Training for the Everglades Challenge: 125 Miles by SUP

Ready to launch (Photo credit: Brian Sheridan)

[Reprinted from Coastbusters Newsletter, May 2021, edited by Rick Wiebush, Cross Currents Sea Kayaking.]

“Get the picture. It’s time to go,” as our quintet of two SUPs, two sailing canoes, and one kayak struggled to hold a pose. The rising breeze, harbinger of winds to come. We had come for Scott Baste’s, owner of Tavernier-based Paddle! the Florida KeysEverglades Challenge (EC) January Preview, to learn the routes, passages, and campsites between Everglades City and Key Largo. A collection of EC veterans and newbies, all of us were eager to escape into the Everglades wilderness.

What my Inreach says I did
Loaded up

This trip would be a series of firsts for me: my first time on the Wilderness Waterway, my first multiple 25+ miles days, and my first solo SUP camping. My 14′ Bishop A’u paddleboard carried almost 80 pounds of gear, food, and water, enough to last at least 8 days. A Yeti Panga duffel strapped to my stern held my clothing, camping, gear, and food. My safety gear, including lights, flares, repair and first aid kit, was stuffed into an NRS Taj M’haul deck bag in front. I carried a 3-piece Werner Rip Stick as a spare.

A Seakayaker on a SUP?

Why SUP? After all, I have done numerous training
and coastal expeditions in my NDK Pilgrim Expedition. But I fell in love with stand-up paddleboarding even before I stood on a board, and the board plays well with our sailboat on Kevin’s and my SUP and sail trips. But there is a learning curve. SUP surf and SUP touring/expeditions have challenged me to adapt my kayak skills to a board. Wind and waves affect board and boat differently, for example, and I am experimenting to determine my limits. I recently began a SUP technique training program with Coach Larry Cain through Paddle Monster and am already seeing the benefits. Most important, I like my view of the world from a board.

Brian and sailing canoe striking a pose on the Crooked Creek Chickee

Starting Out: Eight Miles to the First Chickee

Buoyed by a rising tide, the paddle to Crooked Creek Chickee went quickly, and we reached the platforms just before sunset. Joe and I paddled straight there, past Chokoloskee and up the Lopez River, while Scott, Brian, and Don added miles by going up the Turner River and through Mud Bay. Cramming five people’s gear and tents on the platforms is an exercise in geometry—especially after dark. Mangrove forests line the rivers in the Everglades, and there are few spots dry enough for camping. So, the Everglades National Park built a series of chickees, or raised platforms, along the Everglades’ rivers and in Florida Bay.

Lulled by the evening calm

A 30 Mile, Windy Day

Our Everglades Challenge Preview started here: a 30 mile slog upwind, not even a real wind by EC standards. I left early, knowing that I am slower than the others. I relished the early morning calm as I paddled up the Lopez River to Sunday Bay, Oyster Bay, and Huston Bay. I followed my GPX track on my Garmin Fenix watch, but the occasional signs for the Wilderness Waterway, the 99 mile route between Everglades City and Flamingo, reassured me that I was on track. By the time I reached Last Huston Bay, the winds and my friends had caught up.

Break time in Huston Bay

Reality set in, when we turned into the wind. The bumpy waters of Last Huston Bay grew to whitecaps and small waves in the long fetch of Chevelier Bay. I paddled my board up and over the waves, grateful for my long board surf sessions on Tybee Island. (When I returned to Chevelier Bay several weeks later, I had my best downwind surf run ever.) The tiny creeks linking the bays offered some respite from the wind and a chance to appreciate the beauty of the region. But, long days into headwinds are the reality of the Everglades Challenge.

Creek right after fav cabin
The cuts offer a break from the wind

The Everglades Challenge

According the website, “The Everglades Challenge is an unsupported, expedition style adventure race for kayaks, canoes, and small boats. The distance is roughly 300 nautical miles depending on your course selection. There is a time limit of 8 days or less. Your safety and well being are completely up to you.”

A daunting challenge, especially on a paddleboard. But even more important to me, preparing for the challenge has sharpened a range of skills and introduced me to “kindred spirits”, in EC lingo. In 2020, I did the Ultramarathon, the shorter version of the Everglades Challenge, and planned to enter the EC in 2021. (Ultimately, I postponed until 2022.) This 30-mile paddle might have seemed long, but EC days can stretch to 40-50. I was tired when I reached Rogers Bay Chickee just before dark, but I felt surprisingly good both that night and the next morning.

Going It Alone

I faced a decision the next morning: remain with the group until Flamingo or separate and begin heading north to beat a projected front. Given the weather forecast and cumulative distance, I questioned my ability to complete that paddle. I assessed my water supply and realized that I needed to either continue to Flamingo or begin my trek back to Everglades City. I was sorry to leave the group—I loved the banter and cameraderie. But I also didn’t want to risk injury, and I knew that I needed to practice solo paddling.

Mangroves, mangroves, and more mangroves

Alone, I retraced my route through Rogers Bay, Big Lostmans Bay, and Third Bay, then headed west through the creatively named Second and First Bays to the mouth of Lostmans River. It felt strange to be on my own, but also exhilarating. I was confident in my abilities to handle the conditions and navigation, but now I needed to be completely self-reliant. By the time I reached the mouth of the river, the wind had picked up, and the tide was coming in. I made camp on a small beach just north of the river mouth and settled in for the night. It had been a 15 mile day.

Lumpy waters

I placed my tent in vegetation that looked both hidden and above the high tide line. (Despite multiple washings, those leaves still cling to my clothing.) I built a small fire on the beach and reflected on my trip and the solitude. I hadn’t seen anyone after I left Big Lostmans Bay, and the horizon was empty. I was really alone.

Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD

I carried multiple communication devices in case of emergency, including a VHF radio, PLB, and a Garmin Inreach, I also carried two GPS, heeding Chief’s admonition that ‘two is one, and one is none.’ Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. Since I had preloaded GPX tracks onto my Garmin Fenix watch, I rarely turned on the GPS instead glancing at my wrist for route and waypoint information.

Day 4: Lostmans to Highland Beach, 26 miles

Where to paddle? The north winds that were giving my friends a killer downwinder would have made my north-bound paddle hell. So, I decided to take advantage of those winds and paddle back up Lostmans River, past Rogers Bay, and down the Broad River to Highland Beach, just several miles south of Lostmans River. By now, some of these bays felt like old friends, but with benefit of tailwind. Bays I had struggled through now passed quickly. That is, until Broad River Bay where I fought for every inch.

Lounging gator

Slightly more active gator

I dragged my board and myself through the bay, down the river, and across the very, very shallow river mouth. I wanted to get as far from the delta and its tidal flats as possible. I knew that the next morning’s low tide would trap me on the beach if I didn’t get far enough up the coast. The west wind pushed me towards the shore, and I felt like I was paddling through mud, which I was. Later, I realized that I had been dragging my fin though the mud.

Tracks of my fin
Highland Beach, several miles south of Lostman’s River
Paddleboard wind block

Highland Beach was my second night solo camping, a skill I knew I would need for the EC. It seemed odd to be so far removed from any signs of people, although I wasn’t fully cut off. I texted Kevin through the Inreach, and frequently checked the forecast on the Inreach, itself a form of entertainment. (In return, the Inreach taunted me with promises of a tailwind.) Further, the occasional chatter on my VHF radio was interesting. But I was never bored.

Unintended relaxing morning

Stalled by Tidal Flats, Then the Wind

Despite my best efforts at an early start, the tidal flat trapped me for several hours. I started a fire and watched the water creep over the mud. Eventually, the water had risen, and so had the winds.

Someone had a bad day

After paddling for several hours, I did the most un-EC thing ever—I declared a beach day. I spent the afternoon bathing and reading on Hog Key. That evening, I burnt through even more of my required fire survival kit. A glorious day.

Somewhere in the Everglades

Day Six: 28 Miles and Too Many People

Northward bound, I passed New Turkey, Mormon, and Pavillion Keys then ran into a group of kayakers from Iowa near Jewell Key. It started to feel crowded!

Perfect paddling conditions

I reached Lulu Key, where I intended to camp, but music-blaring jet skiers were too much after days of solitude. I doubled back to Tiger Key, where multiple raccoon prints alerted me to my evening adventure. I hadn’t seen any critters until then. I stored my food in a bear barrel and my water in a heavy plastic container, and each night I placed my water bag under the weight of the board. The raccoons came out at dusk, not daunted by my fire. I slept with my paddle nearby and woke to a raccoon licking condensation off my board.

Foggy departure

The Last Leg: Tiger Key to Everglades City

Tired, happy, and stinky, I rode the tide into Everglades City. My only complaint: after miles of fantasizing about lunch, Nelys was closed that day.

This trip was an enormous learning experience and confidence builder. I paddled distances unimaginable the year before and explored a remote and fascinating part of the Everglades. It was the culmination of a year of skill-building and training, including SUP and sail trips with my husband and an overnight crossing of Florida Bay in December. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do the Everglades Challenge in 2021, but I’ll be ready for 2022.

Time for another trip

Punta Gorda to Cayo Costa by SUP and Sail

Red Sky at Dawn

Tuesday: In the early morning calm, Kevin and I launched boat and board from the Laishley Marina in Punta Gorda, Florida and headed southwest toward Charlotte Harbor. Destination: Cayo Costa and our first trip with the West Coast Trailer Sailing Squadron (WCTSS). Blissfully unaware that those “firsts” would keep piling on, we aimed for our first anchorage, just outside of Pirate Harbor on the eastern side of Charlotte Harbor.

My track from Laishley Marina to our first night’s anchorage, 16 miles

For the past several years, Kevin and I have used our SUP and sail trips to develop individual and team skills. Our increasingly longer and more difficult journeys have pushed his sailing and my paddling boundaries in areas of navigation, endurance, and rough water skills. Once again, this trip of firsts would test our skills.

Before we left home, we plotted out our respective journeys. On my 14′ Bishop A’u paddleboard, I anticipated a 12 mile paddle, hugging the shore and ducking into mangroves for wind protection. On our 22′ O’Day sailboat, Kevin’s sail would be considerably longer, given the projected wind direction and the number of required tacks. We planned to meet at the anchorage around 3 pm.

Shelter from the wind

Once I rounded the ‘hump’ of Punta Gorda, the predicted southerly winds arose. Kevin called me on the VHF radio, thrilled at his 6 knots of speed. Thrilled did not describe my mood as I battled against some of the stronger gusts. I ducked into the mangroves, and my chart, GPS, and Fenix watch helped me navigate a path through this very creepy mangrove maze. Shortly after our designated time, we dropped anchor and set in for the night.

Kevin arrives!

Wednesday morning, we paddled and sailed 12 miles to the Burnt Store Marina where we had booked a slip for two nights. Our chance to power the boat’s systems for our anchorage in Pelican Bay on Cayo Costa. Our timing was impeccable and lucky—big winds kept us off the water the following day.

Nestled all snug in their beds

Cayo Costa ho! Friday morning, I awoke eager to begin the day’s paddle. I faced several highly-trafficked crossings, and and I knew I had a short window before the wind came back up. In retrospect, the trip from Burnt Store Marina to Cayo Costa turned out to be one of my most difficult paddles due to wind, waves, and boat traffic. Surprisingly more difficult even than the 25+ mile training paddles I had done. Shortly after leaving the marina, I headed southwest towards the entrance to Bokeelia, an approximately 6-mile crossing. The sidechop and occasional breaking waves challenged my board steering as I struggled to maintain my heading. My early departure had paid off—the wind didn’t pick up significantly until I had almost reached the other side.

Burnt Store to Cayo Costa, 18.1 miles

I followed the channel markers across the north end of Pine Island, past Jug Creek, Back Bay, and finally Little Bokeelia Bay where I saw several boats from the WCTSS. Finally, my destination was near. From Little Bokeelia Bay, I would paddle south of Patricio and Mondongo Islands, cross the ICW, and head slightly north to our Pelican Bay anchorage.

A bumpy ride

By this time, the wind had picked up, and each of the short mile-long crossings was a slog. I have never worked so hard just to see my Garmin watch read 0.0 for speed. For safety, I crossed the ICW south of my destination, meaning both that I had to battle the north winds to the anchorage and that final mile expanded to three. My three hour mile. Though at times I doubted if I could make it, I knew I had to. I stopped on a small key, revised my route, and powered on.

The circus arrives (Video credit: Dan Roeder)

Never have I been so happy to reach an anchorage. We laughed, relaxed, and visited with friends, old and new. A perfect end to a crazy day.

Saturday was beautiful. Some explored Cayo Costa, and others sailed around Charlotte Harbor and around Boca Grande Pass. I discovered lagoons with manatees, and the spring breakers discovered our paradise.

By the late afternoon, the winds has risen, and the temperatures fell. The cold front had arrived. Why didn’t I bring socks? Thank you Kevin.

Our next “first” was almost upon us. We anchored our shallow draft boat just off the beach, as we had the night before. One anchor in front, another astern. Several hours later, after dark, our mistake became apparent as the boat listed sideways. The north winds were blowing the water out of the anchorage, and we almost aground. We rocked the boat and pushed, anything to push the boat into deeper water. Finally, Kevin started the motor and winched in the rear anchor while I rocked the bow. Finally, the bow sprang free, leaving me onshore. Oops. The wind prevented Kevin from motoring close enough to shore. Another Kevin from our group heard the commotion and brought a rope. Finally I reboarded, and we anchored in deeper water. Now that was a first.

Sunday morning was grim. No spring breakers on that cold dreary day. The wind was up again, and we were cold and tired. There would be no sailing or paddling for us. We towed the board and motored back to Burnt Store Marina.

Monday morning, we took the boat out, staging the boat alongside a barge, a very strange first. Doug Buuck of All Marine Canvas brought our car and trailer to us, and we later visited him at All Marine Canvas. Doug had helped us out several times over the week. Meeting him was hands down our best “first.”

Each “first” challenged us develop new skills with wind and anchoring, among others, and the cold front reminded us not to get lulled by the idea of spring. The conditions pushed our abilities to communicate and work as a paddle-sail team even when separated by miles. I’m grateful to have these experiences as I work towards the Everglades Challenge 2022 and more SUP and sail trips with Kevin. And we’re both glad—after this year of Covid, that we have reconnected with WCTSS.

Keeping it classy

Navigating Florida Bay by Night

Shark Point colors

I promised sun, sand, and beach camping. Nothing epic, I said. Yet there we were, on boat and board, paddling overnight across Florida Bay, the 28-ish miles from North Nest Key to Flamingo. But, to put it in perspective, our overnight paddle, including fish with big teeth, side chop, and hallucinations of trees, was less scary than driving home on I-75.

Florida Bay (courtesy of Google Maps)

Several days before, we launched from Flamingo in the Everglades National Park and paddled 9 miles to the Shark Point Chickee. Windy days and the low waters of a new moon made navigating the shoals around Joe Kemp Key challenging, but we followed the Tin Can Channel east towards Shark Point. Learning my way around Florida Bay would help me prepare for the 2021 Everglades Challenge, a 270-mile expedition/race from Tampa to Key Largo.

Our original plan: one night at the Shark Point Chickee, three nights at North Nest Key, and then a final night at Rabbit Key before paddling back to Flamingo. This route gave us proximity to the Everglades Challenge route as well as a campsite with cell service so Janice could phone into her Wednesday night board meeting.

Shark Point Chickee
Janice in our ‘living room’
From boat and board to platform above

We set up our tents on one side and kitchen/living room on the other. The light breeze—perfect for keeping mosquitos at bay—made putting up the tents a challenge as the wind transformed tents into sails. My biggest fear was dropping something through the slats of the platform into the water below. That night, shooting stars danced across the sky, and we saw the multitudes of stars normally obscured by light pollution and moonlight.

The following morning we had coffee under stars and prepared for our 22 mile paddle to North Nest Key. I loaded my gear onto the board while it was on the platform, thinking I could carefully lower it into the water. Epic fail. Janice heard a splash followed by some unprintable language, then another splash as I jumped into the water to right the board. Lesson learned, and a test of my attachment points on the board.

Skating across a glassy sea

What are these strange things?

A picture perfect day as we navigated Crocodile Dragover and Madeira Point en route to North Nest Key. The waterscape near Madeira felt like a painting—a flat expanse of water punctuated by emerging mangrove islands that resembled boats from a distance.

Hidden beaches

We wound our way around shoals and through passes, continuing our trek east. Oddly enough, we missed Lake Key Pass in broad daylight, but found it in the dark two days later. And, in another navigational highlight, we circumnavigated North Nest Key, looking for the camping area. Construction and day boaters had obscured the signs. Oh well, more training miles!

Our back yard
North Nest camp

North Nest Key is the only designated camping spot in the east part of Florida Bay and is considered a ‘ground’ site as opposed to a beach site. Nonetheless, the sand and clear water had a distinct Caribbean feel to it.

Tuesday morning, a dense fog passed through, a good warm-up for our night navigation. We reached the official Everglades Challenge finish—the Pelican Hotel in Key Largo—and ordered lunch from Mrs. Macs Kitchen next door, a 14+ mile round trip, which felt like a rite of passage.

Sated with fish sandwiches and key lime pie from Mrs. Macs, we checked the weather and realized that the predicted cold front was moving in faster than planned. Was heading south to Rabbit Key, then paddling 20 miles north into a really our best option? We re-evaluated our plan and decided to leave immediately after Janice’s board meeting on Wednesday evening. Until then, it was beach life for us.

Cold front? No worries.

We launched at 6 pm onto a blissfully glassy bay. The lingering light allowed us to see islands immediately westward, but soon the light faded and stars emerged. I had attached my red and green navigation lights to my Yeti bag behind me, but left dark the blinding white light on my PFD. Between GPS, my Garmin Fenix watch, and our deck compasses, we found Lake Key Pass that had eluded us in the daylight.

We retraced our path westward past Madeira Point and Crocodile Dragover, taking a quick break in the shallow waters near Madeira. In the long crossing towards Buoy Key, the wind and sidechop kicked up enough to make tracking my board difficult. Just one stroke on the left turned me north, surfing the board, so I paddled and paddled on the right. Far south in the Atlantic, distant lightning punctuated the darkness, revealing the cause of the southerly winds. We trusted the VHF radio weather forecast that placed those eerie storms far far away.

About 10 miles from Flamingo, we saw Flamingo’s red lights. Yet, occasionally those red lights appeared closer, in a tunnel of trees that reminded me of the Narnia Chronicles. My height on the board let me see things I wished were hallucinations. One very large fish, probably sporting many teeth, shot by and bumped Janice’s boat. And strange songs ran through my head, which I dared not sing out loud.

Our track

Finally, that light, our grail, was within two miles! Strangely, both my GPS watch and Janice’s GPS went wonky for about 5 minutes, guiding us in directions we knew were wrong. And suddenly we were back at Joe Kemp Key and entering the Flamingo Marina somewhere around 4 am. We made it!

Keeping it classy in the campground

The next day, we dried gear, ate ice cream, and explored the park. A 28.81 mile overnight crossing was a big accomplishment for us, both in terms of fitness and navigation. I realize that I have much training remaining before the Everglades Challenge, but this trip got me much closer. I hear the drums!

Sunburst

Paddleboarding the WaterTribe Ultramarathon: Flamingo Style

Fort de Soto camping
Launch day -1

Cape Haze Marina to Snake Island (Venice Inlet) and back, approximately 60 miles. This was Plan B for WaterTribe  2020. At 3 pm, I launched my loaded 14′ board and headed north. Finally, after a year of training, testing gear, and creating routes, I, aka Flamingo, joined the tribe of Kindred Spirits. Kindred Spirits because not everyone considers paddling or sailing the Everglades Challenge (270 miles in 8 days) or the Ultramarathon (62 miles in 35 hours) a vacation.

Launch
Boards and boards lined up for launch

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Gearing up (Photo credit: Chris Sheridan)

Twenty-four hours before, all participants gathered on Fort De Soto’s east beach for briefings and an extensive gear check. If all went well, a flotilla of sailboats, kayaks, and paddleboards would launch at 7 am the next morning, cross Tampa Bay, and continue south. Stiff winds blew as we unloaded boards, boards, and gear, and we all hoped the winds would lie down by the next morning. A small craft advisory would be enough to delay, or worse, cancel the event.

Southwest Florida (Courtesy of NOAA.gov)

The wind did not lie down. Tribers, friends, and family gathered in the predawn darkness, hoping for a 7 am launch. Under cover of twilight, the water looked calm. But it was the swells of Tampa Bay, beyond my line of sight, that concerned me. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that, given these winds. Race director Chief and race manager PaddleDancepeannounced a delay, then another, and ultimately, the option of Plan B. Those in the Everglades Challenge could launch anywhere below Tampa Bay, and Ultramarathoners would do an out-and-back from Camp Haze. Like many, I opted for Plan B. I might not have gone if there was no Plan B. So, Kevin and I packed up and drove to Cape Haze.

sunset
My one picture: Sunset somewhere north of Stump Pass

Nervous energy and excitement propelled me out of Cape Haze Marina and northward. I had no idea whether I could finish the race in time or if I could paddle that far. I had never paddledboarded more than twenty miles in a day and only twice in the dark. But I settled into a comfortable rhythm and recognized landmarks from previous visits. Paddling felt good. To pass the time, I sang loud and proud, creating mashups of random songs. I thought I would be afraid when darkness fell, but I wasn’t. I paddled on.

My Inreach Track

Somewhere past Englewood, I met other Tribers, who wondered why I was heading north. Several were concerned that I was lost or disoriented until I explained Plan B. First I saw fellow paddleboarders Staright and ChesapeakeTJAM, then Kayakvagabond and other kayakers. After Manasota, I entered the ditch, a rock-walled canal that circles Venice Airport. It wasn’t easy. I fought both wind and tide going north. At that point, I was determined to reach my turnaround point and take advantage of the wind and tide heading south.

Somewhere in the ditch that I realized I could complete this race. Around 10 pm, I stopped at a boat ramp in Venice to consult my charts, eat, and put on warmer clothes. Surprise—Snake Island was much closer than I thought. I crossed Venice Inlet where I saw Conquistador. Then I circumnavigated Snake Island where I think  I saw a group of Tribers known as the ‘flock’, and then I headed back south. No more questions about why I was headed north! Back through the ditch, wind and tide at my back. The ditch is a seriously creepy place, especially in the middle of the night. Beyond the ditch, I heard several other groups making camp. Not long after, I found a sandy spot, set up my bivy, and grabbed several hours of much-needed sleep.

Sup on Indian Key
14′ holds plenty of gear

I had been thinking about Watertribe ever since I attended Chief’s Bootcamp in 2019. Listening to Chief and others revealed the combination of necessary skills and conditioning. In summer of 2019, I paddled the coast of Alaska and hiked a portion of Maine’s Appalachian Trail. These trips taught me to pack light with no-fuss meals. I made multiple trips to the 10,000 Islands and Everglades where I tested gear combinations and practiced navigation. During this time, a shoulder injury, ironically from my hike and not paddling, convinced me to set my sights on the Ultramarathon rather than the longer Everglades Challenge.

Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD
Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD

Body or board—where to carry gear. In practice paddles, I shifted items back and forth between body, board, and belt before settling on the right balance. Multiple pockets on my NRS Chinook PFD, designed for fishing, held small food and safety items I wanted close. A Hipster Wave hydration belt kept water off my back and added pockets for energy bars. A large Yeti bag held my repair kit, food, and camping gear. I am grateful to the Tribers who were so generous with advice as I made gear and training choices.

Shortly after daylight, I crawled out of my mangrove nest, inhaled several canned coffee drinks, and hopped back on my board. Perhaps a little less sprightly than yesterday afternoon. I had lost an hour due to daylights savings time. Ugh! I wanted to reach Cape Haze Marina before noon, my deadline.

The last few hours were a grind. I fought a headwind, or at least it felt like I did. A boat named Fat Bottomed Girl sailed by. But I knew that I would make it. My husband Kevin waved me into the marina, and I was done. Checkpoint captain Lori Bell greeted me with a paddle. I was tired enough to think it was a wooden spoon. Why was she giving me a spoon?

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Exhausted but happy

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Done!

Now I’m looking towards the Everglades Challenge 2021. Both the Ultramarathon and the Everglades Challenge demand endurance, navigational skills, and familiarity with wind and tides, and that is part of the appeal for me. Seeing the swells on Tampa Bay made me realize that I need more training in rough water. Lots of time on the water. Now that’s a prescription I can handle.

Beers at the Finish
Best beer with best husband ever

SUP Training Camp in the Keys

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Glassy seas in Key Largo

Paddleboard training in the Keys…sign me up! Scott Baste, owner of Tavernier-based Paddle! the Florida Keys,  posted a Winter SUP Camp focused on strokes, speed, and efficiency. The timing was perfect. I had been training for the Watertribe Ultramarathon, a 62-mile race from Fort De Soto to Camp Haze Marina. But I knew I had gaps in my skills, and I really really wanted to get faster.

New boards
Trying out new boards!

Part of the fun: trying out new gear! Testing shorter paddles and narrow boards made for a wobbly, but surprisingly dry, start.

Jill getting feedback
Jill getting feedback

Practicing strokes
Practicing strokes

Coach Scott
Coach Scott

Once we got our board, or sea, legs, the real fun began. Scott began with land drills to improve our strokes. Then we practiced, paddling up and down the canal behind his shop incorporating what we had learned. Later, we reviewed our progress, analyzing form and strokes through video footage. The camera doesn’t lie.

Key Largo mangroves
Key Largo mangroves

 

Shallow waters
Shallow waters

That afternoon and the following day, we practiced our skills on Tavernier Creek and nearby waters. The wind was gusting from the west around 20 mph, so we kept to the sheltered Atlantic side.

Eddy
Any eddy will do. Photo credit: Scott Baste

As we talked technique, Scott pointed out the rich biodiversity of the mangrove shallows. Eagle rays, barracudas, and bonnet head sharks, among others, swam around and under our boards. Paddleboards provide a perfect vantage point for viewing wildlife.

The following day, Paddle! the Florida Keys sponsored a SUP race and a post-race mini-clinic taught by Zach Rounsaville of Orange Beach, AL. Watching the race and joining the clinic revealed a new side of paddleboarding to me: racing and stroke finesse. In the clinic, Zach worked on body mechanics to make the forward stroke more efficient, and I am still working to incorporate what I learned.

Mangroves
Nine Mile Pond canoe trail

On our final afternoon, we paddled on the Nine Mile Pond kayak trail near Flamingo in Everglades National Park. High winds still challenged us, but I saw an ecosystem entirely new to me: Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ ‘River of Grass.’

Everglades
River of Grass

 

Where's the trail?
Where’s the trail?

Getting low in mangrove tunnels

As we ducked under branches, I picked Scott’s brain about Watertribe. So far,  Conquistador (his Watertribe moniker) is one of two people to complete the 270-mile Everglades Challenge on a paddleboard. Completing the Everglades Challenge requires a broad range of skills, including navigation, backcountry camping, paddling in wind and waves, and endurance. I’ve been paddling in Everglades and 10,000 Islands to enhance my skills, but gaps remain. Nonetheless I (Flamingo) will be on the beach in Fort De Soto next March for the 2021 Everglades Challenge.

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Friendly Everglades gator

This is why I was so happy when Scott announced his Winter SUP Training, and I hope there will be more of them. SUP is still a relatively new sport, and training opportunities seems focused on racing and SUP surf. Paddleboarders are venturing into conditions, including coastal, whitewater, and multiday expeditions, typically paddled in kayaks or canoes. Some skills such as navigation are transferable from kayak to SUP, but others might require a SUP-specific focus (paddling in wind, for example). I need to work on paddling a loaded SUP through swells, a skill I have in a kayak. As the SUP world grows, ideally SUP-specific training opportunities will follow. Right now I’ve got my eye on a SUP trip down the Salmon River, an entirely different form of the sport. These are exciting times for paddleboarders!

world
The world from a SUP

 

Lessons Learned by SUP and Sail in the Ten Thousand Islands

Camp Lulu cloudscape
Camp Lulu Key cloudscapes

With the wind at our backs on a blustery day, Kevin and I rode the current toward our White Horse Key. anchorage. Kevin manned KneeDeep ll, our 22′ O’Day sailboat, and I rode my 14′ A’u paddleboard down Coon Key Pass towards the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Gulf of Mexico. We didn’t get far though. Somewhere between channel markers 4 and 6, we reversed course, paddling and motoring upstream against a 20 mph headwind, and returned to our launch site in Goodland, Florida. Why? The little things. In Tom Noffsinger’s assessment of a kayak training that devolved into a shit-show, he demonstrates how small mistakes can lead to mayhem. In our short time on the water, Kevin and I realized that our small errors had the potential to cause big problems. After re-evaluating our plans and a good night’s sleep, we sailed and paddled through the Ten Thousand Islands/Everglades for four wonderful days. And we learned some important lessons along the way.

Ten Thousand Islands
Ten Thousand Islands (Courtesy of nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/)

What went wrong? Kevin and I had pored over charts, plotting a course from Goodland to Pavillion Key in Everglades National Park, complete with multiple bail-out points. Our trip would combine SUP and sail and fulfill some specific goals: Kevin wants to hone his solo-sailing skills, and I am training for the 2020 Everglades Challenge. We loaded the car, attached the trailer, and headed south.

En route, the heavens poured down, and the trailer brakes froze up. We arrived late into Goodland and discovered that the marina was closing early the next day, Christmas Eve. The next morning, we rushed to step the mast before the wind kicked up. In short, we were frazzled.

Staging at Calusa Marina
Staging at Calusa Marina

I loaded my gear on the paddle and paddleboard, and we were off. Big winds and following seas towards Coon Key Pass, and it felt great to finally be on the water. But soon the rush and chaos of the past 24-hours caught up with us. We had neglected critical details. Kevin hadn’t set up the anchoring system, and I had buried my compass. We needed a do-over. That night and over the next several days, we discussed our mistakes and what we had learned.

Kevin emerges from the hold
Kevin emerges from the hold

Board and boat nestled up snug
Board and boat nestled up snug

The next morning, we woke to blue skies and fair winds and headed out to the Gulf. The night before, we re-evaluated our route, tested our VHF radios, and set up board and boat for paddling and solo sailing. For Kevin, this meant rigging the anchor for solo-anchoring, and I took the time to set up my navigation gear. One lesson learned: stop and re-assess when conditions change. Both the weather and our emotional states had changed, rendering our planning obsolete. In our rush to launch, both of us had misgivings, but neither of us spoke up.

Kevin setting anchor
Kevin setting anchor

Mangrove beach
Mangrove beach

Our destination that night: an anchorage near White Horse Key. I paddled, and Kevin sailed out Coon Key Pass into the Gulf, around mangroves and keys, and into the bay near White Horse Key. We tested our VHF radio communications as Kevin headed out into the Gulf and I circumnavigated islands, trying to increase my mileage. We were able to give each other frequent updates regarding location and heading. One challenge: balancing the needs of very different watercraft. On days with little wind, my board can easily outrun our sailboat. On windy days, a very different story. More factors to consider when deciding upon our course each day.

Sunset near White Horse Key
Sunset near White Horse Key

Combining paddleboarding and sailing has been a goal and a challenge for us. In our White Horse Key anchorage, over a glass of wine, or perhaps more, we realized yet another lesson learned from the first day: Too much, too soon, and all at once. We should have practiced each skill first, e.g., solo anchoring, rather than learning several things at once.

Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD
Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD

View from a board
Taking in the scenery

My challenge: working with safety gear and electronics while standing, without benefit of a kayak deck. The Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades are fantastic places for paddleboarding, but paddling in these wilderness areas requires safety considerations. In addition to extra food, water, and clothing, I also carried an emergency bivy and a Garmin Inreach. I tested my new NRS Chinook Fishing PFD which has plenty of nooks and crannies for PLB, VHF radio, GPS, and knife, among other things.

KneeDeep ll through the mangroves
KneeDeep ll through the mangroves

Mangrove point
Mangrove point

We woke to clear skies the next morning and agreed to meet for lunch at Round Key, a little speck on the charts near Camp Lulu Key. We paddled and sailed all morning, Kevin out into the Gulf, and me up and around Panther Key. As our meeting time neared, the skies darkened, and the wind picked up considerably. A squall was approaching. I radioed Kevin and told him I was taking shelter on a beach a mile north of Round Key. Round Key, as we discovered, was little more than several scraggly trees, surrounded by shoals and floating white pelicans. Little shelter for boat or board in a storm. Yet another lesson in choosing a meeting spot.

More white pelicans

Camp Lulu Key
Camp Lulu Key

Three cheers for Kevin's bug screen
Three cheers for Kevin’s bug screen

The storm passed, and we anchored near Camp Lulu Key that night. Kevin’s well-designed screen house protected us from the no see’ums, aka flying teeth. Camp Lulu Key lies on the border between the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades National Park. As I passed, I saw campers setting up their tents. The west-facing beaches of the Ten Thousand Islands make perfect campsites. Though I stayed on the sailboat for this trip, I have enjoyed camping here in the past. On my next trip through this area, I will be self-sufficient, carrying all my gear on the board.

White pelicans near Indian Key
White Pelicans near India Key

View from a board
Taking in the scenery

Roseate Spoonbill Takes Flight
Low low tide

Flying Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate spoonbill flying

Back home and so many lessons learned. Kevin and I both advanced in both our individual and team abilities. Neither of us journeyed the miles we had hoped for, but we learned a great deal about coordinating a sail and SUP trip. Our plans met, and largely survived, reality. Our biggest take-away: slow down and take time to go over everything. In retrospect, we should have gone out to breakfast, drank more coffee, and re-assessed our plans on day 1 in Goodland. In the end, our trip was fantastic, but things don’t always turn out that way.

Roseate Spoonbill on the wing
Roseate Spoonbill on the wing

Countdown to Alaska: Kayaking the Inside Passage

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Somewhere near Homer, AK in 2016

Forty days and forty nights in a Pilgrim Expedition on Alaska’s Inside Passage? Which boat, some ask, assuming I’ve booked a cruise. No casinos, midnight buffets, or lounge chairs on the mighty Pilgrim Expedition, a 17′ sea kayak designed to handle the rough waters of the Irish Sea. Or, in this case, the Gulf of Alaska. My task: cramming food, gear, water, and clothes into my boat without sinking it.

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S.S. Solitude? (Courtesy of Alaska Tours.com)

Matanzas NDKs
Pilgrim Expedition basking in warmer climes

What is the Inside Passage? The Inside Passage extends over 1,000 miles from Seattle, WA to Skagway, AK. The barrier islands buffer the wind and swell from the Gulf of Alaska and create a relatively sheltered passage for boats of all kinds. The Alaska segment runs approximately 500 miles, depending on route. Many of these areas are roadless, so the Marine Highway system is essential for travel in southeast Alaska.

Alaska's Marine Highway
Alaska’s Marine Highway (Courtesy of Alaska.org)

Our plan. Our team of four (Anthony, David, Dawn, and myself) will kayak from Skagway, AK to Prince Rupert, BC, just south of the US-Canada border. We anticipate thirty to forty days on the water, depending on weather. Logistically, paddling north to south made sense. Months ago, we secured our ferry reservations from Prince Rupert to Skagway so we can paddle back to a car in Prince Rupert. David is dodging tornados driving boats and gear across the US to Prince Rupert. Dawn and I bought one-way tickets so getting home will be part of the adventure.

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Like a jigsaw puzzle

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It fits!

Our gear. Kayak camping always requires lots of gear, but Alaska’s remoteness and rough conditions demand even more. I’ve packed and repacked drybags of all sizes. Warm clothes, an back-up stove, and water filters. Sets of clothes for sleeping and a different set for cooking. A drysuit and underlayers for paddling. My dromedary water bags hold over 24 liters of water. Somehow it fits. Now. I’m sure there will be hard choices at the last minute.

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I’ve already forgotten what’s in TVP Surprise

At home, I experimented with dehydrated and freeze-dried foods and a vacuum sealer. Kevin, my guinea pig, was a great sport about testing new concoctions on our sailing trip to Flora-Bama. After a hard day of paddling, even TVP Surprise will taste fantastic. And I can’t wait to try my dehydrated Ice Cream Sandwich.

Aastronaut chow
I will savor this one night

One decision point: how much food to pack. We need to carry enough food to account for the inevitable weather delays. Many paddlers mail packages to themselves along the way, and I might do this on my upcoming hike along the Appalachian Trail. Others purchase food along the way, trusting what appears on the shelves of local stores. I decided to pack approximately half of my meals and make do with whatever I find in Juneau, Ketchikan and towns along the way. Some creative meals perhaps, but that’s part of the fun.

Culinary delights (Valero.com)

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my. Brown bears (or grizzlies) and black bears populate Alaska, and we are paddling through their kitchen. Bears are apparently less habituated to humans on the islands along Alaska’s Inside Passage, and we hope to minimize bear-human interactions. Our group of four is small enough to fit on postage-stamp size campsites, but large—and loud—enough to repel curious bears. On previous Alaska trip talking and singing has kept bears at a good distance. (Go away little bear..) Odor-proof bags, bear barrels, a bear-proof Ursack, and good campsite hygiene should minimize encounters. These precautions matter for our safety and for the safety of future campers and the bears themselves. We will carry bear spray but I hope to never use it.

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What’s left of my charts

Charts in drybags
Two bags of charts

From Paper charts to GPS. I hated to do it, but I cut up my charts, taking care to keep the compass rose and lat/long lines. They might look funny, but it gained me some much-needed space. I marked what remains with possible campsites and water sources. As much as I love paper charts, I also have a GPS. Denis Dwyer’s blog Sea Kayaking the Inside Passage has been a terrific resource.

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My dream weather

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More realistic

Oh for calm days and daily whale sightings, but storms and rough weather are Alaska’s reality. Think Deadliest Catch. We’ve all trained in rough water conditions and carry multiple communicatin devices, e.g., VHF radio, a PLB (personal locator beacon), and a Garmin Inreach, just in case. The weather will dictate our paddling, and I’m sure we’ll have some weather days holed up in our tents.

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Deadliest Catch (Courtesy of HowStuffWorks.com)

My boat, gear, and food is en route to Alaska, courtesy of David. I’ll have time in both Prince Rupert and Skagway to make final decisions. I’ve been prepping for months and I’m ready to go. It’s time to dip my blades in the water and launch my Pilgrim Expedition into the Skagway River.

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Cut-down Xtra Tuffs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testing the Waters: WaterTribe Boot Camp 2019

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Ready to go at Fort De Soto Boat Ramp

Can I paddle 300 miles in 7 days on a paddleboard? Do I want to attempt this feat? The WaterTribe Everglades Challenge is “an unsupported, expedition style adventure race for kayaks, canoes, and small boats” from Tampa to Key Largo, approximately 300 miles. The shorter Ultramarathan—the sprint version—extends the 67 miles from Tampa to Placida. The Watertribe blend of endurance, navigation, and expedition has tempted me ever since I first learned of this event. In January 2019, I attended the WaterTribe Boot Camp in Fort De Soto Park to see if I had the right stuff to enter the race in 2020.

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Boards Loaded and Ready to Go

The Boot Camp format consisted of a talk by Chief followed by a paddle and camping trip on Shell Island. Chief’s talk covered a range of topics critical for both starting and completing the challenge safely. A paddle or sail down Florida’s coast through the Everglades and Florida Bay is a serious undertaking. I already own and carry much of the safety gear based on my kayak training, but he reinforced the idea that critical gear should be carried on our bodies or PFDs. In my 5* BCU class, Gordon Brown emphasized the same point as we practiced on-water boat repairs. Chief’s mantra regarding GPS devices stuck with me: Two is one, and one is none, an accurate reflection of my experience with marine devices. Salt water and GPS’ do not play well together.

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Courtesy of WaterTribe.com

Chief also posed a question that each of us can only answer for ourselves. What are your goals in this challenge—to win your division or to finish? To me, finishing would be a victory. As Chief spoke, I did the math in my head. The event is almost 300 miles, and you have 8—really 7—days to get to Key Largo. The final party is in Key Largo on the 7th day, and I am not one to miss a party. That means approximately 45-50 miles per day. Can I handle the mileage and pace for 7 days straight? I have a year to figure that out.

My first challenge was finding a trail name. All long distance paddlers and hikers need a trail name. Through hikers on the AT and PCT have creative names, and I wanted a name that would also work for my upcoming AT hike. So I became Flamingo, and Janice chose HighTea in homage to her British heritage.

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Courtesy of WaterTribe.com

After Chief’s talk, the group headed to the beach where an array of boats and boards lined the shore. I was relieved to see another paddleboard there, but I was surprised to see so many sailing Hobies. I had assumed there would be more kayakers or canoers. One kayakers was incredulous when I revealed that I had a kayak at home. Why a paddleboard, he asked? I don’t think I can answer that, other than that I love the freedom of standing on a SUP.

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Crossing the bay

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Clear waters around Shell Key

We launched from the boat ramp for the short paddle to Shell Key. Chief had sent us coordinates and waypoints for the campsite on Shell Key and for several paddling options. The Challenge itself leaves from a beach facing the Tampa Bay shipping channel, and crossing a shipping channel is always nerve-wracking. For the Boot Camp, the weather was sunny and warm, and the water glassy, but conditions are rarely that benign for the Challenge.

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A tight squeeze

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Wrong way

Plan A involved paddling through a mangrove tunnel, then through Bunce’s Pass to the outside of Shell Key. We paddled around a small island searching for the promised mangrove channel. We made it about 50 feet then realized it was a dead end. Since it was too narrow to turn around, we paddled backwards—fin first which might turn out to be a useful skill. On to Plan B, we crossed the shallow flats, passed the motorboats lining Bunce’s Pass, then headed north to find out campsite.

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Drying gear

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Beach camping

Our group camped midway up the beach. It’s hard to believe this level of wilderness camping exists so close to St. Pete and Tampa. I set up my 1-person tent that I bought for the Appalachian Trail. Packing like a backpacker is crucial to SUP expeditions. The weight must be balanced and centered. The Hobie Mirages might carry 80 pounds of gear, but I can only carry approximately 30 pounds, including water, on my board. One new tip: pool noodles. From now on, I’ll stow them in my gear bags to increase flotation in case of capsize. One of the best parts of the Boot Camp was picking up tips about gear and packing. The other part: the people.

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Sunset

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Early morning coffee klatsch

The WaterTribe draws kindred spirits. After all, only so many people want to paddle from Tampa to Key Largo in any vessel, much less a paddleboard. After the sun set, we gathered around the campfire and traded stories. Though people came from all walks of life, it was a congenial and helpful group. I now understand why people come back year after year.

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Abandoned boat near Bunce’s Pass

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Skyway Bridge

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Cargo Boat in the shipping channel

The next morning, I drank coffee as the sun rose, a luxury I might not have during the Challenge. To make miles, I assume that I’ll be on the water before dawn. Most people savored the slow morning and moved on to their own adventures by 10 am. Janice and I paddled around Mullet Key to see the launch site. As we headed back, the wind came up, a premonition of future conditions.

I have no doubt the Everglades Challenge will be difficult, probably one of the hardest things I will ever do. Between now and Challenge 2020, I’ll hike the Maine section of the AT and kayak Alaska’s Inside Passage which will prepare me. I’ll also train on the paddleboard and consider what size and length board will work best for me. I already know that my 12′ Fanatic is too slow. But I look forward to the next year of training, planning routes, and figuring out gear. Do I have the right stuff? I’ll never know unless I try.

bird

 

 

 

Paddling and Plunder in Matanzas Inlet

It’s that time of year. The best time of year–Matanzas! Only four more days.

Heading out

Every February Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA gathers his band of paddlers for a week of rough water training in Matanzas Inlet. Shaped like a ‘C’, the Matanzas River flows from St. Augustine Inlet southward to Matanzas Inlet so tidal flows and currents affect both north and south inlets. St. Augustine was the first permanent European settlement in what would later become the United States, and this historically-rich region reveals much about our past, missions, battles, pirates and plunder. But who can focus on history in the surf? As I bounce around in the chop, surf, and shoot through standing waves, enjoying the coastal chaos that river mouths offer, my world shrinks to body, boat, and blade.

Matanzas Inlet
Matanzas Inlet in north Florida (Courtesy of Google Maps)

We’re paddling sea kayaks, many of us in 16′ NDK Pilgrims and Romanys, designed by Nigel Dennis from Anglesey Island in Wales. Nigel designed these boats to handle the lumpy waters, or ‘jobbledy bits’, off the coastal UK. We’ve discovered that these kayaks make terrific surf boats, and we have plenty of surf in the southeast.

With the right conditions—swell, wind, and current, Matanzas Inlet offers near perfect waves for surfing our 16′ kayaks. Long boat surfing occupies a tiny niche in the kayak world, but the few of us who surf are addicted. Dale chose Matanzas Inlet because its shifting sandbars provide both excellent surf and a range of conditions to accommodate different skills levels. Not surprisingly, these conditions result in numerous opportunities for self- and assisted rescues.

Matanzas Inlet
(Courtesy of http://www.skypic.com)

 

We gather from many points in the US. The Texans, Louisianians, and Floridians among us don drysuits against Florida’s February chill, while some of the braver folks from Michigan and New England wear shorts. For them, Florida’s February might as well be summer.

On the beach

Some of us are training for the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) Advanced Coastal Kayaking Instructor Award, which requires a combinations of factors including 3-5 foot seas, 15-25 knots wind, 3-4 surf break, and 5 knots current. This means not only surviving these conditions but teaching, playing and rescuing in them. Each morning and evening, we meet on the porch of our shared house for Dale’s “academics”, where we discuss surf and rescue techniques and topics such as navigation and marine weather. By the time we reach our launch site, the day has warmed to a temperature even I can tolerate.]

Matanzas Launch
Preparing to launch

Massacre of the French Marker, Matanzas Inlet
Photo credit: George Lansing Taylor, Jr. UNF (https://digitalcommons.unf.edu/historical_architecture_main/3343/) Sponsors: in cooperation with St. Johns County Historical Commission

An historical marker describing the 1565 ‘Massacre of the French’ marks our path through the dunes. We refer to ‘Matanzas’ so casually—”Are you coming to Matanzas this year?” Even though Fort Matanzas National Monument sits just upstream, it’s difficult to imagine that this tranquil inlet hosted such bloodshed and cruelty. The Spanish massacred over 300 stranded French mariners in this place. I’d reflected on this before, the incongruity that places of great beauty and tranquility mask bloody histories. Just north, for example, Fort George Inlet near Jacksonville was the southernmost point of the Low country slave trade.

Our schools teach a myth of origin that revolves around New England, pilgrims, and religious rebellion, but Spanish rule of Florida began in 1513, prior to any British settlements. The First Coast endured waves of French, Spanish, and British newcomers who eradicated indigenous populations, and, often, each other. In 1742, the Spanish built Fort Matanzas to guard against British incursions, and they ruled Florida until 1763. The British gained control from 1763-1783, ceded Florida back to the Spanish in 1783, and regained the territory in 1821.

The sandbars that guard the entrance to the river mouth shaped Florida history. The shallow waters of Matanzas Inlet protected Fort Matanzas and St. Augustine from British invaders, but they also led to plunder and piracy. Pirates chased ships aground onto sandbars along the Florida Coast and plundered the cargo. Wreckers, as described in Tim Robinson’s Tales from Old Florida later replaced pirates and salvaged materials from ruined boats, establishing settlements in the process. River mouths were treacherous to anything other than small, nimble boats.

Map of Matanzas 1742
Map of Matanzas 1742 (Courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology)

This 1742 map shows how the Matanzas Inlet shoreline has changed, which is what happens with sandy coasts. Unlike the rocky coasts of the northeast and Britain, our river mouth hydrology changes with every hurricane and every major storm. NOAA charts illustrate permanent land masses and static navigational features, but sandbars come and go, so that we re-learn our coasts after every storm.

Matanzas WavesMatanzas NDKs

And this is why we train here. To learn how to navigate through the changing hydrology of sandbars and river mouths. Some paddlers were exploring these features for the first time, learning to brace and roll in the waves. Others, like myself, were learning to lead other paddlers, to bring groups safely through a surf zone with breaking waves up to four feet. This means not only leading groups out through waves, but bringing them back through the waves. Like climbing, it’s easier to go up or out than down or in.

The strong tidal currents of the Matanzas River, combined with strong winds, made rescues and group cohesion difficult. An out-going tide could sweep boat, victim, and rescuers out to sea. We had some unusual challenges, one afternoon, a bank of fog descended on us, rare for Florida. This is why we practice in this venue, to be prepared when the rescues, capsizes, and out-of-boats experience are real.

Surfing at Jax 3
Surfing at Jax Beach Photo credit: Joe Crespi

On our first morning, the conditions were big, maybe too big, but the waves were clean. Dale gave us free time to play and surf as a warm up for our subsequent training. At one point, I realized that we had company—two dolphins were also playing and surfing in the waves. As they leapt over the waves, they exposed their full bodies—nose to tail, something I rarely see. It’s a gift and a privilege to play with dolphins. So, forgetting the pressures of training and the ravages of history, I surfed under the bright February sun.

Paddling

What Practicing Kayak Rescues with the Coast Guard Taught Me

Lowering rescue swimmer
Coast Guard helicopter lowering a rescue swimmer

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday…These are words I hope never to say, but there I was in Charleston Harbor hailing the United States Coast Guard. I pulled my marine VHF radio from my PFD, or life jacket, and requested medical assistance for a 62-year old male with chest pains and dizziness. Fortunately, this call was only part of a training exercise. The designated victim—my husband—played the role of victim in our rescue scenario. Nevertheless, seeing my husband stretched out on the deck of a 45′ Coast Guard Response Boat Medium reminded me that someday one of us might need to make a similar call.

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Medical care for “Victim” Kevin

Kevin, myself, and five others came to Charleston to participate in a kayak-Coast Guard training exercise. Every April, Scott Brown and Jeff Atkins run the Joint Incident Management Program prior to the East Coast Paddle Sports Festival. Scott is a retired army officer and helicopter pilot who conducted combat search and rescue exercises, and Jeff is a kayak instructor and park ranger in South Carolina. Scott designed this exercise to help the coast guard and paddlers partner in real rescue situations, so the training works both ways. Kayakers learn the correct language to hail the coast guard and guide the rescue boat and helicopter to their location, and the coast guard personnel learn how to locate and assist people in small boats.

Our team of nine gathered in Demetre Park gathered at 7:30 am on a windy morning. Several days before, we ‘met’ on a conference call to go over call signals, safety protocol and the morning’s program. I had been checking wind and waves daily, hoping conditions would be small enough to conduct the exercise but big enough to be somewhat realistic. As soon as we arrived, we prepared our boats and gear to launch in case the weather deteriorated. Everyone carried VHF radios, tow belts, contact tows, and a variety of rescue and safety equipment, including extra clothes and first aid kits. We paddled out to a day mark, a navigational marker, in the area of ‘Middle Ground’ between Castle Pinkney and Fort Sumter, to prepare for exercises with the coast guard boat and helicopter.

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Middle Ground in Charleston Harbor

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Rafting up to create a stable platform

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Holding position in waves

First we practiced ‘rafting up’, that is, holding our boats together. In case of an actual rescue, gathering the boats both makes us visible to rescuers and also provides stability to care for a victim and call for help. In rough conditions, a victim who is ill or has sustained an injury such as a shoulder dislocation will not be able to remain upright and needs the support of at least one other kayak. Another paddler might tow the entire raft to prevent drifting into a hazard. Kayakers frequently use the term ‘raft up’ when we want or group to come together, and I had never considered whether this term is useful to others. One participant associated with the Coast Guard pointed out the term ‘raft’ is meaningless to the Coast guard. Another wondered if they might not look for a large gray raft, not a group of kayaks. Scott warned us to avoid jargon—“Use plain language.” Lesson learned.

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Working with big and little boats in waves

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Lee stabilizing a boat

At 10 am, on military time, we began our exercises with the Coast Guard boat and helicopter. I made the first Mayday call, requesting help for Kevin’s “heart attack”. I noted our location, the number of  people in our group, and our problem. And the Coast Guard always asks if everyone is wearing a PFD. After approximately ten minutes, the rescue boat arrived—this might be much longer in a real situation. Lee and Ted stabilized Kevin’s boat and brought him parallel to the rescue boat so that he could be lifted on board. Doing so gave the crew practice working with 16’ kayaks in rough seas and helped us understand how to help the coast guard help us.

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Awaiting the helicopter

Next, the part we had all been waiting for— the helicopter ops. Imagine being injured and floating out to sea on an out-going tide. A helicopter flies overhead, but can they see you? From a distance, the bright white, yellow, and orange colors of our kayaks are specks in a vast ocean. A helicopter or boat might see the smoke from our flares, assuming we carried them, and most of us carry PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons). Search and rescue helicopters fly multiple search patterns looking for survivors, but we can increase our odds by guiding the aircraft using our VHF radios. Each of us practiced directing the USCG HH-65 Dolphin —‘right turn, stop turn, we’re on your nose,’ learning the language to best communicate with the crew. Then an Aviation Survival Technician “rescue swimmer,” with fins, snorkel, and helmet, jumped from the helicopter and swam to our boats, sharing tips on how to be spotted from the air. The helicopter crew raised and lowered him on the hoist, replicating what might happen in an actual rescue. If Kevin’s heart attack were real, the crew would have placed him in a rescue basket, raised him up, and immediately began medical treatment, probably saving his life.

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Search and rescue practice

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Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer

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Learning from the rescue swimmer

When life, limb or vessel are at risk, that calls for a Mayday. This is nothing to take casually. Asking for help puts other lives at risk, the rescuers and other victims, for example. However, in an emergency such as a heart attack far from shore or a serious injury, calling for help saves lives. While debriefing after the exercises, we debated about what situations call for a Mayday. In our second practice round with the coast guard 45’ Response Boat Medium, I played the victim, a 57-year old woman with a dislocated shoulder. Was a Mayday call necessary, we asked? As usual, it depends. If we had been surfing 50 yards off Folly Beach, then no because my friends could help me ashore and call 911. I would get medical care within the ‘Golden Hour.’ On the other hand, if we were a mile off-shore in an out-going tide, my inability to paddle would place the entire group in danger if we drifted into bigger conditions. In that case, calling the coast guard would reduce risk for the entire group and perhaps prevent a multi-victim rescue.

Ultimately mitigating risk is the best way we can help the coast guard and ourselves. Reducing risk begins the moment we plan the activity and does not end until everyone is home safe. This means asking questions, even ones that might seem intrusive. Is all equipment functional, and are all members of the group healthy and prepared for existing conditions? For kayakers in the coastal Southeast, understanding tides, sandbars, and currents is critical. In a incident or capsize, will we drift towards safety or out to sea? Scott adapted a set of questions from Eric Soares’ Sea Conditions Rating System. These systems quantify risk, making assessment less subjective and easier to communicate. Answering these questions helps avoid complacency, especially if we know an area well.

Scotts Adaptation of Soares System
Soares Sea Condition Rating system

Eric Soares Sea Conditions Rating System
Scott Brown’s adaptation for SE coastal conditions

Practicing with the Coast Guard was fun and instructive—everyone loves helicopters, but someday the call might be real. I’ve rehearsed Mayday calls several times, learning radio protocol in low stakes situations. I hope these drills will steady my hand and voice if one of my friends is injured or ill, when we desperately need help. My friends and I carry rescue and safety gear on our PFDs and in our boats, and we practice rescues in a range of conditions. We train for the worst and hope for the best. On any given day, you just never know what might happen, and we want to be prepared. Thanks and a big shout-out to the crews of USCG HH-65 6526 from Air Station Savannah and Response Boat Medium 45709 from Station Charleston.

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Boats and gear ready to go