By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Our preparation for the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge actually started more than a year before the event itself—in January 2013, when we decided that this time for sure, we were going to participate in EC 2014.
But it kicked up considerably following our Everglades Shakedown trip in December 2013. After that trip, we put together a detailed timeline covering everything from gym training to logistics to food and gear purchases—and more or less stuck to it. As we’ll detail later in “Reflections: What Worked, What Didn’t,” I started a serious lifting and high intensity workout routine in January, and tapered down in the weeks approaching the EC. And we found that dropping alcohol and coffee in the weeks before the EC—along with getting plenty of sleep—made a difference in our stamina and responses to hypothermia.
Meanwhile, we made lists and checked them off… purchased equipment… made hotel and plane reservations… got our SPOTs and PLBs, registered, and tested them… And of course, did training paddles when we could, though the Polar Vortex kept us from doing more than two moderately long trips in NYC.
But Murphy’s Law has a way of stepping in, and due to some work challenges I was concerned that at the last minute, I might need to cancel, despite all the planning. It wasn’t until the Friday, a week before the event, that we were sure we could make it.
Then we really swung into high gear: The last round of online food and equipment purchases, including the Tanka Bars, which arrived just in the nick of time. A trip to REI to stock up on gear we might have missed, including more backup headlamps. And finally, on Monday and Tuesday, packing up!
The plan was for me to fly down to Tampa on Tuesday, finish organizing our logistics and shop for and pack the food. Vlad would stay in New York for an extra day and two nights, pack up the Red Herring, and collect any remaining supplies. I’d pick him up at Tampa airport Thursday, and we’d be at Fort De Soto Park on Mullet Key in St. Petersburg—the launch point of the EC—bright and early Friday for the gear check.
That’s how it worked out, pretty much.
By Tuesday night I was in the Comfort Inn in St. Petersburg—nowhere near Ft. De Soto but close to Sweetwater Kayaks, our kayaking home-away-from home in Florida. If you ever need affordable, clean, friendly lodging I can’t say enough about the Comfort Inn—they’re lovely people (especially Vicky, who works nights and remembered me from our stay there in December).
Wednesday was a mad scramble. I made a last trip to the camping store to pick up Jetboil fuel (which can’t be transported on a plane) along with other last-minute items. I drove out to Ft. De Soto to get the lay of the land and have a chat with the park rangers. (Why? Keep reading).
And then there was the food: grocery shopping and organizing. I spent the evening organizing: 20 “daybags” of food, one for each of us for each of the 10 days we might need them, including the day before the race and the day after it. Each bag contained an apple or two, two or three granola bars, Tanka bars, and dried fruit and nuts.
We’d finally figured out that the most efficient way to eat was to prepare these bags. We’d each take one and stash it somewhere accessible, and eat on the water. As for hot dinners on land, we only planned for 6—we knew that to complete the challenge we’d need to pull at least two all-nighters. We also figured that we’d make coffee at dinnertime and keep it in a thermos, so we’d have it ready to go in the morning, and we’d have something warm to drink during the day. (This turned out to be an excellent idea, as you’ll see.)
Thursday: Time to select my boat and organize our pickup at the end of the trip. Yes, you read that right—it wasn’t until two days before the event that we got these two critical items nailed down!
The boat choice turned out to be easier than I’d thought. Over the years I’ve gotten to know the Sweetwater kayak fleet pretty well, and I’d paddled Russell’s gray plastic Nordkapp before. Back when I was first learning, I found the boat to be “tippy”—which means, in practice, that it does exactly what you tell it to do. If you tell it to go over, it does.
But I’d gotten a lot more experienced over the years, and I was confident I could handle it. Plus, I liked the feel of the solid plastic hull—and the fact that I would be less worried about damaging it than I would a more brittle “glass” (fiberglass) hull. And the Nordkapp is made by Valley, which made my first boat back in NYC, Photon—so the seat, footpegs, skeg, and hatch covers would all be familiar.
What really cinched the deal, though, was when Steve at Sweetwater advised me that the year before, a European—it turns out, Irish—paddler had rented that same boat to paddle in a concurrent, shorter WaterTribe event, the Ultra Marathon—and won in his class.
I also knew the boat had done the EC itself at least once before. In 2007, another NYC paddler, Tim Gamble, had rented it, and completed the EC.
I figured if the boat had completed a WaterTribe event twice before, it could do it again. So Magic and I became a team.
I lucked out on the transportation, as well. It turned out that Sweetwater paddler and coach Cynthia Thompson had the time and inclination to pick us up at the end of the race in Key Largo, collect Magic, and drop us off at the Miami airport. And, before the race, she could even drop the boat off on Friday at Ft. De Soto. I couldn’t have been more delighted!
By Thursday night the last few pieces had fallen into place—all except one.
I’d picked Vlad up from the airport, selected a boat, and finished packing the food. We were good to go for the gear check on Friday. But where would we spend Friday night?
The race was to start at 7 AM on Saturday, which meant we’d need to be at Ft. De Soto by 6 AM, at the latest. The rules stipulated no camping near the boats (though we later found out the rules were somewhat more elastic than they seemed at first).
We could spend the night at the hotel and take a cab from the hotel—if the cab actually showed up, and if the driver could find the launch site, and if we could get inside the park (it didn’t officially open until 7 AM, although we’d been assured it would open earlier for the EC participants).
That was just too many “ifs” for us. We decided that would be our “Plan B”.
As for “Plan A”…. Vlad had checked online and discovered that the Ft. De Soto campground had about 30 sites reserved for walk-in campers.
The campground was about a mile and a half from the race launch—so, do-able. But to get one of those 30 sites… I’d checked in with the camp rangers on Wednesday, when I first got in.
They confirmed the sites were available, but to get one we’d have to show up in person on Friday morning.
At 5 AM.
So Thursday night, we went to bed early. We woke up at 3 AM, packed the car, and drove to Ft. De Soto campground. We arrived at 5:12 AM… only to discover a big group of sleepy-looking people, many wrapped in blankets and clutching steamy mugs. The rangers wouldn’t arrive for another two hours, but the would-be campers had organized a waiting list. We signed in…
… at number 29!
The ranger had said “about 30” sites would be available. This was cutting things mighty, mighty close!
There was nothing much to do, and it was too cold to stand still. So we walked around the campground for a while, until the sky started to turn pink. Then we grabbed some breakfast, from one of the daybags I’d prepared the day before. The rangers arrived around 7 AM, and everyone formed a line, in order of priority. It inched forward painfully slowly, as each would-be camper stepped up to the desk and selected a campsite.
After a while, campers started coming out with mournful faces. The RV spots were all gone. So were the sites that permitted pets. But we stayed hopeful—all we needed was one eensy-teensy little tent site.
Finally it was our turn. We stepped up to the registration desk, our hearts in our throats. Did they still have room…?
YES!!! There were 32 sites given out that day—and we were number 29. But we got it!
I was jubilant as we left the campground. The last piece had fallen into place. A week ago, we hadn’t been sure we’d even make it to the EC—now we had a boat, transportation, and a place to camp!
We drove down to Ft. De Soto Park’s Pavilion 13, where the gear check would be held and from where the EC would launch. Vlad had to put the Red Herring together, and we both had to pack our boats. And go through gear check and the captain’s meeting.
But I had the feeling that everything would be just fine from here on out.
Vlad went to work putting together his boat, and I started organizing gear, under the warm sun. It was nice to be early: Other challengers were just beginning to arrive. We chatted with a few folks, but had no idea who was who—it wasn’t until later that we were able to associate names with boats, and with prior exploits.
Speaking of names: The WaterTribe, the group of paddlers, sailors, and other waterfolk who run and participate in these challenges, uses “tribal names” to identify everyone. I’m ZippyChick, and Vlad is SeaHare. We’ll be referring in these posts to other “tribers”—and we’ll be using their tribal names, per the convention.
By midday we had both boats on the beach. At first there was plenty of space on the sand, but throughout the day more tribers continued to arrive with ever more boats, and the line-up of boats grew ever more packed and colorful. By day’s end there were more than 140 boats on the beach, ready to launch in the morning into one of three concurrent races—the “short” Ultra Marathon, our own medium-length Everglades Challenge (by far the most popular), and the longest of them all, the Ultimate Florida Challenge, a 1,200-mile race around the entire state of Florida (for which only three boats were registered).
The boats were a dizzyingly diverse array of watercraft. There were expedition and racing kayaks and surfskis, expedition canoes, and all manner of sailing craft, from the most traditional-looking boats to formidable high-tech machines, some of them built especially for this race. Almost all the kayaks, too (except ours!), had at least small downwind sails. Hobies and similar small multihulled sailing kayaks and sailboats were well represented, and there were even several windsurfers—and one valiant stand-up paddleboarder (who became the second paddleboarder to finish the EC, in an impressive 4+ days). The boats were lined up side-by-side on the long, broad, sandy beach, facing the blue expanse of Tampa Bay, sparkling in the sunshine. On the horizon was the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
The atmosphere was focused, as everyone packed and intently went over every detail of their boats, yet also festive. Old friends, who hadn’t seen each other since last year’s race, greeted each other… and immediately launched into intense discussion of their new boats and the finer point of sailing technique. Wandering through were crowds of spectators.
We still needed to pass the gear check, during which one of the seasoned tribers would carefully review our expedition gear, and either pass or fail us. If we failed, we’d only have a few hours to purchase the requisite gear and be re-inspected. And these inspections can be far from cursory—we’d heard stories of folks who’d had to scramble to pass.
So I was a bit antsy. After nearly an hour passed with no sign of an inspector, I asked Vlad to go see if he could find one. He headed out… but with camera in hand. A few minutes later I saw him far down the line of boats, taking pictures.
“I don’t know why I asked him to do that,” I said aloud to nobody in particular. “He’ll get plenty of pictures, but never find an inspector. What was I thinking?”
The two men working at the red boat next to ours must have heard the amused tone in my voice—and picked up on the familiar female-male dynamic—because they stood up and smiled. One was a middle-aged man; the other, young and very energetic. We chatted, and I soon found out they were father-and-son-in-law.
This was the father-in-law’s fourth attempt at finishing the EC—he’d had equipment problems in all previous years. He’d tried once solo, once with his son, and once more with his other son-in-law. Now his second son-in-law was making the attempt with him. “I’m going to be the one who makes it,” said the younger man, with a cocky grin. He sported a brand-new Kokatat dry suit—with tags still attached. When I commented on it, he pointed to his father-in-law and said, “He made me get it!” (That turned out to be a wise move, as we later learned.)
We went back to our work, but I was thinking, “Sheesh, what have we gotten ourselves into?” These guys looked pretty competent—and if they hadn’t been able to finish…?
Eventually we located an inspector—okay, I located an inspector, and fetched Vlad back from his picture-taking. The inspector was a thin, wiry, tan woman who seemed like she knew what she was doing.
That’s a bit of understatement—she really knew what she was doing. As I later found out, not only had DolphinGal completed four challenges, she’d also literally “written the book” about paddling in her area of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She’s also written one of the best accounts of the Everglades Challenge I’ve read yet—complete with capsize, boat repairs, storms, and sheer grit.
With all that under her belt, she didn’t seem too impressed with the pile of gear I’d laid out. With a cocked eyebrow she asked what I thought I was going to do with the thick roll of waterproof tape I dutifully carried everywhere for kayak repair (never having needed it). “If you ever need to use it, you won’t need that much,” she said, and advised me to take one long strip, instead of the whole roll.
And she gave me a particularly hard time for having my “space blanket”—foil anti-hypothermia blanket—in my deck back instead of the front pocket of my PFD. (Stay tuned. That space blanket will reappear.)
By the end of the gear inspection, both Vlad and I had the definite feeling she considered me a bit of a lightweight. “You’ll learn so much on this trip,” she said, laughing.
But I passed, and so did Vlad—she was a bit less demanding with him, either because he looks more competent, or because by then she’d discovered that we are the writers of this blog, which she had read, and had more experience with distance paddling than it might have appeared.
Another milestone completed—we’d passed the gear check!
Finally, after all this time and effort, we were almost there. Just a few hours away from launch…
I could go on and describe the captain’s meeting, where Chief, the organizer and guiding spirit of the WaterTribe, a seasoned veteran and former Marine, gave us a sense of what to expect. Or the long walk in the starry darkness back to the campsite. Or the red-eyed raccoons who entertained us during dinner. Or the unexpected biting cold that invaded the tent in the middle of the night…
But all that’s preamble, and the preamble is finally over. We launch at dawn tomorrow!
Here are a few more of the photos that Vlad took as he wandered through the boat line-up (click on any photo to start slideshow):
Even more photos are here.