SUP and Sail in Tampa Bay in August? But why? The weather swings between dead calm and squalls, making both sailors and paddlers cranky. But we needed to test our Sanibel 18 sailboat—KneeDeep 1, newly rebuilt after two years languishing in the yard. So off we went, boat and board, to Terra Ceia, Florida at the south end of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Our mission: prepare KneeDeep l to be our floating home for upcoming sailing and paddling trips. On our SUP and Sail trips, Kevin sails, I paddle my SUP, and we meet at a designated anchorage at the end of the day. A good test of our navigation skills as well as our relationship. With an 14″ draft, KneeDeep l is ideal for navigating the shoals of southwest Florida and the Everglades. But if our larger sailboat, an O’Day 222, is a floating tent with a vestibule, KneeDeep l is a floating bivy. A floating bivy that will shelter us for West Coast Trail Sailing Squadron trips and, more important, house Kevin during the Everglades Challenge in March while I’m paddling.
Terra Ceia and the south end of Tampa Bay was new to me, so I consulted Florida Paddling Trail Association‘s (FPTA) website which suggested several routes. Additionally, the Manatee County Paddling Guide offered routes as well as information about local history and the ecosystem. Brooke Longeval also shared a route around Rattlesnake Key and Emerson Point. In the end, I created my own routes, but these resources gave me a start.
Over the four days, I paddled to Emerson Point and around Rattlesnake Key, under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and partly across Tampa Bay towards the large American flag on Mullet Key, the start of the Everglades Challenge. The afternoon storms limited my range—I never wanted to be too far offshore when the inevitable storms blew up. And after a 52-mile training paddle the previous weekend, I needed to ease my way back into my Paddle Monster workouts. But I feel like I barely scratched the surface of the paddling this area offers.
In past years, Kevin and I have done multiday SUP and sail trips to southwest Florida, the Ten Thousand Islands, and the Everglades. Each trip has been a learning experience, both for Kevin on the boat and me on my board, and we debrief after each trip. What have we learned? What went wrong, or could have but fortunately didn’t? Our expedition sea kayak training has given us skills in open water, navigation, and marine communication as well as lessons in self-reliance. The latter is especially important because we are alone on our individual crafts, often miles apart. In particular, during the Everglades Challenge when I will be paddling and camping from my board, and Kevin will single-hand the sailboat.
Terra Ceia is a small community in Manatee County surrounded by nature preserves, including the Terra Ceia Preserve State Park and the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve. Many of the areas I paddled were shallow grassy flats that provided habitat for juvenile fish, baby sharks, rays, and manatees. One day I ate lunch surrounded by a pod of manatees, and another morning I watched baby sharks stalk their breakfast, tiny fins thrashing left and right.
I hadn’t realized how significant this area was to Native American history. Terra Ceia and Emerson both house ceremonial mounds in which archaeologists have discovered multiple periods of Native American culture. The Madira Bickel Mound State Archaeological Site is accessible by both road and water, the backside anyway.
After paddling and sailing under the August sun, Kevin and I met most afternoons for a float.
Sailors and paddlers are never happy—either too much wind or too little. One afternoon, we floated and commented on the beautiful cloudscapes. But in the beauty lurks danger. I wondered if we weren’t tempting fate. Of course, we were.
The inevitable happened—a storm blew up over Bradenton, and Kevin rode it out on the boat while I, safe at the house, followed the storm’s progress on my phone. A stark reminder of how fast Florida’s weather can change.
Over adult beverages that evening, we pronounced our shake-out cruise a success. Kevin determined what KneeDeep l needed, and I explored the south end of Tampa Bay. Our next step: preparing KneeDeep l for multiday trips into the remote and shallow waters of the Everglades. We’ve done these trips on our larger boat, but how will this smaller boat fare in rough conditions? Let the training begin. March and the Everglades Challenge will be here before we know it!
At 7 am, Chief gave the signal: the Everglades Challenge had begun. To my left and to my right, kayaks, sailboats, and one paddleboard launched into Tampa Bay, beginning the 300 mile journey to Key Largo. Despite my excitement and preparation, I stood on the beach, intimidated by the wind. The wind rose, and Chief offered me a Plan B start, meaning that I could start further south. I wasn’t sure how far I could go or even if I was still in the race, but after months of practice and training, I was grateful to be on the course.
I launched mid-afternoon onto Charlotte Harbor from Burnt Store Marina, a place I knew from a previous Sup and Sail trip with my husband Kevin. I hugged the shore as best I could, but any exposure gave me a taste of the larger conditions I had avoided.
I passed Matlacha at sunset and continued south as darkness fell, heading for Cape Coral and points beyond. Even though navigation was straightforward at this point, the darkness played tricks on me—at one point, I wondered if I was actually heading north. I never realized that Pine Island was so long!
Finally I reached the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and a decision point. Given the easterly winds, I wasn’t sure I could hold my course, and the bay seemed like an awfully big place at night. What I knew rationally was the bridge to Sanibel seemed lit up like a casino, and the twinkling lights marking the different channels disoriented me (and confirmed that I need new glasses.) Even though I had only paddled 21 miles, I decided to make camp and navigate the crossing in the daytime.
As I lay awake at 3 am, listening to the tide lap inches from my bivy, I reflected on what went right and what went wrong. What went right? In the weeks before Watertribe, I winnowed my gear, lightening my load, and repacked it more efficiently, for example, my night paddling kit in a separate bag attached to my duffel. I had tested some of these systems on a trip to Panther Key where I met up with members of both Watertribe and West Coast Trailer Sailors and received some very welcome advice.
What went wrong, or better put, lessons learned? More wind practice. I felt strong enough to push on, but a windy crossing in the dark concerned me. I knew that this was the western end of the Okeechobee Waterway, where boats cross Florida from the Atlantic to the Gulf, and images of barges and freighters filled my head.
When I launched the next morning, small fishing boats rather than the massive cargo ships of my imagination dotted the becalmed seascape, and I crossed without incident to Bowditch Park in Fort Myers Beach.
My Sunday morning dreamscape shattered on the ICW in Fort Myers, which gave life to the term wind tunnel. I fought my way under the bridge and used the hulking steel boats as wind shelter. It pained me to pass Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford Rum Bar and Grill, and but I knew that Doc Ford would just keep paddling. So I did.
In Estero Bay, a parade of pontoon and other boats streamed by, and I bobbed along in their wake. My board felt especially unstable, leading to several unplanned exits, and I didn’t confirm until that night that my fin had disappeared somewhere in Estero Bay. I sat down and paddled, and that led to another lesson learned: sitting works too. Once I was no longer a human sail, my speed increased, and paddling seated should help me handle bigger winds. But as my friend Kathryn helpfully noted, “Some people call that a kayak.” Point well taken.
Later I passed several fisherman who asked where I was going. I replied Wiggins Pass, the first thing that popped into my head. One said “That’s far, it’s windy” and asked if I needed a ride. No thanks, I’m good. And it was. One thing I love about the Everglades Challenge is the self-reliance it demands. I was alone, on a board, on a rocking and rolling Estero Bay. Whatever came up, I just needed to figure it out.
I continued towards Wiggins Pass, wending my way through a series of small channels. A tiki bar loaded with revelers motored by, and another sat anchored in the mangroves. If there ever were an epic illegal camping spot, that would be it. And I paddled on. I reached Wiggins Pass just as Flipper and Foco arrived, happy to share the spot with other tribers. Again, my skill rather than fitness prompted a stop. Once I left the pass, I would be in open water, and there were few, if any, camping options until Gordon Pass. Looking back, since the wind tended to drop at night, I would take advantage of that.
The next morning, I attached my spare fin and aimed for Naples. Rolling waves pushed me for the first several hours, until the winds rose up again. I entered Gordon Pass and fought my way through Dollar Bay towards Marco Island. There I made my final mistake.
At Panther Key, Andy said that if you have an out, you’ll take it. As I paddled towards the Marco Island, Kevin appeared in a kayak. It was just too easy. And that led to yet another lesson. I spent too much time on Windfinder, obsessing about predicted winds. My mistake: looking too far ahead. With some rest, I could have continued and taken advantage of diminished winds. Focus on the present.
2022 was my first attempt at the Everglades Challenge, or perhaps, a head start for Everglades Challenge 2023. (If only it counted for next years derby.) It was a terrific experience, and now I know better where to focus my training. In retrospect, I could have crossed Tampa Bay, and I have paddled successfully in bigger conditions, but I need to do it more of it. Even though some said we faced especially difficult headwinds this year, it seems like it just isn’t an Everglades Challenge without them—unless you’re going the wrong way. So, my prescription for myself: wind, waves, and open water crossings. And see you on the beach next March.
No better way to spend a balmy November week in Florida than paddling the Ten Thousand Islands. Post hurricane season and before waves of northern fronts and tourists. Janice, Director of Paddle Florida, and I both needed to scout for different reasons. Janice for an upcoming Paddle Florida trip, and me for the Everglades Challenge in March. We had done multiple trips to the south, and it was time for a new adventure.
While Janice and I took note of the various agency boundaries, the birds flying overhead and the sharks swimming below did not. The flora and fauna of the Everglades, Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay are breathtaking. Well, maybe not the raccoons.
After a brazen raccoon cut our lunch break short, we continued past Panther Key to our first campsite: White Horse Key. Despite rumors to the contrary, there are plenty of raccoons in the Ten Thousand islands and Everglades. I’ve met many of them.
The next morning, we continued northwest. As soon as we rounded the corner of Gullivan Key, the hulking buildings of Marco Island appeared. They stalked us for the next 5 days..
The tide carried us up Coon Key Pass towards Goodland and the Big Marco River. After the chaotic boat traffic in Goodland, the Marco River was surprisingly pleasant. We paddled up a ditch and under a bridge to reach Isle of Capri’s Paddle Park, a nice launch site and lunch stop. At this point, we had entered into the Rookery Bay Preserve, whose website has plenty of information about launches, routes, and camping. These waters are ideal for paddlers, plenty of birds and wildlife, calmer inland waters, and much less boat traffic.
From the Paddle Park, we wove our way through a mangrove tunnel and, after a few false starts, emerged near Johnson Bay and the Isle of Capri. We paddled towards the gulf and our night’s campsite on Sea Oat Island. Unlike the Everglades, the water was clear. No wonder people love this area.
On day 3, we continued scouting different sites, but none more important than the Snook Inn, the halfway point on the Everglades Challenge. After an epic fail with one of my (usually good) homemade dinners which I tossed into the fire, I wanted real food. But, as work comes before play, we had some scouting to do. From Sea Oat, we paddled past Keewaydin Island and explored Rookery Bay until we reached the Shell Island launch.
Stuffed with coconut shrimp and the Snook Inn’s famous grouper sandwich, the chop and traffic of Big Marco Pass awaited us. It was a relief to round the corner and paddle parallel to the beaches of Marco Island. We crossed Caxambas Pass and made camp on Dickman Island.
On to Cape Romano, a highlight only second to the Snook Inn, via Goodland. We meandered through the mangrove channels towards Goodland which both gave us more training miles and laid out less exposed routes for Paddle Florida. We stopped for lunch at Goodland, and I remembered one of Kevin’s and my first SUP and Sail trips. We’ve come so far.
Fueled by a power lunch of diet coke and Cheeto Puffs, we paddled towards Cape Romano. We passed Helen Key and followed the Morgan River to Morgan Bay, where our charts dubiously noted a passage between bay and gulf. We didn’t really believe that the passage was where we said it was, but we did want to explore the bay. The tide was falling, and birds walked where we recently paddled. The beach between bay and gulf beckoned. The dome houses could wait until tomorrow.
The next morning, we carried boat, board, and gear across the sand to the gulf, and we paddled to the dome houses just around the corner. I had first seen the dome houses of Cape Romano over 10 years ago while on a kayak camping trip with my husband Kevin. At the time, the buildings were on the beach, but erosion has washed away the sand, and now the domes are in the water.
After Cape Romano, we paddled towards Coon Key and towards yet another Shell Key that the Paddler Florida folks would visit. The weather was changing, and a front was coming. Our timing was good. We set up camp on Panther Key, which set us up for our final paddle into Everglades City.
The tides had rarely been in our favor, and our paddle back to Everglades City was no exception. We needed to reach Everglades City in time for breakfast at Nely’s Corner in Everglades City. To do that, we needed to leave well before low tide at 7 am. Alarm at 4, launch at 5. 7.22 miles to go. One cup of coffee in camp, more at Nely’s Corner. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we paddled east, skirting the extensive shoals around Lulu Key, where we saw headlamps moving as campers began their morning routines. The sun rose over Indian Key as we began to fight the outgoing tide.
We hugged the shore and discovered side channels to avoid the tide. By 10 am, we had unloaded gear and rinsed off at the ranger station. By 11 am, we sat at Nely’s, sated with coffee, a breakfast sandwich, and a to go box of Key Lime pie for Kevin.
This trip was exploratory, long morning coffees and plenty of time to absorb the beauty. My next trip, probably the Everglades Challenge in March, won’t be so leisurely. I’ll be racing through, maybe at night, trying to make the checkpoints in time. Two radically different trip styles, but each bringing its own joys, challenges, and lessons. I’m grateful that I can experience this area in so many ways.
7:30 am, Griffis Fish Camp, Fargo, Georgia. At Rod Price’s signal, 11 racers launch into the trees of the Upper Suwannee River, paddling towards Bill’s Fish Camp in Suwannee, Florida, 230 miles downstream. Four SUPs and seven kayaks entered the 2021 Suwannee230. Some aimed to beat a previous record, others liked myself just wanted to finish within the 100 hour deadline. The river was at approximately 54 feet, meaning that we would have good flow.
Griffis Fish Camp sits 14 miles upstream of Fargo and just downstream of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where the Suwannee River drains from the Okefenokee Swamp. The current was barely discernable as we paddled through the maze of trees in the early morning light. Within the first ten minutes—when I still had company, my fin snagged on a root, and I fell in. I was surprised, knowing what lies below the surface. Someone, water triber Derek, I believe, commented, “Well, you got that out of the way.” A perfect response—I climbed back on the board and continued. At the start, I had others to follow as I picked my way around the trees. But not for long.
I paddled silently and alone towards Fargo where I passed one other paddleboarder with his support crew at the Suwannee River Visitors Center. It was the last time I saw another paddler. (One paddleboarder started an hour late, and I never saw her on the water.) At mile 36, I passed the Rte 6 bridge, our first checkpoint. I recalled a previous trip with friends where this distance was the mileage for a multiday trip. Perspective.
Day 1 goal: Big Shoals, approximately 60 miles in. Big Shoals Rapid, a rare Florida class lll, loomed large in my imagination. I had run it years before in a whitewater boat, but knew that its limestone shoals would destroy my paddleboard. I camped on a sandbar about a mile above Big Shoals State Park because I didn’t want to brave the portage trail at night. Early the next morning, I paddled to the portage trail on river left. I needed three trips to carry my gear and board but the portage was easier than I thought. Being self-supported meant I carried more weight, but it also gave me flexibility in camping. A good trade-off, in my view.
Completing this portage was a huge psychological boost. That and the rapid’s fast flow propelled me towards my second’s day’s goal: Dowling River Camp, Paddle Florida, and food. I had only completed about 56 miles the first day, and I wanted to reach the halfway point by the second night. I quickly passed Checkpoint 2, White Springs, 66 miles, and headed for Checkpoint 3, 104 miles, Suwannee River State Park.
I paddled on, playing mind games with myself. I could eat after 5 miles; I wouldn’t look at my Garmin watch until I rounded the next bend. I needed to paddle at least 65 miles that day. From my Watertribe training, I learned to count in increments of 10 or 15 miles, so I could divide my day into large chunks. I passed the Spirit of the Suwannee , and I passed wide sandbars that invited camping. I spotted plenty of gators and even a bobcat perched on a branch overhanging the water. Just before dark, I passed Suwannee River State Park and got my lights ready for night paddling. Just 15 more miles until Dowling River Camp. Janice Hindson, Director of Paddle Florida, promised me a beach campsite and a plate of stew. That was all the motivation I needed.
The almost full moon lit the way until the blazing lights of the Advent Christian Retirement Village blinded me after hours of relative darkness. Just around the corner, Janice’s lantern welcomed me to a sandy campsite and stew. She offered to warm the stew, but but no need for that. I was ready to eat and be off my feet.
After a good night’s sleep, coffee, and plenty of snacks, I headed back downstream for my last full day of paddling. I hoped to camp within 50 miles of the finish that night, somewhere between Branford and Fanning Springs. That meant I needed to paddle at least 60 miles that day.
That day, I passed familiar names—Royal Springs, Troy State Park, Convict Springs, and eventually Branford, checkpoint 5, with 76 miles to go. The twisting upper reaches of the Suwannee had given way to wide long stretches as it neared the Gulf of Mexico. I still hadn’t seen any other paddlers, although I heard that one was within an hour of me. In the end, it was a race against myself—could I complete the course?
As darkness fell, I thought about campsites. Sandy bluffs had given way to a swampy coastal environment with few campsites other than landings and county parks. I passed Gornto Springs State Park and shortly thereafter found a landing ideal for a short “rest”. Shortly before 5 am, as I was making my coffee, a white SUV pulled in. The police? Was I being rousted? I doused by stove and light and began packing my bivy and gear. Fortunately, it was not the police, just some guy idling the engine at the boat ramp, a familiar sight. He left, and so did I.
Maybe not surprisingly, my shortest day felt like the longest. In the darkness, I chased down the one piece of gear that was not tied down, and my feet began to ache.
The river became even wider and more coastal as I passed Fanning Springs, Checkpoint 6, mile 197, and Manatee Springs, just 25 miles from the gulf.
At 4:20 I reached the finish line, at 80 hours, 50 minutes, a winning time in the Women’s SUP division and well under the 100-hour deadline! As I paddled into the canal towards Bill’s Fish Camp, two men rounded the corner in a canoe. I must have been tired—I didn’t recognize my husband.
Photo credit: Kevin Veach
I enjoyed the solitude of the Suwannee230. It rarely felt like a race because I was alone. I knew that Scott and the kayakers were way ahead, and I had no idea about the other two paddleboarders. I appreciated being immersed in the river’s ecosystem as it journeyed from swamp to sea. And what a way to kick off my training for the The Everglades Challenge in March: Flamingo paddles on!
“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 Keys, Everglades 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Part of the fun: trying out new gear! Testing shorter paddles and narrow boards made for a wobbly, but surprisingly dry, start.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.