EC 2010 - Part One

By Gary and Helen Blankenship – Tallahassee, Florida - USA

To Part Two

From Tom Pamperin’s excellent reporting from the 2010 Everglades Challenge:

"And here is the first filter of the race: every crew has to launch their boats unassisted from the beach. Some do it by pushing hard. Some, like Mike Monies and Andrew Linn, do it by using plastic fenders as rollers. Gary Blankenship sets an anchor and starts to haul Oaracle off the beach, then shifts to pushing from behind. Gary has done this before, and his boat has found its share of fame on Duckworks. As he works Oaracle off the beach, someone in the crowd asks, ‘What have you learned so far?’

"‘That it’s a lot easier shoving this thing with two people than with one,’ he says, and keeps pushing."

And so it was. But fortunately – unlike launching – doing the entire 300 miles of the annual WaterTribe Everglades Challenge solo was not significantly harder that doing it with a crew.

Although I had entered four previous Everglades Challenges and finished three, this year would be different as I would be doing it for the first time without a crew. I’ve done a fair amount of singlehanding, including daysailing on Oaracle and overnighting on a larger boat. But nothing compared to an undertaking like this.

Oaracle’s course for the 2010 Everglades Challenge

The Challenge is an annual event run by WaterTribe ( for kayaks, canoes and small sailboats. The rules are ingenious and tough. All boats must be beach launched from above the high tide mark at Ft. DeSoto Park. All boats must stop at three checkpoints along the 300-mile route. The first checkpoint requires passing under a fixed bridge, 8 to 10 feet high and with about 12 feet of horizontal clearance. No problem for the kayakers, but it’s masts down for the sailboats and some frantic paddling.

Around 70 boats and kayaks line up on the beach the day before the start

The second checkpoint is at Chokoloskee, just south of Everglades City, at the northern end of the Everglades. The ingress and exit channels are narrow, with the wind potentially blocked by mangrove islands, and subject to strong tidal currents. The third checkpoint at Flamingo is a bit easier to enter and exit, but can have its own eccentricities. And then there’s the final leg across Florida Bay to the finish in Key Largo. But more about that later. (All these requirements are described as "filters," which is a WaterTribe euphemism for obstacle.)

Oaracle and Mullet, a modified Blue Jay class racer, on the beach. The two boats also would spend some side-by-side time during the race.
Grok and The Blue Laguna
John Wright makes adjustments to Grok – I wish I had taken more time to study this boat.

We had a impromptu Duckworks Team for this year’s event. Mike Monies brought his new Jim Michalak-designed Laguna Dos with Andy Linn as crew. And John Wright brought his innovative 14-foot Grok, a scow-bowed boat that I wished I had more time to inspect. I had Oaracle, a Michalak-designed Frolic2 which, as noted above, has managed to overcome her owner’s best efforts and finish three Challenges.

Arrival at Ft. DeSoto Park, the EC start, was not encouraging. I had reserved a campsite and hoped we could all fit, but my memory of its size was . . . somewhat generous. Fortunately, Mike and John were able to find a nearby unfilled spot at the last minute to store the overflow of boats, trailers and tents and we settled in on Thursday, March 4, to meet other competitors and do last minute jobs. In Mike’s case, a fair number of last minute jobs. We had launched Laguna Dos the previous Saturday in Tallahassee and sailed again on Sunday in the nearby Gulf of Mexico. The Laguna was impressive, but equally impressive was the number of last minute details to be worked out – cleat locations, sheet leads, rigging, and the like. Mike tackled it all with notable perseverance and patience.

He had been at Ft. DeSoto since Monday, hoping to get in more sailing, but the weather had been uncooperative. It echoed much of our winter in Florida this year, cold, rainy and very windy as front after cold front assaulted the state. Andy joined him Wednesday, and then John and I arrived on Thursday. I was accompanied by Noel Davis, who has sailed with me in past challenges. This year, he would be running the checkpoint at Flamingo, and then would pick Oaracle and me up at the finish line at Key Largo.

My big concern for this year’s EC, aside from doing it alone, was the weather and the aforementioned cold fronts. All had plenty of rain and many had substantial winds. Marine forecasts with gusts to near gale force were common along the EC route. But we got a break. It became clear a couple days before the start that there was going to be a break in the steady march of fronts, at least for most of the Challenge. Temperatures, however, would remain well below normal. I wondered if my three sets of long underwear would be enough.

Some of the kayaks in the Everglades Challenge
Matt Layden (Wizard) launches his 9-foot Elusion to take wife Karen on a ride the day before the start

Part of the fun of an EC is meeting old friends before the start, as well as newcomers. It’s a good reason to come down a day before registration. The Friday before the start is usually a blur of pleasant activity. Register. Put your boat on the beach. Help other WaterTribers put their boats on the beach. Walk the starting line admiring the boats and kayaks. Gab with old friends. Meet new ones. Organize gear in the boat. Set up the masts. Watch others do the same. Admire Matt (Wizard) Layden’s new nine-foot boat. Go to the skippers’ meeting conducted by WaterTribe founder Steve Isaacs (Chief) and listen to instructions and admonishments. Back to the boat for some finishing touches. Out to a nervous supper with Noel (well, I was nervous; Noel was fine) where the food tastes funny for some reason. Then back to the camp for last minute organizing of things (mostly food and electronics) that won’t be loaded on the boat until morning. Finally to bed. Sleep may be hard to come by in the next few days and starting well rested is important. Chief has announced that the gates to the starting beach will be open around 5:30 a.m., earlier than in previous years, and I want to be there to mitigate the hecticness of the start.

The alarm went off at 4:30 and water was boiled for breakfast. Oatmeal was all my nervous stomach wanted and a thermos was filled so hot drinks and soup would be available during the day. Noel and I had sorted our gear for quick departure – my stuff ready to load and his stuff in the back of the truck for the trip to Flamingo. We got to the starting beach at 5:30 and Noel helped me tote my remaining gear and supplies to Oaracle as the gradually lightening beach became a beehive of activity. There were 70 craft! About 20 were in the 67-mile Ultra Marathon, which ended at the first checkpoint in Placida. Forty were starting the Everglades Challenge (two who had signed up didn’t make the starting line, one from last minute boat problems and one from illness). Eight were starting the grueling 1,200 mile Ultimate Florida Challenge, which would see them circumnavigate the north-south part of the Florida peninsula, including a 40-mile overland portage between the St. Mary’s and the Suwanee rivers.

Another view of Oaracle, with two fenders acting as rollers to help with the launch. Under just revised rules, fenders and other launching aids now cannot be placed under the boat until the 7 a.m. starting time.

There was a quick last-minute meeting on the beach for roll call and a group picture. Chief cautioned that the north wind, which felt gentle on the beach, would be stronger as we got offshore. Back at our boats, we got the instruction to switch on our SPOT trackers, a new feature for many of us racers. The SPOT sends a message to a satellite, which in turn relays an e-mail message that you are okay along with your position to a selected group of people. It also, linked to the WaterTribe site, provides a track of your progress. Neat. Mine would play a more important role than I anticipated.

In past years, two of us had been able to muscle the boat into the water using fenders, otherwise carried along the cabin topsides for extra floatation, as beach rollers. The two largest fenders were under Oaracle and a test yesterday showed the boat might be movable by me by pushing only. But this morning it wasn’t budging. It turned out one of the rollers had partially deflated. It would be done the hard way. I waited a few minutes while the boats on either side of me got launched, as the orange sun peeped over the Sunshine Skyway bridge to the east. I hooked a block to Oaracle’s bow, and then set an anchor about halfway to the water. A Dacron line was run from the anchor through the block, giving me a 2:1 purchase. I braced my feet, pulled hard, and Oaracle began to move. A couple of bystanders had to be discouraged when they offered to help; WaterTribe rules are very explicit. WaterTribers can lend any assistance to each other and some help volunteered by strangers can be accepted – except at the start. Each boat’s crew must launch their craft without outside assistance, and carry with them any equipment used to help. As Oaracle began to move, I put one of the smaller fenders under the bow and then paused to reset the anchor, this time in the water. Oaracle edged over the top of the high tide mark and started down the gently sloping beach toward the water. More fenders went under the boat and I was able to get it the final few feet by pushing on the stern, the anchor no longer needed. Then it was a leisurely storing of the anchor, retying of the fenders along the cabin, raising the sail and starting off. Total time to launch was less than 30 minutes, including waiting for others to clear the beach. A short distance from the beach, I hit the SPOT button again, per Chief’s instructions, to send another message indicating I had started.

Hauling Oaracle to the water. The line runs through a block on the bow and then to an anchor set on the other side of the boat, giving a 2:1 purchase. Note the fenders under Oaracle, which act as rollers
On the water, retying the fenders to the boat where they serve as extra floatation.
And we’re off!

The first few minutes had light winds, but a short distance out, they picked up, as Chief had predicted. Not enough for a reef, but enough to move Oaracle at hull speed. The Tampa Bay swell and waves assumed a lumpy disposition, familiar from earlier EC starts.

Launching photos by Noel Davis. Pictures of Oaracle at CP 2 by Tom Pamperin. Pictures at Flamingo by Noel and Tom.

To be continued next month...


To comment on Duckworks articles, please visit our forum