Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Everglades Challenge 2017: Adventure Racing in a Rowboat

Note mirror providing rearward vantage.
Not good for seeing manatees.....
The annual 300-mile Everglades Challenge boat race was scheduled to start from Fort de Soto Campground north of Tampa Bay, Florida at 7 am on Saturday, March 4, 2017.  About a hundred of us were lined up on the beach just raring to go, but when day dawned, the winds exceeded 24 mph and there was a Small Craft Advisory in effect.  The Chief (aka Steve Isaac, the race’s organizer and self-described benevolent dictator) announced that no participants would be permitted to launch from Fort De Soto that day, but he added that in lieu of opting out of the race entirely, we could wait around to see if the Advisory was lifted for the next day.  This put us all into a state of shock, with visions of a year’s worth of preparation being literally blown away. After some thought, Chief told us that as an alternative, we could start at the same time the next morning (7 a.m. on Sunday) from south of Tampa Bay—and thus avoid the Small Craft Advisory. 

I have a good recollection of all this even though the thoughts running through my head at the time were pretty much limited to “oh, hell, how am I going to get my rowboat to the other side of Tampa Bay?” This seemed to be an insurmountable problem since my trailer was at the finish line in Key Largo and my vehicle was at the Tampa airport waiting for my lovely wife Ann to arrive in a couple of days.  I eventually re-focused on the questions and answers swirling around me, and I heard the Chief say something about starting out at the Highway 64 bridge.  I apparently did not hear someone ask whether we could use Checkpoint 1 at Cape Haze as the starting point, a question to which the Chief apparently answered “yes.” All I could think of was still “how am I going to get to the Hwy 64 bridge?”, which is about 7 miles south of the starting line and 55 miles north of Checkpoint 1.

I discussed situation with Mike Finney, a close family friend who had come to Fort De Soto to watch the start of the race, and the two of us agreed that it all boiled down to finding a good Samaritan with a boat trailer who was willing to take me and my RowCruiser to the south side of Tampa Bay.  I also spoke with TheJuice (aka Druce Finlay), who pointed out on a map the areas where he thought we could land near the Hwy 64 bridge.

I was still standing around in a daze when a kind gentleman named Tom Glenze, whom I had met at the campground the day before, came up to me and asked what I was going to do.  When I told him that I was stuck with no vehicle or trailer, Tom said he knew of a boat launch on the Manatee River north and east of the Hwy 64 bridge.  Angel of mercy that he is, he then offered to take me there.  And he very graciously did just that. Hooray—I was still in the race! 

That afternoon, I launched my RowCruiser (Class 2, human-powered, no sail) at the Manatee River, proceeded west over to the Intercoastal Waterway, and came to the Hwy 64 bridge where I threw out my anchor and spent a comfortable night sleeping on my boat.  I was only interrupted once, when I woke up and stared out at the water trying to figure out if the boat had drifted while I was asleep. It had not; it was in fact resting securely on a bed of grass because the tide had gone out.  I promptly went back to sleep, woke at dawn to a re-flooded flat, and waited for what I thought would be the start of the race near the Hwy 64 bridge promptly at 7 o’clock that morning.  It was Sunday, March 5.

The day dawned—and I was alone.  My first thought was “where the heck is everybody?”, but at 7 am I was lined up all by myself and ready to hit the “Check OK” button on my Spot GPS device, as required.  I saw SaltyFriar (aka Matthew Stalnaker) in his Class 1 boat (kayak plus sail) passing under the bridge, so at least I knew I wasn’t the only one . . . .

At this point my wife called to say that it looked as if all but about four boats were starting about sixty miles down the coast at Cape Haze! I again wondered “what the hell??”, but this didn’t concern me overmuch because I figured that with all the confusion concerning the start of the race, some timing adjustments would be made.

And so I took off! What could possibly go wrong? I was rowing and all was right with the world.  Granted, it was a bit windy, but the Intercoastal Waterway provided some protection and I was making good progress. 

Then I hit Sarasota Bay.  The winds were furious and the waves were big, so a Small Craft Advisory must have been in effect there too.  Since the wind was coming from the east and I was going south, beam waves were going to be a problem, so I headed for shallower water where the waves were dampened considerably.  And there, right at the head of the Sister Keys, I made a wonderful discovery: a very small protected channel running right by the Longboat Key Center for the Arts down through Millar Bay alongside White Key and Longboat Key. This nice little channel, so narrow that I could nearly touch the sides with my extended 10-foot oars, was designed to provide water access to a number of luxurious private homes, and it was relatively calm even though big waves were crashing into a continuous stretch of mangroves just a few feet away.  I had complete protection until I made a left-hand turn at a housing development somewhere near the Water Club Association and Continental Brake Equipment.  Then I was headed east, right into the face of roaring winds and huge waves.  Gulp.

I almost lost my nerve and headed back to my safe channel, but I was making progress, with the distance between my puddles (swirls made by my oars) being about three feet.  Okay, maybe two feet.  Well, that was okay—I had trained in the big waves and winds on Keystone Lake in Oklahoma. If I could only keep some distance between the puddles, I could be sure that I was indeed moving forward.  All was proceeding relatively well until I had to veer from my due-east course to angle south. My only real concern was to keep the wind from blowing me into the concrete foundations of the housing development.  The waves were hitting me from the side again, but even though the boat rocked and bucked, no water came into the cockpit, and besides, if I got into trouble, I could always turn tail and row into one of the wide slips between the houses.  This thought gave me nerve and I continued along in this way for what seemed to be just about forever, but in reality it was only about three-fourths of a mile.  When I saw another short channel at the end of Longboat Key, I ducked in, and then it was just a brief row across shallow water and smaller waves under the John Ringling Causeway back to the protected Intercoastal Waterway.  My only regret is that I did not have my GoPro camera mounted on the bow of my boat so I could experience the whole thing again later from the comfort of my living room sofa!

I continued south through Little Sarasota Bay and eventually past the Venice Jetty and the Venice Yacht Club and under the N. Tamiami Trail bridge.   At about 8:00 pm I landed at the Marina Boat Ramp next to the Venice Train Depot and the Venice Area Historical Society. There was not a soul in sight, only a sign that said “Do Not Feed the Alligator.”  Hmmm.  With some interest, I cast my light around and looked under the pilings holding up the walkway where I was planning to boil some water to make coffee and heat up a freeze-dried meal, and I saw . . . nothing.  All good.

After some food and drink, I continued under the E. Venice bridge and into the highly infrastructured channel that passes east around Venice. This was the only boring part of the trip—here the channel is banked by solid stone/concrete, with nary a place to land.  By this time it was dark, and I kept my lights cast on both sides, hoping at least to see an alligator.  Nope.  There wasn’t any boat traffic either, for which I was grateful since the large wakes and ricocheting waves created by powerful motorboats speeding up and down the channel would have made for a very rough ride.

All was uneventful east of Venice and down Lemon Bay.  As I rowed by, I saluted Stump Pass, which had been a big problem for me the previous year. I must have zoned-out, as I overshot the first checkpoint at Cape Haze by nearly a quarter mile.  I backtracked and landed on the muddy beach at about 4:00 am Monday morning, eight hours ahead of the cutoff.  Cool!  I had been rowing for about 21 hours, and I was feeling fine.

After securing the boat, I trudged up the trail, and passed SaltyFriar’s boat, I think (this was the Class 1 boat I had started out with at the Hwy 64 bridge).  At the checkpoint there was a note saying that I had to go to the office.  I did so—and there was the Chief asleep on the floor.  He quickly roused, and we chatted about best route through the next crux point, Charlotte Harbor.  This was fun and I was going to do it!

I proceeded south, keeping to the east side of Placida Harbor, and fetched up on a muddy bank at Placida Park, where I again made some coffee and had a bite to eat.  Continuing south, I held to the east bank of Casparilla Sound, and at Boca Grande I headed southeast, directly into the wind. 

My objective was the east side of Pine Island, about eight miles away . . . . but my god, the wind was ferocious and the waves were big!  I pulled at the oars.  I was making progress.  I pulled harder.  I could do this.  The muscles in my back were starting to strain.  I had only gone about two miles when I knew I wasn’t going to make it.  Or at least I wasn’t going to make it with my back intact.  After all, I still had a long way to go to make it to the race endpoint at Key Largo.

Then I noticed a string of what looked like mangrove keys to my north, which turned out to be the tip of Little Cape Haze.  I turned the boat in that direction and headed for some refuge, not sure exactly what I was going to do when I got there.  After pulling up the marine map on my trusty GPS, however, I saw that the entire area was riddled with keys and there was a protected channel winding among them that would take me east, which was my objective.  I figured that this was probably the way the kayakers ahead of me had gone:  east first and then drop south to Pine Island.  

So I continued on my meandering way and finally at about 11 am on Monday, March 6, I decided to stop at Bull Key in the Island National Wildlife Refuge for some R&R.  I had been rowing for 28 hours and had covered about 75 miles.  I ate, set my alarm to go off in three and a half hours, and lay down in the RowCruiser’s little sleeping berth that my wife refers to as the “coffin”.  It was warm, almost hot, and the sun was shining in my eyes, but I pulled the hatch further over my head and dropped happily off.

The complete Florida rower--sun protection, 
rearward mirror, life vest with PLB as well as knife, 
gloves, and kayak boots.
For the past eighteen months, I had compulsively kept track of my heart rate and caloric burn with both an Apple Watch and a Fitbit.  I did this every time I rowed, whether on the water or on the erg machine in my dining room, and when I analyzed the data, I found that the two devices were generally within 15% of each other, sometimes one being up and sometimes the other. Upon analyzing a year's worth of data I found they were, surprisingly, almost identical in their calculation of caloric burn, with less than a 1% difference between them.  I didn’t bring my Apple Watch on this trip but I was wearing my Fitbit, with the full knowledge that sooner or later it would probably get ruined due to water damage (and I was right).  But I rationalized that after eighteen months of round-the-clock duty, it was getting old--and besides, some of its plastic covering was wearing off.  Therefore, in the interest of collecting “highly-valuable performance data”, I’d be justified in buying a new one when I got back home.  (Turns out that Ann was so certain my Fitbit wouldn’t survive the race that she purchased one for me while I was gone and brought it with her to Florida.  As a result, I only had to endure two Fitbit-less days....!)

According to my data, from the start of the race at 7 am on Sunday morning until my first sleep at 11 am the next day, I burned a total of 14,439 calories, averaging 515 calories/hour.  That came to about 192 calories/mile, which is above my usual training rate of around 120 calories/mile. I guess that isn’t surprising, given the rigors of Sarasota Bay, Little Sarasota Bay, and my foray into Charlotte Harbor.

And my sleep must have been good, since my heart rate dropped to a low of 52 beats/minute right before the alarm went off . . . .

Continuing to avoid the howling east wind by following my meandering channel, I wended my way east.  It was while I was rowing slowly along the edge of a huge clump of mangroves that I ran across what must have been my first manatee, although I never actually saw it.  The only indication of its presence was a huge, powerful sucking sound.  A few moments later, I heard the noise again, but this time there seemed to be about four of them, all creating these loud, sucking sounds as they dove underwater.   Hmmm.  Hopefully I wouldn’t run into one of them!

Upon reflection, I figured that the sounds made by my oars must have been quiet enough to prevent the manatees from detecting my presence—in other words, I was probably right on top of them before they spooked.  I briefly had the thought that I should be more careful, and perhaps make more noise, but by then it was too late.  This time the sea literally erupted under me, and I was immediately soaked when huge spouts of water shot up all around me as if a giant were dropping enormous boulders into the sea.  And then to my astonishment, the entire boat—all 500 pounds of it and its contents, including me—rose into the air and rolled about 30 degrees before finally settling back into the water.

Holy crap! What the hell?  If I’d had been in a kayak, I’d have rolled.  If I had gotten between a couple of these monsters, the boat might have been crushed.  A flipper could have cracked the hull.  I have subsequently learned that Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris) average 9 to 11 feet long and weigh 440 to 1,320 pounds. They are aptly named sea cows, which is the way I imagined them—like cows—slow, dumb, and HUGE!

I didn’t really know for sure what happened, but I surmised that I had rowed over a manatee’s back and it tried to throw me off.  Or maybe it surfaced to assess the threat.  In any event, for the rest of the trip, I made a practice of slapping the blades of my oars on the surface of the water every 3 to 5 strokes whenever I was rowing in manatee habitat.  This made for slower going, but the manatees now had my full respect and I understood that my rearward vantage point prevented me from being able to see them at all.  After that, I “ran across” no other manatees, and I hope never to see one again!  Except maybe from a dock.  Or a really big cruise boat.

After surviving the manatees and proceeding north for nearly two miles, I  finally reached a suitable spot to cross Turtle Bay.  The waves were not bad and the half-mile row went smoothly.  Rowing south along the east side of Turtle Bay, I rounded the last point, stopped to plot a route on my GPS seven miles south and abeam of the wind and waves, and started off across Charlotte Harbor. 

Curiously, my Spot device, which keeps track of my times and locations, has no data for the first half of the Charlotte Harbor crossing.  My wife noticed this omission and, assuming I had drowned, called my cell phone repeatedly. This was about 6:45 pm, and by that time it was dark and I was well “into it.”  Although I heard the phone ring, I was too terrified of the wind and the waves to take my hands off the oars. It was all I could do to keep my stern lined up on the red light that was flashing on a tower to the north.  The boat seemed to roll in all directions around that little red dot, but finally at 8:15 pm after about a 3-hour crossing, I was able to uncurl my hands from the oar handles and hit the “All OK” button on my Spot.  I then rowed to a safe harbor and called my wife.  She was none too pleased with my silence, but once I explained the reason, she (reluctantly) acknowledged that she understood.

Continuing south, I passed under the Pine Island bridge, and soon thereafter found a small (I mean really small) shoal with exactly one mangrove tree.  This miniature key was only about 20 feet on a side, about the same length as my boat, but no problem—-with my sleep-aboard RowCruiser, I could stop anywhere.  It was now Tuesday, March 7, about 43 hours from the start and 15 hours since my last sleep, and when I crawled into my bunk, I had covered a total of 101 miles at an average speed of about 2.3 miles/hour. All I needed to finish the race on time was an overall speed of about 1.5 miles per hour, so I was feeling very confident.

I again set my alarm to go off in three and a half hours, and I dropped off immediately.  My heart rate plummeted to 47 beats per minute so I was sleeping soundly.  When I woke up at 5:30 am, it was light and I could see that the tide had gone out.  This had the effect of making the shoal on which I was perched quite a bit larger than it had been when I went to sleep, and my first thought was to wonder if any alligators had decided to overnight with me on the little island.  But no, I was thankfully still alone.  I fueled up, deployed my foam rollers to launch the boat, and took off for Sanibel Island.

Which way?
As I rounded Sword Point, I was again blasted with the full force of the east wind barreling down the Caloosahatchee River. In retrospect, I really should have just rowed perpendicular to the wind for the next two miles and been done with it, but instead I rounded the point and turned east, the direction I needed to go anyway.  Heading directly into the wind made for very slow progress, so I entered a mangrove swamp at Jewfish Creek and looked at my marine map in more detail.  Turned out there was a nice winding channel that would take me east to Glover Bight, from where I could drop directly south and move along the protected side of Shell Island and Jonathon Harbor to the Punta Rassa Boat Ramp, where my (still-wonderful) wife was planning to meet me, having flown to Tampa from Oklahoma to more closely keep track of me.

I decided to take this winding, east-west channel, which was quite narrow and had many little twists and turns. A wrong decision could have resulted in losing a lot of time trying to retrace my steps, but I made good progress and finally came to the end, looking east towards a housing development.  There I saw a flat-bottomed boat full of immaculate white-clad tourists moving slowly west, apparently looking for manatees. I had the not-very-nice thought that it would be fun to see one of those suckers (the manatees, not the tourists) tip that little boat over, but that seemed unlikely, given the captain’s high vantage point that was designed to afford a fine view of any sea creatures lurking below.

I dropped south, avoiding the plentiful boat traffic going up and down the Caloosahatchee River, and at about 2 pm made it to the Punta Rassa Boat Ramp.  I pulled my boat up on a stinking muddy bank and scrambled through an almost impenetrable tangle of mangroves to find my wife.   Which I did! After catching up and taking a few photos, I departed under the Sanibel Causeway and crossed San Carlos Bay.  The wind had died while I was at Punta Rassa, and the sea was dead calm.  Just lovely.  I hadn’t seen a calm hour in two years of rowing the EC, and now I just knew I was gong to finish this race with ease!!

Heading towards Naples and smoke
I continued south on the ocean side of Estero Island under very pleasant conditions.  At about 9 pm, 20 hours from my last sleep, I stopped on a pretty little beach at Lovers Key State Park.  63 hours had elapsed from the start, and I’d gone a total of 127 miles.  Due to the soaking I had received during the manatee encounter, my Fitbit was no longer tracking all the time so there were a couple of two-hour gaps.  But when it was actually recording, I was expending about 470 calories/hour, which was somewhat less than the 515 at the start of the race.  This made sense as I was now past the two cruxes, the wind had died, and the rowing was relatively easy.  I was still averaging over 2.0 miles/hour, so I was ahead of schedule . . . .

After another three and a half hours of sleep, I woke up to a low tide shortly after midnight on Wednesday, March 8.  With my foam rollers in place to launch the boat, I pulled hard on the stern rope, and it snapped. I went flying into the water, my head lamp going in one direction and my handle and rope in the other.  Good thing I had my Sharkskin upper on, as it provided instant warmth from the cold water. The rope and handle were swept away by the swift current, but I could see my reliable Foxelli USB Rechargeable headlamp about thirty feet down the shore with its light still visible under two feet of water.  When I plunged my right arm into the water to retrieve the lamp, my poor Fitbit died an instantaneous death.  I tried drying it, etc., but it never recovered.  The headlamp, however, worked perfectly for the remainder of the trip even though I had neglected to close the charging port with the little rubber stopper designed for that purpose.

Sloshing around in boots full of water and feeling sort of embarrassed at this clumsy scene, I was reminded of those tourists that I had envisioned getting tipped into the drink by a manatee.  They would certainly have gotten a good laugh at seeing me flailing around in the water trying to recover my stuff.  And that, of course, would have served me right about having such mean thoughts about them!

Along the Naples coast at about 7:30 in the morning, I met up with two stand-up paddleboarders (SUPS) in Class 1, Godzilla (aka Jaime Smyth) and SaltySack (aka Richard Moran). I swung over to chat with them and learned they had put in at Cape Haze.  But hey, I had caught up with them! After teasing them a little bit on this point and admiring their equipment, I noticed a very inviting spot to slip into for a short break near Clam Pass. Reaching the smooth sandy beach I had my eye on only required rowing over some very shallow water at the entrance.  I shot through with no problem, and to my surprise, camped out right there was Michabo (aka James Hart). I learned that he too had put in at Cape Haze—another one who, unlike me, had actually listened to the Chief’s instructions! But hey, I had caught up with a Class 1 kayaker and two SUPS, all within an hour! 

I stretched, made some coffee, and then launched, making my way pleasantly down the coast to Gordon Pass, where I ducked through to the Intercoastal Waterway and once again exchanged pleasantries with Godzilla and Saltysack.

After a largely uneventful day of rowing, I made it to Capri Pass, which is the start of a critical eastern passage around Marco Island, “critical” because catching the current in the wrong direction could mean a long layover waiting for the tide to turn.  But fortunately I could see the water moving from the Gulf into the passage, and boy, was it a nice ride!  Under the Collier Bridge and out into East Marco Bay and then into the Big Marco River.  I stuck to my planned route and shot down Angelwing Creek to Goodland, and at 10:10 pm I pulled into the beautiful Goodland Boating Park, which was by this time well-past closed.  I had gone 176 miles in 88 hours with an overall speed of 2 mph, still above my target of 1.5 mph.  All good.  After some more food and coffee, I proceeded south to the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

It was a lovely night with the lights of Marco Island to the north and west, and I fired up Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, rocking along in high spirits to Mule Skinner Blues. However, after struggling for hours against the tide in an effort to keep my boat pointed toward Indian Key, I decided to anchor for some much-needed sleep.  So at about 3:50 am March 9th, after 187 miles in 93 hours and with an overall speed still at 2 mph, I threw my anchor out, got into my berth, and slept for about three hours. I was comfortably above my target speed, so I was happy.

I pushed off at a little after 7 am, and now the rowing was much easier.  I had lucked out and caught the flood into Chokoloskee.  I threaded my way rapidly through the many possible channels, following my pre-planned route into Chokoloskee Bay towards the second checkpoint.  It seemed the bay was now at slack water and that the ebb tide would start soon.  I was ready to ride it back out to Checkpoint 3 at Flamingo. I pulled up on the beach, and there to meet me was my wife as well as the Chief, Whitecaps (aka Toby Nipper), and several other folks.  I got out in high spirits, filled with optimism that for the first time, I was really going to finish the EC. I hugged my wife, shook hands all around, and the Chief told me what a great job I’d been doing.  A fantastic job.  Hooray! Then he said “and now for the bad news.” Uh oh.

As I stood there with my arms folded, the Chief told me that I was actually behind schedule because Checkpoint 2 had closed at 10:00 am and it was now 12:30 pm.  He explained that the race rules did permit one missed checkpoint, but in spite of the fact that the race started a day late, the deadline for Checkpoint 3 remained unchanged (the next day at 10:00 am) . . .and that I’d never make it. Moreover, the deadline for the final finish was still Sunday at 7:00 am.  Which I also would not make.  Whitecaps said the same.  They repeated several times that I’d never make it and that many good folks had quit right here at Chokoloskee.  But it was up to me . . . .

I stepped to the side and spoke with Ann about it—and decided to throw in the towel.  All the enthusiasm that I’d had just minutes earlier had completely evaporated. You’d think that the sheer fun of rowing through the Everglades and Florida Bay would have motivated me to continue in spite of the fact that I’d never finish on time.  I’m kind of ashamed that I quit.  But there is something highly motivating about a deadline and that’s the whole point of the Everglades Challenge—can you make it to the end in the allotted time?  Ultimately a casual row was just not motivating enough for me.  I think it should have been, but it wasn’t.

And so I told the Chief that I was done.  Final distance was 202.5 miles in 103 hours, still at my overall speed of 2.0 miles per hour, and still ahead of schedule.