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by Scott Widmier - Kennesaw, Georgia - USA

Part 1 - Part 2

2 Weeks prior to the Everglades Challenge

For once in my life I was actually ready ahead of time for a boating event.  This was quite amazing to me given I only started to build the Puddle Duck racer for the Everglades Challenge (EC) in November.  My first test sail was in December and I had been collecting gear ever since.  I only wish I had been able to take a coastal shakedown cruise like I had planned prior to the EC but work and family obligations conspired against it.  All I could think about was my preparation.  I must have packed and repacked my gear a hundred times dragging out the scale each time to make sure I kept the weight down.  I took one last overnight trip on my local lake and had a nice little bonfire on the beach dreaming I was in Florida.

A beautiful sunset for my last test-sail on Lake Allatoona before the Everglades Challenge.

Thursday, March 1st 2012

Finally, the day had come to head south for Tampa Bay and Ft. Desoto Beach.  I started driving shortly after teaching my college class and was very appreciative of my decision to close over the cockpit of ECduck with a bit of tarp.  It rain and it blew on and off the whole way down to Tampa.  I hoped the weather was getting rain and high winds out of its system but the forecast was not looking really good for the first two days of the Everglades Challenge.  This year I decided to go for the comforts of an actual hotel room Thursday and Friday night in the hopes of starting the EC well rested.  I checked into my hotel after the 8 hour drive from Atlanta, ate dinner, and went to bed early.

Friday, March 2nd 2012

After negotiating leaving my trailer at the hotel for free for the duration of the event, I towed ECduck to Ft. Desoto Beach to check in and unload.  I was very curious what the reaction would be to a boxy duck joining the line of boats on the beach.  First step was to turn in the required forms absolving the Watertribe of any responsibility for my death or dismemberment during this event. Once I signed those forms and picked up my shirt I was allowed to unload ECduck.  Wanting to show off the few advantages of an 8’ boat, I decided to unload the boat to my cart in the parking lot rather than driving along the beach access road like most of the other class 4 (sailboat) competitors.  Halfway through the park puffing and huffing I started to wonder if it was such a good idea.  When I hit the soft sand of the beach I decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all especially since the other skippers seemed content to watch my struggles.  I think they caught onto my earlier wish to be independent.

I got the duck to the beach and started arranging my gear…maybe I should have left that in the car and carried it out separately to lighten the load?  Several folks came over attracted by the bright yellow boxy boat on the beach with the dodger cabin.  Some were completely unfamiliar with the design and some were actual puddle duck sailors and builders.  The latter included Bill Giles who wore a duck cap and Patrick Johnson who sported an ECduck shirt I gave him for agreeing to be shore crew.  Nice to know I had some support!  Noel Davis, and experience watertriber and co-creator of the furledsails sailing podcast, wandered over clipboard in hand to do my inspection.  Only….I wasn’t quite ready and couldn’t find several needed items on his list.  Worst yet, I had left some of the items in my hotel room not wanting to leave them on the boat overnight!  So, I failed my first inspection.  I climbed back in my van for the 15 minute drive back to the hotel to get my required gear and pick up some lunch.

ECduck unloaded on Fort Desoto Beach.

Back at Ft. Desoto Beach I organized all of my required gear for easy inspection on my deck and started hunting for someone to clear me.  No luck!  So, I went down the beach to where Lugnut and Crank were getting Oracle ready for the EC.  Lugnut, aka Gary Blankenship, has completed several Everglades Challenges and is qualified to inspect boats.  He wasn’t easy on me either even though (or should I say because) we are friends.  So the boat ready, requirement checklist done, and I now get to cruise the beach and enjoy the spectacle that is the Friday before launch day at the Everglades Challenge.

Lugnut and Crank with Oracle on the beach.

Every year brings an amazing assortment of boats from needle thin Kayaks to larger sailboats almost too large to beach launch.  The latter looked rather luxurious to me in comparison to my little box-like boat.  The walk also provided a study in preparation and packing.  Some folks, like myself, believe less is more and only have a few small bags and survival rations.  Others go with the “just in case” packing and somehow are able to shoehorn it into their boats.  One boat I was particularly interested in was Wizard’s (aka Matt Layden) Sand Flea which is the only eight foot boat to finish the Everglades Challenge and the reason why Shorty (David Roth) got the idea of a Puddle Duck Racer doing the challenge.  Sand Flee, while only eight foot long, has a more sea kindly shape than ECduck.  She could move through the water with fineness as opposed to the brute force approach I would be using with my much larger 82 square foot sail.  His short mast and standing lug able to be reefed by rolling around the boom were a study in simplicity though I had my doubts about windward performance as compared to my Escape Leg-o-Mutton rig with its long luff.  Wizard was great to talk to and we decided he would have an advantage in high winds rough water where I would do better in lighter winds.  He also gave me some strategy tips I now wish I had listened a little closer to.

Boats on the beach….is that a Duck hat I see!

There were a lot of strategy discussions being carried out all up and down the beach with constant checking of smartphones for the latest weather forecast.  Winds Saturday were supposed to be in the teens increasing throughout the day and directly in our face coming from the SSE.  It would be a tough slog across Tampa Bay.  In addition, high wind gusts would make an outside passage risky.  However, early morning Sunday a cold front was supposed to come through bringing with it much desired change in wind direction, from the north, but much less desired high winds.  Survive Saturday and I might just make it down to the first Checkpoint!  Reaching that first checkpoint was my primary focus standing there on Fort Desoto Beach.  Not only would that first leg constitute my coastal shakedown cruise with ECduck but it also posed the biggest time challenge.  I had to make it the 90 miles to the checkpoint by noon on Sunday or face being disqualified.  That meant maintaining an average speed of three miles per hour on a boat whose best speed was a hair under five!  No wind or a tough windward slog and I would be late!  Earlier test sails of ECduck did show a wonderful ability to go to windward except for in choppy conditions when the big flat bow would slap the waves draining away all forward momentum.

Around 3pm the call echoed up and down the beach to gather for the skippers meeting.  First, we all introduced ourselves which, given the size of the group and our odd “watertribe” names, took a significant amount of time accompanied by a lot of laughter.  Second, Chief went over the rules, explained the use of the SPOT personal satellite navigator, and gave some very sage advice.  This year’s advice was, given the weather forecast, to wait for the weather and he gave the example of the first Everglades Challenge where he and Vernon Kruger waited two days before leaving the beach.

Chief at the skippers meeting

Once we finished with the skippers meeting, I visited with folks for a little longer, secured ECduck and stopped by Subway on my way back to an early evening at the hotel.  Saturday would be a very early start.

Saturday, March 3rd,  2012

Morning came awfully early especially after a night of tossing and turning thinking about the challenges that faced me.  Since I was leaving my rig at the hotel, I caught a ride to Fort Desoto from Pat Johnson.  I walked out in the dark to ECduck to the, then ominous, sound of waves crashing on the dark beach.  The wind was, as predicted, from the south at around 15mph with higher gusts.  There was many a worried glance and soft mutterings about the weather from all the skippers going through last minute preparations.  One good thing about the wind direction, it would blow boats right back to the beach if they had a problem.  The wind speed was predicted to increase as the day progressed so I resolved to bite the bullet and launch my boat.

I didn’t hear the shout announcing the start of the 2012 Everglades Challenge, but I did see some of the competitors drag their boats into the water.  I also heard the bagpipes that were either serenading us off the beach or playing a dirge for those of us who were daring Poseidon’s wrath.  After waiting several minutes for the kayaks to clear out, I grabbed the handle on the front of ECduck and dragged her into the water.  No special rollers needed to launch this light 8’ boat.

In an effort to keep my pants dry, I only dragged my boat out a few feet from shore then jumped on board and unrolled a small bit of sail.  This was a mistake as I found myself moving sideways down the beach faster than out into the bay due to not being able to fully deploy my rudder and leeboards.  I did get to meet and inspect the rig of a lot of competitors this way but with greetings of “coming through!” and “watch out!” probably didn’t make the best impression.  I finally got out far enough from the beach to put the leeboard down and finally make way out into the wind tossed waves of the bay.

Launching ECduck off of Fort Desoto Beach.  I let most of the kayaks clear out first.

Keeping in mind Matt Layden’s advice, I started sailing towards the Interstate 75 bridge across the bay to find the promised protected waters.  At first, I was sailing in good company with Mister Moon in his Coresound 17 and Lugnut in Oracle but, eventually, their longer waterlines had them pulling away from me.  ECduck handled the 5 foot waves much better than I would have believed easily fitting alternatively in the trough and then on top of the waves as we progressed.  She had a bigger problem bashing through the chop the wind was raising on the surface of the waves and a significant amount of water was shipped over the bows making me very thankful for my kayak pump.

I did experience two rigging failures in these strong wind and wave conditions that previous testing on calmer inland lakes hadn’t elicited.  First, I found the jam cleats I had installed for my roller reefing lines didn’t have enough holding power to counter the wind gusts I was facing.  After several times of painfully hauling on the reefing lines (I had forgotten to put on my sailing gloves and couldn’t now that I was going) I started trying several different solutions.  I finally realized the traditional cleat installed for my anchor line was in a good position to use for the reefing lines.  The second failure was with the plastic locking collar that came on my Escape Mast.  Basically, the plastic locking tab ripped off the collar in the heavy conditions.  In the middle of the bay being tossed by waves, I found myself having to re-step the mast and to lash it in using extra line and any handy protrusion on the boat.  Wasn’t a great lashing job but did get me across the bay.  Unfortunately, it also made me reluctant to take down the mast which would later haunt me.

Several long tacks and I was sailing along the southern shore of Tampa Bay on my way towards the entrance to the intercoastal waterway.  I later found out I had done rather well crossing Tampa Bay being fairly close to other competitors who had braved the bay including Matt Layden.  I also found out there were many observers back at Ft. Desoto Beach surprised to not see a little yellow boat washing up along with the other casualties of the rough conditions.

This is when my inexperience with coastal sailing and the Everglades Challenge put me behind.  First, I chose to tack in the middle of the bay leading up to Anna Marie Island bridge rather than sticking close to shore where there was calmer waters.  Second, I decided to sail under the bridge not realizing that the experienced skippers were all sailing to the eastern shore, taking down their masts, and wading their boats through.  I spent two hours trying everything to get under the bridge.  No matter how exactly I tacked the boat or how hard I rowed.  I would get about halfway under the span before the winds and tides pushed me back.  Both these mistakes put me several hours behind Wizard, Mister Moon, and Lugnut.   I replicated this mistake at the Cortez bridge once again attempting to sail or row under.  It seemed like I was determined to sail harder not smarter!

Evening found me sailing down Sarasota Bay with the winds slowly swinging around to the west but not dropping.  Again, in the effort to sail harder not smarter, I stuck to the middle of the bay rather than seeking calmer waters near the western shore.  At the time I was both tired and not wanting to give up any southern travel to sail west towards shore.  Around 9pm I was getting tired of ramming through waves I couldn’t see so resolved to find a place to stop for the night to wait out the anticipated early morning storm and predicted wind shift from the north.  I found a protected spot to anchor behind  a mangrove island near Bayshore Gardens.  I wiggled out of my wet clothes, into my camp clothes, and climbed into my sleeping bag with my dodger providing a small but weatherproof shelter.

Sunday,  March 4th

Around 6 am the now northerly wind really kicked up causing my anchor to drag.  I worked the oars to once again get in the lee of the island then glumly watched the wind on the waves while “cleaning and organizing” the boat.  It was while I was on the phone with my wife that I noticed some guy hollering and waving from a small beach 100 feet away from where I was anchored.  Come to find out this was Pat Johnson who had tracked me by my SPOT satellite locater and found a small public park.  Once again, I manned the oars and enjoyed climbing out of the boat onto dry land.

Ironically, this tiny little park was to play host to three Everglades Challenger boats.  First to this park was a 18’ catamaran which had experienced rigging failure the previous day.  The second boat was ECduck.  The third boat was a Coresound 17 skippered by Dragonslayer who had bounced all night at an exposed dock right around the corner from my little mangrove shelter. Unfortunately, his Coresound 17 was damaged before the Everglades Challenge when a car ploughed into it and, despite some heroic last minute fixes, was taking on too much water to continue.  I helped get both the catamaran and Coresound on their respective trailers and, in exchange, bummed some cleats and tools from Dragonslayer to rig a better hold-down system for my mast.

  On the beach at Bayshore Gardens in Sarasota Bay.

Once done, I still procrastinated going out in the high winds and predicted 5 foot waves on Sarasota Bay.  I had never surfed my boat in those conditions.  Mistermoon called from his stopping point at Siesta Key to advise waiting based upon the conditions he was observing on the bay.  Unfortunately, the winds were supposed to continue and, even, get higher as the day progressed.  I finally listened to some advice from Pat Johnson who told me my boat should float like a cork on the waves and, even barepoled, make good progress down the bay.  So, the smallest of the boats that landed at that small beach would continue on.

For a good part of Sarasota Bay I stayed in shoal waters near shore out of the wind.  This was not easy sailing as my rudder, raked back for the shoal waters, and my very heavily reefed sail combined to generate painful weatherhelm.  Frankly, I was surprised my rudder and rope tiller arrangement was able to hold up under the strain.  I also ran across some waters too shoal for even my 4 inch draft.  I made it through these areas by acting like ECduck was a giant yellow skateboard and kicking with one foot on the sandy bottom.  However, up ahead I could see the shore coming to a rocky point with waves pounding so I soon found myself braving the large rollers on the bay.

I found Pat was correct in that my boat floated like a cork on the 5 foot waves.  I did surf briefly down the face of each following wave but didn’t have enough sail area up to continue to ride the wave.  I couldn’t let go of the tiller long enough to unfurl my sail and, quite frankly, was happy just to be making progress.  Now I really wish I had started sometime sooner than noon!

Once I got started in the high waves on Sarasota Bay, I discovered Pat was right and ECduck floated like a cork…or…well a duck!  It ended up being a lot of fun!

Wind and wave quickly pushed me down the rest of Sarasota Bay and I easily went under the Ringling Bridge.  I beached the boat at a public park just after the bridge in order to use the facilities and eat lunch.  Pat Johnson joined me after taking a great picture of ECduck sailing down the bay.  After lunch, I climbed back into the boat and continued sailing down the intercoastal waterway.  There were still some strong wind gusts so I only rolled out a small amount of sail.  Still, with both wind and tide in my favor I was making great time!  This was my most favorite sailing of the whole trip!

I sailed through Little Sarasota Bay and down into Blackburn Bay with each bridge marking my distance.  I squeezed under 18 foot high Stickney Point Bridge and had the fun of radioing the Blackburn Swing Bridge.  “Yellow Boat approaching Blackburn Bridge from the North requests opening” I radioed and was gratified with how promptly the bridge tender responded and opened the span for me.  I learned later that two separate watertribe boats skippered by Greybeard and Mistermoon had some difficulty in going under the Blackburn bridge creating quite the spectacle.  So, the bridge tender was on high alert for any other small sailboats.  He thought I was the smallest boat he had ever opened the span for.  My easy running of Blackburn bridge was replicated for the Albee Road bridge.  As the afternoon progressed I found the wind dying down a bit due to the constriction of waterways and the homes along the shore so I unrolled some more of my sail.  Again, I really enjoyed this quick passage down the intercoastal with lots of things to look at and friendly boaters passing by.

Blackburn bridge operator claimed this was the smallest boat he ever had to open the bridge for!

Venice canal is an 8 mile stretch of the intercoastal waterways that is generally avoided by sailboats doing the Everglades Challenge due to its high banks.  This year I was able to sail right through it pushed gratifyingly along by a north wind and favorable tide as the sun slowly set.  What a beautiful day!  As the water opened up into Lemon Bay the wind started to lighten.  For the first time I was able to unroll my full sail though the evidence of the strong winds we had all day was given by the sound of the surf crashing on the nearby gulf shore.  I sailed by Stump Pass and the wind lightened even more.  It was here that Pelican, in his Hobie AI, slowly peddled past me.  Later, he admitted not even being aware of the passing which can happen when you have many miles under your keel and many more to go.

By midnight I was a few miles away from checkpoint one making a little less than two miles per hour.  The closer I got, the slower I went which was very frustrating to say the least.  Finally, I saw the Boca Grand swing bridge and rowed under since there wasn’t enough wind to push me along at a decent speed.  By this time I was navigating using the charts on my smartphone combined with a chartbook I had made as my waterproof GPS, like many others this Everglades Challenge, died on me.  Unfortunately, it had all of the waypoints in it but I had studied the course enough to have a good idea of where I needed to go and found the correct channel to make it to checkpoint 1 at Grand Tours.  Another lesson learned is to put your waterproof GPS in a waterproof pouch!

One thing I never saw written about is the amount of current that can travel through the channels approaching Grand Tours.  My boat was continually bucking left and right as I battled the current.  When I got to the checkpoint all I heard was the sound of a lot of snoring!  I briefly beached at the kayak ramp then woke Lugnut up when I bumped his boat while trying to reposition ECduck out of the way at the dock.  I took a shower and got to sleep around three in the morning.

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