Adventurers prepare for grueling Everglades Challenge with warm-up cruise

Josh Morgan sails away from Pavilion Key aboard a custom-built canoe with a sail and outriggers.
Josh Morgan sails away from Pavilion Key aboard a custom-built canoe with a sail and outriggers. Courtesy photo

Retired University of Miami chemistry professor Keith Wellman has been leading 100-mile Everglades explorations from Flamingo to Chokoloskee since the mid 1990s. But as he has grown older, the Pinecrest resident, now 79, has become weary of paddling a sea kayak. So he bought a watercraft that would give him three options for long-distance travel — a Hobie Adventure Island. It combines kayak, sailboat and pedal boat, enabling him to propel himself with his legs if feels like it, a sail when he doesn’t, and a paddle for backup. He hardly ever uses the paddle.

The craft’s durable rotomolded polyethylene construction withstands the jagged oyster bars that surround Chokoloskee, and its twin amas — outriggers held in place with arms called akas — keep it stable in all but the worst sea conditions. It also has a rudder and daggerboard for ease of steering.

The boat has become a favorite among a fleet of hardy but peculiar explorers known as the Water Tribe, who compete annually in the Everglades Challenge — a 300-nautical-mile expedition race among human-powered craft from Tampa Bay to Key Largo. The next edition begins Saturday. More than 100 competitors have signed up, paying nearly $400 for the privilege of being waterlogged, windblown, mosquito-bitten, hungry and fatigued over a period of eight days just to receive a prize of an alligator tooth at the finish line. The event is so hazardous that organizers warn on the website that “even if you enter this race well-prepared, you may DIE.”

Wellman used to think he wanted to try it, but now he just follows the event online.

“The allure of doing it just doesn’t appeal to me anymore,” he said. “I do this stuff now, but I do it in a leisurely manner.”

Recently, Wellman organized what he considered a leisurely voyage for five friends — including me — from Chokoloskee south to Pavilion Key in the Everglades backcountry for a two-night campout, a distance of about 9 miles. Invitees Royd Whedon of St. Petersburg, Josh Morgan of Naples and Joe Slama of Miami all are Water Tribe veterans. Slama brought along his nephew Joe Ciamciolo of Key Largo. Uncle and nephew paddled two canoes, while Whedon used his Adventure Island and lent his custom-outfitted Kruger Canoe to Morgan. Wellman lent me his wife Nancy’s Adventure Island and taught me how to sail it over two days at Matheson Hammock Park.

For the Water Tribe crew, the trip was a low-pressure, warm-up cruise for the Everglades Challenge, sort of a mild shakedown of various boat configurations and storage options. For me, it was high adventure. I had never really sailed before and now I would be skippering a single-handed boat.

The group departed Chokoloskee in mid-afternoon to take advantage of the push of the outgoing tide. But the anticipated three-hour trip took until dark because of shifty winds. Wellman and I had to tack repeatedly and skirt a long, narrow sandbar in the face of an unexpectedly weak breeze from the south as we neared Pavilion Key.

We set up our tents and propane stoves and heated a pasta dish Wellman had brought frozen from home. I don’t know exactly what was in it, but it was delicious.

After dinner, the Water Tribers reclined on the wide, sandy beach enthusiastically discussing boat modifications for the upcoming Everglades Challenge. Both Whedon, a 63-year-old retiree from Home Depot, and Morgan, a 35-year-old firefighter, confessed they followed the race for years on the Internet before finally deciding to enter. Morgan has competed three times and Whedon four.

“I’m addicted,” Morgan said.

Said Whedon: “We’re masochists.”

Added Slama, a 66-year-old retired pharmacist who flipped his catamaran at his first Challenge last year: “It feels so good when you stop.”

The following day, when the tide rose enough for easy launching, we all boarded our boats and fanned out to try to catch sea trout for dinner.

Using a sail is annoying when you are trying to fish, so I just pedaled around with the sail furled, casting a D.O.A. Deadly combo rattling float connected to a plastic shrimp. I caught four trout and a redfish — all of which were too small to keep. However Wellman, using a similar set-up, managed several larger trout, which he sautéed in panko breadcrumbs at camp. Excellent.

If you don’t like to fish, you can easily amuse yourself watching the enormous flocks of birds on Pavilion Key in wintertime: white pelicans, terns, gulls, oyster catchers, cormorants, ospreys — even a bald eagle that strolled around on the flats at low tide feeding in the mud. Two crows patrolled the beach as we decamped, cawing occasionally as if to remind us to clean up after ourselves.

The return trip to Chokoloskee was much quicker. The westerly winds were not that brisk, but the tide helped a lot. In some spots with our sails up, Wellman and I clocked speeds over 6 miles per hour; it felt like racing compared with the earlier voyage.

Our two-day expedition had been fun, but I’m not sure about extending that to eight days and turning it into a race, especially when there’s an excellent chance of encountering really stinky weather.

Said Whedon: “There’s an allure to the sea. Most of the time, it’s floating down one of the most beautiful coastlines in the country, and other times, you don’t want any part of it.”

If you go

Now is prime time to explore the Everglades wilderness. Everglades National Park requires campers to obtain a wilderness permit, available at the Gulf Coast and Flamingo visitor centers. Cost is $10 per permit, plus $2 per person per night, up to a maximum of 14 days. Permits may be picked up no more than 24 hours in advance between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Visit www.nps.gov/ever.

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