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As the tide turns

After a numbing night, the hearts and bodies of six kayak adventurers are warmed as bay waters sweep them to their goal.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2003

TIERRA VERDE -- Hypothermia doesn't attack head-on, it sneaks up from behind.

Before you even begin to shiver, your motor skills start to slip, then your judgment goes. You can stop the slide if you catch it in time, but you have to act fast.

"We need food, something hot to drink and dry clothes," I told my comrades as they stumbled around in the darkness. "We are all in pretty bad shape."

We had paddled our kayaks through rough seas for 18 hours straight and in the process burned about 8,000 calories. And even though each of us had eaten a half-dozen energy bars and drank gallons of sport drinks and water, our bodies had utilized every ounce of fuel and now couldn't fight off the evening chill.

"I'm glad we stopped when we did," George Stovall said as he slipped out of his wet paddling gear. "Things were starting to get a little sketchy."

Our emergency camp on the concrete beneath Tampa BayWatch's new headquarters on the causeway leading to Fort De Soto had proved to be a godsend. Sheltered from the wind and rain, we could sleep without our tents and save valuable packing time in the morning.

Peter Clark, the environmental group's executive director, had offered use of a fire pit, but we were too tired to even warm ourselves. So, the six of us spread out -- one in a hammock, two on tables and the rest in a boat -- to sleep for a few hours.

"Don't tell me it's time to get up already," Jon Willis said when he heard Stovall packing his gear. "What time is it?"

"Late," Stovall said. "We've got to get moving."

I looked at my watch. It was 3:45 a.m. We had slept for five hours, but it felt like five minutes.

"I'm not looking forward to putting on this stuff again," Casey LaLomia said as he held up his paddling gear.

I have a high tolerance for discomfort, but one thing I can't stand is putting on a pair of cold, wet shorts first thing in the morning.

"You sneaky b------!" my friend Willis said as I produced a pair of dry shorts from a Ziploc bag. "I thought we were supposed to be traveling light."

It's the small luxuries such as dry shorts, a bowl of instant oatmeal and a cup of sweet, black coffee that give the incentive needed to carry on.

Everybody takes a little longer to get going after a hard night and day's paddle.

"Oh, my knee," Steve Isaac grumbled. "It always gives me trouble when it gets cold like this."

"Old football injury?" I asked.

"No. Bullet in the kneecap," Isaac replied. "Tet Offensive. 1968."

I thought about that for a moment, then vowed never to whine again in his presence.

It took us an hour to get our gear together and we decided to leave all nonessentials at our emergency camp. We would take only food, water and a spare set of clothes (in case somebody capsized), hoping the lighter loads would help us successfully circumnavigate Pinellas County.

"Here goes another one," Stovall said as we slid beneath the toll bridge. "What number is this?"

"I lost count," I said of our running bet on how many bridges we would pass under. "But I know there are a couple of big ones left to go."

We stuck to the main shipping channel as we paddled in the dark, careful to avoid the shallows and oyster bars around Tarpon Key, fighting an outgoing tide the whole way.

"Are you sure you checked the tides?" I hollered to Willis.

"Have patience," he said. "When we round Pinellas Point, the tide will turn and carry us all the way up the bay."

Most people, fishermen excluded, seldom think twice about the tides. But when you are on the bay in a human-powered watercraft trying to get from one point to another, the difference between an incoming and outgoing tide is as profound as the difference between heaven and hell.

We continued traveling against the current, passing beneath the approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and, an hour later, arriving at Pinellas Point, where we had began our first, ill-fated adventure.

"Ever get that feeling of deja vu," I asked as we passed by the boat ramp where it all began a month before. But this time it was daylight, and we could see the channel markers.

Then the tide turned and started to push us, slowly at first, toward the Gandy Bridge, a goal that had seemed so elusive on our first attempt.

"We are making four knots," Willis said as we passed the Pier in downtown St. Petersburg. "At this rate we should be finished before dark."

As we approached Weedon Island, several members of our party decided to stick close to land while Willis and I headed toward the main channel. We watched as our friends ran aground in the shallow water and agreed that the longer route through deep water probably would be quicker in the end.

"Feels a lot different than last time," Stovall said as he stripped off some of his protective layering. "I can't believe how hot it is."

It was hard to believe that 12 hours earlier we were all battling hypothermia. Now, we guzzled water and Gatorade to try to keep from overheating.

We paddled beneath the Gandy Bridge, then across a plate-glass bay toward the Howard Frankland. The tide was ripping in our favor; wind and waves nonexistent.

"We are making five knots," Willis said. "That is more than twice as fast as when we tried it the first time."

As we leisurely cruised across the bay toward our goal, the Courtney Campbell Parkway, I thought about the difference a little wind and tide can make. In December, during our first attempt to circumnavigate Pinellas County, we made little to no progress in the wind and waves. But now we flew forward as if we had electric motors in our boats.

"I do have an electric motor in my boat," Isaac confessed. "It powers my bilge pump."

"So that is why your boat is so heavy," I said. "We thought you were loaded down with rocks for ballast."

Paddling the last portion of Upper Tampa Bay to where the Lake Tarpon Canal starts in Safety Harbor, we tried to count the number of bridges we had passed on our two-day journey.

"It has to be more than 20," Stovall said.

"All I know is that there were a lot of them," I said.

We had to stop short of our actual starting point in the canal because of the dam. Willis had tried to paddle the last bit on a scouting mission, but he was chased off.

"They must have thought I was a terrorist," Willis said.

As we pulled our kayaks out of the water, I surveyed our motley crew and agreed they looked a little gnarly, perhaps even a little dangerous.

But I knew they were not a threat, just regular guys -- a chiropractor, an engineer, a stockbroker, a computer programmer and the executive director of a charity.

"You know, if nobody has ever done this before, that makes us the world record holders," Stovall said.

"World champions," I agreed. "Now isn't that something?"

We had tried once to skirt Pinellas in under 48 hours and failed. But we bounced back, tried again and finished what we had started: a journey of close to 100 miles, in 38 hours.

"That has to be worth at least a beer," I said.

My friends agreed. So we packed our boats and headed off to celebrate and plan our next adventure.

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