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By Gary and Helen Blankenship - Tallahassee, Florida - USA

To Part Two

It turned out to be an abbreviated Everglades Challenge this year for Oaracle and her crew, but its brevity didn't mean any lack of excitement. To give away the ending, Scott Gosnell (my crew this year) and I ended up pulling out at the first checkpoint, although we had a great sail to get there. More about that later.

(To set the stage: The Everglades Challenge is an annual event, starting the first Saturday in March. It's open to kayaks and small sailboats, and runs 300 miles from Tampa Bay down the coast of Florida, around the southwestern tip of the state and across Florida Bay to Key Largo. There are three mandatory checkpoints along the way, each with their own obstacles that keeps the participating boats from getting too large or outlandish. Also, all boats at the start must be launched from above the high tide line at Ft. Desoto Park. See for full details.)

A group of kayaks setup on the beach on Friday, day before the start. Oaracle is in the background, waiting to be moved to the high tide line.
Some of the monohulls in Class 4; a Little Gen, a Frolic2, a Sea Pearl, an O'Day Daysailer, and a modifed Blue Jay.

Scott, who goes by the Watertribe handle of Foghorn, and I (Lugnut) were camped before the start this year with Scott Widmier (PlumbCrazy), who is also the father of the Florida 120 and was sailing his 12- foot Little Gem, and John Bell (MisterMoon), who was competing in his O'Day 17.

The only problem with our start was I barely slept the night before, perhaps a side effect of some asthma medication and somewhat surprising because I had slept well the previous night. But the launch went well. We got all our gear and supplies to and loaded on the boat, and Scott got the truck to the holding area and hooked up to the trailer, ready to be picked up after the EC. It was a crowded beach. There were 71 vessels in the EC (the most ever, I think) and another dozen or so in the shorter Ultimate Marathon, which ends at the first checkpoint in Placida.

At 7 a. m., the EC started, but we held back for a couple minutes. Scott Widmier on one side and Bill Fite (Jarhead), with a Sea Pearl) on the other were quickly launched and we wanted to make sure there was plenty of room. Besides, we got to watch all the kayaks and some of the sailboats leave.

About 7:10 we began moving Oaracle after putting a fender under the bow and another under the stern, and the rest lined up in front of the boat. With a good push, Oaracle began moving and slid down the beach into the water. We lashed the fenders along the cabin side for floatation, raised the main (the mizzen was already up), and took off around 7:20. The wind was strong from the east, so we broad reached toward the mouth of Tampa Bay south of Egmont Key. We were supposedly bucking an incoming tide, but our speed on the GPS stayed around 6 knots and we regularly passed 7 and once hit

The only problem was about halfway out the bay, the tie that held the peak of the lugsail to the yard came undone. (Note for next year: Double check all such lashings before leaving the beach.) Since the sail is tied on with separate ties, this was only a minor inconvenience especially since we were off the wind. The water was choppy and I was reluctant to stop and fix it until the seas were calmer.

Scott Gosnell helms Oaracle on the Gulf of Mexico after we exited Tampa Bay.

By 8:10 we were out the mouth of Tampa Bay, with Plumbcrazy a little ahead of us. We could just hold course close hauled down the coast. Once we got behind Anna Maria Island, the seas settled a bit and we lowered the sail, retied the peak, and had it up in about 5 minutes. We were close to Plumbcrazy and I enjoyed watching the V-bow of his 12-foot Little Gem cut the chop, although he insists we had a better time on Oaracle.

Scott Widmier heads south on the first day sailing his 12-foot Little Gem. this was shot while the breeze was still brisk and from the east in the morning.

After about two hours, the wind began to lighten and die. It went briefly south and we tacked before it disappeared completely. I've been there before in previous challenges and quickly got out the oars, expecting it to take an hour or so before the wind filled in. To my surprise, in about five minutes I felt a gentle breeze on my cheek as a light southwesterly began to fill in. This kept us moving at 3-4 knots for several hours, and got us past Sarasota. I was able to take advantage of the settled conditions for a nap or two to make up for the previous night's lack of sleep, and Scott memorialized one of my rests with a video that now resides on YouTube (thanks Scott).

Around 3:45 p. m. the wind began to lighten, die out, and shift to the south, making it a headwind Our speed dropped to 1.5 - 2 knots as the sun headed toward the horizon. I rowed for an hour to keep going and then followed a frustrating pattern of a gentle wind springing up, enough to go 2 to 2.5 knots, so I'd take in the oars, and then the wind would die in a few minutes.

At least it wasn't particularly lonely. As the sun dropped in the west, we saw RagWing in his 13-foot biplane catamaran ahead in the distance, as well as PenguinMan and Ocean Diva in the Hobie Adventure Island tandem sailing kayak. As it got dark, SavannahDan and PaddleMaker came paddling by in their tandem kayak and we had a brief chat. They had no trouble pulling away from us. We also had a radio chat every other hour with PlumbCrazy and MisterMoon, but we had lost sight of them. (This was the first time in an EC I had a regular schedule with other competitors, and it added a lot to the experience.)

We did some short tacking close to shore but eventually after the sun went down, a steady breeze, roughly ESE, sprung up. We were able to hold 2-3 knots on a slightly offshore course. We passed Venice Inlet about 11 p. m. and shortly afterwards, the wind headed us and we began to tack. (Interesting note: We were roughly in the same position - south of Sarasota - around 3:30 p. m. as where Noel Davis and I had been around 3 p. m. in the 2008 EC. But that year instead of the wind dying, a fresh breeze picked up from the NW. We went in the Venice Inlet and through most of the Venice canal during daylight and by 11 p. m. were approaching the first checkpoint!)

I needed several naps because of my lack of sleep the night before, so Scott did most of the overnight sailing although I got in a couple steady hours when he tired in the wee hours of the predawn darkness. Our speed stayed at 2-3 knots as we tacked. A couple hours before dawn, the wind strengthened and we began to do 3-4 knots. I got one last nap shortly after sunrise (well, the sunrise you get in a cloudy sky).

To be continued...

(C) 2011 Gary and Helen Blankenship

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