By John Haugen-Wente
Sharkchow, Wizard, Sandybottom, IronBob, Kneading Water, Ridgerunner. All names I knew well. Part of the WaterTribe. A loose knit group of kindred spirits dedicated to the development of small boats, and human athletic performance.
I had been following the WaterTribes Everglades Challenge Race for a couple of years. Tampa Bay to Key Largo, Florida, a distance of roughly 300 miles depending upon the route you take. You choose the boat that suits your temperament and skill level: Sailboat, canoe, kayak, or other, and go for it. You have eight days to finish. Three checkpoints are scattered throughout the distance, which you have to arrive at in a specified amount of time or go home disqualified. Other filters include leaving the beach in Tampa Bay without outside assistance, the ability to drop your mast to clear some bridges along the route, and the shallowness of the water in the Everglades. This guarantees a race designed for small boats only, crewed by experts in their respective disciplines, traveling from all over North America to compete. In most years only half or fewer of the competitors finish. The rest, humbled by the conditions, equipment failure, or mental exhaustion learn a few lessons and bag it, only to sign up again the following year, hopefully better prepared.
So how does a recreational paddler/sailor get inspired by this race? I followed the race online for a couple of years, completely absorbed by the participants self-assessments and back-stories. I am not a spectator by nature.
I am a participant in life, and after a bit of long distance curiosity, I thought it would fun to give it a try. I have an entire garage full of capable boats. My resume includes thousands of miles of wilderness trips. And I do consider myself somewhat of an expert in boat handling techniques.
The racer mentality however is lost on me. Paddling and sailing have always been the closest I get to spirituality. Nothing excites me more than rigging my canoe or kayak with a sail, dropping the leeboard and rudder, and under wind power alone, sailing over the horizon. If the wind dies, I drop the sail and paddle, equally spiritual, equally exciting. Speed has never been the motivation. But I remained intrigued.
I always envisioned myself in the race solo. Then Bob entered the picture. Hearing about the race, he wondered if I would consider a partner. “Hmmmm,” I said. “Gonna have to think about that for a few days. And I did, concluding that having a partner who I respect and trust might not be such a bad combination.
Bob is formidable. A former college wrestler and then coach, he embodies and thrives on competition. Ski racing, bike racing, overcoming mental and physical fatigue, wired for speed and punishment, a natural athlete, and just past 60 years old, as strong a person as I have ever met. And me, competitive to a fault, except when it comes to biking, skiing, and my favorite Zen activity, boating. I thought I would just go down to Florida with my gear, push off from the beach, and paddle/sail fast enough to get to Key Largo in eight days or less. No problem. Bob has other ideas: Training, training, training. He is right of course. This event is not for the faint of heart, or the unprepared.
My sailing canoe with a spray cover is my preferred craft. But Bob is not as comfortable in a canoe as a kayak. The canoe gives way to my tandem folding kayak. Extremely seaworthy, designed for ocean use, but the spacing is all-wrong for paddle clearance between the sailing hardware, and the bow and stern paddler. After every possible incarnation of resolving the problem, the fix was to buy another boat. At 22 feet long by 26 inches wide it is truly a magnificent craft, resolving all of our spacing issues in one simple motion. Beautiful.Training: First 20 miles, then 30, 35, 40 and now up to 50 miles in a day. Bob is experimenting with energy milkshakes, water intake, and paddle positions. I am experimenting with swimming off of the boat, stopping for lunch breaks, and watching the birds flit into the trees. Bob is focused on routes, VHF radios, Spot locators, logistics of car shuttles, and all of the other details that truly need to be worked out. I am still enjoying the sunrise and watching the birds flit into the trees.
The crux of it is: My heart is into the idea of the race, but training (Something I never do) has taken some of the fun out of my most soul-inspiring recreational pursuit. And we still have eight months to go before we head to Florida. On the other hand, I have committed to this race. There is no choice. Once you bring someone else into your dream, and they embrace it as their own, backing out is not an option. The disappointment would be too great, a friendship would be lost.
Bob, for his part recognizes my angst, and has taken to controlled pacing, instead of pushing to the point of delirium. Something that will bode well for us in the Gulf of Mexico.
For my part I have started to fully engage in the preparations, the logistics, and the training. Forging ahead for Bob, and he for me. That is what partners do.
Stay tuned–hopefully John will share a True Story Well Told about his experience in the race, which begins Saturday, March 02, 2013.