This all started on January 7th, 2013. I was at Starbucks with Chief who is the man responsible for creating and managing all the Watertribe events. We were discussing the mobile mapper app I was developing for mobile phones. One that would allow someone to use their mobile phones and google maps to track the participants.
Eventually the topic came up about me doing the Everglades challenge this year. I mumbled something along the lines that I wouldn't be participating this year. I was a volunteer in the 2012 Watertribe which made me eligible to participate in the Everglades challenge for free. He looked up at me and said “The free challenge doesn't roll over, you have to use it this year”. I said that's ok. He then asked me why I wasn't doing it. I had many excuses and after awkwardly blurting each excuse, Chief always had a valid reasonable response that I just couldn't disagree with. “I like going to bed at 10:00 every night” - “it's only for a week”, “I have to figure out how to navigate all those waterways with my GPS” - “That only takes a few nights of inputting the waypoints into your gps” and so it went ....
That night I thought about our conversation and it was apparent that what Chief said made sense. I could push myself out of my comfort zone for a week. What's the big deal anyway? I'll just kick it into high gear and start planning this thing. It'll be fun. Plus it will be another excuse for me to get back into designing an efficient jib system for my AI.
Fast forward to race day. It's 4:30 am and my wife and I are driving to Ft. Desoto which is about an hour from where we live. My mind is spinning with all the details, hoping I didn't forget anything. About half way to Ft. Desoto on a main road I look up and see a drunk driver in a jacked up pickup truck in my lane coming at us. He's swaying all over the place occasionally hitting the barrier between our side of the road and the side of the road he should be on. Sparks are coming from his vehicle which has me thinking he's driving on a flat. So this is how it ends??? He squeezes around us scraping against the wall and we escape without a scratch. My first adrenaline rush of the day. One of many.
Being at the start of the Everglades Challenge is one of the most exciting moments you can experience. So many interesting people and their boats. Seeing the sun just poking up from the other side of the Sunshine Skyway over beautiful Tampa Bay. This year my mindset was so preoccupied that I didn't have the opportunity to savor that whole experience. I was busy changing the boat for the millionth time. I decided to remove the stays from the jib system and remove the dodger which is nice but somewhat restrictive. Our son and his girlfriend show up at the last minute to surprise us. They work late and stayed up all night just to come out … complete with “Team Chaos” shirts they had made. I was glad that they were able to see what this watertribe thing I kept talking about was all about.
When the race started, boats started sliding into the water and making their way across Tampa Bay. I looked at my son and said “I only wanted to modify the boat for the race, I really didn't want to actually do this ….” and we both started laughing. So it's time to head out. As I started dragging my heavy boat toward the water I realize I'm about to mow down a couple ladies so I hollered “look out” and they scrambled out of the way just in time (and not very happy according to my wife). Once underway my mirage drive was all out of whack on very wrong settings and they felt broken until I realized the problem. About 30 yards out, I started getting organized on the boat but thought I could hear my wife. Sure enough I looked back and she was wildly waving and I heard something about GPS. I looked over and I had my gps. So I turned back and headed to the beach “I have my GPS I said” What kind is it? She said Garmin 76 which coincidentally was the same as my backup gps. Oops …. And sure enough as I pulled up to the beach, DogsLife had camera rolling to document the beginnings of Chaos on my trip. He said something about how some people will do anything for an extra photo opportunity. My wife tossed me my GPS and I was once again on my way slightly red faced. While packing my boat, the backup GPS somehow was overlooked and I think fell out of the mirage drive hole because of the scratches on the GPS were probably from the boat sliding over it.
Once underway I felt pretty good and was just relieved to be underway after months of preparation. While crossing Tampa Bay I was following Jim from Hobie with his giant red spinnaker. I was keeping up with him pretty good until this Army corp freighter cut in front of me which had me diverting in an unfavorable direction. Traveling around Anna Marie island the wind was very calm as we were in a sheltered area. I was prepared for ridiculous winds and this wasn't at all what was expected. Shortly after, the crazy weather would start.
On the beach the previous night my friend Bob from Sarasota was coaching me to not take the outside in bad weather and he told me how to avoid the perilous areas of Sarasota Bay. I took his advice to go on the inside instead of the Gulf but I didn't take his advice to avoid going straight across Sarasota bay in high wind. He was right. Sarasota Bay and the winds were intense. You had to keep one hand on the mainsheet and be ready to release it when your bow started diving towards the bottom. Many times I had to release the main to spill the wind to keep from pitching. It was very rough out there and a wild ride. All sorts of different watertribe boats were all around me all having the same experience. Fortunately the wind was behind us and didn't have us tacking or fighting upwind.
Police boats, Coast Guard boats and planes were everywhere today. Once a sheriff boat pulled up to me and asked if I saw a blue canoe. Someone called 911 and reported one in distress in my area. A little while later he was good enough to stop by and give me an update – they found the guy (a Watertriber) and he said he was ok. It was just people on the shore watching him battle large waves in his canoe and they were sure he was a goner. Turns out, one of the Watertribe boats capsized with a sailor(Puma) in the water and the coast guard was summoned. I could see the Coast Guard plane circling not far from me and watched as the many law enforcement boats with sirens and lights sped by. It was an exciting day.
While going around Venice Airport the wind was blocked somewhat so sailing was pretty pleasant. My jib system was really working nice and flying wing on wing with the main. Half way through, my rudder stopped working and I was pushed into the mangroves and muck. I couldn't figure it out at first until I looked back and saw a bobber hanging off my rudder and a lot of fishing line wrapped around the rudder. I got out of the boat and was sinking in muck to get at the rudder. It took awhile to get the line off and sure enough I found the hook. The barb snagged my left glove so I was lucky it didn't cut me. It took some time to work it free but I finally got the mess untangled.
As darkness fell, I readied my nav lights and dug out my headlamp. My eyes are not good and reading the charts and gps require reading glasses which I have hanging around my neck. As it cooled off, the eyesight is even worse for some reason. I had a backup set of reading glasses but if my primary set fell overboard I'd be like Mr. Magoo. I guess I could just holler “Roadhog” out to other passing boats I heard but that's probably not a good plan.
As I was fiddling with something I noticed I had just passed Check Point #1 so I had to turn around. Not far though … Oh and I see a light from another Watertriber over there. I'll head that way to get into the Marina. I hear him saying something but I couldn't hear him. As I get closer I holler “I can't hear you.” He says something again and I still can't hear him. All of a sudden my boat lurches to a halt and is grounded. He's closer now and hollers once again “Very shallow here.” Now I hear him.
For some reason I cannot budge my boat. I know I brought a lot of stuff but …So I think the hull is full of water. Now I can see the poles that mark the small channel entrance to the marina. Maybe 40 feet away. But when I yank on my boat I can only pull it 6 inches at a time. And that's using all my strength. Can't tell what's holding it. Rudder up, drive strapped so it won't open and dagger board still down but tilted. No matter what I do, it takes superhuman strength to move the boat a few inches at a time. I pull so hard that the hull pull cord in the front snaps and that's VERY strong. So I use my aluminum jib bow and attach a flat strap to it so I can pull on that. After 40 minutes struggling I was completely exhausted and my back was very sore but the boat was finally floating again.
In the marina I tied up to a dock. My wife made me a couple of delicious sandwiches but I noticed they sat in a bag of salt water as the container went over the side once and was being dragged. I'm way too tired to make anything to eat so I skipped dinner for now. Never did eat anything that night.
Being tied up to a dock meant you had to climb around the boat like a tired monkey with a sore back to find gear. Not fun. My gear was not organized and I spent over an hour looking for stuff climbing around the boat.
After signing in, I went over to the campfire and there was Josh (Tidetraveler) sitting there stirring the fire. Josh is a fireman and every time I camped with him he was in charge of making fires and makes a great campfire. I asked a guy standing there if they sold beers at the store and he said no but here you go and pulled one out of his cooler. So I sat by the fire with Josh for a few and contemplated the day.
Now I went to fill up my spare water bladder for the next leg of the trip. Couldn't find water bladder so emptied the boat while climbing on it against the dock. Very hard on the already sore back. Pulled all my gear from the boat. Quite a bit of of water in the hull so I get my pump and pump it out.
Spoke with another AI Sailor (Windblown) and he said he thought he might have broke a rib out in the Gulf when he fell on his water bottle. He said that he would be camping at marina. Eventually I decided to camp at the marina after talking with him since my gear was already on the dock. My phone was dying so I plugged it into a charger while I slept. That meant I wouldn't have an alarm clock so I would just listen for others breaking camp in the morning.
It rained quite a bit in the night. Heard someone in the night taking down camp. Must be time to get up. It felt like I slept some so I got up, got dressed and ready to go. Turns out it was only 3:30 AM which was a bit earlier than I planned but thought I'd get an early start. Back is really hurting now. Back to loading the boat while doing the balancing act. Marina looks like a refugee camp. People sleeping in chairs outside and on the floor in the marina, One guy covered completely sitting in a chair looked scary. A few people were up and about. Josh was looking at weather and planning his day.
Used the marina bathroom and then headed out. It was nice traveling in the early morning darkness. Very beautiful and peaceful. One thing I noticed was my marine radio was having problems. When I go to the Placido Swing Bridge, I could not raise the operator. A switch on the radio also was broken so I decided to just demast and pedal under the low bridge. Fortunately there was a beach close. I organized a few things and took the mast down. I set it up so I could put the mast back up without having to go to the shore … without the jib. I could put that up later.
Once through bridge I put the mast back up without the jib. Plenty of wind. Passed an island as another AI like mine was just pulling out. Traveled with him through Pine Island sound. Was originally planning to go through Matlacha pass but decided to travel with him through the western route instead. In the heavy seas I broke my mast topper windvane which was sitting on my hakas. Very disappointed as I loved using this windvane. All day only 50' boats or larger were seen. With winds picking up I decided to see if I could rig the jib at sea with big waves. The other AI sails off while I decide to try this out at sea. I've done it before but with a completely different setup. First I had to take the mainsail mast down and reattach the mast topper and halard line. Another balancing act in big seas. The one thing that could be a disaster would be tangled lines. So I was careful .. Success. Then attach the halard to the jib and up it goes. Wing on wing all the way. It was around this time I realized I cannnot get my gloves on. Turns out my hands are completely swollen. My hands look like the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man. Using my backup gloves are somewhat better but they also take 10 minutes to get on. Very strange.
I keep dozing off on the boat all day long. Took a lot to stay awake so I decided to listen to music. Removed gloves and it took a lot of time to get headsets under my hat, buff and dive hat. Finally got the mp3 player working but I couldn't read it in the sunlight. Once saw the words "child lock on". What the heck was this? Can't take the gloves off again. They don't fit any more. Finally after pressing buttons for awhile, I have some music ! Well for 15 minutes anyway then silence. I reach for the music player and it fell off my lifejacket into the wet boat and won't turn back on.
Pretty soon I catch up to the other AI as I see him heading straight to an island. I figured something could be wrong so I decided to check up on him to make sure as it was pretty remote. Turns out he had a broken rudder pin but said he was ok and waved me off.
My chart bible is a book of laminated pages with the waterways and gps routes I have programmed in my gps. It's a condensed version of charts that tells me “most” of what I need. It's very important to my navigation. So that's why I almost had a heart attack when the wind caught it and flipped it off my boat while flying under sail. I quickly doused the sail and turned the boat around thinking there is no way this will be retrieved. My heart sank and I turned and headed in the direction of where it went overboard. It was a miracle but I was able to find the chart starting to sink and I was able to grab it in time. Whew ! That would have really hurt losing that critical piece of equipment.
The dozing off was happening more often so I decided to pull off and make dinner early and rest for a bit for a big push later tonight because it was too early to stop now. I needed to lay down and stretch out the back too. Very sore.
Once on the island I look out and see an AI flying a large red spinnaker pass by. That's Jim from Hobie (Penguinman) now passing me. I toy with the idea of staying the night but it's way too early to camp … still...
Leather lungs pulls up to join me on the island and make dinner. He's a big leave no trace advocate and packs out stuff that most people leave in a little cat hole. He's a real good guy and I enjoyed talking with him. As it starts to rain he says his goodbye's and takes off. I make dinner in my tent with the MRE's my son gave me and they were delicious. Made up for no dinner last night. I ate a lot and got re hydrated. Plus I stretched out my back. I was considering the possibilities for the night. I want to stay on the island but being in a race I need to get going and make more miles. So I make a thermos of hot coffee to take with me on a night run.
After dinner I get suited up and take down camp. Just before I'm ready to leave, Phoenix 1 and Phoenix 2 pull in. They're done for the day and said the weather was too much for them. When I was having dinner it was blowing pretty good but as they were talking to me, it didn't seem too bad and the water looked manageable. So I sat in my boat for a few minutes thinking I really should stay until morning. But I was dressed and ready so off into the darkness I went. How bad could it be? At this point I had already made several major mistakes. First being I didn't examine my route as thoroughly as I should have. In particular, I should have checked the bridge clearances at Sanibel Causeway. A month earlier when planning all this I planned on going through Matlacha pass and under the big bridge. Tonight all I knew was I was heading for the western little bridge but I could not for the life of me remember if it had enough clearance for my mast. Usually in a case like this, I can pull up and eyeball it or see the bridge markings to determine if I will fit. But not tonight.
Once out in open water, it was apparent that the wind was stronger than I anticipated. My weather radio didn't work so I used my cell to check the weather but it didn't give me any indication of problems. That was another mistake. In the darkness, I decided to just fly only the jib which gave me plenty of power and I could watch for channel markers easier with my headlamp. Plus the mainsail was whipping around back and forth so much it almost tore the headlamp off my head. The wind kept getting stronger and stronger and the waves were huge. I think the winds may have built to around 35 mph I thought about going back but by this time I was several miles from where I came from and to tack back against this wind would have taken many hellish hours. It turned into a gale and I decided to completely pull in all sails. What freaked me out was I was still flying and reaching speeds of more than 4 knots with no sails at all deployed. That's almost 5mph.
Now I couldn't stop thinking about the bridge coming up. With my boat out of control having no way to slow down. The thought of hitting a bridge in this weather was unsettling to say the least. I kept thinking about it and getting madder and madder at myself for not checking this before leaving. It was too crazy to pull out a chart and my reading glasses in this weather. I had to be vigilant for staying in the channel and watching for markers. Hitting one of those at 4 knots would have been disasterous and could collapse one side of my amas. So my headlamp was used to watch for the markers as I navigated with the GPS. I kept grabbing the mainsheet which is what I do when I want to stop the boat … and then I kept remembering I actually had no way to slow the boat down since the mainsail and jib were already completely rolled up. It was a wild ride and I will be honest. As I started thinking of all the bridge scenarios, I really got scared and did not relish hitting a bridge in a gale. I felt out of control and foolish for being out in this kind of weather. Time to head for land and find any place to tie up. I also realized this adventure had lost all it's appeal and I was done. Some people are made for this type of experience but not me.
There were two houses on Sanibel all lit up. I started heading for land hoping I could beat the wind and make it there and find a dock or something to tie up to. As I approached this giant house all glass on the water side, I noticed the people watching a movie. I moved my headlamp back and forth until I saw the guy look up and peer out the window my way. Then he jumped up and ran outside as I was coming up on his seawall. He told me how to get to a sheltered area behind his house where I could tie up. They were surprised to see such a small boat out on a night like this and offered to put me up for the night which was nice. I declined but asked if I could put my tent up in the vacant field next to their house. I was very happy to be out of the crazy conditions and back on land.
Watertribe rules say you cannot take (only) a down sleeping bag. So what I did was bring a non down bag and also my beloved 20 degree down bag in case of the predicted cold nights. Tonight was one of those cold nights. Despite using my 20 degree bag, I was still chilled in the night so I pulled out my second sleeping bag and doubled them up which was toasty. The strong winds rocked the tent all night long but I slept good and was very thankful everything turned out ok.
The next morning I contacted Paddle dancer who is the race official and told her I was going to DNF (did not finish). I met my wife a few miles away at a boat ramp and after loading up we stopped at waffle house for breakfast. During breakfast my son called and asked if mom gave me the message. I asked her and she laughed and said she forgot. The message was Jeff (son) was cutting up his Team Chaos shirts and changing his last name to Jones. After laughing pretty good I got back on the phone and said “Good morning Mr. Jones, I'm sorry to disappoint Team chaos” and we both had a good laugh.
I'm not sorry I tried and am very grateful I was healthy enough to at least try this. One thing I do know is there won't be a second try. I'll follow the races from our comfortable home and root for my favorites.
Shining stars on the boat.
Furling Jib system I designed worked wonderful. Wing on Wing was amazing and easy to use. The aluminum frame saved the day when I had to pull the boat out of the muck.
My wooden “racing” hakas were super. Don't leave home without them
My DIY high back seat was very comfortable and kept me out of the hobie wet seat puddle (Thanks again Halibu77)
Problems with gear
The boat's hull leaked even with a new seal I put on. Pumped a lot of water. Unfortunately 2 dry bags failed also. My camp clothes bag which was double bagged failed. Clothes were damp but not soaked. Spare battery waterproof bag completely failed. Battery soup very gross. They were in ziplocks in the waterproof bag but those also filled with water.
One railblaza mount on the hakas got tore out. The GPS holder I fabricated failed.
My power source phone charger did not work
Marine radio failed and switch broken.
Gloves didn't fit when hands swelled up. Gloves are critical in the cold wet weather.