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Strong wind, waves make for 'fun' paddling

Kayakers are battered but determined after two days and 70 miles of the 250-mile open-water race.

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Jon Willis, back, and Terry Tomalin utilize a small sail to reach about 6 knots as they sail along the Intracoastal Waterway.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001

CAYO COSTA -- Thirty-one hours after leaving Tampa Bay, a motley gang of salt-caked paddlers arrived at this island state park Tuesday afternoon and thanked God to be on dry land.

The two-day, 70-mile trip, which completed the first leg of the Water Tribe Cruising Challenge, was no leisure cruise. Ten-foot seas and 20-30 mph winds knocked out several teams before they got out of sight of land off Fort De Soto Park. Those of us who kept paddling faced sharks, whitecaps, overturned boats and many other dangers inherent to riding a kayak in open water. And we lost gear.

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Joe Baughman checks the wind speed during a lull Monday before the race.
"We are going to start the race on time," said Steve Isaac, organizer of the 250-mile kayak race to Key Largo that began Monday morning. "But I think you are crazy if you go."

The National Weather Service had issued a small craft advisory, and our 22-foot tandem sea kayak had no business being on the water. But standing on East Beach at Fort De Soto with my partner, Jon Willis, the water didn't look that bad. We decided our two-man team, the Ocean Warriors, would not back down.

"I think if we head north and use the beach as a wind block, then cut across to Egmont Key, we'll be able to turn south and surf all the way to the mouth of the Intracoastal Waterway," Toby Brown of Team Sweetwater Kayaks said. "If we stick together, we'll make it."

Willis and I had never had our rental boat in rough water, but we are fairly competent watermen. We were willing to give it a try. "Just stay loose," Lawson Mitchell of Team Bill Jackson said. "It will be fun."

The majority of racers remained on the beach, but six boats pushed into the weather, whitecaps breaking over their bows. Within 15 minutes, the party split up. Three boats went south across the bay, and our group of three boats headed west into the waves.

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
A trio of kayakers paddles across Lemon Bay in the Intracoastal.

"Be careful when you hit that stretch of water between Egmont and Passage keys," Isaac had said at Sunday's captains meeting. "You don't want to tip over. There are lots of sharks. Big sharks."

The area is known for its bull sharks and hammerheads. But in March, the water usually is too cool for them.

At least that is what I tried to convince myself as I clung to my overturned kayak drifting toward the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

"Going for a swim?" Brown said as he paddled over to check on us.

We tried to right the boat but flipped it again. It took Mitchell's and Brown's help to get us back into our boat. Ten minutes later, we paddled past a shrimp boat at anchor and watched the fins of several small black tip sharks cut through the waves. "I'm glad we didn't tip over there," Willis said.

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Dexter Colvin takes a swig of water as his kayak is dwarfed by the waves in Tampa Bay soon after the start of the race. Many paddlers decided to skip the race after seeing the waves swept along by strong wind.

A half-hour later on a south-side beach, I thanked Brown and Mitchell for their assistance. "What kind of beer do you drink?" I asked Mitchell.

"The cold kind," he said.

With the rollicking swells of Tampa Bay behind us, Willis and I hoisted a small sail and headed south through the Intracoastal Waterway. We made good time, about 6 knots, and felt confident we eventually would make it to Key Largo.

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
John Harris, right, speaks to his father by cell phone after he and Craig O'Donnell wrecked on a sandbar and washed onto a beach.
But the sail forced the nose of the kayak deep into the water, hindering steering, and we dumped the boat again. Water seeped into a bag advertised as waterproof, frying a digital camera and pager, but we managed to get everything back into the boat.

"We have to be careful with that sail, mate," Willis said in his British accent. "Or this is going to be a long trip."

By midday, the northwesterly wind had picked up. Seas kicked up to 4-6 feet, compounded by various tidal rips, as we ran south through Sarasota Bay.

Finally, by late afternoon, we put the bad water behind us. We stopped for a short break.

"Hey, guys, how are you doing?" came a voice from nowhere. George Stovall, a St. Petersburg chiropractor and paddling animal, was standing on a sandbar in his long underwear, eating a sandwich.

"Wasn't that fun?" he said.

We had hoped to make Venice Inlet the first night, but the delayed start and unanticipated dunkings put us behind schedule. Shortly after sunset we pitched camp on a spoil island.

"I hope the wind dies down tomorrow," Willis said. "I don't want another day like today."

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Seagulls cruise the Venice Inlet beach across from Tomalin's first camp.

After a feast of freeze-dried curry and hot herbal tea, we hunkered down in the tent to study the maps and listen to the weather radio.

"Winds out of the north, 20-30 knots with gusts up to 40 knots," the computerized recording said. "Small craft are advised to stay in port."

As the wind roared through the beach trees, I could barely sleep as I considered the next day. It was another 35 miles to Cayo Costa, and we would have to cross Boca Grande Pass, a body of water known for its currents and tarpon-eating hammerhead sharks.

When dawn arrived, we discussed our options over a cup of steaming coffee.

"Let's just go for it, mate," Willis said. "We'll do the best we can; that is all anybody can ask of us."

Stovall, Mitchell and Dexter Duval, a paddler they had befriended along the way, stopped by our camp as they headed south. Duval is attempting the trip even though he lost both legs in an automobile accident 10 years earlier.

"We'll catch up with you guys later and cross the pass together," Stovall said.

We caught up with the rest of the crews midday, and together we paddled the last 8 miles to Boca Grande. We agreed the best strategy was to stay close to the mouth and the gulf and let the tide push us back to Cayo Costa, the first of three check-in points. We followed Stovall's lead and charged into the washing machine-like Boca Grande Pass. It took a rocky half hour to cross.

With two tough days behind us and an anticipated five days to go if the weather calms, we plan to keep rowing. Whether we will all make it to Key Largo, only time will tell.

Water Tribe Cruising Challenge

WHO: Thirty teams of tandem and solo paddlers from Russia to California.

WHAT: 200-plus-mile sea kayak race.

WHEN: Monday through March 12.

WHERE: St. Petersburg (Fort De Soto) to Key Largo.

Part One

Row, row, row your boat (March 4, 2001)

* * *

COMING FRIDAY: In Part 3 of our five-part series, Tomalin and Willis will paddle 70 miles to Everglades City.

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