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by Gary and Helen Blankenship, Tallahassee, Florida - USA

and Gary Sabitsch - Tallahassee, Florida - USA

(Authors’ note: Following a style used on articles about the 2013 and 2015 Everglades Challenges, the following story is written in alternating sections by the authors. Gary Blankenship wrote the main narrative, Gary Sabitsch added a daily summary of his thoughts. Those are in italics. Each contributed to the final editing of the article. Gary Sabitsch was a first time EC participant and wrote a longer, separate account that will appear in the July/August issue (#100) of Small Craft Advisor. Look for it there.)

Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four

“Yahoo! (We hit about 13 knots.) Oh ^%$&*! (We nearly capsized six times getting in Stump Pass.) Thank God! (We got to CP1 by dark.)”

So read our log entry when we reached Cape Haze Marina at Placida, the first checkpoint for the 2016 Everglades Challenge. A good day of sailing morphed to the exhilarating level and then nearly ended (and perhaps should have given the goof I made) in disaster. But we were still standing and ready to go on for another four days of wind and waves, narrow channels and tides, seasoned with a generous dash of sleep deprivation.

WaterTribe’s Everglades Challenge (see is an annual 300-mile expedition event for canoes, kayaks, and small sailboats. Competitors beach launch at Ft. Desoto Park on the north side of the mouth of Tampa Bay, proceed down the southwest Florida coast, and finish three checkpoints and about 300 miles later in Key Largo. There were 90 or so entrees in the EC, another 11 entrees (with 12 people) were in the longer, 1,200-mile Ultimate Florida Challenge and seven or so were in the shorter Ultimate Marathon, which ends at the first checkpoint. (The official roster shows a larger number in the UM; some people who were originally in the EC but had problems were switched to the shorter UM so they were listed as official finishers there.)

With me this year was Gary Sabitsch, also from Tallahassee. Everyone in WaterTribe has a nickname; his is HavanaMana (his mailing address is Havana, FL). I’m Lugnut.

A lot of kayaks and small boats lined up on the starting beach at Desoto Park on the day before the March 5 start.

Gary S. works on Oaracle on the Friday before the launch. Thanks to his organization, we were ready in record time.

There was a bit of nervousness about this year’s EC. Last year, a northeast wind picked up just after the start, contesting an incoming tide. The wind and resulting short, steep seas caused to several capsizes. The Coast Guard and local law enforcement pulled 12 ECers out of Tampa Bay, which led to the Coast Guard canceling the event. This year, a northeast wind was again predicted, although at a slightly lower velocity. The tide would again be incoming.

The 2015 event prompted some changes. Everyone at the March 4 check-in had to present his or her life vest with personal locator beacon, knife (either fixed blade in sheath or capable of being opened one handed), and a whistle. Once checked in, we could put our boats on the beach. Veterans could do their own equipment inspection and present a signed checklist to race organizers. First timers must be inspected to make sure they comply with boat and equipment requirements. WaterTribe founder Steve Isaac (Chief) explained another change at the afternoon skippers’ meeting. There would be two chase boats just offshore at the start, in the main Tampa Bay shipping channel. In case someone flipped there, the boats would be available to help with a rescue before any large ships needed the channel. I’m guessing that was a concern of the Coast Guard after the 2015 event. Anyway, they weren’t needed this year.

We got Oaracle on the beach with little problem, and helped a few other entrants get their sailboats lined up. (One of the EC rules is at the start, boats must be launched by their crews without outside assistance from above the high tide line – it’s a way of limiting size and weight and encouraging innovation without a hard and fast rule.) One of the benefits of doing with EC with Gary is he is very organized. By early afternoon we had the boat as ready as it could be and had nothing left to do. After the skippers’ meeting, we got an early dinner and went to bed.

At 4 a.m., we were up to break camp, eat a quick breakfast and get to the beach. Our final gear was loaded in short order, we went to roll call, and then waited for the 7 a.m. start. We had our own cheering section with Gary’s wife, Pauline, his brother, Kevin, who was driving our truck and trailer to the Key Largo finish line, and his mother and grandmother. Thanks to the new beach rollers purchased from Duckworks, we had Oaracle launched, the rollers lashed to the cabin topsides, the sails up, and pushed away from the beach by 7:15. A good start, but we were among the last from the beach. The winds were light as we departed but not too far off the beach, they picked up to around 10-12 knots. By the time we were halfway across the bay, the wind-opposed tidal current had generated a lumpy sea.

Waves weren't too big when we crossed Tampa Bay, but large enough to obscure most of this kayaker we passed.
A drone captured this picture of Oaracle in Tampa Bay, shortly after the Saturday morning start. Photo courtesy of Simon Lew.

Not bad, certainly not like 2015, but a quick welcome to the EC. Given the forecast northeasterly winds, we decided to go out into the Gulf of Mexico, rather than take the more protected inside route down the Intracoastal Waterway. Once out into the gulf, the land would keep down the waves and with winds forecast at 10 to maybe 15, we expected a more consistent breeze there. In past years, I’ve gone out the middle channel from Tampa Bay. This year, we followed the fleet out Passage Key pass, on the north end of Anna Maria Island. It’s a bit trickier, with shifting shoals. But all we had to do was follow the other boats and avoid the obvious breaking waves and we were into the gulf with much of the fleet spread out in front and beside us. Not sure I’d try that passage in onshore winds.

We were with much of the sailing fleet as we went out the Passage Key entrance to Tampa Bay, off the north end of Anna Maria Island.

We cleared the pass around 8:25, after averaging more than 5 knots across Tampa Bay. Once in the gulf, the waves calmed a bit and we made good time heading down the coast in ideal conditions, continuing to average more than 5 knots. The surrounding cluster of boats began to spread out. We made excellent time to Long Boat Pass at the southern end of Anna Maria Island, where the wind eased a bit. The speed dropped to below 4 knots. By 12:30, we were off New Pass at Sarasota and the wind eased a bit more and backed to the north. The speed dropped to a bit more than 3 knots, but sometimes dipped under 3. A Sea Pearl with tanbark sails gybed its way downwind past us; we attempted to match the downwind tacking but with no success. We discussed setting the jib to improve speed, but it’s quite a task to get it set and it’s only 35 to 40 square feet. I wasn’t sure it was worth the effort. That turned out to be the right decision and by 1:30 the wind had backed more to the northwest. As Oaracle passed Sarasota, the speed was averaging 5.5 knots. Small boater Pat Johnson from Pensacola came by in his power boat, with Patrick Johnson of Wellington as a passenger.

Pat Johnson, with crew Patrick Johnson, zoomed by us off Sarasota...
...and got this nice shot of Oaracle The winds had just picked up and we were doing around 5 knots.

No longer protected by land, the seas built a bit, but were very manageable. Oaracle had a few modest surfs, registering 7 to 8 knots on the GPS, and hints of whitecaps were beginning to appear. Gary and I were trading the helm every hour and were enjoying the ride; the boat felt in complete control. By 3:30, we were off Venice Inlet, averaging over 6 knots, and I decided to stay outside to Stump Pass. It was a bit of a gamble and one we nearly lost. In strong northwest winds, the unimproved inlets on Florida west coast can become impassible, with waves breaking all the way across. Venice is an improved inlet, narrow but fairly straightforward to get into. With the northwest wind, once inside we should be able to sail down the protected Venice Canal to Lemon Bay and then to the first checkpoint. We would lose some time, but avoid complications if conditions worsened. But at that moment, conditions were still moderate with waves no more than about 3 feet. We were positioned to get to Stump with plenty of daylight left and an incoming tide to help us through. So on we went.

But almost immediately, the wind and seas picked up. Not alarmingly; the winds were probably around 15. Since we were running, Oaracle was able to carry full sail and was handling the conditions without difficulty. For several hours, another Michalak boat in the EC, a Mikesboat sailed by Scott Knapp and Steve Baum (Wanders and Swampfox) had been slowly drawing up to us. Around Venice, they passed us, drew a short distance ahead and then we paced each other though nearly two hours of wild sailing.

Scott Knapp and Steve Baum passed us around Venice and stayed close for the wild ride to Stump Pass.

Our surfing spurts crept up to 8, 9, and then 10 knots. I told Gary, who was steering, that Oaracle’s all-time maximum was 10.8 knots, achieved 10 years earlier with Chuck Leinweber in my second EC. That the record soon fell as he hit 11 and then 12 plus knots, before settling back to 5 or so in the troughs. Judging wave heights can be difficult, but I was watching as the tops of the biggest waves rise slightly above the horizon. Given my eye height, that would make them four to five feet, the occasional one slightly higher.

Gary B steers downwind in the increasing seas on the first day of the Everglades Challenge.

My turn at the helm came and the exhilarating ride continued. The Mikesboat rounded up to tuck in a reef, but we continued, still occasionally hitting double digits. Suddenly the boat rose up and I had a distinct feeling of going downhill. Oaracle raced ahead and I had a momentary qualm about whether the bow might bury. It didn’t. I glanced by my GPS as speed came down and saw a 12. Gary’s GPS was measuring peak speed in mph. He showed me, 15.7, or better than 13 knots. Much later, we looked again and it showed 16.7. We’re still not sure if we read it wrong the first time or we had another huge surf. Anyway, it works out to about 14.5 knots, the fastest Oaracle has ever gone (and I’m pretty sure the fastest the boat ever will). These numbers are momentary surfing speeds but the Spot satellite tracker that all competitors carry shows we were making tremendous progress. The 10 minute readings show speeds averaging 7.5 knots (about 2 knots above hull speed) as we approached Stump Pass. One reading topped 8. Stump Pass was now getting close and we, too, decided a reef was the prudent thing before trying to enter. We put in one reef and discovered I had probably waited too long. When we got back on course, I saw Stump Pass was almost abeam. We had to reach across the steep waves, a couple of which heeled us uncomfortably over, before I began bearing away as they approached. Fortunately, as we closed the shore, the size of the waves decreased. And that is what saved us.

Stump, like other unimproved inlets, has a shoal that starts on the north side if its mouth, runs across the mouth and ends south of the mouth. There is a narrow “deep” channel that runs inside the shoal close to shore. If the breaking waves are big enough, they’ll break all the way across the shoal and the channel. The “textbook” approach is to sail past the mouth and the end of the shoal and then up the channel. The catch being that until reaching the inlet mouth, it was nearly dead upwind and it was not clear there was enough width to tack. There is also rumored to be a narrow channel right next to shore on the north side of the mouth which maybe can be sneaked into. In 2006, Chuck and I came at Stump in slightly more benign conditions. We approached from the “wrong” way, the northwest, and the closer we got the more the seas abated. There were no breakers and we sailed right over the shoal without bumping leeboard or rudder and with no fuss right into the inlet. That was then. As we approached this year, we could clearly see breakers, fortunately maybe only two feet. It didn’t help that at 6 knots, we didn’t have a lot of time to make a decision. I saw what looked like a clear channel running a short ways north of the mouth, and what looked like a path through the breakers, just wide enough for Oaracle. I steered for it. Bad choice.

The clear path disappeared as we got there and a breaking wave almost knocked us over. We frantically hiked to the high side and Oaracle came back. Not for long. What I thought was a clear channel also disappeared and the breaking waves came at us broadside. Time and again the boat nearly went over, as we frantically levered ourselves to the high side. Each time I thought we were lost, but each time Oaracle came back up. The last time, we took several gallons of water over the cockpit rail, the first time that has happened, but Oaracle came back up again. We lost count of how many knockdowns we had; reconstructing later we guessed six, but it may have been more. My thighs were sore for two days from jackhammering me to the high side time and again. But somehow miraculously, Oaracle wound up in the mouth of the inlet, in calm water with an incoming tide. We had to gybe away from the south side but then we were through, the calm water contrasting with our still surging adrenaline. In 12 years of sailing Oaracle, that is the hairiest minute or so of sailing I’ve experienced. If we had gone over, at least it was only a few feet to shore.

John Bell prepared this comparison using Google Earth. The red path is the one he and Will Nye took into Stump Pass. Note how they took any waves on the stern. The blue path was taken by Oaracle; note how any waves are taken abeam. Obviously this Google shot was taken on a different day, but this is a close representation to where the breakers were that Saturday. Note the clear channel to the south.

By the way, there is a correct, or better way to do this. A couple boats did the approved route to the south, but had trouble tacking up the channel and wound up walking their boats up the beach in deep water and choppy waves. John Bell (MisterMoon) and Will Nye (ZerotheHero) in John’s Core Sound 17 quickly sized up the situation, lined up on the mouth of the inlet and shot through the breakers, taking them astern. John said they had no trouble.

Once through the inlet we headed south through a shallow shortcut to the ICW. It can be tricky, but Oaracle only draws four to five inches and although we bumped a couple times, we made it through without grounding. The first checkpoint is only a mile or so from Stump Pass, and we quickly went from the high drama of our Stump entrance to a bit of low comedy. Gary and I were still discussing our escape and decompressing when I realized we had passed the entrance to Cape Haze Marina, the first checkpoint. For some reason I was certain the entrance was opposite red channel marker #8. It’s closer to green #9. We turned around to tack back – and discovered we couldn’t get Oaracle to tack because of a strong lee helm. A bit of a lesson (re)learned here; namely don’t make changes before a long sail like the EC without a chance to thoroughly test them. I had changed the parrel arrangement on the yard shortly before the EC. There had been a couple test sails, but in light winds without a reef. It turns out the new arrangement prevented the yard for shifting aft when reefed (which is what I wanted), but the result was too much sail was forward of the mast when reefed, resulting in a strong lee helm and an inability to tack. I floundered through a couple gybes in the now narrow channel and then beached Oaracle on a sandy area. The sail was dropped, the old parrel setup quickly rerigged, and the sailed re-raised. A few quick tacks brought us to the marina entrance. It has been a goal of mine to reach CP1 in daylight. We had actually reached the entrance while it was light but the floundering meant it was near total dark when we reached the dock at 7:15 p.m.

The plan was for a fairly quick turnaround, but now we needed a bit more time to finish mopping out the cockpit. I signed the checkpoint log, we hit the bathroom and put on some warmer clothes for the cool night ahead. Race Manager Paula Martel (PaddleDancer) asked how the first leg was.

“We nearly died in Stump Pass,” I replied.

Paula gave me a mock stern look: “No one dies when I’m managing the race.”

We had a bite to eat, which underscored one of the advantages of sailing with Gary. A few weeks before the EC, he asked if he could bring a cooler along. I was skeptical about whether there would be enough room and how long it would keep food cold. But Gary worked out that it would fit at the aft end of the cockpit floor and be out of the way. He packed in ice when we left for the EC on Thursday and his wife brought fresh ice Saturday morning before launch. The result was we the cooler kept food cool for more than three days and we had instantly available roast beef and turkey pita sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, and ham, cheese, and crackers, along with some other food. We were able to eat quickly and well.

First Leg Perspective from a first timer:

The first day of the EC was the realization of something I have been wanting to be a part of since watching the launch at the 2012 race. Our start was slow but went exactly as we had practiced. The ride across Tampa Bay was uneventful, good thing as I am sure my nerves were way up there. It seemed like everyone was ahead of us and that is because they were. Once outside of the bay what greeted us was very simply a great day of sailing in nice winds, perfect skies, and comfortable temperatures. We made good time and as the afternoon winds came up we made really great time as we rode the swells like a big blue rocket. The run down the coast was great and exciting, the short ride into Stump Pass and to the checkpoint was scarier and exciting. I have sailed aboard Oaracle many times and have seen a bit of water sneak in through the oar ports, but seeing the water spill in over the side and realizing that the mast is a very long way from being perpendicular to the water was a new experience. After each attempt to scoop up the gulf water, we somehow survived and eventually made it to the pass. Overall we reached the checkpoint in good time, a little wet and a lot thankful. So in 12 hours; we launched, sailed some 60 miles, set vessel speed records, denied an angry sea, and finished the first leg of the 2016 Everglades Challenge. I call that a great way to spend a day of vacation.

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