Story by Doug Cameron
Our Core Sound 17. Photo by Doug Cameron
Boats of every description began gathering on the beach at Fort DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg, on February 28 for the start of the 2014 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge. Of over 140 boats in all, 24 were registered for the 60-mile Ultramarathon, 3 for the 1200-mile Ultimate Florida, and the rest for the marquee event, the 300-mile Everglades Challenge.
The EC began in 2001 with 27 boats on the beach (7 finished) with a 5-day 6 1/2 hour winning time (George Van Sickle sailing an Expedition 14.5). Fourteen years later the record is just over 26 hours (Jamie Livingston and Kenny Pierce on a Tornado catamaran), but many folks treat it as a challenge instead of a race. The time limit for finishing is 8 days and 5 hours.
The variety of entries has expanded from stock boats to many built or modified just for the EC. Fabled multihull sailor and 2011 winner Randy Smythe modified his purpose-built parallelogramming trimaran, Scissors, to meet the many challenges of the EC. The reigning champion in the EC and the Ultimate Florida, Alan Stewart, has tweaked his purpose-built plywood tri, Mosquito. Annapolis offshore sailing instructor, Jahan Tihansky, and Jeff Linton have modified a Flying Scott (they call it “Frankenscott”) with hiking seats, a sliding seat rowing system, and an assortment of light air sails. There is a C scow with many modifications featured in the Web site Sailing Anarchy (Scott Rice and Ned Goss), and a Lightning with an added mizzen and large collection of light-air sails (Per Lorentzen and William Nye). Graham Byrnes’ Core Sound series (6 of the top 7 monohull finishes) is represented by 3 boats, including the “Turbo” Core Sound 17 (second last year) sailed by Philip Garland (of Hall Spars) and Dan Neri (of North Sails). There are two i550s, two Tornados, a Wayfarer, a Caledonia yawl, a Chesapeake Light Craft Nor’easter Dory, and many stock and modified Hobie cats. Veteran Vladimir Eremeev brought his newly constructed and untested plywood proa. There are so many Hobie Adventure Island and Tandem Island sit-on-top trimarans that they have their own class.
Then there are the racing and cruising sea kayaks and canoes, many with 1 meter downwind sails (FEKS, Falcon, and Pacific Action sails dominate). Among these are a Hugh Horton Bufflehead canoe and Meade Gugeon’s elegant sailing and camping strip-built canoe with carbon mast and amas, a tent for sleeping aboard, and a molded high-backed seat covered with sheepskin. Included in this collection of craft were two windsurfers and two SUP paddleboards.
With more than a 40% increase over last year, some of the boats are lined up in double rows waiting for the Saturday morning start. The racers must have their bows one foot back from the high water mark, and the 7:00 a.m. start is just after low tide with a new moon. That’s not a problem for the canoes and kayaks, but the sailors must resort to some mechanism for launching, which they must carry for the duration of the race. Most chose to use inflatable rollers for this task.
At 7 Chief yells, “Go,” and the bagpipes start to play. Some folks sprint toward the water, and we place the rollers under the bow of our Core Sound 20 cat-ketch, a boat I built for the 2007 Everglades Challenge. This is the boat’s fourth EC and my eighth, including a knockdown and dismasting in 2012 (Small Craft Advisor #76). I had planned to make it a cruise this year, but Phillip Garland said he had a friend, Jeff Gentzen, looking for a berth, and I began to think of a nonstop trip again.
Actually, my original plans were to finish the Core Sound 20 Mark III prototype I was building, but it was clear in early January that the construction would take longer than I planned, and I was unwilling to compromise quality for speed on this build. So, my plans changed to a slow EC in the old Core Sound. One of the keys to a successful EC campaign is to have a number of options and be willing to alter plans as circumstances change. Partnering with Jeff represented Plan C. So, Jeff and I, who had known one another for a day and a half, launched onto Tampa Bay. The wind was light from the Northeast, almost dead behind us, and a seagoing barge was crossing our path a half mile away.
The tug had to blow five horn blasts several times, but everyone emerged unscathed. With the light winds, we raised our mizzen staysail as soon as we were clear of the shipping channel. With the light wind at our back, we let the main out until it was forward of the beam (“by the lee”) and attached the tack of the staysail on the windward side. This gave us maximum sail area as we sailed about 20 degrees shy of dead downwind, though we did have to drop the staysail and change the tack when we gybed.
The first of many choices in the EC is whether to go out into the open Gulf or follow the Intracoastal Waterway inside the barrier islands and through Sarasota Bay. With light winds on a sunny Saturday, we decided to go for the clear air of the open Gulf and miss the chop from hundreds of power boats in the Bay. On such light air days, there is a lull soon after noon, followed by a shift of the winds to the west. Even with all of our sails out, we wallowed a bit during the lull, not wanting to row like many of the more competitive boats. Then the afternoon northwesterly kicked in at around 12 knots and we took off. With the staysail still up, we maintained 8 or 9 mph and surfed down wave faces at over 12. By sunset, we had made Stump Pass and Checkpoint 1 at Cape Haze Marina.
Sea Pearl Shadow sailed by Dave “Yolo” Martin and Shawn “Lawless” Payment. Photo by Doug Cameron
For those who go outside, there is the choice of going back inside at Venice Inlet (protected by jetties) or to risk the surf and constantly shifting bars at Stump Pass. I had been there several times before, so we pulled up the rudder and centerboard and skimmed across the bar on a run. We came in with a crowd, including Channing Boswell in his cozy cabin tri and Per Lorentzen and William Nye in their modified Lightning. We all made quick work of taking on more water and signing in, then we were off into the darkness of the new moon night. It was a little disappointing that the light winds had allowed so many paddle craft to get to the Checkpoint before us, and we wanted to press our advantage of being able to take turns at the helm and keep going through the night.
The sea breeze was dying, so we decided not to beat back to Stump Pass, but instead to go down the ICW until a more convenient opening. Per and Bill caught us just before the Gasparilla swing bridge and we discussed strategies. I told them how to get to Gasparilla Pass along the causeway, then I made the decision to go through the bridge and out Boca Grande Pass. The bridge tender opened the bridge on request, and we parted ways with Per and Bill.
It was a smooth though not very fast passage down the ICW to Boca Grande, and then we entered the melee. Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor drain through Boca Grande, and the wind was against this powerful tidal flow. We headed out to the Gulf through these big waves and confused waters, and I silently kicked myself for deciding not to go out the familiar Gasparilla Pass. Finally free of the waves, I turned the helm over to Jeff and rested.
Jeff woke me up as we reached the end of Sanibell Island . . . another choice. We could decide to follow the coastline of the Estero and Naples beaches, or we could sail straight to Marco Island, saving several miles but going eight to ten miles offshore on this dark night. With the waves left over from the afternoon sea breeze mixing with the northeast evening wind, the boat was more comfortable going straight, and the forecast was for continued moderate winds, shifting to the southeast. So straight it was.
This stretch is always a combination of of boredom and anxiety. I have felt most exposed offshore here, and the boredom of mile after mile of condominiums and beaches wears on this sailor. This night and the following morning there was a mist that obliterated the horizon, so we just had to watch the stars and occasionally check the GPS to be sure that the moving heavens were not leading us astray. By late morning, the mist lifted and we could see the tall condominiums of Marco Island in the distance, still ten miles away. The wind was shifting to the southeast and the comfortable reach to a beat. I kept trying to pinch higher, losing boat speed. Jeff encouraged me to power up, gaining boat speed and using that speed to make up for the loss of a more direct route. He crawled under the dodger for a nap and I tried to overcome my tendency to point too high. By early afternoon we were sailing through Caxambus Pass, not far behind the Sea Pearl of Bill Fite and Neal Calore and a Hobie 16 we couldn’t identify.
With a somewhat favorable wind and a foul tide, we inched our way through Caxambus and into the open water of Gullivan Bay. By sunset we were sailing past Indian Key and fighting another foul tide into Chokoloskee Bay and Checkpoint 2. I think that Jeff would agree with me that this time was the crux of our adventure. We got out oars and the canoe paddle and tried to force the boat forward against the new moon tide. If we even stopped to slap a mosquito, the markers would begin to catch up with us again. The wind had almost stopped, but it would occasionally tease us into laying down the oars, and then the tide would again gain an advantage. We exercised our full collection of curse words and paddled, finally reaching Checkpoint 2 about 2:30 a.m. at dead low tide.
The Checkpoint on Chokoloskee Island is fabled for its mud flats at low tide, and this was the lowest I had ever seen it. We polled the boat with oar and the yuloh until we were stuck hard aground about 75 yards offshore. Luckily, Jeff had brought waders to keep him warm and dry, and I used those to plow through the thigh-deep mud to sign in. Then, exhausted and unwilling to fight the rising tide now coming into the bay, we anchored, ate supper, set our alarms, and got about four hours sleep before high tide.
My watch beeped at 4:30 a.m., and we were sailing out of Rabbit Key Pass at dawn with a favorable wind and tide. Our spirits were immediately recovered and I was back in territory that I recognized and loved. We sailed the rhumb line from the Pavillion Key light to Northwest Cape Sable on the southeast wind, awaiting the predicted shift to southwest. The shift occurred off of Shark River, and we were able to point more directly toward East Cape. With the wind dropping we rounded East Cape right at sunset . . . and the wind stopped (the prediction was for a shift from southwest to northwest).
Having learned from the previous night, we were not as frenetic, but we did try several strategies to make headway against the outgoing tide to no avail. Finally, about ten at night, ripples reappeared in the smooth water and we sailed on to Checkpoint 3 at Flamingo, arriving at about 2 a.m. We did a quick turnaround and headed back out to catch the rising tide through Tin Can Channel, a place where I had run aground in the dark in the past.
There was little to no wind, and we had to paddle to have steerage, but we were soon going 4 mph through the channel with the tide. The Park Service put up new markers since the last hurricane, so the channel was easy to find. One of us paddled while the other steered and held a light close to the water to avoid being blinded by the reflection off the white sails. The stars overhead on this new moon night were brilliant, making reflections in the water, but a mist obliterated the horizon. Large (3-4 foot) Tarpon came up to the light, and one even rammed the boat. A brilliant Venus emerged above the haze just before dawn and Jeff asked if there was a street light out here. Our sleep-deprived minds sometimes played with the limited visual input and had us seeing thing that we knew weren’t there. The sun rising right in our path between Tin Can and the Dump Keys was a welcome sight.
The northerly wind began to build, allowing us to easily sail through the shallow, appropriately-named Twisty Mile at high tide. It shifted easterly, but we were now in open water and made it to the finish about 12:30 – 3 days 5 1/2 hours. The slowest of the fast boats.
It was a gentle year for the EC so far. Randy Smyth, the master of the light air ECs, had made it in in one day and 11 hours, followed by Ron White and Mike McGarry’s modified Tornado at 2 days and 9 hours and Alan Stewart and Mosquitoe at 2 days and 11 hours. We were 9th overall and 4th among the monohulls (following the Frankenscott – 2 days and 12 hours, Per’s modified Lightning – 2 days and 14 hours, and the turbo Core Sound 17 – 2 days and 17 hours).
Even more surprising was that the next three boats in were paddle craft: Bob and Druce Finlay in a double kayak at 3 days 17 hours, followed in less than an hour by the Chesapeake Light Craft triple paddled by Rod Price and Bill Whale, then a solo kayak, John Wood, at almost 3 days 23 hours.
Competitors continued to trickle in throughout the rest of the week with wonderful tales of fun, adventure, and challenge, one of the pleasures of an early arrival. We learned that both of the fast i550s, the proa, and the record-holding Tornado suffered equipment failures.
Then, Thursday afternoon, the mild weather ended and a storm front arrived. We stood on the shore, watching it approach and wondering about some of the wild SPOT tracks being laid down on the North side of Florida Bay. Scott Henderson’s Sirocco 15 was being blown way up into Snake Bite (very shallow water North of Tin Can and East of Flamingo). We heard that a catamaran was in trouble down toward Marathon. The Coast Guard picked up a swimming kayaker two miles out and delivered him and his boat to the dock at the finish. Lots of sailors and paddlers were still out and the forecast was for 23-30 knot winds with much higher gusts (Miami recorded winds over 50 mph).
Laurel and Mark’s landing at the finish as the storm arrived. Photo by Robert Finlay
After the frontal passage, the waters of Florida Bay were kicked up into whitecaps, and many of the competitors were holed up in Flamingo and other spots along the route. The winds were strong enough that the electricity and cell service was down at Flamingo and we were not getting word of what was happening. We did get a message from Scott Henderson that his centerboard was stuck up.
As conditions laid down to a steady 20 from the north (a north wind blows the water out of the Bay), the holed-up paddlers and sailors began to move again (several left Flamingo overnight). Plenty of great stories emerged, including the wonderful one of the SCAMP of Jamie and Marty Worline towing in Scott Henderson’s crippled Sirocco 15.
SCAMP towing the Sirocco the final 23 miles. Photo by Dana Clark
In all, 86 finished of 111 who started, or a 77.5% finish rate. Some years have been as low as 20%. The weather was mild for an EC and the skill and equipment of the challengers has improved. The sailing community, especially Sailing Anarchy and the multihull community, have discovered us and many more boats are showing up (More finished this year than left the beach last year!). There is talk of how to deal with the numbers, including a staggered start and how to deal with the large number of paddlers camping along the way. Check in at watertribe.org for discussions and evolving plans.
More Everglades Challenge coverage coming in Small Craft Advisor’s issue #88. -Eds