Everglades Challenge 2015 - It’s All About the Fans
by Shawn Payment - Charleston, South Carolina - USA
So there I was fiddling around trying to find the little tether on my jacket collar to attach to my hat when I hear someone yell "Go!" Boats start pulling off the beach. Where are the bagpipes this year?
I give my trusty Saroca sailboat a mighty shove and it moves about a foot. Geez! This puppy is heavier than I thought! Dave "Yolo" Martin and I shoved a heavily loaded Sea Pearl 21' off the beach last year with less effort! Another shove, another couple of feet. Maybe I can get more leverage from the side. Heave! Another foot. How about the bow? A mighty pull and my feet shoot out from under me and I fall unceremoniously onto my backside.
"Did you get that?" I ask my brother who is diligently capturing video of the launch.
"Oh yeah," he cheerfully responds.
Perhaps the starboard side will be easier. Heave! Nope. The water is still so far away. Why did I not bring the beach rollers?
Time to stop fooling around. Back to the stern and with a mighty heave-ho the hull tips down the slope and I finally get some momentum only to clip a passerby who chose that moment to walk into the path of my boat. Damn. Hope he doesn't sue me.
But I have reached the water. Longest 60 seconds of my life. Rudder down, dagger board slotted, mainsheet in hand and I start wading out under a single reef, right onto a sand bar. Another few determined tugs and I am across, glad that the Saroca doesn't draw much water.
I hop aboard and I am sailing! Hooray! Only five (or six) more days to go! A white i550 crosses my bow and they are already futzing with their rudder. That's going to make for a LONG trip.
Quick sitrep. Winds are maybe 15 out of the Northeast. The boat is flat and moving well. The single reef seems like a good choice. Lots of kayaks and Hobies all about. How did some folks get so far ahead of me already? Doesn't matter. Time to sail.
Wind and sea slowly build as I cross Tampa Bay enroute for the intercoastal waterway (ICW). Yolo and I sailed outside last year so this year, I'm seeking new scenery as much as I am a more sheltered route. At the far side of the bay, I start surfing down 3' rollers on a broad reach. The GPS reads "10.5 mph".
Wheeee! I spot John "Mistermoon" Bell and Gary "Lugnut" Blankenship, a bit downwind powering past in their Core Sound 17'. Fast boat that.
Passing under Cortez Bridge.
As I enter the ICW, inland of Anna Maria Island, a gray patrol boat speeds outbound with lights flashing. A few minutes later, a second patrol boat follows. I figure somebody must have dumped. Seas have flattened after leaving the bay and the wind has moderated to 15 knots but frequent gusts make me reluctant to release main sheet or tiller to fiddle with my VHF radio. I reach the first couple of bridges over the ICW after about 2 hours. At the second (Cortez) bridge, I see the Core Sound 17' head upwind and then tack back toward me.
"Where you heading, fellas?" I shout as they pass within earshot.
"Need the bridge to open!" Mistermoon calls back.
I glance at my chart. "Vertical Clearance 22 feet". I only need 17'. Onward I go. As I emerge on the other side, I hear some cheerful hoots and look up to see a group of spectators waving from the bridge. I'm so focused that I don't even notice that two of them are my brother and his girlfriend. I just think how nice it is to have fans! Looking back, I can see the Core Sound still waiting on the bridge to open. The waterway looks more sheltered ahead and the breeze is maybe 12 knots. Time to shake out the reef.
Posing for "Speck Tater".
With full mainsail flying, I head South at a steady 5 to 6 mph. The waters around Longboat Key turn a beautiful azure blue and the sun begins to peek out occasionally. I feel like I'm sailing in the tropics. Suddenly, a little tin motorboat comes whizzing out to meet me.
"What's your tribe name?" the operator yells.
"Lawless!" I reply.
He speeds ahead and pauses momentarily to take a couple of pictures.
"Spectator" I hear him cry as he speeds back toward others behind me. Unbeknownst to me, I had just met Tom "Speck Tater" Ray. He will send me a couple of nice pictures after the race. Gotta love EC fans! From there, things settle out nicely. When I get to Sarasota Bay, the wind and fetch increase but I just blast right across, cutting through a race course full of MC Scows.
"Watertribe?" one skipper asks as his saucer-shaped scow skims past.
"Yup!" I say.
"Good luck!" he cries and is gone.
Moments later a sailboard tacks in my wake and comes rocketing by at what must have been 20+ knots.
"Eco-challenge?" he queries.
"Everglades!" I respond.
He gives me a thumbs-up and is gone.
I exit Sarasota Bay just before Noon.
"Hmm. This is going surprisingly well," I think. (A foreboding chord plays in the background.)
South of Sarasota Bay I approach Blackburn Point. This is the first bridge too low for me to clear. (Vertical clearance: 5 feet) Up ahead, I see the sailing kayak that I have been chasing all morning pull into a small beach and strike the mast. On the bridge, a tiny redhead is waving at me who looks suspiciously like my mother so I pull into the beach as well. Before Mom is able to make her way down off the bridge, I am approached by an eager young fellow in a red t-shirt.
"Watertribe?" he asks? Another fan, I figure.
"Yep. Lawless." I reply.
"What's he want?" I wonder. "Autograph? Lock of hair?"
"I'm supposed to tell you that the EC is under a weather hold," he says.
"Weather hold? What's that mean?" I ask.
"A bunch of people had to be rescued on Tampa Bay. The Coast Guard has ordered everyone to hold in place pending further instructions."
I look up at the sunny sky and the fluttering 10 knot breeze.
"No sense in holding in place here," I say. "I think that I'll just continue on to Check Point One".
"That's what other people said," he replies with a shrug.
After a hug from Mom and a call to the bridge keeper, I am underway again. I may have been a bit distracted as I gracefully bounce off a day marker before tacking under the swivel bridge. I had just about gotten my head together when a speed boat approaches and I am hailed by a Scott "Wanders" Knapp who I met at the Captain's Meeting and who is checking out the race for 2016.
"I bummed a ride!" he hollers. "I had to see the race from the water!"
"Good job!" I reply. Then he drops the bomb.
"The Coast Guard has cancelled the race!" he yells.
"Can they do that?" I yell back. He shrugs.
"They are stopping the race at Check Point One!" he says. I sail on in silence for a few moments.
"I guess I'll figure it out when I get to Check Point One!" I say. He wishes me luck and the boat speeds on ahead.
I puzzle this over for a few minutes as I sail on. "The Coast Guard has cancelled the race." My attention drifts. Absent mindedly, I begin sopping up water with my cockpit sponge and squeezing it over the side. "Cancelled." Sop, squeeze, repeat. "Cancelled?" Sop, squeeze, plop.
A perfect man overboard drill.
Wait. What was that? Drat. I dropped my trusty sponge over the side. "Let it go?" I ask myself. "Screw that," I think. I may be in this boat for another week and damned if I'm going to be without a sponge all that time!
Back in the moment, I come about, re-trace my course, neatly scooping up the floundering sponge before coming about again and resuming my course. Neat as a pin. (And the GPS track confirms it!) "Now that was well done," I think. "Where are the adoring fans now?" <smirk
It is now mid-afternoon and I am approaching Venice. The wind continues to fade and shift to the East/Southeast and my speed drops to a plodding 3 to 4 mph. I am faced with a choice. Continue on the ICW, which will soon become a narrow, high-sided ditch as it passes inland of the Venice Municipal airport or take Venice Pass out into the Gulf in search of more wind. I do some quick calculations and determine that even if I make better time on the outside, chances are that I will reach Stump Pass, the inlet leading back to Check Point One, after dark and facing a strong outgoing tide. Rock. Me. Hard place.
"The ditch could be interesting," I conclude. With the wind veering right, I must make occasional tacks up the Southeasterly channel. By the time, I reach "the ditch", only swirling puffs remain and most of those are coming from the wrong direction. I haul down the sail and raise the boom so that I can take to the oars. About this time, Robert "IronBob" Finlay and Druce "The Juice" Finlay come paddling up my wake in their huge 24' triple seat kayak.
"Is that a sailboat or a rowboat?" one asks playfully.
"It's a rowboat at the moment," I reply.
"Prepare to be boarded!" one of them cries.
"Switching to guns," is my calm retort.
Though I pull mightily on the oars, they easily glide past, quickly disappearing around a bend. Thereafter, I settle into a slow, easy stroke and peel off successive layers of clothing as I row the next several miles. Eventually, the ditch curves back to the South/Southwest and I can feel a meager breeze filling in behind me. Raising sail once again, I emerge from the ditch with an hour left before sunset and 15 miles still to go till Check Point One.
It is about this time that Kristen "KiwiBird" Greenaway catches me in her sea kayak with its tiny 1-meter sail. She paddles along with seemingly little effort.
"Don't you ever get tired?" I ask.
"Just keep moving forward," she replies with a big grin. And off she goes.
As the sun sinks into the horizon, the sea breeze finally begins to fill in and my speed creeps steadily up and over 5 mph. I reel in KiwiBird and soon find myself passing other kayaks as we slip stealthily through the darkness. Leaving Stump Pass to starboard, I can hear music and laughter coming from waterside bars as I close in on Cape Haze Marina, the location of Check Point One. Closely monitoring my pre-planned GPS route, I hop from one dimly silhouetted day mark to the next until at long last, I arrive at the marina entrance.
I can barely make out a couple of boats exiting the marina and so I closely mirror their course in an attempt to stay within the channel. No such luck. Abruptly, I grind to a stop and realize that I am aground in 3 inches of water. Fortunately, the orange-tinted, pudge-ball of the nearly full moon has chosen this moment to peek out from behind the clouds making it significantly easier to assess the situation. With only a few hundred yards still to go, I lower sail, break out the oars and with one swift kick, shove off the sand bar.
Minutes later, I nudge up against the dock at CP1. Check Point Captain, Hal "Iszatarock" Link greets me with a big smile.
"Lawless! Welcome to Check Point One!" he says. "Have you heard the news?"
"I've heard things," I respond, tired and bewildered.
"Go check in," he says, "They will explain."
It was about this time that my shore support team steps out of the shadows to congratulate me on reaching Check Point One. They had come to "surprise" me, not knowing that the "surprise" would be that my race, for all practical purposes, was over.
I sign in at 21:04, 14 hours and a few minutes after leaving the beach at Fort DeSoto. From what I can see, I am the first or second Class 4, single male, to arrive - well behind the really fast cats and two-person monohulls that went outside but that is to be expected. All in all, it had been a good day.
After being informed that the Coast Guard had insisted that the race be terminated, that Check Points Two and Three were being dismantled, and that the awards ceremony in Key Largo would be called off, I made the difficult decision to end my race at Cape Haze. I informed the check point admin of that decision and it nearly ripped my heart out as she wrote "quitting" next to my name.
As I began emptying my boat and packing up my gear, fellow watertribers continued to trickle in. KiwiBird, Mister Moon and Lugnut, Kent "Sharknado" Morse and his son, Justin "Righteous Mother" Morse were not far behind. Then John "Karank" Wight shuffles up leaving little wet footprints behind him.
"John! You made it!" I exclaim.
"Not quite" says John, who went on to explain that he had lost his grip on his boat while wading against the tide in Stump Pass and his boat had sailed away from him to the opposite shore. Sharknado and Righteous Mother had rescued him on their way in but they were operating with a broken rudder and couldn't risk more than a lift to the check point.
A few minutes later, Scott "Wild Blue" Henderson approached carrying a broken oar handle, yet another Stump Pass casualty-fortunately, both he and his trusty 15' Sirroco sailboat had managed to arrive safely at Cape Haze.
One by one, they trickled in. Some decide to proceed on their own. Many accept the inevitable and start packing up. It is dark. We are tired. But everyone is still smiling.
No second shark's tooth for Lawless this year :-(
Epilogue: On Sunday, March 8, 2015, I return to Cape Haze to find many Tribe members still camped on the lawn and recounting the previous day's events. Race founder, Steve "Chief" Isaac is making the rounds and asking participants to send him a summary of any issues that they observed so that he can be prepared for upcoming meetings with the Coast Guard. West System founder, Mead "Sawhorse" Gougeon tells an amazing story about how his former boat, the i550 sailboat "Hot Canary" pitchpoled shortly after the start while flying a spinnaker through Passage Key Inlet. We also learn that Savannah Dan's shore support team member commandeered a kayak and towed John Wright on a paddle board back out to Stump Pass past midnight where they recovered his lost boat. Incredible! Joe "Puma" Frohock also recounted how he didn't arrive at Check Point One until 7:30 a. m. on Sunday morning because he sailed his outrigger-equipped moth right past CP1 in the darkness and didn't realize his error until he was 5 miles further South approaching the drawbridge near Placida!
Good stories don't come cheap. Fortunately, all are safe and well.
As Noon approaches, awards are announced for the Ultra-Marathon, which is the first 63-mile leg from Fort DeSoto to Cape Haze. Chief announces that although the EC had been officially cancelled, all EC entrants who had completed the first leg to Cape Haze will receive credit for having completed the Ultra-Marathon.
We clap. We cheer. We munch hot dogs, beans and potato salad. A good time is had by all. But it is difficult to walk away.
Next year. Key Largo is calling. Can you hear it?
Still a fan.
See you next year!
Can't wait for 2016!
Shawn "Lawless" Payment
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