We’ve watched from afar as the Watertribe Everglades Challenge went from a wacky little raid to the biggest race of its kind anywhere, and we’ve been massively impressed to see organizer and founder Steve “Chief” Isaac negotiate the fine line between staying off the radar and creating an exciting, interesting format that allows kayaks and canoes to compete with multihull and monohull dinghies. Isaac made one mistake though – he tried to stay ‘pirate’ when it was time to get along with The Man, and the result is a pissed off Coast Guard, pissed off competitors, and an event that’s now been thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Chief has responded in a pretty solid way (and you can see another movie of the event here) but the conversation rages on (with tons of reports, links, and photos to tell the story).
Longtime SA friends Ron White and Mike McGarry were very much on pace to win this Everglades Challenge until it all went sideways – here’s Ron’s story. Following it is his analysis of the race conditions and organization, and remember: Ron would never tell you so, but he’s one of the key figures behind the undisputed success of the largest freshwater distance race in the world – the Chicago Mackinac.
As a competitor, I can tell you that I am aggravated almost beyond words. Since last year’s event we have spent an entire year prepping, modifying, and testing our entry, including two training trips to FL. Just the process of adding a masthead screecher and rowing-seat rig was mind boggling, expensive and fun, but make no mistake: We spent the time and the money to in search of a first-to-finish victory, and we sure wouldn’t have done it just to mess around with my Tornado “for fun”.
Mike and I have a track record of approaching the kind of stuff methodically and professionally. We can’t afford to screw up since we are both type 1 diabetics. Not everybody has that dynamic, but for this race, there was nothing surprising or unexpected about the forecast at all. We knew there would be a flood tide opposing 15ish knots of wind on Tampa bay. It was a PERFECT day to be on the water, we crushed it at the start and getting out of the Bay, and then we flew down the coast to Stump, arriving at Checkpoint 1 (CP1) 3 minutes behind the Howe brothers at 12:12. Game on!!!
When we arrived at CP1 expecting to do a 15 minute turn around, we were informed that we had to stay put, and the reasons given were “sketchy” at best. We then learned that the USCG had “terminated” the race by reading news reports online (more on this later). We remained at CP1 for about 6 hours with a handful of other sailing competitors, on basis that Chief was trying to get the USCG to allow us to resume racing.
The group at CP1 discussed the situation and several decided to continue down the course to Key Largo, not racing, but a cruise. The Howes (Loudmouth and SailsFast) decided to do the entire course including checkpoints, for the sake of training. Mike and I decided to skip CP2 (No reason to battle the 10,000 islands if not racing and we’ve been there, done that) and proceed directly to Flamingo. we left CP1 at about 6:15 PM on Saturday and sailed for about 18 hours to Flamingo. It was a spectacular and physically grueling sail. When God invented the beach cat it probably wasn’t intended to race overnight, offshore in 15 to 25 kts of wind and 6 to 8 foot seas! While grueling, it was fun, and the hardest thing was finding a way to sleep. We switch off the helm every hour, and the challenge was to find the least uncomfortable but still secure spot – settling on the tramp after numerous other failed attempts. It was wet but secure and you were able to relax in between getting water-boarded. Waterboarding = torture? Wimps.
By the time we were making the turn into Flamingo, the wind was building and gusting to 25 plus, we put in a second reef and landed in Flamingo in the early afternoon. We decided that since the forecast was for the E/SE wind to continue at 20-25 that we had no reason to spend 13 or so hours punching close-hauled across FL Bay (been there, done that, too). We called our wives and they brought the truck and trailer to us.
The Howe brothers have another incredible story, earned while going for the full EC course. Their ride – an ARC 22 cat – is a powerful boat, and they were flying as they approached the 1000 islands having rounded Cape Romano. The Howes were about 10 miles from Indian Key when their rear crossbeam broke in half at the end of the traveler! Ryan Howe jumped into action, grabbing both ends of the busted beam, holding the boat together while “Super Todd” dropped the main in about 10 seconds.
In 4-6 foot seas and what seemed like about a one-second period, they pulled off the boom, lashing it to the beam as a splint. Under jib alone, with a 145 degree tacking angle, they only had two choices: Marco Island or Mexico. While Mexico would have been an easier ride, neither Howe had their passport with them, so Marco it was!
We have lots of miles and dozens of races under our belts sailing both with and against the Howes, and they are simply some of the best, toughest sailors and watermen we know. It took them 12 hours to sail back to Marco, and the entire way they had no idea if the boat would hold together. True professionals, fully in the spirit of the Watertribe, there was no way they were going to summon rescue unless it was the only option.
The Everglades Challenge provided us with a truly momentous challenge to finish first, which has always been our goal. Part of our disappointment stems from the fact that given our boat’s potential and the Howe’s situation, we were actually in a position to accomplish that tough goal – a tiny window that opens rarely and for this year, closed immediately. Because there was no race.
Some conclusions for now:
1. The weather in no way warranted terminating the event, and conditions didn’t deteriorate, they actually went from great to better. The Watertribe rules call for participants to be “expert” paddlers or sailors, not for them to acquire their expertise during the event. This is really tough to police with any major event. At the start we and our wives and friends observed several competitors that appeared ill-prepared for the conditions, but the vast majority were fine. Given the forecast it was clear how one needed to be dressed and prepared. The Tribe has to figure out a better method of screening entrants and a better process of pre-race inspection.
2. I in know way blame the USCG for their action. Given that there was no Marine Event Permit, and that apparently a 911 call initiated that resulted from an unknown source, when the coast guard arrived and were surprised by what they saw and absent satisfactory answers a decision was made. I have personally applied for 4 separate MEP’s involving the Mac and worked with the USCG for years. The Mac relationship with the USCG is fantastic. We honor them at our events, and thank them officially for their service before and after. Even when the shit hits the fan as it did a few years ago, they simply work with us as a team to improve when it is necessary. Facing the truth, there are lots of chuckleheads and morons on the water, and all of us have stories about idiots who don’t follow the rules. Law enforcement at any level deals with them on a daily basis and has a conditioned response, call it boater “profiling”. Had the USCG been informed of what was happening, I don’t believe they would have panicked at the sight of 130 or so small boats and kayaks crossing a major shipping channel. They would have put out information releases to mariners and even policed the area and kept the path clear while the congestion was a factor, which is a relatively brief period. Some will argue that law enforcement is a bunch of armed jack-booted thugs with an attitude. I hate generalizations, and that is just not fair. Maybe in the past the old system has worked but this “perfect storm” has changed the landscape, and there is no question that for the event to survive the USCG will have to be involved and changes will have to be made.
2. I am a big fan of the “Chief”. He has proven to be a visionary and created something that is now legendary and is watched around the world. That one guy has carried the load virtually singlehandedly all these years is truly remarkable (no disrespect intended to the many CP captains and folks who assist). I I stated in my pre-race memo, the event has literally changed my life in regards to the physical conditioning and training I have done to participate. I would encourage anyone who has the ability to set a goal and go hard for it to make a plan and try it. However, the event is at a point where it needs a more professional level of management, not to replace the Chief, but to support him. It is ironic that Chief is now up to his armpits in alligators, but he has posted a very contrite acknowledgment and is already working with the USCG to resolve the issues and make the event survive. He’s a standup guy and he now needs our support. I have lots of suggestions and will save them for Chief.
And Swampmonkee and ChainSaw will return next year to accomplish our goal…and earn another sharks-tooth necklace.
Coastie and Clam Counter just arrived at the dock in Key Largo at 11:20 AM today 3/10. We were their welcoming party. All is well.