Wed - March 14, 2007

300 Nonstop Miles Solo in a Surfski - 2007 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge by Carter Johnson

Guiness record Carter Johnson has appeared in my fitness paddling blog several time during last year: 24 hour Guinness paddling record, Yukon River Quest, finally, tips on training for ultra marathon paddling races.

During this year WaterTribe Everglades Challenge he paddled solo a surfski and completed the race in a record time of 3 days, 2 hours, and 35 minutes. It was the second time overall and the best solo time in any class in the history of WaterTribe. A year ago, Carter together with Sally Mason won the class 2 and took the 4th place overall in 3 days, 5 hours, and 48 minutes in a double surfski. Here is his story from EC-2007.

2007 Watertribe Everglades Challenge

Eaten Alive by Florida Bay

300 Nonstop Miles Solo in a Surfski

by Carter Johnson aka XLXS

The Watertribe Everglades Challenge is a small boat race that takes you 300 miles down the Western coast of Florida from Tampa Bay to Key Largo. There are no mandatory stops and you may captain any small craft that you choose as well as pick from an infinite number of routes. The course will take you through endless channels, large bays, open ocean and swamps. The event is ran by Steve Isaac otherwise known as the Chief.

It was the Friday before the race and the winds were furious. A small craft advisory was already in affect. I was standing on the beach going through my gear one last time. I had never done a solo unsupported wilderness adventure of this nature and was not sure what to expect from myself. I will admit that the thought of being alone in the black of night in large open seas, breaking waves and endless swamps petrified me. Would I be able to balance and keep my nerves under control? Would I be able to survive if I needed to? I kept my fears to myself and made jokes with the sailors that these conditions would be perfect for me.

I finished my full pack and went to move my touring Huki S1-X Surfski down to the beach. The boat is very sturdy and had full size kayak hatches carved into the rear deck as well as a 10 inch round hatch in front. Unloaded the boat was about 40lbs of carbon, S-glass and Kevlar. The 65 lb pack of gear for 8 days of wilderness travel brought it up to over 100lbs total. I grabbed on to the gunnels and made a huge effort to lift the Surfski. I could not even get her off the ground. I thought to myself, this isn’t good. I re-inventoried my gear list but there was nothing I was willing to part with. I recruited some help and moved my ski down to the beach.

Huki S1-X surfski - touring version Huki S1-X Surfski
touring lay-up, about 40 lbs with full kayak hatches. 17 inches wide, 21 feet long. 65 lbs of gear for 8 days wilderness expedition.

The next morning the winds were still hollowing but they did a 180 on us and were now perfectly at our tail. Would my loaded ski surf, then I started pondering, would it even float with me on it? It was time to find out. When the start sounded, I dragged my ski down the beach leaving a nice gelcoat trail in the sand. I mounted her hoping she would float. I took a sigh of relief as she supported my extra 180lbs. Now it was time to see how she handled.

The waves were steep with the 15 knot tail wind over the deep Tampa Bay channel and I was fresh as I would ever be. I made the first effort to get on a wave and did the Huki ever fly. I was continually hitting 12+ mph down the steep crests. The heavy ski would bury to near the cockpit every time and a rooster tail 4 feet high sprayed off of the headlamps that were mounted to the nose like Mickey Mouse ears. It was the same 30 watt headlamp system I used last year so I knew it was waterproof for a dunk, but I had my doubts of how it would hold up for an hour of submersion at speed.

I made short work of the bay and reached the inner channel of Sarasota bay in no time. I stopped at a beach to check out the damage to headlamp system. It was toasted. The bulbs were filled to the top with salt water. I dared not turn them on but knew they were gone. There is a rule that you must carry all the gear you start with so the 5 lbs of broken lamps and shorted batteries got a free ride to Key Largo. The hour of surfing also forced water into my cell phone bag and destroyed it. Ok, this was going to be interesting now. My lights were a key part of my strategy for reading the waves at night. Possibly this grounds for dropping out?

Then the Chiefs words echoed in my head.. “This is a challenge, not a race”. Worst case scenario would be travel is limited to day time hours. With determination to not let the race come before the challenge, I swallowed my doubt and got back on the ski. The next 60 miles to the check point were relatively eventless and flat. I did run out of water in the heat of the day but was able to continually ask for some water bottles from the power boats. By far the highlight of this leg was getting swamped by a cigar boat that passed me at 50 mph while screaming out “DORK!!!!” in my general direction.

I arrived at the first check point with over a 30 minute lead from the next boat in any class (including a 22 foot hydroplaning sailboat called the EC22 that I was for sure was already in Key Largo). It was 6:00 pm and the sun was going down soon.

WaterTribe Everglades Challenge by surfski Final leg into Check Point 1

The winds once again were hollowing. Last year Sally and I hit this spot at night in similar conditions. I knew how ugly it would be. The thought of unseen breaking waves and heavy winds at night was not very comforting to me in my tippy boat. There was 30 miles ahead of me consisting of open bay before Ft Myers Beach. It was now pitch black and a full cloud cover drowned out any help the moon would offer. Making goals of 5 mile increments, I was determined to push on till 1:00 am then evaluate the situation. Whitecaps continually blasted me from the left side and would roll over the nose of the heavy ski to the cockpit. Without lights, each wave was a surprise. My moving average slowed down from 6 to less than 3 mph as I continually was throwing panic braces necessitated from unseen waves.

At 2:00 am my nerves finally came unraveled and I made a sharp turn for an island that I saw in the distance. The lee side of the island offered some flat water for the first time in many hours. I must have kidded my self into believing there would be some channels thru the mangrove swamps that would dump me back out near Ft Myers. I had my fill of the waves at night and the swamps seemed welcoming. I pushed deeper into them till I was hopeless lost. Not sure where to go next, I took some deep breaths retraced my GPS track as a last ditch effort to find my way out.

WaterTribe Everglades Challenge by surfski Lost in the swamps trying to avoid winds

I would have stopped for the night, but the course simply would not let me. There was no solid land anywhere. Near my braking point and devastated by the conditions, I pushed back out into the wind that was now perfectly 90 degrees to the ski. I made the decision to head to the first light no matter what direction it was in. A 45 minute drudge through the wind ended me up at St James city on the southern most tip of Sanibel Island. The beach welcomed me and I pitched camp for the night.

I woke 4 hours later and repacked the ski and took off at first light. The winds of the night had died to a mild morning breeze. Feeling good, I sprinted to Ft Myers Beach welcoming any civilization. I was many hours behind my proposed schedule, but still found the time to sit down for some Corned Beef Hash at a local diner. The presence of people lifted my sprits. The next 30 miles turned into a second epic surfing run that following the beach about a mile off shore all the way to the barrier islands of the Everglades swamps. I was able to make up some of the time I lost as well as meet some new friends on sailboats. One of which even cooked me a hot meal while we were traveling. The sun set for the second time as I entered the Barrier islands of the everglades.

WaterTribe Everglades Challenge by surfski Barrier islands of the Everglades Swamps

With a sturdy tail wind, I pushed through the dark skirting the islands into Checkpoint 2, a little city named Chokoloskee that is deep in the swamp. I arrived at 11:45 pm in a perfect tie with a class 3 sailing kayak who goes by the name of Manitou Cruiser. He had been paddle sailing for some 35 hours straight. Together, we were the second boats to reach CP2. The Hydroplaning sail boat (named the EC22) was able to sustain near 17 mph for 11 hours straight utilizing the high winds of the night. The same winds that nearly brought me to my knees pushed them into an insurmountable lead . At this point, the EC22 was nearing the race finish.

When I finally got out of my ski at Chokoloskee, I was starved and it must have shown. A race volunteer was cooking burgers and offered me one. I devoured it in record time. The race volunteer must have saw the shear hungar panic on my face and offered me some rice, then 4 fruit cups, then fruit. Finally seeing that I was not about to stop, he pulled out the reserved canned tuna. It was a meal that I will never forget. The 8 hours of surfing the loaded Surfski had taken a large toll on me from the previous day. I knew I needed some rest and pitched my tent till 4:00 am.

I woke in the dark of night, but for the first time the clouds had cleared and the moon was offering some glimmering light. The small amount of light was just enough to allow the waves to show themselves. I was relieved as the winds were still hollowing and I was not sure I could do much more of the navigation and balancing through invisible whitecaps. I was feeling good and made one continual push thru the remaining barrier islands and into the heart of the Everglades. I was very excited to see the swamps during the daylight this year. My expectations were met and the swamps beautiful. Other than a semi headwind that slowed my moving average down from 6 to just below 5mph, the next 10 hour passed effortlessly. I arrived at the entrance to Florida Bay at 6:00pm.

WaterTribe Everglades Challenge by surfski Entrance to the Everglades swamps. Amazing scenery and wildlife

The previous year, Sally and I covered the final stretch in just 5.5 hours. I figured the strong headwinds would add only 3 hour to my trip. I could not believe it, I was going to finish well under 3 days with only 10 hours of stops total!! Florida Bay is a 35 stretch of open water known for shallow mud and a few scattered mangrove islands that have no solid land. There are only a few paths through some of the mud flats that are marked by PVC pipes that the local fishermen put up. There are few bail outs and absolutely no light from civilization as the horizon is too far off.

WaterTribe Everglades Challenge by surfski The 35 mile stretch through Florida bay – near 17 hours with small craft advisory and strong headwinds during the night.

My biggest fear of the entire race was to reach Florida Bay at night, and if I did, I was not sure if I would even attempt it. My fear had become reality. There was already a 25 knot headwind gusting up 30+ mph and a small craft advisory was in affect.

The high winds of the day before had chalked up 3 coast guard rescues. One of which required two sailors to get helicopter lifted from their catamaran that had the mast knocked off when it rolled in shallow water on high seas. The race director had instructed all of us that if there were small craft advisories in affect we should stop and wait it out. Any hours lost would be subtracted from our time. It sounded like a political mess to me and I really wanted to avoid having to ask for hours taken off my time once I finished. What if others did not hear about the advisory and continued on? It had a bad smell to it. Without lights and only my GPS to guide me through the narrow channels, I entered the windy open black expanse. I was driven by the visions of an unprecedented sub 3 day finish.

It was now 7:00 pm and I had been hitting it hard since 4:00 am from the night before. I found that I could only sustain 2 to 3 mph with the headwinds. I was exhausted, afraid and demoralized by how slow the miles were pealing off. Maintaining any speed at all required the hardest push I had done for the entire race. It felt like a downwind race, but backwards. I was panic bracing again every few minutes as waves flushed over me in the black of the night. I was able to keep this up till near 1:00am. I had only covered 15 miles in 7 hours and was starting to make some really poor decisions as the sleep deprivation hardened. Unwisely, I headed for an island that I saw on my GPS many miles out hoping to avoid some of the passes and perhaps cut off a few miles. No shorter than 200 yards out from the island I found my self hopeless suck in mud.

The winds at this point were horrendous and even the few inches of water over the mud was a white froth. I hopped off the ski without thinking and immediately sunk knee deep. Instantly, I felt a sturdy tug on my waist as my coiled leash pulled tight with conviction as the winds started barrel rolling my loaded surfksi out towards Mexico. (YES – Wear your leash). The island was still several football fields away and I knew there would be no way to reach it. I got out the GPS and found another island about 4 miles to the south. I was determined to make it as I felt the hypothermia setting it. Keeping moving was my only chance to stay warm. I was able to pull myself together and found that by getting on my shins and fore arms I could crawl on the mud without sinking in.

WaterTribe Everglades Challenge by surfski WaterTribe Everglades Challenge by surfski Crawling through the mud towing boat via leash.
Camping on a Mangrove Island

I did this crawl for nearly a half mile till I found water deep enough to paddle in again. Without knowing the area, unfortunately did not realize that the mudcapade could have been avoided by a simple 20 strokes to the north and a small distance backwards. Looking at the satellite photos makes me cringes in hind site. When I arrived at the island, there was no land to be found, only a twisted mess of roots getting hammered by breaking waves. I went back to the GPS and located a smaller island only .25 miles south. I made my way to the lee side of the new island taking shelter from the wind and paddled as close to the roots as I could get myself. everglades paddling

It was near 3 am and the finish was only 10 miles away. I knew though my night was over with. I have heard numerous stories of people sleeping in their kayaks in similar positions when Florida bay went ugly, but in the Surfski, this was simply not an option for me. I started breaking off as many roots as possible hoping to create a cubby hole to pitch a dilapidated tent in. This effort alone took quite some time while standing deep in the mud, but finally my efforts paid off. I stripped down and dressed in my hypothermia kit, then managed to crawl into my mangled tent. I still am not sure if I ever fell asleep, but the sun seemed to come up immediately. I haphazardly stuffed the remains of my camp through the hatches.

The final 10 miles took me over 3 hours into the same headwinds and waves from the night before. Arriving at the finish, I was greeted by my dad and handful of supporters. I was in full tears of elation, but luckily they were masked by my sun glasses and the fact that I was already soaking wet. I rolled off the boat into the shallow beach unable to even move. This was a stark comparison to my peppy jump out of the boat in June of 2006 for 460 mile Yukon river quest. It took me nearly 17 hours to cross the 35 miles of the last bay. I felt like Florida Bay had eaten me to the core leaving only my skeleton left on the beach for the sand crabs to finish off.

My final time was 3 days and 2 hours which consisted of 15 hour out of the boat. Through all the pain and doubts of the last day, I still hold this race very close to my heart and am already getting excited for next year. I feel like every year the experience of the Watertribe Everglades challenge evolves me as person and opens my eyes to experiences that modern man no longer needs to deal with. This race is very special to me for its dynamic nature and different experience that it offers us each running. Only our personal growth and self evolution can be measured between years as records and even personal bests or worst’s are meaningless gauges in this environment. Anybody who completes this course regardless of time has accomplished an experience that few will ever get to know.

As for the Surfski, I suspect the exposure factor over 300 miles is greater than any speed gains. I am sure someday soon a Strong sea kayaker will prevail over the course. But the Surfski is what defines my love for paddle sports and the ocean so it will always be where you find me.

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