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.

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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.

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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.’

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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!

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The world from a SUP

 

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.

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