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Three mad men and the sea

Fearless friends braved the waves for a 333-mile excursion via jet skis.

Published July 12, 2006

BROOKSVILLE - For most normal human beings, summer is a time for peace, a time for relaxation, a time to lie in a hammock and sip a glass of lemonade and ponder the philosophical implications of the Jessica Simpson-Nick Lachey divorce.

But Tailor Burbank isn't a normal human being, and when guys like him are presented with options such as A) fireworks, B) ice cream or C) yard work, they inevitably choose D) buy a wave runner, convince two friends to do the same and together embark on a 333-mile trip through the Gulf of Mexico from Hernando Beach to Key West.

"Why would we do it?" Burbank said. "To avoid conformity."

Of course, when normal people rage against conformity, they do so by growing their hair out and joining PETA and listening to alt-rock bands. For Burbank, though, free-range eggs and Wilco's B-Sides weren't going to cut it, so he and friends Pat McMunn Jr. and Dave Kreier plotted the trip of their lives.

Or, potentially, the trip of their deaths.

Burbank, whose jaws are coated with whiskers and sometimes talks as if channeling Patrick Swayze from Point Break, had read a story by St. Petersburg Times outdoors editor Terry Tomalin that chronicled his attempt to ride a personal watercraft from St. Petersburg to Key West.

Tomalin's foursome suffered a smashed nose, bruised ribs, compressed disc, three broken GPS units and a smashed compass before calling a premature end to the trip.

Apparently, it sounded like fun.

"My wife said, 'Just hurry up and get it over with because I know I can't talk you out of it,' " said Burbank, who has two kids with Heather, his wife of 11 years.

Kreier's wife had similar sentiments.

"She said, 'I want a GPS on each person so they can find the bodies and I don't have to wait seven years to cash the life insurance check,' " Kreier said.

The first two days went exactly as planned. They skirted down the coast of Florida, camping on Snake Island the first night and on Cape Romano Island the second.

They dodged manatees, observed dolphins and enjoyed what Burbank called "the most beautiful ride of our lives."

"The water was so clear," McMunn said. "You'd see it at 10 feet, and then it would drop off to 50 feet and you'd feel like you are going to fall."

The first night, they sat around the campfire and watched the Milky Way in the sky and wondered if they were still alive or if they had died and arrived in heaven.

"It's so perfect out here, I'm wondering which one of us actually hit that pylon on the way out, because it can't be this perfect," Burbank said. "The island was so gorgeous, and the water was so calm, and the fire started on the first light - it never happens that way.

"After a while, sitting there, you're thinking, 'Maybe something did happen, because this is too perfect. Did one of us not make it under the skyway?' "

The second night brought more of the same, and when they awoke on the third day, the sun was exploding from beneath the horizon and igniting the sky in a blaze of red.

All that stood between them and Key West was 90 miles of open water.

"We were all gung ho," Burbank said. "How bad could it be?"

In a word, bad.

Less than an hour into the final leg, they started hitting rough seas. The calm water was replaced by waves, and the trio felt as though they were getting 10 to 12 feet of air on each one.

With every trip to the top of a wave came the fall back down, and the wave runners would smack the water so hard their riders thought the machines were bound to break.

The plastic bottles in their coolers broke. The cooler itself broke. A fire extinguisher went off.

The trip stopped being fun. Because of the high seas, the trio was moving at a snail's pace through the water. Every so often, they would stop and look at each other. One of them inevitably would ask, "How much further?"

A third of the way into the final leg, the group ran into another problem. Because of the choppy water, they were burning more fuel than they had planned. They had brought reserves, but the seas were too rough to refuel.

"We moved into survival mode," Burbank said.

They considered ditching one of the wave runners, but continued to press on. Eventually, they began to see land, and as they moved closer, the water calmed.

By the time they reached the sandy shore of Key West, their eyes and skin were burning from the salt spray.

"It felt like you got a serious duct-taped facial," Burbank said.

When they arrived, a small welcoming party awaited that included McMunn's wife, Janet, and a few friends.

They exchanged pleasantries, then headed straight to the bar.

Drinks were on the house.

"I thought it would be more excitement than it was," Burbank said. "But it was more of a relief that you made it to Key West alive."

[Last modified July 11, 2006, 23:17:16]

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