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By Mike Monies - Eufaula, Oklahoma - USA

To Part Two

Natural Treasure or Small Sailboat Hell

Florida Bay is best though of as a slightly wetter extension of the Everglades between the southern most land part of the glades and the Florida Keys. It has Mangrove Keys which do not have any real land under them and vast flats of Turtle Grass. The Grass flats have a very soft mud bottom. Try to walk and you sink way above your knees in the soft quick sand like mud. This mud when disturbed gives of an very strong rotten egg order. Despite this soft mud bottom the water over the grass is crystal clear.

The author enjoys his last meal before the start of the Everglades Challenge.

Most of Florida Bay is with in the bounds of Everglades National Park and is highly protected. Air Boats and PWC are not allowed. Power boats should stay in marked channels except for a very few deeper holes. The fines for disturbing the Grass Flats are very large, $5,000 is common and they can go way up from there.

Florida in general and the Everglades in particular have been in drought conditions. Water levels over the past several years have gone way down. This fact has rendered many maps of the area including the Top Spot map we were using out of date. The newer maps such as the one sold at the Flamingo marina store that the Rangers use solves this problem by simply not showing many depths but use different colors to show shallow and less shallow areas. They might as well just say "abandon all hope ye who enter here"

Access to Florida Bay is very limited. From the north the Flamingo visitor center and marina is itself hard to get too requiring a 40 mile drive from Florida City. One way in and one way out. There are tour boats out of flamingo for both the fresh water and salt water areas and fishing guides that work out of the marina. There is also access from the Florida Keys by boat. The main tourist attraction is the bird life with migrating birds as well as local ones numbering in the hundreds if species.

It is into this environment that the Everglades Challenge comes each year. Flamingo is checkpoint #3 and the place where all the boats, weather they took the wilderness waterway or the outside gulf way come together. The distance from Flamingo to Key Largo is about 30 miles as the crow flies but can be much longer depending on which route you take.

Last year faced with a very strong SE wind Andrew and I took the long way around. Tacking South to Long Key and then a beam reaching up the inside of the Keys following the intercostal waterway to Key Largo. We sailed 74 miles in about 14 hours. I was at the helm and Andrew was doing the navigating on the fly. It was the most glorious day of small boat sailing I had experienced to date but we did not get to see much of Florida Bay.

This year I wanted to see Florida Bay so I was happy to learn that a cold front passage would bring a North West wind on Friday March 11. We arrived at Flamingo about 5:30 PM on Thursday after a very hard 36 hours of beating to windward. My wife Jackie was waiting on the dock with her camera and asked us go out and come back in because she missed getting a picture. Needless to say Andrew and I, very tired from our ordeal, declined her request.

SCAMP at the dock in Flamingo

The Cold front was due to come through late Friday so we settled in to spend Thursday night and most of Friday at Flamingo. The front arrived with a great deal of noise, rain and wind and then moved on south leaving a dead calm. By 5:00 PM there was the first hint of a Northwest wind so we decided to leave Flamingo and sail until dark when we would anchor for the night. During the night, while we were anchored off Joe Kemp Key, the wind built out of the Northwest until It was quite strong by dawn.

We thought this Northwest wind was our friend and had high hopes of arriving at the finish line, now just 30 miles away, in time for a hot Supper. However, in the early dawn hours we went south through East Foy Bank Pass instead of East into Tin Can Pass Channel. We saw our mistake and plotted a course east around the south end of Palm Key that would take us back to Tin Can Pass Channel around Buoy Key. At this point things started going terribly wrong. The very strong Northwest wind, that we had thought was our friend, was blowing the water right out from under us FAST. The Shallower the water got the more trouble we had holding our intended course and started falling off to the South. Near Curlew Key we ran out of water as the grass came up to grab us. We found ourselves stuck in the grass with no deep water anywhere in sight.

Sailing a un- powered boat 300 miles in the EC, getting in and out of those difficult check points, teaches a lot of lessons. Being able to handle your boat in what ever wind and waves you encounter, using tides to get in and out of checkpoints, and the sheer perseverance to just keep going. Now we were about to get a PHD in patience.

At first we tried everything we could think of to keep moving. Andrew being the heaviest got out of the boat and quickly sank up over his knees. Then he tried tying seat cushions to his feet to walk on the mud. It worked for a couple of steps before the mud sucked them off. Next he tried boat fenders, two to each foot. They got sucked off too. We both got out and still could make no real progress. The anchor would not hold enough to pull the boat forward. We had run aground about 11:00 Am Friday and by sunset we were still stuck so we settled in for our second night on Florida Bay.

Andrew with seat cushions on his feet.

That second night was cold, but beautiful. The front had cleared all the clouds away and the sunset had been perfect. Stars were out in full force because we were so far from any light pollution. Saturday dawned clear and sunny. We saw that our Red boat had become enough a part of the landscape that the wading birds got closer and closer. Great Blue and White Herons were all around us. On Friday I had seen a adult and jovial Bald Eagle flying out of a nest on Curlew Key right next to us. On Saturday I saw the adult eagle attack a Heron. The Heron was very large and I have no idea what the Eagle was trying to accomplish. The Heron, who was wading, fended off the flying Eagle with his beak and the Eagle gave up.

Like the Heron I too was fighting. In my case it was disappointment. To have come all that way and have it end like this. I felt I was letting down all the people who had helped us and cheered us on. By Saturday noon, the official end of the EC, I had yet to come to terms with what had happened. Andrew and I had been trying to move the boat and had managed to get it from the Southwest corner of Curlew Key to the East side. A distance of about 200 yards. These Keys seem to have a pocket of deeper water, in this case about one foot, right along their edge. We had used this pocket to move the boat but there was still no place to go. The entire Key was stranded by grass flats as far as we could see. It was becoming clear that not only were we not going to finish, we were not going to get off the grass flats anytime soon.

We were still only 9 miles from Flamingo so we had some cell phone service (only AT&T works there) and we called the Park Rangers. They said they would come out and access our problem. Later they called us back. They could see us from their boat in Tin Can Channel over a mile away but could not get any closer because of the grass. They asked if we needed food or water? No, we had plenty of both. Did we have a medical problem? No we were both okay. It seems that if we needed food or water it could be brought by Helicopter. Had one of us had a medical problem that person could be extracted by Helicopter. Otherwise, we were on our own because no powerboat could get near us. They also told us until the wind changed from the North to the East or Southeast there was very little chance of the water returning to the Bay. At this time of the year the wind was much stronger than the Bay's very small tides.

Jackie had already found out that SeaTow wanted $500 to even come in the park. They would have a Ranger tell them if they could get to us or not. If the Ranger said no we would still have to pay the $500. If the answer was yes the total cost to be towed back to Flamingo would be $1,000. We already knew the answer was no so that was not an option. It was time for plan B so Jackie put out an appeal for help on the Watertribe Website. Andrew and I settled in to spend our third night on Florida Bay.

The author survey's his muddy quagmire

Sunday morning Jackie called to say a plan was in the works to get Andrew off the boat (he had a plane to catch on Monday) and send me more food. Fellow Watertribers Esther Luft aka Whirlwind and Wayne Albert aka Mosquito Magnet were to meet her at Flamingo with a kayak and canoe. Ester and Wayne are opening a paddle sports shop in Miami called Paddle House and they are on good terms with the Park Rangers. They made arrangements with the Rangers to load them and their boats on a Ranger Boat and bring them as close as possible. All this took a while to arrange and it was not until about 4:30 PM that we saw them coming. The ranger boat had stopped over a mile away and was waiting for their return.

Esther in the kayak arrived first. She said she had good and bad news. The good news they were there to get us off. The bad news was I had to come too. The Rangers had decided it would be at least a week before the wind changed enough to alloy any water back into the Bay. They did want me out there by myself for a week. They would keep an eye on the boat and not let anyone clam it as salvage. Andrew had already packed his stuff to leave the boat and now I grabbed a few things myself. The boat was made ready, extra ties on the sail to keep it from blowing loose and the anchor thrown out. This latter really worried me because the anchor had never held in the grass, but there was no other choice but to hope it would hold this time.

I sat down in the center of the 16' Old Town canoe. Wayne was in the bow and Andrew took the stern. Jackie, the ever thoughtful one, had sent me a Cubin Sandwich that some how was still hot. I had just started to eat when a big blob of stinky mud flew off a paddle and landed on my sandwich. Just as well. It was not fair for me to be eating while everyone else was working hard. The over loaded canoe was dragging bottom a lot and it was very hard going all the way back to the ranger boat. We made it right as the sun went down but now with two more people and the two boats aboard the Ranger boat was overloaded and stuck right in the middle of a channel. We unloaded the boats and got back in them while a Ranger got out and pushed his boat to slightly deeper water. Finally we got in deep enough water to reload the kayak and canoe and everyone on the boat and headed back to Flamingo. Talking to the Rangers we learned the 24' ranger boat was a special built light weight shallow draft Kevlar and Carbon Fiber $84,000 rig.

Andrew and Mike in the Old Town canoe.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of:
Florida Bay: Natural Treasure or Small Sailboat Hell

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