By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Start: Tampa Bay.
Finish: Key Largo.
Distance: 262 nautical miles (301 land miles).
Total time: 7 days, 14½ hours.
“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. We’ll activate the links as we complete each post.
Gear We Love
The Days Before: Preparation and Gear Check
Segment 1: Fort De Soto to Cape Haze
Segment 2: Cape Haze to Magic Key
Segment 3: Magic Key to Indian Key
Segment 4: Indian Key to Highland Beach
Segment 5: Highland Beach to Flamingo
Segment 6: Flamingo to Key Largo
Reflections: What Worked, What Didn’t
A few photos from the entire race were here.
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