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WaterTribe Everglades Challenge 2003

photo story | video | links & resources | EC-2004

EC map

The WaterTribe Everglades Challenge (EC) and the WaterTribe Marathon run concurrently in Florida. Both races start at the same time at Fort Desoto on Tampa Bay. The Marathon finishes at Grande Tours (Placida) after roughly 68 miles while the Everglades Challengers are going on to Key Largo (roughly 300-330 miles depending on the course). It was the third Everglades Challenge in 2003. I've been following the WaterTribe Challenges since the first one in 2001.
I've been always interested in coastal cruising but never had a real chance to do it. In Poland my paddling was restricted to inland waters: lake and river systems with a lot of upstream paddling and portages, self supported trips up to 4 weeks using folding kayaks and public transportation. Coast and beaches of the Baltic Sea were guarded as an international border and no paddling boats were allowed on the sea. I believe that in 1950's or 60s there were some successful escapes by kayak across the Baltic Sea to the Danish island of Bornholm. I was able to do some sea sailing in the Baltic and North Sea during 1970s and 1980s but it was always a real challenge created by bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the situation of sea sailors in Poland was much better than in other countries of the Eastern Europe.

Nowadays, Polish kayakers can paddle almost freely across and around the Baltic Sea but I am living in the middle of the continent in Colorado far away from the big water.

I did not plan to paddle the 2003 Everglades Challenge. I was preparing for the Lake Michigan Challenge. However, that challenge was canceled early at the beginning of the year, so I decided to go to Florida in a testing/training/scouting mode. I've never been in Florida and the challenge course along the Florida west coast and across Everglades was very tempting.

Warm waters of Florida seemed to be ideal to test my new boat and a new concept of light cruising - a solo outrigger canoe. Surfrigger built by John Diller arrived to Fort Collins in the very end of January 2003. Unlike most of solo outrigger canoes used for racing the Surfrigger has a full cockpit protected by a sprayskirt. My boat also got two custom hatches and deck rigging.

I managed to take her for a couple of test paddles on a small pond near Fort Collins where a short video clip was created and a little longer day trip on Lake Pueblo in southern Colorado. I spent a lot of time trying to prepare the boat for the race and pack all necessary gear and supplies into a narrow hull. In the middle of February my local pond was frozen and I didn't have a chance to test the boat fully loaded for the expedition.

The EC-2003 was going to be also another important test for me - a first long paddle after my shoulder surgery. I had that surgery in November and just started with some very limited paddling in the end of January.

The integral part of my WaterTribe challenge was driving from Colorado to Florida and back. I took about 30 hours of audio books for this trip.

March 4, afternoon. Leaving Fort Collins in a snowstorm. CO -> KS

March 5, driving: KS -> MO -> KY -> TN

March 6, driving: TN -> GA -> FL

March 7. Fort Desoto, Tampa Bay, FL. A day before start.

I spent the entire day on the beach checking in, working on the boat, packing and shooting pictures. At that time I was undecided whether I should enter the race with practically no experience with the new boat and outrigger canoes in general. Originally, I planned to arrive to Florida a couple of days before the race to have more time for training but the work situation didn't allow me leave Fort Collins any earlier. In the afternoon I spent some time paddling the Surfrigger near the beach. It was fun and I decided to go. However, the Surfrigger was still unloaded ...

I was packing food and other stuff in my motel room until midnight and didn't get much sleep before the race.

start start start
Paradox Team Melaleuca Sea Pearl
Matt Layden's Paradox
1st Overall, 1st Class 4
3 Days, 10 Hours, 51 Min
Team Melaleuca
2nd Overall, 2nd Class 4
4 Days, 2 Hours, 57 Min
Sea Pearl - RidgeRunner (Doug Cameron) - story
11th Overall, 6th Class 4
5 Days, 17 Hours, 30 Min
WeeedWarior from the team Melaleuca (Tony Pernas & Billy Snyder):

"The boat is an old Hobie 18, gutted it, and widened (just enough to hold a couple of butts). Added a couple of bulkheads and floor to make it watertight. The rig is an old 18 ft. mast I picked up at a marine flea market, the main sail is a "Town Class" sail (80 sq. ft), for the jib we used a main sail off of a sunfish and used it backwards. Constructed the 12' ama out of cedar strips (sheathed in glass). The akas were made out of 1.5" aluminum pipe bent by the local muffler shop, reinforced on the corners. Total beam of the boat is 7.5 ft. As far as performance, I was very happy with it, We got roughly the same speed with the ama on lee side or windward side. Before the so called waterproof Garmin GPS crapped out, we recorded speeds of 12 mph+. Paddles fairly easy too, can maintain 2-3 mph. Kayaks can catch up easily though when the wind dies".

Spindrift Spindrift (Michael T. Harrow) preparing his proa for the race.

We paddled together for a while on the inside route south of Sarassota after Spindrift broke his mast. I am afraid that I wasn't very good company. I even didn't accept his cigars but the hot chocolade offer was really tempting.

Crazy Russian (Vladimir Eremeev) warming up in his catamaran.

6th Overall, 5th Class 4
5 Days, 8 Hours, 31 Min

Crazy Russian rowing

... and my Surfrigger on the beach at Fort Desoto

March 8, 9:00. Start

The crossing of Tampa Bay appeared to be much more difficult for me than expected. It was my first time in the Surfrigger in a rough open water. The boat was obviously overloaded and sluggish. I had troubles to deal with a chop coming from port side, i.e., from the ama side. A lot of bracing and a very slow progress. After the crossing I stopped for a couple of hours on a beach to rest and rethink my situation. Finally, I dumped a gallon of water and continued to paddle.

Somewhere near Sarassota I caught Spindrift in his proa and we paddled together for a few hours. I started to enjoy my paddling after sunset on smooth and quiet water. I reached the 1st checkpoint on the Snake Island near Venice about 2:00am and setup my hammock.

March 9

start Early morning at the checkpoint #1: Snake Island near Venice.

Probably the longest and the shortest boats in the race: my 24' Surfrigger and 7'9" Eastport Pram built from a CLC kit, sailed and rowed by SansSouci (Guy Kaminski)

I started my second day around 8:00 and proceeded south along the Venice Channel. There was no room in the channel to escape boat wakes, so I had to learn to deal with them. All time wakes were coming from my port side. Headwind. I stopped for a short nap in a mangrove somewhere in the Lemon Bay. Later in the evening I could enjoy manatees and dolphins. Still a very slow progress. My shoulder worked OK, but, obviously, I wasn't in a very good paddling shape to provide a proper power to the long Surfrigger.

My crossing of the Placida Harbor was rougher with a stronger wind and thunderstorm approaching. I reached the 2nd checkpoint at Grand Tours at Placida about 20:00. A heavy thunderstorm did not invite for a further paddling that night. After a shower I spent the night in a bunkhouse together with RidgeRunner, ZigZag, Stef, and Andy.

March 10 Grand Tours - Placida.

Next morning I analyzed my progress so far and figured out that I had low chances to reach the next checkpoint before the deadline. Therefore, I decided to drop off the race and switched to my plan B: cruising and scouting the Everglades. I was watching the last challengers leaving the checkpoint #2.

Ridgerunner (Doug Cameron) in his Sea Pearl Andy (AndrewsCanoes) after fixing his broken mast.
Ridgerunner AndrewsCanoes
start That shrimp jumped into my cockpit in the previous night when I was crossing Placida Harbor.

Stephanie White (Draco) is heading to her dinghy to find another shrimp there. She rented a kayak and we made a nice paddling tour to the shallow backwaters of Placida.

In the afternoon, I got a ride from Placida to Fort Desoto with PaddleCarver and Tyro. Thanks guys! I retrieved my car and returned back to Placida to upload the Surfrigger. After spending a night in a motel, I drove to Everglades City and Chokoloskee (checkpoint #3).

March 11, afternoon. Everglades City.

When I was assembling my Surfrigger at Everglades City I discovered that at the start of the race I had mounted the front of the ama closer to the hull than its stern. I wasn't sure if I should cry or laugh. For two days I was plowing the water and couldn't figure out why it's so hard to paddle.

With a properly mounted ama and a lighter load (food and water for 3 days only) the Surfrigger was a different boat.

Paddling from Everglades City through Hurddles Creek

There was not much room on a narrow front deck of my Surfrigger: a small dry deck back with a map case on top, a compass, a speedometer ("motivation device"), and Garmin GPSmap 76S. My first GPSmap died after 15 minute swim in an icy water when I flipped over the Surfrigger in February. The unit was replaced by Garmin within a week and worked fine during all Florida paddling mounted on the deck. It took a lot of splashes but no dips.

Hurddles Creek
Darwin's Place I reached the Darwin's Place campground about two hours after sunset. It was great paddling through Everglades at night.

March 12. Everglades

Aligator Bay Everglades
Early morning in Aligator Bay ... ... and a couple of hours later
Lostmans Five Lostmans Five campground. ManitouCruiser and Tchemon were taking a rest there. They passed me camping at Darwin's Place about midnight.
start Lostman River Ranger Station
I turned to Lostman River towards the Gulf of Mexico Coconuts at the abandoned Lostman River Ranger Station
Plover Key I started to paddle north on the outside route. Somewhere between Hog Key and Plover Key I met Black Sun and Turtle heading south.

Spanish bayonet and Surfrigger on Plover Key

A raccoon eating horseshoe crab on the beach at night.

If I approached too close (5-6 feet) the raccoon was just dragging his crab away from me. I spent a couple of hours watching 4 or 5 raccoons looking for food at the beach. They were not afraid of my flash or light but did not show much interest in my boat and tent.

I have somewhat sentimental feelings for raccoons. I remember that my very first reading book "Szop, ktory mial na imie Daniel" (The raccoon who's name was Daniel) was about a boy on American farm and his raccoon friend. It was more than 40 years ago in Poland.

March 13. Everglades

sunrise pink shells
Sunrise. Low tide. Pink sky. Pink shells. It was beautiful but sand flies were nasty.

I returned to the inside route via Huston River, paddled back to Everglades City, and started to drive to Flamingo.

Rock Reef Pass

March 14. Driving to Flamingo.

Usually, I cross the mountain passes at 3 miles above sea level to reach my paddling places.

What a big lizard!

A variety of landscapes in Everglades.
near Flamingo
Everglades Everglades
Everglades Everglades
Flamingo Flamingo, about noon.

The last challenger, Dave Williams (SlackJack), leaving checkpoint #4. I've never met him before although we finished the 2002 Texas Water Safari at almost the same time.

From Flamingo I drove directly to Key Largo to join other WaterTribe members at America Outdoors campground. I set up my tent, launched the Surgrigger and tried to shoot finishing paddlers on video.

18:20. Manitou Cruiser and Tchemon at the finish.

16th Overall, 2nd Class 3
6 Days, 11 Hours, 20 Min

ManitouCruiser & Tchemon
WaterTribe Chief Chief finished just after sunset, too late to be a star in my movie.

18th Overall, 7th Class 1
6 Days, 11 Hours, 52 Min

March 15. Half day paddling trip.

I paddled north from America Outdoors through Baker Cut, across Buttonwood Sound, and then through Grouper Creek, Tarpon Basin, Dusenbury Creek, Marvin D. Adams Waterway (a narrow channel cut through limestone of Key Largo) to Largo Sound. I was hoping to reach Atlantic Ocean but very heavy storm clouds were hanging there. I returned to Key Largo along the same way. Largo Sound
Light Chaser Light Chaser - one of two Kruger Cruisers sailed by father and son crew, GreyBeard and ChefRamen (Michael and Brian Collins).

10th Overall, 1st Class 3
5 Days, 15 Hours, 42 Min

March 16.

Matt Layden is trying my Surfrigger.

It was my last day at Key Largo. In the afternoon I started a long trip home.


March 17, driving: FL -> GA -> TN -> KY.

March 18, driving: KY -> MO -> KS.

March 19, driving: KS -> KS.

March 20, driving: KS -> CO.

March 20, morning. Back in Colorado

4 days of driving: heavy thunderstorms and showers in Florida, regular rain further west, high winds in Kansas, and super heavy snowstorm in Colorado (up to 3 feet of snow in Fort Collins), I had to wait a day in Kansas until roads in eastern Colorado were open.

Back in Colorado

~4800 miles by car, ~200 miles by boat, >200 pictures and video clips

It was a great trip, except, perhaps, too long driving back to Colorado. A lot of new experiences. I suppose that I would do much better in the challenge with my Sea Wind but I've learned a lot about the Surfrigger. I am sure that I could pack her lighter. For the EC-2003 I packed supplies for 6-7 days of paddling and some extra stuff to survive after the race in Key Largo including doubled sleeping system (solo tent and Hennessy hammock). I also need to improve access to the gear stored in the narrow hull.

4:19 minute video (12Mb for Windows Media Player)

Links and resources:


Everglades National Park

Everglades Diary Canoeing Wilderness Waterway of the Florida Everglades

Florida marine weather forecast

Florida and Eastern Gulf of Mexico Recent Marine Data

Florida Weather Data

Guide to Sea Kayaking in Southern Florida
by Nigel Foster

A Paddler's Guide to Everglades National Park
by Johnny Molloy

Sea Kayaking in the Florida Keys
by Bruce Wachob

Sea Kayaking in Florida
by David Gluckman

Sea Kayaking Florida & the Georgia Sea Islands
by James Bannon

Florida Atlas and Gazetteer

Garmin MapSource American BlueChart

From the Swamp to the Keys: A Paddle Through Florida History
by Johnny Molloy

photo story | video | links & resources | EC-2004

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