood), and that it normally takes an hour after high tide for the current to stop flooding, I thought this time would provide the maximum tidal current flow. I checked my watch on deck and I still had an hour to get there — I was actively resting by going at an easy pace.  Checking the route on my GPS I discovered that the time of day on the GPS was different! I had failed to adjust my deck watch for DST — a stupid mistake! That mistake meant that instead of taking my time, I needed to be there NOW, and if late I would be fighting a current that can resemble easy whitewater. I poured on the power to near 100%. The flooding current was a vast “conveyor belt” of water charging directly into the wind, creating waves that were large, steep and close together. The steep seas caused my kayak to launch off the wave tops and slam down so violently that it felt it was only a matter of time until a hatch failed or the deck seam would split. I began edging the kayak in air to land at a slight angle, to reduce the impact.

There’s a puzzle of rivers flowing into the interior from Ponce De Leon Bay.  To save time I altered course to make for the closest entrance, and after twenty minutes, I was finally sheltered by the tall trees on shore. As a bonus I was getting a strong boost from the current. Unfortunately during the sprint I had strained my left deltoid, it now hurt to lift the paddle at the end of my stroke on that side. With the benefit of the current I adopted a “recovery stroke”, a low energy stroke, using different muscles, to allow my arm to recover. Even doing that I would occasionally hit 6 mph in the current.

As the Joe River began to unwind to the East, and the Flamingo tower occasionally flashed into view, any help from the tidal current had faded, and now the full fetch of the wind bore down on the river. Now instead of staying in the middle of the river trying to maximize the boost from the current, I had to duck the wind and move from one bank to another to take advantage of favorable eddy currents near shore.

I was doing the “Chokoloskee crawl” (EC slang for recovery stroke) and making about 3.5 mph into the wind when I was startled by a shout, “Hey Stamer”!  Bobby Johnson had pulled alongside, I had been unaware of his approach.  It was clear that he was pumped at overtaking the lead (class 1 no sail).  We traded small talk — I mentioned that my race food wasn’t working (I had only been able to eat a few handfuls of nuts all day), and that my deltoid was hurting. Bobby mentioned that his wrist didn’t want to bend any more. We paddled side-by-side and slugged it out for about eight minutes (my GPS track shows an average of 8 mph, but I suspect we were closer to 6+ mph). I throttled back down into my best sustainable pace and Bobby surged ahead. Bobby reached Flamingo about an hour before I did.

As the sun set on Coot Bay the sky was dark blue near the horizon, turning violet near the zenith.  Looking toward the sky glow from Miami, the violet sky was decorated by orange streaks of light, all converging on the horizon, like the spokes of a wheel. The edges of the streaks were raised, looking exactly like the smudges on a child’s finger painting. It was another hallucination but it was so fantastically beautiful that I started to reach for my phone to take a photo, before I stopped myself. Thinking ability was declining — I starting fumbling with my GPS.  Going down Buttonwood Canal, I heard the voices of children in the mangroves, laughing and talking and following as I paddled. Creepy.  The hallucinations, including the “chainsaws” continued to the very end of Buttonwood Canal at Flamingo. I obviously needed rest and food, and decided to get at least four hours sleep, regardless of what the competition was doing.  [Note, I now believe the hallucinations were caused not only by lack of sleep but also by the need for more carbs (sugar for brain function), I had been consuming too many fats for two days].

Arriving at Flamingo I was greeted warmly by Santiago and RiverRunner (Joe Spooner and Doug Cameron). I learned that Bobby had turned the corner already while IronBob and TheJuice were getting some sleep. I wheeled my kayak to the launch at Flamingo, ate a hot MRE, crawled into my bivy, and slept.

Florida Bay. “I WANT MRS. MAC’S!”

High tide was 5:15 AM. I crawled out of my bivy at 4:30 AM (Wednesday 3/11). IronBob and TheJuice were already gone. I launched before 5:00 AM.  It was a perfect morning to cross Florida Bay. There was no wind, and high tide allowed me to cut corners carelessly, paying little attention to water depth or channels for awhile. For the first time in ultra-shallow Florida Bay, I discovered that tidal currents actually flow through the narrow serpentine channels. Going through “Crocodile Dragover”, for example, I was moving at 5mph, without hardly paddling, seeing the channel markers whiz by like I was a passenger on a powerboat. I even had to maneuver to avoid hitting the markers on several occasions as the current sped me past them.

I spotted THE tower behind Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen while still eight miles out at Park key. Normally I finish at night, so I enjoyed every minute of seeing Florida Bay glow with its brilliant and unusual blue-green water. Paddling across the bay I thought a lot about “winning and losing”. Should winning be THE goal? Especially since I turned 60 this month? For how long will age just be “a number”?  I’m still wired to push for the win no matter what. That said, I also know that it’s a gift just to show up on the start beach each year. I decided to simply strive to improve my best and hope it remains competitive. At least doing that provides incentive to train hard and stay fresh. And incentive is needed, as it’s frustratingly difficult to break old technique habits; even making very small changes can feel like starting all over again.

As I neared the finish in Key Largo, I could see friends assembled on the dock and on the beach shouting encouragement. I had mixed feelings.  I was happy to have the end in sight although, this being my seventh time finishing,  I wasn’t filled with a huge feeling of accomplishment. Then again, I’d feel crushed if I didn’t finish, so go figure.

I landed at 2:12 PM (Wednesday 3/11); the second solo kayak to finish and the third kayak, behind Bobby Johnson and the double team of Robert and Druce Finlay.  I carried my kayak off the beach and sat it down unceremoniously.  I didn’t want to think about this experience being over. I certainly didn’t want to start breaking down my gear; it took months to assemble this kit. This kayak and gear were my sole companions for the past four days — we were a team! I looked over my kayak, it seemed eager for the next command, wanting to continue the adventure. I gave it a friendly pat, and went to sign the log book.

My growling stomach ended any more sentiments. I had lost almost ten pounds, and this event was now history. I made haste to Mrs. Mac’s for an ice cold coke and a cheeseburger!


Additional Information:

For more detailed maps and tracking, click on the WaterTribe Event Tracker, select the options shown below and click on the button “Regenerate View”.

Everglades Challenge Checkpoint Distances

Start (Mullet Key, Tampa) – Checkpoint 1 (Cape Haze): 60.0 miles
Checkpoint 1 – Checkpoint 2 (Chokoloskee): 103 miles
Checkpoint 2 – Checkpoint 3 (Flamingo): 59.1 miles via Whitewater Bay, 61 miles via Joe River
Checkpoint 3 – FINISH (Key Largo): 32.4 miles
Approximately 258 miles total (captains can choose their own routes).


  1. DJ Said,

    Great story! I enjoyed following along with the inserted pictures and maps, which I could enlarge and study. The haunted part of the story was good with the great haunted-looking picture.The way you described the emotional and physical ups and downs and challenges made the story that much more interesting. The audio hallucinations were creepy!

  2. Greg Said,

    Thanks DJ, so glad that you enjoyed it! Thanks for leaving a comment.

  3. michael abshire Said,

    Thanks Greg for letting me vicariously tag along on your journey. A tale well told. A task not too many can accomplish. I’m totally impressed and now find myself in need of rest! Great job.

  4. Greg Said,

    Thanks Mike and great seeing you and Gary on the bridge! Looking forward to heading to Sarasota once we can all congregate again!

  5. Mark Cecil Said,

    Great write up Greg. Incredible performance and great decision making. I have never had the audible hallucinations and hope I never do. The visual ones are enough for me.

  6. Greg Said,

    Thanks Mark and congratulations on recently finishing your “lap around Florida”! I certainly hope that I don’t have auditory hallucinations again!

  7. Joe Frohock Said,

    Great write up thank you got sharing.

  8. Greg Said,

    Thanks Puma! Good seeing you in Flamingo!

  9. Ken Boydstun Said,

    Great trip report. Jammerjim and I were about 100yds south of you at Cayo Pelau. That spot had enough high flat sand for camping. You left Picnic about the time we arrived. The guys partying on the beach kept it up until midnight so you wouldn’t have gotten much sleep. BTW 60 is just a number. I turned 61 at CP2 and still feel like doing the EC again.


  10. Greg Said,

    Thanks Ken! I’ll have to try to try another location should I stay on Cayo Pelau again. I was just hoping for 30 minutes rest on Picnic but couldn’t even get that! I plan to keep doing the EC for as long as possible as and as competitive as possible. Prefer to stay class 1 no sail, but time will tell…

  11. Ragnar Midtskogen Said,

    Enjoyed the trip with you Greg. I am too old for something like that so it is nice to do it vicariously.

  12. Greg Said,

    Hello Ragnar, thanks for the comment, and glad that you enjoyed it!

  13. Jeff Said,

    You are a beast my brother!

  14. Greg Said,

    Thanks Bro! Looking forward to getting together once the world is back in a more normal orbit!

  15. Gil Said,

    Thanks Greg for sharing your story. I picked up many tips and tricks for my next EC while being extremely well entertained by your write up. It was a historic Everglades Challenge for many of us who were fortunate to complete it. I have never paddled against such elements. Looking forward to a “Taco Night” once this Corona season is over.

  16. Greg Said,

    Thanks Gil, Yeah it was a brutal challenge, more than words can describe. Only about 42% of participants finished this year which tells the story. Congratulations on finishing your second EC! This year will be one that people talk about for awhile; “do you remember those headwinds way back in ‘20”?

  17. Derek koz Said,

    Loved it more the second time! Thanks for all the help Greg

  18. Greg Said,

    Thanks Derek! Hope your recovery is fast and strong. Looking forward to seeing you on the beach next year!

  19. Doug Cameron Said,

    Exciting and well written.

  20. Greg Said,

    Thank you Doug! Thanks also for the hospitality in Flamingo!

  21. Painen Dias Said,

    I have enjoyed your writing for years and eagerly await your latest tales of adventure. Watching the paddling strategy unfold to match the most advantageous route with the prevailing conditions is like watching a chess match. The calculus for success is fascinating. Your laurels are well deserved and may you continue to reward your readers with successful efforts in the years to come.

  22. Greg Said,

    Many thanks for your sentiments, very kind. On my first EC (which is still one of my best times) my philosophy was “damn the tides and torpedos” full speed ahead. Now as a privilege of being older I have to employ strategy and treachery to hope for the same effect!

  23. Jill Lingard Said,

    Wonderful read, Greg. Congratulations on #7. You’re making 60 look mighty fierce!

  24. Greg Said,

    Thank you Jill! Looking forward to #8!

  25. SOS Said,

    Great writeup. Thanks!

  26. Greg Said,

    Thanks Alan, glad you enjoyed it! Looking forward to seeing you on the beach next year.

  27. Bob George Said,

    Great writeup. We unknowingly leap frogged each other much of the race. I slept a lot more but still got the fun waves across Ponce and the fabulous weather across the bay just a few hours behind you at the finish. Don’t fret about being 60, I’m 73!


  28. Greg Said,

    Bob, thanks for the comments. Wish the tracker had a fast “replay” option to see who crossed paths and where. Usually it feels like I’m all alone out there. Love that orange boat of yours — beautiful!

  29. Robert Finlay Said,

    “it’s a gift just to show up on the start beach each year”. Yes it is! Thanks for recounting your experience this year.

  30. Greg Said,

    Thanks Robert, a privilege to be on the start beach ( and the finish beach ) with you yet another year! Looking forward to EC 2021!

  31. Frank Ladd Said,

    Amazing read and race! Thanks for sharing it.

  32. Greg Said,

    Thank you Frank, it was a tough one this year! Glad you enjoyed the write-up.

  33. Rob Rogerson Said,

    Fantastic read! My pulse was high from beginning to end. Huge respect to you and the other water tribers for your courage, mad skills, and for your thirst for exploring the limits of human endurance!

  34. Greg Said,

    Thank you Rob for your comments. As far as pushing limits, in the past my hallucinations have been limited to plays on light in low-light situations. Hope never to hear those chainsaws again!