By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Start: Fort De Soto Park, Mullet Key, Saturday, March 1, 7:00 AM.
Finish: Checkpoint 1, Cape Haze Marina, Englewood, Sunday, March 2, 2:10 AM.
Distance: 55 nautical miles (63 land miles).
Paddling time: 18 hours, 10 minutes.
Rest time: 1 hour.
Average paddling speed: 3.0 knots.
We awoke at 3:45 AM. Today was the big day! It was hard to believe that after all the planning, the race was about to start. In the chilly predawn darkness of the quiet campsite, it all still seemed somewhat unreal.
We broke camp and walked, in the starry darkness, the mile and a half to Pavilion 13, where the boats were on the beach. Nobody else was around as we packed up our camping gear and filled and stowed the water bags. Then there was nothing to do but wait, as, one by one, other shadowy figures began to arrive.
A rosy dawn arrived to reveal the beach crowded with boats and now buzzing with excited conversation. At 6:30 AM, there was a roll call. As we stood waiting for our names to be called, we could see each others’ tense, excited faces in the growing brightness.
We went back to our boats and stood alongside them, checking our watches, anticipating the start signal. The paddler next to me gave me a grin, seeing my nervousness. “You’ll do fine,” he said.
His name was Driftwood, I’d learned the day before. He was an intense, competent-looking guy who’d laughed about the way people had teased about his “itty, bitty” sail. Somehow I figured he’d do more than fine.
Soon… just a couple more minutes…
At 7 AM, just as the sun was rising, Chief shouted “Go!”
Suddenly and unexpectedly, a man in a kilt began playing the bagpipes. And all along the beach, WaterTribers began to move down the sandy slope, pushing and dragging their craft into the shallow water.
As I settled into the cockpit, I felt a thrill of excitement. And pure joy. The morning couldn’t be more beautiful: rising sun, a gentle breeze (thankfully, not a headwind), and just enough chop to be interesting.
The colorful cluster of boats quickly separated into two groups making their way across Tampa Bay: one, mostly kayaks, headed to the left toward the “inside” route, the Intracoastal Waterway; the other, mostly sailboats, headed right, toward the “outside” route through the Gulf of Mexico. I watched as Driftwood swiftly pulled out to the front of the bunch of kayaks—no surprise there!
As previously planned, we went to the right, with the sailboats. The weather forecast called for a slight northerly tailwind, so we figured the seas would be manageable. And the outside route was both more direct and less sheltered—we’d pick up the benefit of the wind, if any.
Crossing Tampa Bay was uneventful, and we soon rounded the point of Anna Maria Island and were out in the open Gulf. The wind died down over the course of the morning, and we found ourselves, somewhat to our surprise, passing a number of the sailboats.
We paused for a snack on the water about mid-morning, and after that, the wind began to pick up. The sailboats we had previously passed skimmed by us and headed farther out to sea, to our right. We admired their colors against the sky.
The waves picked up as well, becoming long and surfable—exactly the conditions that Magic was made for. The water sparkled in the sunlight, and the coastline streamed by to our left.
But what was that? It was a giant sea turtle, swimming along with its head above water. We’d already seen several other turtles, but normally they startle and dive immediately when they see us. This one gave us a casual glance and just kept swimming.
It seemed a good omen.
And we needed one, because we estimated that this day would be the longest of the entire trip. Our goal was to push on until we arrived at the first checkpoint at Cape Haze Marina, 54 nautical miles or so from the start. At our current pace, that put arrival well after midnight—possibly as late as 4 AM. Our stretch goal was to keep going a few miles after that, and camp on one of the keys we’d identified during our shakedown trip in April 2013. That would put us well on our way, we thought.
As for the route: we hoped to continue on our current outside route, which meant we’d be paddling in the Gulf in the dark until we reached Stump Pass, the inlet just before Checkpoint 1. Among other things, that would allow us to avoid Venice Canal (Venice Cut), which we remembered from our previous trip as a long, boring section that also added a couple of miles to the overall distance. “I really, really don’t want to paddle Venice Canal again,” I’d said when were were planning our strategy.
Famous last words. As the day wore on, the wind grew stronger. The waves grew longer and higher, until they reached 3-4 feet in height, and some began to break. Nothing unmanageable—but by late afternoon we were tired and beginning to get chilly from the steady wind.
Did we really want to be dealing with these conditions for the next 12 hours, then navigate through the breakers of the unmarked Stump Pass, which we’d never been through before? In the dark?
We decided reluctantly: no. We’d turn in at Venice Inlet, and take the dreaded canal. (Fortunately, we calculated that we’d have the current with us through the canal, although we’d lose it at some point thereafter.) So as the sun was setting we paddled towards the lights marking Venice Inlet.
We were cold (Vlad more so than I) and we needed to turn on our boat lights. We briefly considered stopping on the water to put on more clothing and turn on the lights. But the waves were breaking, and we were so close…
So we pushed on: Just within Venice Inlet was Snake Island. We could stop there and do what was needed, we figured. This thinking turned out to be our first mistake.
The sun set as we paddled, and paddled… and paddled. Finally we made it to Venice Inlet. As we rounded the jetty, the waves that had been a constant presence suddenly disappeared. The water was calm, and we even had some shelter from the wind.
And as we paddled towards Snake Island, the unexpected chime of church bells rang out softly over the water. In my memory it was “Ode to Joy,” but I can’t be certain. But it was a welcome, and welcoming, sound.
When we landed on the island just after 7 PM, it was the first time Vlad had been out of the boat in over 12 hours (I’d taken a brief stop at Lido Key, near Sarasota). We were both tired and stiff, and Vlad was cold.
We put on more clothing, and turned on our lights, but we opted not to make coffee or do anything else to warm up—our second mistake. We hadn’t realized it yet, but lack of sleep contributes considerably to hypothermia. Vlad hadn’t gotten nearly as much sleep as I had in the week before the trip. He was cold.
In subsequent days, we wouldn’t repeat either mistake: we’d remember the wisdom of the adage, “It’s far easier to stay warm than to get warm,” and put on warmer clothing well before the sun set. And if either of us became chilled, we’d stop and make something warm to eat or drink, or at least drink some warm coffee from our thermos if landing was not possible.
But that was in the future. Right now it was just after dark, and we had a long way to go to reach Checkpoint 1. We ate our snacks and I changed the batteries in my GPS. Then just as we began putting our gear away, it happened: The open baggie containing my AA batteries fell off the boat and went “Plop” into the salt water.
Damn it! There went my stash of batteries.
Fortunately, this was one thing we’d done right. In addition to my primary stash of batteries, I had two secondary, backup stashes, safely stowed away in my Watershed dry bags. And meantime, I could use Vlad’s. But it drove home the importance of having backup gear—stored in a different location.
We got moving later than we wanted, around 8 PM.
The town of Venice was quiet, with lights twinkling in the darkness. (The churchbells had long since stopped.) And we slowly made our way into the long stretch of darkness that was the Venice Canal, following the route in the GPS.
The trip through the canal was shorter than I remembered—perhaps because we’d already paddled so far that day, and because, as expected, we did have the current with us. We were cheered to recognize one of our campsites from the previous trip, and said hello as we glided past.
The evening wore on, and my memory starts to get fragmented here. By 10 PM, we’d been paddling for 15 hours, and up for nearly 20, and I’d begun to get tired. So for the next few hours, I remember a blur of calm, dark water. Bright stars in a velvety, moonless sky. And the occasional lights from shore. We went under a bridge, maybe more. Some lights ahead turned out to be from kayak fishermen, out by themselves late at night.
By now the current had turned against us, and so we stayed out of the deeper channel of the Intracoastal Waterway, making our way through the shallows along the side where a couple of times we almost ran aground.
Vlad was cold, but still alert. I remember leaning against his shoulder sometime around 1 AM.
“Are you ok?” he asked. “I want to go to sleep.” I replied. (Not for the last time on this trip!) “We have to keep going,” he said firmly. But we agreed we’d stop at Checkpoint 1, and not attempt to paddle on to the farther keys.
So we kept paddling, gliding slowly through the black-and-spangled darkness. Until at last, just before 2 AM, Vlad said, “I think that’s it, over to our left!”
We paddled up. Sure enough, the signs proclaimed: Welcome to Cape Haze Marina!
We paddled past the signs to the tiny beach we were supposed to land on—and for the first time since the morning, saw fellow WaterTribers. There were a few boats on the beach, and people moving slowly and talking in low voices.
Finally, the nose of my boat grounded on the sand. “Need some help?” said somebody.
“No, I’m fine,” I said. I climbed out of the cockpit, stood up stiffly…
… and promptly fell over, landing with an embarrassing splash in the shallow water.
More photos from Segment 1 (click on any photo to start slideshow):
Even more photos are here.