For some reason, I decided to attempt the Everglades Challenge. For those unfamiliar with the race, it is a 300 mile race from Ft Desoto in Tampa, FL to Pelican Key in Key Largo, FL.
For me, the race started in January when I worked up the courage to pay for the registration and begin acquiring all of the recommended and required equipment for the race. I spent months putting together all of my gear, even having the XCAT trampoline (no hulls) assembled in my living room so I could test fit how I would position my gear and to fit a tent on the trampoline.
I didn't exactly do this race alone, although we split up after the launch of the race, but Hardy Peters from East Coast Sailboats lent me some space on his trailer for the XCAT and we both pushed each other and prevented each other from backing out.
The recommended list for EC is pretty comprehensive.
I have gotten a few questions about my tent and drybag setup:
I use a Bowfin 1 by Tarptent. This tent sets up in about 5 minutes and can be done all from the trampoline of the XCAT. The tent also fits perfectly on one trampoline of the XCAT. It is a pricey tent, but it weighs less than my sleeping bag and I was dry inside my tent even at the water's edge.
I used the new Race 60L drybags from Gill. They are very inexpensive and were easy to access and kept all of my gear dry. I was able to access things while on the water and they have many places to attache bungees and clips to attach them to the boat.
I don't have a picture of the tent on the boat, I will have to take one on my next camping trip. Here is how the boat looked on the starting beach.
As nervous as I was, we both passed our PFD checks and our boat inspections with flying colors! I was nervous that I would somehow forget how to tie in the reefs or would have some glaring oversight. Leading up to our arrival in Florida, I was having dreams about being hundreds of miles from the start, while on the XCAT, freaking out that I forgot all of my supplies.
The boats were set and ready for the journey to start! The morning of the launch we arrived at a little before 5 am to sure up things and to quadruple check absolutely everything. I have set up the XCAT hundreds of times and I was second guessing every single thing.
As the start of the race grew closer, we did role call for all captains. My tribe name is Bohemian, named after my grandfather's sailboat, the name of the boat I grew up on. Immediately after role call we were informed that they start of the race would be delayed due to a Small Craft Advisory, and boy was the wind blowing. My stomach was in knots!
The Coast Guard finally gave us the OK to start the race after a 2 hour delay. All of the anxiety surrounding this race melted away just as fast as the starting beach did as I made my way across Tampa Bay.
Immediately upon reaching the middle of the Bay, the winds picked up again. I would say 20-25 knot winds with 4-5 foot white capped waves were pretty steady while in the middle of the Bay. Of course my SPOT died right after I launched from the starting beach. So while trying to handle the boat in fairly rough conditions I also had to dig through one of my dry bags for batteries and do surgery on my SPOT so I could get the tracker working again.
I could see the swell in the distance, it looked like a wall of waves on the horizon. I pointed for a point and decided to take the outside route to stay as close to Hardy as I could. Once I was out in the Gulf of Mexico the weather built over the next 8 hours. I would estimate the winds had built up to 30+ knots and the waves were taller than me at times, I had heard reports of up to 8 foot rolling waves, and they looked it too!
I made the executive decision to duck inside the next pass as the weather was really taking a lot of energy from me as I was surfing these huge waves then plowing the bows into the next wave, it required quite a bit of tiller action as I was pretty close to dead downwind at this point. I duck into Venice Inlet and followed the ICW down to Lemon Bay. I sailed as much as I could, but at dusk I had to start rowing. I rowed for about 25 miles before I finally reached Check Point 1 at about 11 pm.
Check Point 1 had chicken noodle soup ready for me, and I could swear that the ground I was standing on refused to stop moving (I was swaying with the ocean after being on the water for 14 hours straight!)
At 5 am the next morning I packed everything up and set off. I had to row more of the ICW until the sun came up on me in Gasparilla Sound and the wind picked up and I was off to sailing again!
Sailing was long and relaxing. I saw many dolphin and a bunch of other wildlife. After passing Gasparilla Pass (6' white caps and 20 knot winds all on the beam, the boat handled this AMAZINGLY) I spotted a large, much faster beach cat ducking inside the inlet to take shelter from the crazy weather out on the Gulf. I then passed over a submerged island and ran aground. I hopped off the boat to attempt to get off ground and the XCAT floated beautifully off of the island, even though the water only came up to my ankles. I watched in anguish as the bigger cat followed my track and ran aground, and I watched them spend quite some time trying to get off of the island. They eventually caught up to me after 20 miles or so and swiftly passed me, but that was expected as they are much faster and had twice as many people on board!
I finally was nearing the end of my ICW trip by quickly approaching Sanibel Pass into the Gulf of Mexico. Fighting both the current and the wind I had to row under the big bridge, since the wind shadow of the bridge was too big to coast under, I had to fight and claw for every inch, against the 3-4 knot current and 12-15 knot head winds. I finally made it out of the Pass and was sailing in the Gulf again. I saw more dolphins all over the place in the beautiful aquamarine waters.
Over the next 6 - 8 hours the winds died and the waves started to build. I could no longer row because the waves were turning the boat (I estimate the waves being in the 4-6' range mostly 4' waves though).
I finally needed a break, so I beached the boat right on the 5th avenue beach access in Naples, FL. I really needed to make it to Marco Island in order to camp for the night, so I was really stuck between a rock and a hard place. I was also unable to really make decisions, I felt like my brain was in a vice. I was soaked from head to toe, and very cold at this point. I finally decided to call it a race and sent the signal of me dropping out of the race. Being of sound mind, I regret the decision to drop out, but being hypothermic, wet and exhausted swayed my decision making and I would probably do it again if put in the same situation again.
I made it 128 miles from the start line and am very proud of my efforts. I will attempt the race again in a year or two and I am sure I will be more prepared, with a better drysuit and gear, and will finish!
I ended up driving Hardy's truck and trailer through the Everglades to Key Largo as he went on to finish 2nd in class! I met him with 2 craft beers and 2 slices of pizza at the finish line at about 11:30 at night!
The race was an amazing experience and I grew a lot, both as a sailor and as a person.