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A kayaking coup gone with the wind

Blustery conditions thwart first attempt to paddle around Pinellas County.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Jon Willis pulled out a road map and pointed to Pinellas County.

"It's an island, not a peninsula," my friend declared. "Let's paddle around it."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because nobody has ever done it before," he responded.

I looked at the map and wondered if it could be done. If we started on Pinellas Point, we would have to travel up Tampa Bay and beneath three major bridges, into the Lake Tarpon Canal, across Lake Tarpon, into another small lake, then into the Anclote River and down the coast back to Pinellas Point.

"That's got to be 100 miles," I said in protest.

"It is closer to 90 ... as the crow flies," Willis replied.

"We're not crows," I said.

Then came the lecture about how anything worth doing is usually difficult -- Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, Scott of the Antarctic, the list went on and on.

"But there's a road there," I said, pointing to a spot on the map above Lake Tarpon.

"We'll carry the kayaks," my friend explained.

"Where's your spirit of adventure?"

Gone. Long gone, I thought. Lately my biggest challenge was keeping up with my 18-month-old son. Maybe I was getting old.

"Okay, I'll do it," I told Willis. "I'll see if I can get a 48-hour pass."

A few months later, I found myself standing by the Pinellas Point boat ramp at 3 a.m. on a cold, windy Saturday in December. We had planned to leave on Friday the 13th, but strong winds and heavy seas delayed our departure. Just as well, I thought, as I checked the signal flares and safety lights in my life vest.

By now, our humble two-man expedition to circumnavigate Pinellas County had grown to five. We all had jobs and families to return to by Monday, so we knew if we were to succeed, there would be little time for rest.

"Did anybody bring a pump?" asked George Stovall, the most experienced member of our party. "I forgot mine."

We did a quick inventory and discovered out of five boats, we didn't have a single bilge pump, a piece of equipment that on a rough day was every bit as important as a life jacket.

"We should each be carrying our own pump," Stovall said. "I don't know what we were thinking."

Obviously not about the dangers at hand. Perhaps it was because we knew we would be paddling so close to home, or maybe our minds were on Christmas, but whatever the case, I had a sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach that things were not going to go as smoothly as we had planned.

So Willis and I hopped in the car, drove home and rummaged through my garage until we found the bilge pump. But the unexpected side trip cost us an hour.

"Let's get going," Willis said. "I want to get started before the wind kicks up."

The weather forecast had called for 10 to 15 knots out of the north. We had hoped to make it halfway up the bay before the sun came up and started things blowing.

At first it seemed luck would be in our favor. As we hugged the shoreline, the homes and apartment complexes of south St. Petersburg sheltered us from the full brunt of the wind. But staying close to land also had its disadvantages.

"I've run aground," I yelled. "Do you have any water over there?"

We paddled about an hour or so in the dark, hitting the occasional oyster or sand bar as we went. Then we stopped and considered our options.

"We could go out to the main channel," Stovall suggested.

"I wouldn't want to be caught out there if it starts blowing," I said. "Besides, it would be easy to get separated in the dark."

Our kayaks had lights, but in big waves, the low-lying crafts would be almost impossible to see. So we kept to our course, and in another hour, saw the reassuring lights of the Pier.

"We're making progress," I yelled to Willis, who was paddling 100 feet to my left.

But as we rounded the Pier, we lost some of the shelter of land, and the wind and waves began to grow.

The first wave that broke across my bow sent a trickle of chilly water dribbling into my cockpit. I adjusted my spray skirt -- the thin, nylon sheet that was supposed to keep me dry -- then a second wave broke and dumped a cupful of water in my lap.

The water temperature in the bay was a numbing 60 degrees. I might be a little wet, but at least I wasn't swimming, I thought. Then a third wave doused me again and I turned around to grab my pump.

I cursed myself. I had given it to Willis. I looked for my friend, but the wind and waves had driven us 100 yards apart. Every few minutes or so I could see his light pop up above a wave. I yelled again and again, but with the howling wind, he couldn't hear me.

By the time we were within a mile of the Gandy Bridge, the wind had doubled in strength. It took everything I had to keep my water-filled boat moving forward. And though my upper body was covered, the water around my legs was driving down my body temperature.

"Man, that was pretty rough," said Keith Dudley, the fourth member of our expedition, as he pulled his kayak on Gandy Beach. "I didn't think we would ever make land."

One by one our team pulled into the beach, where we regrouped and planned a course of action. "We'll just take it one bridge at a time," Stovall said.

"I'm taking on a lot of water," I said, shivering. "Do me a favor and keep an eye on me."

By now, the winds had grown to 25 knots, with gusts up to 35, and the seas north of the Gandy were at 3 to 4 feet. We climbed in our boats and paddled beneath the bridge. Within minutes, my kayak again was filled with water.

I saw the wave coming and tried to brace, but hypothermia had slowed my reflexes. Over I went. I tried to roll the kayak, once, then twice. But on my third attempt I realized I was out of air.

"You okay?" Stovall asked as I popped back to the surface.

"Just a little wet," I said.

My friends helped me in the boat as I was about to be swept under the Gandy Bridge. We started paddling again toward the Howard Frankland Bridge and made it about a third of the way when Willis announced, according to the hand-held GPS unit that tracked our progress, our speed had been cut in half.

"At less than 2 mph we will be lucky to make it to Safety Harbor by dark," he said.

So we turned and paddled back to Gandy Beach, where we huddled together for warmth behind a concrete embankment.

"I don't know why I kept taking on so much water," I mumbled.

"Maybe you are too fat," Willis chided. "Did you think of that?"

Cold, wet, tired and hungry, I thought about punching him, but it would require too much energy.

"I thought it was a great paddle," Stovall declared, removing some of the tension. "Hey, we tried. And there is always tomorrow."

Up next for Monday: Water.

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