Everglades Challenge, Overview

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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Sunset over the Gulf

Start: Tampa Bay.
Finish: Key Largo.
Distance: 262 nautical miles (301 land miles).
Total time: 7 days, 14½ hours.

Our route

Our route

“Kayaking in Florida? That sounds like a lovely relaxing vacation!”

That was the common reaction when we told folks we were planning to participate in the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile adventure race from Tampa Bay to Key Largo. When you think about paddling in Florida, you probably imagine sunny skies, gentle breezes, and turquoise waves lapping softly against white sandy beaches.

And true, some parts were like that.

Then there were the other parts:

—Paddling down the Gulf of Mexico in pitch-darkness, with a fantastically realistic hallucination of an old English forest on your right. Every so often you glance into the grey, ghostly “trees” and see lights twinkling among them. Then you look down… and your headlamp illuminates a pair of sharks silently crisscrossing under your boat. You realize with a jolt of fear that they are no hallucination!

—Getting both boats stuck at low tide in the tangled mangrove roots in the deceptively-named “Broad Creek”. (If this was the broad creek, we don’t want to know what the narrow one is like!) You spend a few minutes wondering if you’ll have to wait hours until the tide rises. Then with a final maneuver you’re able to break free…

—Being hammered by a massive thunderstorm as you paddle toward a chickee to perform boat repairs…

—Surfing 3-foot breaking waves in Oyster Bay in the 20-knot tailwinds after a storm while navigating by starlight and GPS and struggling to stay awake after a total of only 16 hours of sleep over the past four days…

—Tumbling into the sand, pillowing your head on your PFD and pulling your hat over your face to grab an hour or two of sleep on the beach as you wait for the current to change…

Lovely? For sure. Relaxing? Not so much. Exhausting, exhilarating, challenging… yes, all those.

In this writeup, we divide the 8 days it took us to get from from Tampa Bay to Key Largo into 6 segments, because we usually paddled late into the night, or overnight, before we finally stopped to get a few hours’ sleep. Each “day” stretched to 30 hours, 36 hours, or longer…

The trip roughly divides into “before front” (Segments 1-4) and “after front” (Segments 5 and 6). Before a strong weather front blew in, wind and sea conditions were (largely) not an issue. We took the most direct route and paddled as quickly and consistently as possible. Our primary challenges were sleep deprivation, dealing with the extremes of heat and cold, and night navigation—tough enough, but something we quickly learned to handle.

Once the front began to affect us, wind and sea conditions dictated our route. To avoid, or at least minimize the impact of, the conditions, we took a longer round-about route and so slowed down considerably in our progress toward the finish. Cumulative sleep deprivation was also now taking a major toll. “After front” was definitely the most challenging, but also the most gratifying.

Here are the links to each segment of the race, as well as a few other relevant topics:

GearGear We Love

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The Days BeforeThe Days Before: Preparation and Gear Check

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Segment 1Segment 1: Fort De Soto to Cape Haze

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Segment 2Segment 2: Cape Haze to Magic Key

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Segment 3: Magic Key to Indian KeySegment 3

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Segment 4Segment 4: Indian Key  to Highland Beach

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Segment 5: Highland Beach to FlamingoSegment 5

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Segment 6Segment 6: Flamingo to Key Largo

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IMGP0075 cropped smallReflections: What Worked, What Didn’t

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A few photos from the entire race were here.

Next in Everglades Challenge →

73 responses to “Everglades Challenge, Overview

  1. Must have been a fascinating adventure …

  2. Sharks?! You two make any ‘crazy’ adventures we do look completely sane. I will have to get my Mom to read your blog. :)
    Looking forward to the full stories!

    • Most crazy adventures are quite sane when presented in the right manner… ;-)

      The sharks were quite small—maybe 2 feet long, no more than 3. But still their sudden ghostly appearance in the pools of light of our headlamps was unexpected and just a bit disconcerting…

      • I agree as I have become a master of making adventures seem completely reasonable…well in my own mind anyway. :)
        Oh well if the sharks were only 2-3 feet long they wouldn’t kill you just have a chew on your hand for snack.

        • Yes, we weren’t too worried, apart from that. But further down in the Everglades, both during this race and our trip in December, we saw a number of bigger sharks cruising on the surface that, judging from the spacing of the fins, must have been 4 or even 5 feet long. There’s a reason why there’s a “Shark River” and “Shark Point” there… :-)

        • Yikes! Makes good blog material :)

  3. Searching for ways to thank you two for this wonderful winter escape. My exercise level didn’t compare to yours but I did experience some lost sleep following your progress. I wanted a real time video broadcast from helmet cams! Ha! That will probably be possible some day.

    Looking forward to the “log” of your adventure.

    George

  4. Amazing. Well done on taking on the challenge!

  5. Sounds like a great adventure – looking forward to reading about it :-)

  6. The kayaking doesn’t sound that relaxing, but I know the views were spectacular. I love the gulf side of Florida. So much nature to enjoy.

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  8. still following along on your adventures…I think I have found…that this is not for me!…but, so proud of you two for tackling such an experience!… enjoying your posts!

  9. What an adventure! Great photo.

  10. Wow, I’ve been enjoying following your adventure.

  11. It was a pleasure to meet and get to know Vlad and Johna.
    You impressed me starting at Fort Desoto, then near Chokoloskee, at Flamingo, in Florida Bay, the finish line, and the after race activities. And now you impress me with a speedy and well done blog posting.

    Congratulations on this great achievement. It was esp impressive to be done via commercial flight, with a folding kayak, a rented boat, and no sail power. The way you stayed up all night is amazing.

    You know where to find me.
    Patrick / Falcon Sails.

  12. ps – my avatar shows me with my rm nordkapp ( The same model Johna used )
    I know the boat Johna rented well. That was impressive. The folding boat may be even more impressive.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      It’s a lovely, wonderful, fantastic boat. It finished the EC at least three times that I know of–and won once, if what I heard is correct. (Not with me in the cockpit, obviously.)

  13. the sharks . . . that would scare me.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      They were little sharks. With little mouths. :-)

      Of course, they DID make me think twice before stepping out of the boat to pee…..

  14. Very interesting. I could never do anything like that in a million years.

  15. Sounds like a trip to tell stories about years on!

  16. Congrats… Don’t know if I could have done it…

  17. I sure enjoyed following along your journey! Where will your next adventure be?

  18. I enjoy your adventure right here from my computer :)
    they are wonderful…Thank you for sharing them…
    Take Care…You Matter…
    )0(
    maryrose

  19. Pingback: Everglades Challenge: Gear We Love | Wind Against Current

  20. totally extraordinary in true adventurer style! so glad you made it through safely and can share it all with us :)

  21. Wow, what an adventure. I can only attempt to have a glimpse of your Florida experience by reading Carl Hiassen’s many books and how he describes the various landscapes you went through.

  22. Great to meet more EC paddlers from NYC metro area. I did it last year.
    Passaic Paddler, Paterson NJ

    • Hi, John!

      Yes, we’ve come across you on the WaterTribe site and also on your blog. Great to meet you, likewise!!

      There’s at least one other paddler in NYC that we know who’s done the EC: Tim Gamble. And there are probably more.

      DolphinGal, who has completed 4 challenges, is also from NJ, we believe, but further south, Green Bank.

  23. wow sounds like one epic adventure!

    • It was one peril narrowly escaped, only to be followed immediately by another. One day especially we felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie… ;-)

      • wow what an experience, we love Florida having holidayed on several occasions, particularly the area you kayaked we aim to visit again next year.

        • My last comment was a bit tongue-in-cheek. We had a great time, and it was actually a pretty comfortable trip—mainly because the weather was pretty good. There was only one major storm, but we were pretty sheltered inside the Everglades just then….

  24. Wonderful! I took a new job and have certainly been away too long!

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  26. There’s going to be a book, right?

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