Everglades Challenge, 2017 – Part One

by Gary Blankenship and Gary Sabitsch - Tallahassee, Florida - USA

Oaracle (left) shared a campground with Scott Gosnell’s IMB boat, which he sailed with Scott Widmier. The stormy conditions forced their eventual withdrawal.

“If we go over, swim that way.”

I pointed less than a mile to the west, indicating  the south end on Gasparilla Island, just north of Boca Grande Inlet at Charlotte Harbor along Florida’s southwest coast.

Gary Sabitsch looked at me and asked, “Do you think there’s a chance of that happening?”

“Yes,” was my candid and clear response.

We were about three hours into the delayed start of the 2017 Everglades Challenge and we were definitely finding a challenge. The 20- to 25-knot forecast easterly was blowing every bit of that, and perhaps more. That gave a 20-mile fetch down Charlotte Harbor, kicking up a nasty, short 3-4 foot chop that was hitting us on the beam. The tops of the waves were breaking and despite a double reef tied into the mainsail, Oaracle (a Jim Michalak-designed Folic2 sailboat) was feeling overpowered even with both of us on the high side.

Oaracle has been in bigger seas, but these had the right (or wrong) spacing to toss Oaracle like a matchstick. If a wave knocked her over, righting the boat would be a fantasy. It would be best to swim straight to land. Fortunately, there was no tide running through the Boca Grande; if there had been an incoming tide battling the wind, I wouldn’t have attempted to cross the mouth. If I had known how rough it would get even without the tide, I would have also waited. Hindsight is always 20/20.

We already had done some waiting, in a first for an Everglades Challenge – a 300-mile expedition style race for kayaks, canoes, and small sailboats that runs down Florida’s southwest coast, round the southern tip of the state, and ends in Key Largo. At the Friday, March 3, skipper’s meeting WaterTribe (the organization that runs the EC) honcho Steve Isaac (we all have tribal nicknames, his is Chief, mine is Lugnut, and Gary is HavanaMana) had announced that if the predicted small craft advisories from the National Weather Service remained for the scheduled 7 am start the next day, no one would be allowed to launch.

In the 2015 EC, the winds blew up right after the start, notheasterlies combating an incoming tide that caused several capsizes of kayaks and sailboats and resulting rescues by the Coast Guard and local law enforcement. Those events led to an agreement between the Coast Guard and Chief that there would be no future launches from the Ft. Desoto Park starting line during a small craft advisory.

Sure enough, at roll call Saturday as the eastern sky pinked behind the Sunshine Skyway bridge, Chief announced that the start would be delayed. He had come up with options: 1) remain on the beach until the advisory was lifted (which he cautioned might be Sunday afternoon or even Monday morning); or, 2) pick up your boat, drive over the Skyway and find a launching ramp south of Tampa Bay and restart – but not before 7 a.m. Sunday. How far south could we go, someone asked. As far as the first checkpoint at Cape Haze Marina, Chief said.

Gary and I had a logistical problem. His brother, Kevin (hewhotakestrucktokeylargo), and mother, Arlene, were present. They had volunteered to drive my truck and trailer to the Key Largo finish, where they had a rental car reserved that afternoon for their drive home to Orlando. We were not familiar with any launching ramps across the bay and had precious little time to find one. So a call was put into Cape Haze Marina and the response that sure, they could put Oaracle in the water and even had a spare slip for us for the night.

So off we went with the revised plan. I briefly felt sorry that we were starting so far south, but eventually about half the fleet of sailboats and kayaks joined us there. (For the record, there were 99 boats on the beach of the EC that Saturday morning. Two who had scheduling problems if there were a delay decided to withdraw from the event and launch immediately on their own and proceed unofficially to Key Largo. Twenty others did not restart the next day, probably because of logistical/scheduling problems.)

Getting put in the water at Cape Haze on Saturday; not quite the beach launching we anticipated at Ft. Desoto.
Sunday just after 7 a.m., several off the boats have already left.

The folks at Cape Haze were magnificent as they put boat after boat in the water and coped with the kayakers showing up early and pitching tents. Veteran WaterTriber Etchemin (Stan Hanson) came a day early with a meal of hot dogs, potato salad and more. It was an odd day. After being psyched up to hit the water, we instead had an extra day by the enforced delay and after getting Oaracle in the water and into the slip, we were at loose ends.

That all changed the next morning when boats and kayaks hit the water. The forecast was daunting, Strong east winds, perhaps 20 to 25. We rowed out of the marina and got the sail up with one reef in. It wasn’t needed in the narrow canal between Lemon Bay to the north and Gasparilla Sound to the south, but we didn’t want to mess around in choppy water when we cleared the canal. In front of us were a variety of sailboats, several Hobie Adventure Islands (singles and doubles) and kayaks.

Just after leaving Cape Haze at the delayed start. A deceptively calm start to an exceptionally windy day.
Right after leaving Cape Haze, we were in company with this Hobie AI in placid conditions that would not last long.

We moseyed down the canal, and sure enough when we cleared it, the wind picked up. We followed the Intracoastal Waterway under the Gasparilla bridge and then cleared the old railroad bridge beyond. The wind was as strong as forecast and the second reef was soon in.

Charlotte Harbor by Boca Grande inlet, as always, was a concern. From around 6 am to noon there would be little tidal current, but after that an incoming tide would be fighting the easterly wind. I wanted to be through well before then. With the strong winds, we were approaching Boca Grande by 10 am and flying along at over 6 knots. But the water was rough, with the three to four foot closely spaced waves hitting us on the beam with breaking crests.

Part One – Part Two – Part Three – Part Four – Part Five – Part Six


    • Picking great crew is the key! You would have loved this year; until the last day, worst conditions since 2012.

  1. Gary 2012 was a walk in the park with your wise, experienced decision making. You dodged all of the bad stuff and I never had an anxious moment. You won the class and were virtually the only class 4 finisher. You are a master mariner.

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