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by Gary and Helen Blankenship, Tallahassee, Florida, and John Bell, Acworth, Georgia - USA

Part One - Part Two

(Authors' note: Following a style begun with Chuck Leinweber in 2013, the two of us have collaborated on this article in the following way: Gary Blankenship wrote his account and then sent it to John Bell, who added in whatever comments he saw fit. Gary is in the regular type, John's additions are italicized.)

A minute or so after 7 a.m. on March 7, the word came. As kayaks slid toward the water, we lifted the bow of the Core Sound 17 and slid a five-foot long inflated yellow tube as far back as we could manage. A few feet in front of the bow, a second roller waited for the boat to move forward, to ease its way to Tampa Bay, another few feet beyond.

It was the start of the 2015 Everglades Challenge, the annual 300-mile expedition contest sponsored by WaterTribe which runs from Tampa Bay to Key Largo, with stops at three intermediate checkpoints. All around us kayaks and small monohulls and multihulls were either sliding toward the water or getting ready to launch. For complete rules and information about the challenge, visit At the moment, though, around 130 boats and the more than 200 people sailing and paddling them were complying with the first condition of an EC: each crew must beach launch their boat from above the high water mark without outside assistance.

This year, I was doing the EC with John Bell; we were in his Core Sound 17, Bandaloop. John had finished the EC the previous year in the boat with Scott Widmier and he had completed the shorter, 60-mile Ultra Marathon in the infamous 2012 event, when only 17 of 60 EC participants finished and only three of the 12 UM entrants finished. I was in my ninth EC start, having finished six of the previous eight attempts including 2012 when John (who was solo) and I (with John Wright that year) spent much of the first day sailing in company. We had also sailed in company on the Florida 120 group cruise.

John Bell setting up Bandaloop, his Core Sound 17, the day before the start.

When I first heard about the EC, I thought anyone who wanted to do it had to be crazy and there’s no way I’d ever even think about it. Then in 2009, a new realization started to slowly dawn on me that I needed to do something different, something drastic. Since the usual mid-life crisis involves acquiring a mistress and a Corvette and since I could not afford either, the EC had to be it. (For the record, that was a joke. I really do love my wife very much and would never ever even consider having an affair. A Corvette might be fun, though!)

I had a lot of questions about the event and figured the best way to sort it all out was go down for the set-up and start of the 2010 event. I had first “met” Gary in on the internet in the mid 00’s due to our mutual interest in Phil Bolger’s boats. But until March, 2010, we had never met in person. Gary was doing the race solo that year. I was excited to help him get his boat off the trailer and set up on the beach. I never really had any idea that he thought much about my existence until he broke my heart not long after I introduced myself. He explained that before he settled on the decision to go solo, he had seriously considered asking me if I wanted to go with him. It was a crushing blow at the time, but more than anything it inspired me to show up with my own entry in 2011, 2012, and 2014. I don’t care that I’m admitting publically that Gary was a bit of hero to me, either. I was very excited to finally be teaming up with him after years of talking about it.

(Each WaterTribe participant must have a nickname. John Bell is MisterMoon. I'm Lugnut. John Wright is Karank.)

John Wright's Thang at the campground

We were quietly optimistic about the EC. We knew we wouldn't win, even our class (Class 4, monohull sailboats), but a good showing was very possible. Setup the previous day had gone better than expected and we had the boat on the beach, loaded and rigged by early afternoon. Even the weather was cooperating. The temperature was near 80, one of the warmest setup days for an EC I could recall. After attending the skippers' meeting, we made a final visit to the boat and returned to our camp.

John, on the right, admires Doug Cameron's new Core Sound 20. Core Sound speed, water ballast, and a cozy cabin. What's not to like?
Kayaks, Hobie Adventure Islands and Hobie Tandem Islands like up on the beach the day before the start. Lots of craft to look at!
James and Marissa Connell, Sundance and BabySun, work on their Hobie Tandem Island on Friday. We would see them on the course the next day.
Joe Frohock's (Puma) converted Mirror dinghy. It would prove very fast.

This was the easiest, fastest, and most stress-free set up I’ve experienced in all my challenges. Going into that afternoon I was very confident we were going to have a good race. We had the crew, the boat, and the skills to do very well indeed.


The winds had been calm to light most of the day, but were picking up by late afternoon, and beginning a shift from the south to the north. The forecast for the start was northeast winds 15 to 20, easing to 10 to 15 by afternoon. The winds for the next two days were predicted to be northeast to east in the 10 to 15 range. I ate a light supper and John and I turned in early, expecting to get up at 4 a.m. to break camp. We were joined by Gary Sabitsch, a friend from Tallahassee who had generously agreed to drive John's car and trailer to Key Largo to await our finish. John Wright was also camping with us and his 20-foot long canoe-like craft, Thang, was on the beach behind Bandaloop.

The first hint of trouble came at the inauspicious hour of 1 a.m. I woke up feeling something wasn't right. This wasn't a vague, mental anxiety. Something was off, but I couldn't quite figure out what. After 30 minutes, it seemed prudent to leave the tent as a precaution. It quickly became on overwhelming urge and I barely made it out before throwing up with great force, but little volume. Hope that this was a temporary aberration vanished two hours later with a repeat performance. At least this time I made it half way to the bathroom. We got up at 4 a.m. and broke camp with me, for obvious reasons, skipping breakfast. After one more nauseous bout just after 5, I began to feel a bit better.


I never sleep all that well the night before the start and most times I barely sleep at all. Owing to my confidence about our prospects this year (and a couple of melatonin tablets before bed), I slept better than usual the night before. However, this didn’t mean I wasn’t waking up to check my watch every two hours or so. It was right after one of these checks when I was jolted wide awake by someone grunting and clawing at the zipper on the tent. The sound of retching outside the door isn’t something you ever want to hear, especially the night before a multi-day race. It was worse when I learned it was Gary B. not Gary S. who was doing the retching. I’m not sure I slept very much after that.

I’m also always nervous on the morning of the start. When I went to bed on Thursday night, I was pretty sure this year was going to be different because of my confidence in our combined skills and preparation. But my concern over Gary’s illness brought back that familiar knot in my stomach. The mind runs rampant. We had been in close proximity for several days by this time; we had eaten the same foods, and we drank the same water. What if we both got sick? What if Gary gets worse? I had to keep telling myself the nausea I was feeling that morning was simply nerves about the race or a sympathetic response to Gary’s condition and not some dread disease. I never told Gary about what I was feeling since I didn’t want to stress him any more than he clearly was. We never discussed not going that morning, but I’m pretty sure it was on both our minds.


We got to the beach at 5:30 and unloaded our food and final gear. Gary took off; he was on a tight schedule as he wanted to be in Key Largo before 1 pm to pick up the rental car for his return drive to Tallahassee. We stowed gear and John pumped up the inflatable rollers. The sky began to lighten, revealing a cloudy, grey day. The red, white, and blue stood out on the flagpole on the nearby ranger station; enough wind to keep its extra large size straight out but not quite enough to set it snapping. The wind, as predicted, was northeast and we agreed that a reef in the main and mizzen were called for.

At 6:20 we assembled with the other participants for roll call. WaterTribe founder and head honcho Steve Isaac, aka Chief, issued a warning. The wind, he noted, was blowing off land and the water looked calm. But it would quickly get rough out on the bay, he warned. I recalled a similar warning in 2007 which was prescient. It turned out to be moreso this year.

It got a bit less grey and the start came. We waiting for a small trimaran to our left to launch and then we slid into the water and over the offshore bar, ahead of most of the sailboats and about midway through the kayaks. We settled in with John steering and the shore rapidly receded. Chief was right. For about a half a mile, the seas were calm. But then everything seemed to pick up. At first I thought we had cleared the wind shadow from land, but later reflected that was an awful long wind shadow. It seems the wind choose that moment to puff up, blowing close to if not right at the predicted 15 to 20.

The seas built fairly quickly after we left the beach. Note the wake left by Bandaloop's 7 knot-plus average speed.

A bit further offshore and the waves began to pick up. Which was not surprising. Launch was about an hour after low tide, so a healthy tide would be flowing into the bay, nearly directly against the wind. The short steep seas built quickly, with the crests perhaps a couple boat lengths apart. It was a near duplicate of 2007, except then the wind was a bit more northerly. I was glad John was steering as this was no time to learn about an unfamiliar boat and for a few minutes some mild nausea was bothering me. But that passed and I began to appreciate the magnificent ride. The GPS seldom dropped below six and a couple times it surpassed 10 knots going down the waves. It was my first time on one of the Core Sound boats and I began to appreciate why they were so hard to keep up with. We had decided, because of the delicate nature of my stomach, that we would go on the inside route down the Intracoastal Waterway instead of the outside and with the northerly set to the wind, there shouldn't be too much penalty to that choice.

I’m positive Gary knew I really, really wanted to go outside this year. In a good wind, the ICW is often faster and shorter than offshore until you get to the bottom of Sarasota Bay. Below there, offshore is much, much faster. Below the bridge at Siesta Key there’s too much clutter from nearby trees and houses to have reliable wind and there are multiple bridges that need to be opened. Also, there can be foul currents that make clearing the bridges doubly difficult and a lot more time consuming.

Gary was pretty much set on the inside route all along, I think. In the weeks leading up to the challenge, and especially on the day before, he quietly lobbied for the ICW. I may have been a bit of a jerk on this point and had unilaterally decided that we (I?) would make a decision once we saw the conditions at the start beach on Saturday morning. We'll never know if I would have stuck to my guns on this one, as it turned instead out my mind was made up the moment I heard Gary outside our tent puking his guts at 2:00 AM. Offshore is simply too unforgiving a place to be sick. The inlets are few and often far between and aren’t always immediately passable when you want them to be depending on tide and wind. So inside on the ICW it was. It was the right decision at the time and one I’d make again in a heartbeat.

One of the many kayaks we passed. Note the waves starting to break and the foam beginning to be blown in straight lines.

The waves continued to build as we crossed the bay and I carefully watched as the crest of an approaching wave blocked out everything behind it. That would make most of the waves about three footers with an occasional four footer thrown in. But John and his boat handled it superbly and we never had a qualm. As the grey eased a bit more, we rolled by several kayaks that had launched before us, watching them nearly disappear behind the crests. I snapped a few pictures, figuring most probably wouldn't come out in the dim light (a correct assumption, as it turned out). We passed Ben Algera (Macatawa) in his Kruger canoe with a sailing rig featuring his homemade amas, plunging along. One of the amas went temporarily vertical (they were fastened to a single crossbeam in the middle of the amas) before returning to its horizontal attitude. Ben told us later, at the first checkpoint, it was a bit of a hairy moment, but he managed to make adjustments to prevent any repeat.


It wasn't easy to get a semi-sharp picture, or show the height of the waves. Here's Will Schaet (Hammerstroke) as he settled into the trough of a wave as we passed him. This was one of the smaller waves . . .

The waves were almost exactly like those from the start of the 2007 EC. Here's a shot of me and Noel Davis on Oaracle, a Michalak Frolic2 design, that year taken by Matt Layden. It gives a better feel for the Tampa Bay waves that year and this year.

Soon we spotted the markers at the start of the ICW, and the waves lost their power as the water on either side shallowed. Incredibly, it was only an hour from the start. I checked the GPS track later and it confirmed the observation. It had taken us eight minutes to launch the boat, store the rollers, and get across the bar off the beach. Fifty minutes later we were passing the first ICW mark, six nautical miles away. In a 17-foot boat. Considering that you travel an extra five to 15 percent because of the yawing of the boat in the waves, that's an incredible ride - a seven knot average if we had sailed a perfect, straight line. As far as we could tell, we were the first EC monohull to reach the ICW on the inside route.


What a great ride that was! Even though we technically are notracing against all the kayaks, canoes, and Hobies, I got a great deal of satisfaction from tearing through the fleet spread out ahead of us. I took even greater pleasure seeing we were stretching out on the few class 4 boats following behind. We were across the bay to the first marker leading to ICW in less than an hour. In 2012, it had taken me something like three hours of beating into similar sized seas to get to that point. Even though I’ve had Bandaloop going much faster for short stretches, that was the longest really fast ride I’d ever enjoyed.


The waves dropped in size and we slalomed around the markers to the first drawbridge on the causeway to Anna Maria Island. On the way, we saw a couple police boats, blue lights flashing, blazing northward toward the bay. John turned on his marine radio, tuned to channel 16, we immediately heard the Coast Guard conversing with someone; it sounded like an overturned kayak. A while later we heard a call from a boater, unintelligible because of wind noise passing over the mike. The Coast Guard kept repeating a request to turn away from the wind, but finally gave up and said they were sending a boat. We later heard the caller was Meade Gougeon (Sawhorse) of WEST epoxy fame. He was standing by in his sailing canoe by an i550 that had been built in his shop and loaned to another pair of EC competitors. Reportedly, they had been carrying a spinnaker across the bay, broached and nearly pitchpoled. Gougeon was, we heard later, trying to ask the Coast Guard to contact a commercial towing service to get the boat, but that message never got across and the CG responded instead.

There seemed to be a steady stream of calls. Another kayak in trouble. A double kayak discovered empty, but with life jackets (gulp). A call that the Coast Guard knew about the kayak and its occupants had been safely taken off (whew!). Finally a call for Chief to call the Coast Guard. (Chief was entered in this year's EC, but his normal procedure is not to leave until everyone, or almost everyone, is off the beach and underway. That's usually about an hour after the start. This year, he never made it into the water).

The calls continued as we cleared the first bridge and came to the Cortez Bridge a couple miles further on. This bridge was advertising a 22 foot clearance, while the Core Sound mainmast is 21 feet. We didn't feel comfortable enough with that margin and so waited 15 minutes for the next opening. I got some practice tacking Bandaloop back and forth. We were passed by Shawn Payment (Lawless) in his Saroca and some of the kayaks we had passed earlier, but eventually the bridge creaked open and released us southward. We sped by Longboat Pass and approached northern Sarasota Bay, with the wind, as predicted, easing slightly to 10 to 15 and shifting slightly more easterly. That was a relief; Sarasota Bay in the right wind can serve up its own steep, short seas, but this was shaping up to be an easy passage. Even the sun was beginning to peak out, adding a bit more color to the day.


I re-measured the mast height after we got home. Turns out we need 20 feet 9 inches plus a little bit and I was being overly cautious. The clearance is always the minimum ‘low steel’ height above high water. The center of the span usually a bit higher, so we could have easily made it under on Saturday morning's low-mid tide. After passing all those boats in the bay, it was a terrible feeling to see them all pass us by as we sailed around in circles. We never caught up to some of them.

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