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Five men, four boats, a common goal

Competitive selfishness submerges, team spirit surfaces.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


EVERGLADES -- The sunshine and calm water of Everglades National Park brought welcome relief after four days of wind and waves.

"We might be able to just push on after lunch, paddle as far south as possible, then still make it to Flamingo tomorrow night," said George Stovall, the reluctant leader of our little band of kayakers. "It will be an adventure."

Six paddlers started off across the stormy waters of Tampa Bay on Monday morning, and five days later four of us paddled together in a 250-mile trek to Key Largo in the WaterTribe Challenge.

After braving the cold and the storms, we had lost our competitive selfishness and vowed to finish the race together as a team, "Stovall's Rangers", as we entered the final days of the trek across the flat backwaters at the tip of Florida. Stovall, a 56-year-old chiropractor from St. Petersburg, had kept our group together, boosting spirits when each of us wanted to quit at one point or another.

My partner, Jon Willis, and I had thought of throwing in the towel after the first day, when we capsized our 22-foot tandem sea kayak twice on the run from St. Petersburg to Venice.

"Let's try to make it to at least the first check point," Willis, 41, said as we studied the charts in our tent on a spoil island near Venice. "We owe it to ourselves."

The next night, Dexter Colvin, 41, a double amputee attempting the trip, talked about stopping.

"I usually paddle alone," he said. "I don't like being out in the rough water."

But on the long paddle south past Captiva and Sanibel Island and across the open water of Estero Bay, we hung together. Wednesday night, after a particularly tough day, we realized the distance between checkpoints was at least 20 miles longer than we thought.

"The mileage is way off," Stovall said. "We should just load the boats up on a trailer, drive to Chokoloskee, then keep paddling from there."

The thought of abandoning the cramped kayak and moving toward our goal with the help of a combustion engine was very appealing.

"If we are going to get a ride, we might as well just quit," Willis said. "I say we just keep going."

We were beat up, sunburned and caked with salt. Cold, wet and tired, it's easy to say "enough."

But dry clothes and a warm meal can do wonders for the soul. That night we sat on the beach at New Pass and watched the stars light the southern sky, beacons leading us on. Thursday morning we woke to see the Gulf of Mexico had finally settled down. The stretch of open water we had been dreading suddenly seemed passable.

We broke camp, headed south and four hours later found ourselves at the Naples Pier, where we immediately raided the snack bar. After living on Power Bars and freeze-dried food for four days, anything tastes good.

"Where are you guys coming from," the woman behind the counter asked.

"St. Petersburg," Stovall said. "We heard you make the best grilled cheese sandwiches in Florida."

We wolfed down our food and filled our water bottles while onlookers gathered to gawk at our boats. "You paddle those out there?" a man asked, pointing to the gulf, which had grown choppier because of the afternoon sea breeze.

"Yes," I said. "We're going to Key Largo."

"Why?" he asked.

"Why not?" I asked back.

Just as we prepared to leave, another member of original crew paddled in from the north. Toby Brown, 30, was separated from the group in the stormy waters of Sarasota Bay on the first day of the trip. Reunited four days later, we felt like we had found a long lost brother.

Late Thursday afternoon, we made the mouth of the Marco River, the entrance to the Ten Thousand Islands and a new phase of our trip.

It felt good to be on flat water. Heavy seas in a small boat take a toll physically and mentally. Among the islands, we could take a few moments to enjoy the sights.

We watched a bald eagle and an osprey fight over a fish and two dolphin work together to herd a school of mullet onto a sandbar, where the mullet were easy prey.

"This is why I like coming out here," Lawson Mitchell, 39, said. "It doesn't get any better than this."

We paddled into the night using the full moon to guide us to our campsite at Gullivan Key. After four days on the water, most of our gear was wet, lost or damaged.

Sand was everywhere ... in the food, the tents, the sleeping bags ... but we didn't care. We had made it through the hardest part of trip. We were more than halfway there.

"We might be able to make it in seven days after all," Willis said. "I'd like to be in Key Largo on Monday."

The weather report called for more severe weather moving in fast. We knew if we could ride the incoming tide into Chokoloskee the next morning, resupply, then follow the outgoing tide south, we might get back on schedule.

"Those mare's tales don't look good," Stovall said, pointing to foreboding streaks of clouds in the northern sky. "We are going to have to make some time."

It was at least 70 miles to Flamingo and the next check-in point. Again we would try to paddle well into the night. Once safely at the third checkpoint, we would plan our next move.

All of us wanted to make it to Key Largo. But who got there first didn't matter anymore. We were a team. We would make it together.

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