Everglades Challenge 2006 

                   Aboard Green Heron a Core Sound 17                   

The Everglades Challenge is without a doubt the toughest small boat race in North America.  It spans about 300 miles of disparate territory.  There are the twisty, switch-backed channels of the Everglades, the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the difficult nearly unmarked passages through the extreme shallow waters of Florida Bay.  Conditions can range form dead calms to near gale force wind conditions. The temperatures can go from scalding under a hot sun to freezing rain.  The race requires not just the fastest boats, but the most versatile craft.  It requires the crew to use navigational skills, seamanship and also to be able to husband their energy and allot resources.  There are 4 classes of boats. The crews use “tribal” names – hence Graham is  “Roo”.                                For more information go to www.watertribe.com

It was great to be back at Mullet Key in Tampa Bay, Florida for the 2006 running of the Everglades Challenge. A number of people came up to me and said things like, “are you going to win?” and “the smart money is on you to win this thing”. I felt confident that if we had good luck and the right conditions we would do well and finish in the top group. We had been here before (a “repeat offender”  the Chief calls us) and had a fair handle on the course; and I had a very good crew and boat. There were about 50 competitors with boats of all shapes and sizes, and the conditions at any moment favor some and not the others. If there is a lot of reaching in fresh conditions, the catamarans could walk away with it. If there is mainly light air, the kayaks can cruise at four knots in the right direction. For the sailors, in very light headwinds, having to tack, it is harder, if not impossible, to average anything like two knots in the right direction.

The group photo of the contestants just before the start

We were at the beach by 5:30 and it looked like swarms of fireflies hovering around the boats – crews wearing LED headlamps. The competitors fussed over their final preparations. Amid lots of well-wishers, spectators and press we posed for “the group hug”, as the Chief calls it. Then, suddenly, it was 7 am and we were off.

We got off the beach quickly and found the 10 knot northerly winds to our liking. The sailboats headed out to the Gulf dodging an inbound ship while most of the paddled boats went inside to the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW).

The 18’G-Cat was first out into the gulf and the Hobie 16 passed us as we cleared the Tampa channel. The catamarans slowly dropped over the horizon. Gordy Hill came by in his power boat with a photographer and they took some nice pictures of us. With a wave they were off, and we were alone. There were a few sails visible astern but they slowly faded away. It was a perfect day to be sailing down the coast, with clear skies, clear water and about a 15 knot following breeze. We amused ourselves by seeing who could reach the highest speed while surfing. I thought that I had top scored with 11 knots but later, on Fred’s (F3) watch he caught a wave and we sat on 11 knots for the longest time, peaking at 11.8.

Even while sailing at at good clip, the crew is relaxed and at ease as they run down the Gulf of Mexico. Notice that the stern wave has broken clean from the stern and is way outside of the picture, the boat is sailing at about 10 knots at this moment .

We reached Gasparilla Pass about 4:30 pm and I was hoping to take the shortcut through the shoals as we did last year. The swell in the Gulf was around four feet and while the tide was fairly high, I did not know what last years hurricane had done to the shoals. It looked more impossible the closer we got. At 100 feet from the breakers, already in very shallow water, we concluded that it was impassible and we had to tack back out. The power boat channel was no picnic either, but it was safer. A few tacks later we could bear away and suddenly we were inside and safe.

Close reaching up the pass on the north side of the causeway we were rehearsing our unrigging / mast lowering plan when I spotted the orange flashing preparatory light on the far side of the Boca Grande swing bridge. This could be a lucky break. Yes! There is a 50 foot sport fisherman standing off waiting, he must have called for the bridge opening. We bled off speed by easing the sheets, the road barriers dropped and the bridge very slowly started to open. The sport fisherman graciously waved us on ahead and I had to control my impatience to bear away as I knew we would quickly accelerate and crashing into a bridge would not be fast. We rapidly passed through the highway bridge and then through the open railway bridge. A thank-you wave to our sport fisherman and then I blew our little time gain. I had a memory lapse and took the wrong channel. As we beat back I scolded myself for trusting my memory instead of reading the chart. We passed Rowabrick and Rumchaser in their Hobie 16 coming out of checkpoint 1. They told us that the G-Cat was ahead, which was no surprise.

We unrigged and started to row. The tide was with us and we made good time. I steered and Fred rowed as we came up to the narrow span of the first bridge. After a final quick stroke, oars were shipped to squeeze through. We got a bit cross ways in the boiling tide. It wasn’t pretty but we were through. The next bridge has been retired and is now a fishing pier. A couple of the southern spans have been removed and the pilings have been cut off just under the water, making it necessary to go as close to the oyster encrusted concrete pilings as you dare. The fishermen got annoyed with us as we got caught up in their lines – but we have no choice. We picked our way through the shallow water getting stuck and having to back up and try another approach. We checked in at 6:41 pm.

I thought that we were third but was surprised to learn that the Hokie was in before us. XLXS later told me that their boat was an outrigger surf-ski, 24’ long and only 15″ wide at the water line and they paddle at 6 knots. They had removed the outrigger for the race and can’t stop paddling or they will fall over. I think that the Chief was goading me when he mentioned the three boats that were ahead of us. I answered that “it was a long race and that the beauty of the course is that such disparate craft can compete fairly, head to head”. I obviously struck a chord with him as he said “that’s what I have been trying to tell everyone”.

It was getting dark by the time we had re-cleared the bridges and re-rigged the boat. We spoke to Greybeard and Ridgerunner as we met them on their way in. We switched on our battery operated navigation lights and found that the contacts on the stern light were bent and could not be repaired while underway. We were able to scare off a couple of power boats with our Mag light. We followed the main channel as we headed back out into the Gulf. There is enough light on shore that the Boca Grande channel looked like a black hole as we headed out. The sound of surf booming on the banks on the north side of the channel is a reminder that this is serious business and that there is no room for mistakes.

We set a course for Cape Romano and attempted to settle in for the night with the off-watch crew getting some rest. That did not last for long. I found that the motion and noise made it impossible to sleep. Fred tried it too and failed. NOAA radio said that it would blow 20 knots in our area from the north east. I confidently predicted that the 4 foot northwest swell would soon die down and life would get smoother. It did not. We heard later that all of the boats that went out through the Boca Grande Channel taking the outside course that night found the going tough and stopped for all or part of the night.

We were getting well offshore now. The rhumb line to Cape Romano took us about 10 miles off the coast. The northeast swell had built up so we decided to reef to slow her down. I will never forget the view I had as I lay across the foredeck with my head 2 feet from the bow as I shifted the downhaul from the main tack to the reef tack. We would surf down a wave and the bow would lift just before it would dig in and shoot a jet of water down each side. Sometimes the cross swell would catch us wrong and crash into the port side. I was glad to move back into the boat but when I tightened the downhaul, it came loose. I don’t usually have bowlines come loose after they have been loaded but it did this time. Back to the bow to rethread the downhaul, expecting the S-hook with its block to be gone, luck was with us this time. The S-hook was still there. I was grateful that Fred steered a good course under the difficult conditions and how well the boat handled as my life depended on it.

Around midnight Fred started to complain about the cold. The zipper failed on his new West Marine offshore foul weather jacket and he was wet right through. I badgered him through the night to use the heat-gels that we had on board but his Afrikaner stubbornness showed through. In retrospect I should have been more forceful as he had a miserable night huddled up trying to stop shivering. There were some very bright lights that I took to be long-liners and I did not want to get tangled up in their lines. They ended up being trawlers so I need not have worried about their lines. I ended up doing a 360 when a large vessel showing the lights of a tug with a tow started getting closer than I liked. This was compounded by the proximity of a couple of trawlers.

Dawn was a welcome sight and the sun rose behind the high rise condos at Marco. At 7 am Fred was sufficiently thawed out to relieve me of the helm. 9 am found us rounding Cape Romano. After we picked our way through the shoals we set a course for Indian Key and had some breakfast. I was feeling good about our progress and said that we might make it to Chokoloskee by lunch time. I no sooner lay down to sleep when the sails started slatting. The wind went light and dead ahead. I took the helm to try to coax the boat to windward in the light wind and the left over chop. Fred seemed to be catching up on some sleep so I was reluctant to wake him to try rowing in the right direction. The wind died altogether and we rowed for a while and tried to trim the sails for the few catspaws that came along. By the time we got close to Indian Key a sea breeze came along and we could sail at last. A cruising boat came by and got excited by the NC on our stern. They turned out to be acquaintances of Fred’s.

We had a pleasant sail into Chokoloskee arriving at 4:45 pm. The Hobie 16 was on the beach and they asked us if we had seen the G cat. This meant that we were second to arrive. We got back out as quickly as we could as we were desperate to get clear of the Everglades before dark. They don’t call this area Ten Thousand Islands for nothing. The Hobie 16 stayed on the beach putting us in first place (they later told us that they were pretty tired and decided to stay overnight).

The tide was high, which was a great help. Rabbit Key Pass is very shallow with lots of twists and turns and is marked only by the occasional stake. We got out into the Gulf without mishap, cleared Pavillion Key by dark and set a course for Northwest Cape. History was repeating itself as I just lay down for my first sleep since the race started when the wind went light and ahead. My only consolation was that the cats couldn’t do any better in those conditions. By 8 am Monday we off of the mouth of Little Shark River, we had only made a paltry 25 miles since dark but we did get some good sleep.

We had no idea if the cats had slipped through in the night. We scanned the horizon north and south and saw no one. The day was beautiful with clear skies, very clear water and with the light headwind and smooth sea we continued to beat around Cape Sable’s three capes. Just as we cleared East Cape and could lay course for Flamingo the wind switched to the west. This did not hurt us but was a gift to the cats as they would eat up the miles that we had worked so hard to win. The trip across Florida Bay was easy and uneventful arriving at Flamingo at 3:16 pm. I located the lock box to sign in and found that no one had yet signed in which meant that we were still first. As I hurried back to the boat the Chief fetched up and filmed us as we left.

We were facing a night passage across Florida Bay which is the trickiest part of the course. The bay is very shallow with deep mud and strong tides. The deep water (3’-5’) areas are linked by a labyrinth of channels that are sometimes marked by PVC pipe or metal fence posts. I learned the hard way last year that the only way across the bay is to go from pass to pass. There are no Coast Guard type day markers and no lights.

We needed to hustle to get as far as we could before dark. I screwed up at the first difficult section as the channel split into three. I could not find the piling that was marked on the chart. It was not there. The water was getting very shallow and I misinterpreted Fred’s comment and ran down the wrong channel for about half a mile. I put the anchor out while I determined exactly where we were. We had to go back unfortunately against wind and tide. I was very annoyed with myself for wasting precious daylight and vowed to anchor the moment that I became unsure of our position. We soon got back on track but in the setting sun I spotted the silhouette of the G cat. I guessed that they had not yet reached Flamingo and maybe we had 2 hours lead.

I had hoped to reach Dump Keys, where the channel passes between the islets, before dark but our misstep ended that hope. Because my night vision is better than Fred’s and I wanted to take responsibility for the boat if we crashed, I left Fred to steer while I navigated and looked for markers. We put the centerboard down to just deeper than the rudder to act as a shallow depth indicator. The wind was aft and not heavy but we took in a reef to slow the boat down; to give us more time to find marks and figure which side to leave them. We had just passed between Dump Keys when I could not find any more markers. We thought that there should be more and decided to put the anchor down and fix our position before we took any more wrong turns. I said to Fred “round her up”, he had a mental lapse under the stress and jibed us all standing. I ducked, with anchor in hand, as both sails flew over me. We heard a loud bang above the other noises. Either the sprit had to break or the snotter fail, as the force of the wind wrapped the mizzen around its mast, tightening the snotter as it went. This normally could not happen as the mizzen sheet would prevent the mizzen from going right around the mast; but we had reefed making the sheets effectively longer and we had eased the sails way forward to bleed off speed. The good news is that because of the low tech sprits, with two splints (a piece of sail batten and a table knife) and some duct tape we were back in the race. It was our only gear failure and as I said to Fred, “it was just a piece of closet rod”.

We found our way through the Twisty Mile Channel and then the Jimmy Channel. Fred said “look astern, this is what I go to sea for. You could never get a picture of this.” I looked back into the black night and there was a new moon exactly astern with just enough light to show our wake trailing back more than a hundred yards. I was glad that he had brought me back into the moment, as one can get too absorbed in a race.

The usual route is to go through the Manatee Pass but we now had fairly clear water to the ICW. We decided to go that way even though it is one and a half miles longer. Once in the ICW it was just a matter of following the well marked channel to the finish. We saw no other boats and had the channel to ourselves. We anchored off of the finish on Key Largo and I waded ashore to sign in. I found the lock box and discovered that we were first. It was 1:01 am Tuesday, 2 days and 18 hours after the start. We had managed to break the course record by just over 9 hours averaging a little over 4 and one half knots for the 300 miles.

The tired crew have a well earned sleep. They did not even bother to put up the dodger or blow up their mattresses.