Day 3: A stroke of genius, or is it luck?

A favorable breeze allows the paddlers’ sails to carry them home.

Published January 18, 2007

THE INDIAN RIVER — A faint breeze blew softly from the north as the sun rose over the horizon. Six kayakers, camped on a spoil island, had prayed for the northerly wind to carry them south to Melbourne.

“If this wind keeps up, the rest of the trip will be a piece of cake,” I told my friends, who were eager to try the small, nylon sails perched atop the decks. “Why paddle when you can sail?”

Kayak purists may scoff at the idea of sailing a boat built for paddling, but the Indian River Lagoon is a big place, and we needed all the help we could get.

For 12 hours the previous day, the wind had howled out of the south, making progress slow and difficult.

The lagoon, which is actually three bodies of water on Florida’s east coast, stretches from Ponce de Leon Inlet in the north to Jupiter Inlet in the south, a distance of more than 150 miles.

Power boaters routinely make the trip in less than a day, but in a human-powered craft, the same journey can take a week. In ideal conditions, the typical paddler can average 3 to 4 miles per hour. But throw up a sail and that rate can double.

Wind, however, is unpredictable. The Spanish silver ships that sailed off this coast four centuries ago often sat becalmed for days or weeks on end.

We carried enough food for the trip, but a man can only eat so many energy bars before he starts to crave fresh meat. I was on the lookout for a convenience store.

At the bridge in Titusville, we stopped at a boat ramp and filled our water bottles from the restroom sink. The fishermen on the sea wall looked at our tiny crafts with suspicion, until one of them snagged his line, then we were hailed as saviors.

“There has got to be a candy machine somewhere,” I announced, determined to find a Snickers bar before paddling another eight hours. “I’ll eat anything … potato chips, cookies, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.”

My search proved fruitless, and I had to settle for a handful of salty granola, thanks to a leaky Ziploc bag.

Back in the kayaks, we headed south and paddled within the boundaries of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. After an hour or so we noticed that we hadn’t seen another boat all morning.

The federal government has done an admirable job preserving this patch of wilderness. The 140,000-acre preserve overlays NASA’s holdings on Cape Canaveral and provides a safe refuge for dozens of endangered species of birds and animals.

 Late in the afternoon, tired and cranky, I couldn’t help but heckle my teammates.

“Hey, old man,” I hollered to George Stovall, at 62 the eldest member of our group. “If you don’t start paddling we will never find our campsite.”

Stovall was the most experienced and proficient paddler in our group. Time after time, through heavy seas and freezing temperatures, he has kept our team together. But now, challenged by a young whippersnapper, he turned on the turbo jets.

Ten minutes later, we finally came across a cluster of businesses at the bridge from Cocoa.

“My eyes may be playing tricks on me,” Keith Dudley said. “But that looks like a Hooters.”

“Yes!” I screamed, believing my prayers had been answered.

Then Darry Jackson shocked me back to reality. “We have to try to catch George,” he said. “We have to stick together.”

 Hours later, sitting by the fire at the campsite we christened “Sandspur Island,” I let my feelings be known.

“We could be sitting here right now with bellies full of chicken fat and grease,” I told Stovall. “Instead, we are eating freeze-dried food.”

Stovall, who looks after me like a big brother, offered his condolences.

“I promise that tomorrow I’ll take you straight to Hooters,” he said.

That night — sunburned, sore, stuck by sandspurs — I slept like a baby, visions of wings and pitchers danced in my head.

The next morning, the paddling was easy, since the end was in sight. And once ashore, as Stovall promised, we headed straight to my favorite restaurant for Sunday brunch.

“What can I get you guys?” the server asked.

“A couple of pitchers of beer and some chicken wings,” I answered. “A hundred will do for starters.”

Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808 or tomalin@sptimes.com.