Nick Hall (aka Pelican)
This account of the EC2009 is part of an ongoing series called Pelican’s Poop. The purpose of this series is to combine a WaterTribe-inspired narrative with literary quotations as part of an award-winning English literature curriculum. Ms. Barbara Furtek began developing this in 2005 for her students at Frontier Regional High School in South Deerfield, MA. The many quotations serve as a bridge connecting insights and events experienced on the water with learning objectives being instilled in the classroom.
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.” Jack London
IT’S NOT THE MOUNTAIN WE CONQUER, BUT OURSELVES (Sir Edmund Hillary)
WaterTribe events are difficult, demanding, and dangerous. They are meant to be. It is why they are called ‘challenges.’ Negotiating a gauntlet of relentless headwinds, strong currents, and mudflats is just part of what participants will encounter as they make their way to the finish line. Unexpected storms, freezing temperatures, and sleepless nights are additional obstacles that nature has hurled our way since the first Everglades Challenge in 2001. It’s a challenge for everyone who has accepted it, yet it’s worth every blister and aching joint for the feeling of accomplishment one experiences upon arrival at the finish, made all the more vivid by one’s accompanying feelings of exhilaration and pure joy. That’s in reference to a person with no visual or physical handicaps. Those of us fortunate enough to have a body that is still functioning in the intended manner can only imagine the challenges encountered by those who don’t. Envision what an accomplishment the 300-mile 2009 Everglades Challenge was for my remarkable friend and paddling partner, Raleigh Perry.
Two decades ago, within minutes after stopping to render assistance to an accident victim, Raleigh’s legs were crushed when a careless motorist careened into the back of his stopped car. It’s unlikely he gave much thought to the next triathlon or canoe race, for even though these pursuits were his passion, thoughts of the future yielded to thoughts of survival. Survive he did, although not his legs. Nor did his vision, which succumbed to the cocktail of pain medications he was prescribed. Slowly, he learned to use his changed body, a process greatly assisted by his devoted wife, Nancy. Her skills as a physical therapist, coupled with her own passion for canoes, were instrumental in Raleigh finding himself at Fort DeSoto, awaiting the signal to launch on March 7th, 2009, a participant in the annual Everglades Challenge.
It all began in January of 2008. Raleigh is a member of an improbable group of men who, on a regular basis, prowl the darkened streets of Tampa, Florida, for vegetables. The Veggie Brothers typically gather at a local bar to drink beer and to prepare for the hunt, which usually begins at about 10PM, when we join restaurant and small grocery owners at a bustling market to buy fresh produce in bulk. It’s a ritual that started more than a decade ago. During the pre-hunt fellowship, Raleigh would often press me for details about the Everglades Challenge. His knowledge of canoes and waterways enabled him to appreciate every detail of the annual 300-mile trek down the Gulf Coast of Florida and through the Everglades. It was during one of these conversations that I challenged him to get in shape and to join me in a tandem kayak for the 2009 event. That began an adventure that Raleigh regarded as the biggest challenge he had faced since losing his leg and vision – perhaps greater, he reflected during one of our many training sessions. Selecting the right gear and equipment is how able-bodied WaterTribers spend the months approaching the annual launch. Those tasks paled in comparison with what Raleigh chose to undergo in preparation for this event.
WE WILL EITHER FIND A WAY OR MAKE ONE (Hannibal)
“What muscles do you use to power the Mirage drive?” Raleigh asked. I had to pause for a moment for I had never really thought about it. “Mostly the thighs,” I replied. “Then I can probably make them work.” I was pedaling a Hobie Adventure Island kayak, and he was paddling his canoe. I suggested that we switch boats so that he could put his hunch to the test. There was only one problem: how to keep his feet on the pedals. His prosthetic leg was designed for use in a vertical plane, while his own was so badly mangled from the accident that he lacked the muscles to keep his feet in place on the pedal drive. I realized that it was probably not entirely safe, but I hit upon the idea of using bungee cords and scraps of rope to secure his feet to the pedals. I deliberately blocked thoughts of what would happen if he were to capsize as I watched Raleigh slowly make his way up river. He wasn’t breaking any speed records, but he was moving. I realized that with practice and training, his speed would increase. The only problem was keeping his feet safely attached to the pedals. This makeshift system worked fine for the flat river, but I projected that it would not for the conditions we would encounter along the 300-mile route from Fort DeSoto to Key Largo.
I called Jim Czarnowski, the Director of Engineering at Hobie Cat Company. He suggested using clip-in bicycle pedals and bike shoes. It proved to be the perfect solution. I went with Raleigh to the local bike store, where he tried on different types of cycling shoes. Amongst them was a pair of cleated sandals, which proved to be ideal. Before each training run, I’d turn in my front seat to help him snap his feet into place. Gradually, he gained both strength and speed as his long dormant muscles were awakened for this new task. It worked; and by the time we launched, he could, indeed, move the boat at a respectable speed. The paddle would be Raleigh’s primary means of propulsion; however, having the option of using the pedal drive would enable him to help keep the boat moving while resting his arms. Many in his position never would have considered pedaling a boat as even a remote option. Not only did he consider it an option, but also with the help from the folks at Hobie, he found a way to make it work. The wisdom of Hannibal’s words, “We will either find a way or make one,” became Raleigh’s reality.
The engineers at Hobie designed the pedal drive to be powered by a person with two good legs, and I daresay that the average person never would have considered that option without having the benefit of both their legs in working order. Change is exceedingly difficult because there is always the prospect of failure whenever we depart from the norm. Fear of failure is what holds us back. Raleigh’s ability to defy the odds and attempt the Everglades Challenge was a direct result of his willingness to adapt to altered circumstances and to focus upon succeeding. Failure is far less likely to occur when attempting something new. It’s far more likely to occur, however, when insisting upon using the same process that once proved successful when circumstances have changed. As Abraham Lincoln once stated, “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” Raleigh did and took on a challenge from which even able-bodied men shy away. When I asked Raleigh what insights he had gained as a result of his experiences, he replied, “I can do anything I set my mind to.” We all can. And with this insight, a veteran imbues personal relevance to the cadet’s maxim, “Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible,” while the reverberating truth of Edmund Hillary’s, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves,” shines on.
BLIND, LAME, AND CRAZY
When I saw BLC, the name Raleigh had chosen for his WaterTribe identity, I asked him what it stood for. “Blind, Lame, and Crazy,” he declared. Each of us chooses a name, which then becomes our identity for all correspondence on the WaterTribe website as well as during the WaterTribe challenges. ShallowMinded, SharkChow, and KneadingWater are some of the more creative aliases, which clearly reflect the owner’s sense of humor. Others, like my own Pelican, along with PenguinMan, Ocean Diva, and Manitou Cruiser, have personal significance. At first glance, the epithet BLC might seem appropriate for a man who, indeed, is blind and lame. Furthermore, being crazy is arguably a characteristic of anyone who voluntarily would beat himself up during the WaterTribe challenges. It certainly fit. Or, at least, I thought it did when we began training. However, simmering below my conscious radar was a nagging concern, which didn’t register until several weeks later. The moniker BLC focused on what Raleigh perceived he was missing rather than on what he had.
Raleigh may be blind, lame, and crazy. However, he has discovered other, more effective ways to negotiate his environment by adapting his altered body to his world. He may be legally blind, but that is not always an impediment during the Everglades Challenge. After all, during the challenges, many of us press on long after the sun has dropped below the horizon. Vision is not a major asset in the dark. Hearing is, and Raleigh’s heightened auditory sense could identify a looming shoal much sooner than I by detecting the faint cadence of breaking waves. He may lack vision, but he’s acutely aware of his surroundings, and in ways that proved on several occasions to be highly advantageous.
Yes, he has just one leg, and it is of little use after being badly damaged in the accident. But so what? Once he was in the kayak seat, this was irrelevant. Furthermore, after years of propelling his wheelchair around, he had developed upper body strength that would transform him into a powerful paddler. He might have limitations on land, but not in the boat. Raleigh’s compensatory capabilities give resonance to Ernest Hemingway’s insight, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” And crazy? Perhaps, but if his qualification for being crazy were to be joining WaterTribe, then he subtly was declaring that the rest of us WaterTribers were similarly impaired. That might be true, but I felt that it was not his prerogative to pass such a judgment.
I learned long ago that when dealing with a crisis, it’s best to focus on what one still has rather than lamenting upon what one has lost. Dwelling on what has been lost keeps a person from moving on. It’s far better to take stock of the resources one has and then find ways to make the most of them. BLC might just as well have stood for Broken, Lost, and Crushed. That’s why I suggested that he seek a new identity, one with positive connotations and having personal relevance. Egret was his choice. He related how, during the long and painful months of recovery following the accident, he would sit in his wheelchair on the banks of the Hillsborough River. As he gradually lost his sight, colors turned to shades of gray, and edges became blurs. Yet, the Egret, with its white plumage, always stood out against the dark green foliage. With the right lighting and contrast, he still can make out this graceful river bird. His ability to see became a matter of taking advantage of the right conditions. In much the same way, what once were perceived as weaknesses became invaluable assets when the conditions were right during the Everglades Challenge. How appropriate that Raleigh chose Egret as his WaterTribe identity.
BEST LAID PLANS
By the time we reached Key Largo, our float plan had been changed so often that it bore little resemblance to the optimistic schedule we originally had hoped to follow. Indeed, it began to unravel even as the start was signaled. While we struggled to find space for our remaining gear, we realized that we were now the only boat left on the beach. It was half an hour since the start was signaled, and some of the faster boats already had reached the opposite side of Egmont Bay. I’m accustomed to being one of the last ones off the beach, but on my terms. This was different. “On your mark, get set, GO!” is usually my signal to pour one more cup of coffee, which I savor while watching my fellow Watertribers set out for Key Largo. There are many choices associated with the Everglades Challenge, beginning with the one of taking either the inside or the outside route. Sometimes, the tidal and weather conditions favor those who choose to go outside in the Gulf of Mexico and then plot the shortest distance to the first checkpoint. Under other circumstances, taking the inside route down the intra-coastal waterway, while twisty and, therefore, longer, is more advantageous. I add ‘observation’ to the equation. It may cost twenty or thirty minutes at the start; however, watching to see which boats have the advantage on a particular course, and then choosing that route, can translate into significantly less time getting to Grande Tours. But I was not watching as the boats launched on March 7th. Instead, Raleigh and I were trying to make things fit into the improbable spaces in the boat. Instead of a leisurely start, there was now a sense of urgency. That urgency was coupled with uncertainty.
During training, we had found some significant leaks in the boat. They had nothing to do with design. Ours was a prototype boat built to evaluate certain features for performance, not endurance purposes. Durability would be incorporated into the production version. Another prototype was on its way and would be used in the Everglades Challenge by Jim Czanowski and his fiancée, Elena. I knew nothing about repairing fiberglass; however, I read a do-it-yourself book and then watched the companion DVD. Each week was spent applying patches as more leaks appeared. Most of them were relatively minor and could be dealt with by using a small hand pump or a sponge. But each time a new leak was discovered, we experienced new doubts about the entire adventure. The fixes were holding, but new ones kept occurring. Most were minor and were more in the inconvenience category. The night we trained on the Hillsborough River was different. There was so much water sloshing around in the bilge that it was difficult to control the boat. A large crack had opened around an internal support for Raleigh’s seat, enabling water to pour in. As more water accumulated, the boat sat lower and lower in the water, speeding the rate of flooding. It was the last of a training series, but by far the worst. We barely made it to shore, where we bailed seemingly endless gallons of water from the bilge. This was discouraging enough; however, add a cold rain into the mix, and it was most disheartening. Because of his injuries, it was easier for Raleigh to position himself over the seat and then to drop into it. This additional pressure eventually took a toll on the underlying supports. Knowing the cause enabled me to reinforce the support, thereby, preventing future occurrences. At last, it seemed the problem was solved. The boat passed both an on-shore leak test as well as a test on the river. However, the ultimate test would be taking the boat fully loaded onto the Gulf of Mexico. The Sunday before the launch, we headed to the beach for a final shakedown paddle. Our plan was to test the fully loaded boat during an all day run in waves, currents, and wind. It never happened.
March 1st, 2009, was not a day to be on the water. The wind was howling out of the west, and the mechanical voice on our marine VHF radio warned of 6-foot surf. Hence, there was a small craft warning, which applied to both offshore and inland waterways. Even in the protected waters on the lee side of Shell Island, there was a menacing, wind-fueled chop. Then the rains came: the kind that drenches you in sheets. Despite our need to do one final test, we reluctantly decided to abort the final training run. It’s just as well that we decided on that course of action because not far from where we stood, the skipper of a far more stable fishing boat had ignored these warnings. Only one of the four crewmembers survived. It was the day the NFL players made a series of judgment errors, beginning with heading out to their favorite fishing spot. Three never returned. Six days later, launch day for the Everglades Challenge 2009, we still didn’t know with certainty if all the vulnerable spots in our boat had been reinforced sufficiently to handle race conditions.
It was with a large amount of effort that I dragged the heavily-laden boat to the water’s edge. Egret had managed to secure the last of our provisions onto the boat, and then he lowered himself into the rear seat. We then tethered his two four-prong canes to the back of the kayak. Somehow, everything we needed found a place on board. How, I don’t know, although a lot of things on the ‘want’ list were left behind. There was a sandbar near shore so I waded through the water, pulling the boat to the other side. I’d noticed that when Jim and Elena had set out in their almost identical tandem prototype, they had to stop to drag their boat across the sand before relaunching. I decided to save a step. I also wanted to be well clear of the beach before inserting the pedal drive and raising the sail, just in case something went wrong, and the boat ended up back in shallow water. Damaging the rudder or pedal drive was not something I wanted to have happen, especially at the start.
We caught enough wind to get an assist; and with Raleigh’s strong paddle stroke, we made good progress. I held back. An exceptionally busy lecture schedule and then bad weather had kept me from doing any training for the three weeks leading up to the launch. I was counting on Egret and the wind to allow me to ease into a more strenuous pedaling rhythm. So far, so good. It were as if the Beatles’ refrain, “I get by with a little help from my friends,” put an appreciative backbeat to our paddling. In less than two hours, we broke free of the bay and its tidal influences, and we even began to close the gap with some of the earlier starters. During the crossing, I constantly checked the bilge for leaks. With all of the extra fiberglass that I had layered onto the hull during the preceding weeks, I couldn’t imagine how the water possibly could come in, but it was most reassuring to have data to justify my sense of optimism. The trace amounts of water that I did find reasonably could be expected in a boat with openings for the rudder controls and various fittings. We were relieved, but we also were well prepared with fiberglass repair material, just in case another crack appeared. In addition, there was an ample supply of duct tape at the ready for very quick, temporary fixes. Not only would this ubiquitous material help to stop a leak, but I’ve also seen it used to fix everything from a split in foul weather gear to blistered hands. We were making good progress, although we did take advantage of an exposed sandbar at the entrance to the bay to make some adjustments to the sail lines. Nothing serious was amiss; however, since the bar was almost in our path, it was easier to stop to make the adjustments from outside the boat rather than to fiddle with the lines from the cockpit. It cost us no more than 5 minutes.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon, we steadily closed in on the motley flotilla ahead of us. Most of the sailboats had ventured farther off shore in search of wind; in contrast, we created our own with the paddle and pedals. By itself, there wasn’t enough wind to propel us down the coast. However, we were able to create what sailors call apparent wind when we used our pedal/paddle combination. The result was much better progress than could be attributed merely to the additive effects of our various propulsion systems. It also enabled us to pass the slower sailboats, some of which headed toward us thinking that we must have lucked out and found favorable winds closer to shore. We soon settled into a pleasant routine, which included taking in the surroundings as well as speculating about our arrival times at the various checkpoints, notwithstanding, of course, our arrival time in Key Largo. Despite the late departure, we were close to our float plan with an 11PM ETA at Checkpoint 1. Not bad considering the delayed start. Our intent was to make a quick turn-around and press on to Caya Costa before making camp for the night. We’d sign the log, fill the water bladders, and head back out, hopefully, in under 10 minutes. That would get us across Boca Grande Bay during the relative quiet of the night, when most of the power boaters and jet skis would be tied up at docks or on trailers. An early start the next morning would have us well on our way to the Chockoloskee Checkpoint. We were on schedule. But our mood quickly soured when I attempted to turn the boat, only to find that it would not respond. The lever that operated the rudder turned with no resistance, indicating that somewhere beneath the deck, the steering cable had broken. Instead of being propelled toward our goal, we now found ourselves on a fast clip headed in the wrong direction. I quickly released the sail, as Raleigh used his paddle to steer us into the wind so that we would stop. With the hatch open, I reached below deck and groped in the dark around the free-spinning steering lever. It was my hope that something simply had disconnected at the accessible lever and that a quick repair would soon have us underway. Alas, no such luck. The break was farther back and out of reach from my position. The boat would have to be beached and partly unpacked even to assess the problem, yet alone to effect a repair. The mishap occurred around 9PM, just two hours shy of our ETA. We slowed to a crawl. Egret’s skilled use of the paddle enabled him to steer the boat while we continued to sail. But maneuvering the close-to-300 pounds of boat and gear, along with the extra drag of the amas, was no trivial feat. Several times, the boat turned off-course and caught a gust of wind that had us speeding away from our destination. We lost considerable time, and at 2AM, we started searching for a place to make camp. We were exhausted and realized that it would be folly to plod on. Fatigue-induced judgment errors and/or just plain carelessness were far more likely to occur if we pressed on, which would only result in further delays. The new plan was to find a beach, get a few hours of sleep, and then repair the steering system in the daylight. As John F. Kennedy noted, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”
Twice, we thought that we had located the perfect place to stop, only to realize that the chosen site was just a short distance from someone’s home. Florida has very liberal gun laws and a well-armed citizenry. We did not want to be mistaken for criminals and shot by a frightened homeowner justifiably protecting his property. Twice, we had to head away from shore in search of another site. Once, Egret had to apply considerable force to turn the boat to prevent a collision with a partially submerged, fallen tree. But, eventually, we found a stretch of beach backed by nothing but trees and brush. I secured the boat while Egret set up a small tent. I slept under the stars, which Raleigh would have preferred. However, it was essential that he prevent sand from becoming trapped between the prosthetic leg and his stump. The subsequent irritation could have broken his skin, allowing infection to take hold–a trip-ending consequence. This preventative measure was accomplished more easily by his sleeping on the floor of the tent. We both were exhausted, and we didn’t awaken until almost three hours later, when the sun rose above the horizon.
So much for our having found an isolated beach. When I opened my eyes, I saw a couple strolling along the beach, enjoying the mellow light of the sunrise. Despite the absence of houses, the beach was clearly a popular public area. Soon, more folks continued the procession of early, Sunday morning strollers. Egret still was sound asleep in the tent; for me, it was the opposite scenario. Lacking the benefit of the tent’s cover, I was wide-awake, courtesy of the sun’s early morning wake up call, despite my having had less than three hours’ sleep. Before I even fired up the stove for a cup of coffee, I went over to the boat and began unloading the supplies stowed below deck. It was my hope that in the daylight, I quickly would find the cause of the rudder’s failure, be able to fix it, and still make the first checkpoint by the noon deadline. That was even more of a challenge because during the night, we had switched to daylight savings time, thereby losing an hour. I found a loose line and what appeared to be the attachment point at the base of the steering lever. It didn’t take long to line up the rudder and to reconnect it. It was an easy solution, and I regretted not being more persistent in fixing it during the night. Alas, when I turned the lever, the rudder did not respond. Obviously, it was something else.
Realizing that it was going to be a slow and tough trip to Grande Tours, I awakened Egret so that we soon could be underway. That’s when I spotted the all-terrain vehicle making its way toward us. “You can’t camp here,” the ranger announced. “It’s a public park, and camping is not allowed.” I explained that we had made an emergency landing during the night in order to repair the steering system. At about that time, Egret unzipped the front of his tent and placed his prosthetic leg in the sand. “Go ahead and stay as long as you need to,” she declared. “Is there anything I can do to help?” Obviously, she realized that we were not a couple of beach bums, and the rules were cast aside. I’ve had similar experiences in the past when an initially irate security guard or police officer approached with the intent of writing a ticket or of hauling me off for trespassing. Instead, they became allies upon learning what I was doing. Since my first WaterTribe Challenge in 2002, I’ve learned a thing or two about the art of stealth camping. However, sometimes a person unintentionally ends up where he shouldn’t, and he gets caught. Nevertheless, I’ve never had an unpleasant stealth-camping encounter with the law, and that morning was no exception.
It was nearly 8AM before we set out. Encountering a headwind, I realized that there was no hope of reaching the checkpoint before the deadline. I called Doug, the race manager, to explain that, although we were OK, we were running behind schedule. I asked him to please give us an extension on the deadline. Getting an extension for legitimate reasons is routine in WaterTribe Challenges; however, the rules are very clear that while a challenger can miss a checkpoint deadline, he still has to arrive at the finish within the allotted 7 days. Falling behind at the beginning was not going to leave any buffer time in the event of bad weather or mechanical problems further down the course. There was another reason to get to Grand Tours as quickly as possible. Jim and Elena were still there. The long cross-country trip had taken a toll on their boat as well, and without time to test it, their prototype was leaking like a sieve. Jim was waiting for the freshly layered fiberglass to cure. Once again, the Wheel of Fortune was spinning. Jim’s misfortune was a blessing for us. He is the engineer who designed the boat. What better person to make the repair! And what a generous person he proved to be. My legs were on the verge of tightening, and so pedaling hard against the wind was too risky. Pulling a muscle would have ended our adventure. Therefore, using the sail was necessary; and because the wind was right on our noses, we had to make a series of tacks. Raleigh is a river paddler, and a strong one at that. His skills were readily apparent. We veered off-course several times, yet we still made much better progress than we would have made had we relied solely upon human power. A concern was that the lightweight carbon fiber paddle would snap against the pressure Raleigh was having to apply. But I suppose Raleigh’s inability to see heightened his sense of touch because he seemed to sense exactly where the breaking point was and eased off just before reaching it. It was early afternoon when we arrived, long after Jim’s repair had cured. Yet, Jim kindly awaited our arrival so that he could help.
There was only one other boat that hadn’t arrived at Checkpoint 1, and that boat never did make it. Conditions were too unfavorable, and so the skipper dropped out. We fixed a late lunch and refilled the water containers while Jim went to work on the steering system. It didn’t take long for him to find the problem and then to fix it, although we still needed a bit more downtime before setting off again. One of the lines had chaffed against the tightly packed supplies. We pulled out around 4:00 PM, about an hour after Jim and Elena had resumed their journey, and 15 hours behind schedule. Egret and I felt physically exhausted, yet we were upbeat now that we once again were on our way. Our plan was to make camp at Caya Costa and then plot a straight-line course to the entrance of the Little Marco River. Following this course would find us about 10 miles offshore at a point where the shoreline of Florida curved away from our heading. However, we’d lost too much time to consider more leisurely options. That was our modified float plan until we reached the first bend heading out of the checkpoint.
I turned the boat into the channel and, much to my dismay, realized that the rudder wasn’t responding. Less than a quarter mile from the checkpoint, the system had failed again, and Jim was long gone. I was going to have to figure it out myself. But if Jim’s repair hadn’t worked, how on earth could I do better? I’m a neuroscientist, with none of his engineering skills. In silence, we headed the short distance back to the ramp. Dejected is inadequate to describe the emotion we were experiencing, yet we well understood the necessity for our returning. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Delay is preferable to error.” It was especially bad for Egret because just the process of getting in and out of the boat was a challenge. Already, there had been two unscheduled landings, which required that he go through the ritual two extra times. We had known that this would be a problem, and so the plan was to do long runs with infrequent stops. To make matters worse, his prosthetic leg was not faring well both in the sand and in the salt water. The knee joint was beginning to stiffen, making the task of getting in and out of the boat all the more difficult. Pain and Thomas Paine’s words, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” seemed interchangeable.
DAY 2 (continued)
When I was a graduate student, my department chairman called me a prophylactic thinker. At first, I entertained visions of being wrapped in a giant condom. But Dr. Fred King went on to explain that I had a tendency to think of all of the possible outcomes and then to take excessive precautions to avoid the undesirable ones. I suppose he was right, although I would have preferred a different metaphor. While optimistic, I was ever mindful of things that could go wrong during the course of conducting experiments, and, therefore, I constantly was coming up with contingency plans. I engaged in the same type of thought process during the weeks leading up to the Everglades Challenge. At the outset, I had harbored private concerns about Raleigh’s health. A physician friend had warned me that amputees could have problems with blood flow and its regulation. I also knew from our training runs that Raleigh had a very low tolerance for heat. That’s why I made note of where the nearest emergency health care facilities were located along different stretches of the course. Then there was the ‘health’ of the boat. All throughout training, we experienced one leak after another, just as Jim was experiencing now with his boat. This was to be expected. Both boats were prototypes, fashioned primarily to evaluate the design’s performance characteristics and to identify potential problems before the first production run. While each was seaworthy when loaded onto the semi-trailer truck in Oceanside, each needed some TLC after bouncing across the United States for more than a week. I personally unloaded each of the two boats, both of which were the last ones delivered. That meant that they were positioned in the front of the trailer, with multiple other boats stacked on top. The minimal amount of fiberglass used was not meant to absorb that type of abuse. Now, the steering system had failed twice, causing me to wonder what would be next. And where would it happen? It was one thing to have a failure along the Gulf Coast, and especially at a checkpoint with both material and human resources available. It was another when miles from civilization.
After Marco Island, there were long expanses with few places to seek assistance. What if something serious happened while deep in the Everglades? Or while far offshore? That’s always a concern. As Winston Churchill once wryly noted, “The terrible ‘ifs’ accumulate.” WaterTribe Challenges are dangerous events; and, before setting out, we each sign a waiver acknowledging that there are a number of ways one can die between the start and the finish. If we can’t handle it, we are expected to have the wisdom to drop out. There is no stigma associated with making that choice. I dropped out of my first WaterTribe Challenge in 2002 when I realized that I lacked the equipment and the skills to continue when a severe cold front moved in. Now, I was playing the same ‘what if’ game. Was this just the beginning of worse things to come? Should we call it quits and be pleased that we made it as far as we had? Or were the problems about to end with nothing but optimal conditions before us? Should we push on to the finish? As it turned out, Egret’s funk was greater than mine, and that’s what kept me going. Despite lacking the skills, I had no choice but to attempt a repair of the steering system. Everyone had long since left the checkpoint. I wished I had paid closer attention to Jim’s repair. Then, I looked up, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Coming toward us were Jim and Elena. After leaving the checkpoint, additional leaks had appeared, and so they had decided to return to Grande Tours rather than to attempt the repair on a sandy beach. Once again, the wheel of fortune was spinning away.
Once applied, it would take time for the fiberglass to cure, so Jim set about to patch his boat before looking for the problem in ours. I was on my way to help him with his repairs when Raleigh beckoned me to where he was sitting. “I can’t do this,” he declared. The lack of sleep was taking a toll on both of us, but Raleigh had to contend with levels of pain and discomfort that I only could imagine. Whatever decision was made, we would both abide by it. The tandem was not designed for a solo run, so if he wanted to drop out, I would, as well. I listened to his concerns, which were identical to mine. But, instead of nodding my head in agreement, I found myself playing devil’s advocate. Maybe it’s the scientist in me that prompted me to start questioning the very same logic I had used to arrive at the same conclusion as Egret’s. It were as though I had multiple personalities, and now a new persona had taken possession of my mind. I had one big advantage over Raleigh, though. This was his first Everglades Challenge; it was my eighth, counting the first when I was unable to finish. I understood the wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt’s insight, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” What I also had learned from prior WaterTribe Challenges was to adhere to Steve Isaac’s rule that a challenger should never make a major decision without first getting some sleep and food. I persuaded Egret (and myself) to keep going; however, if we felt the same way after getting some sleep, then we would head to the nearest marina and arrange for transport home. I also negotiated that once the repairs were made, we would keep going until either midnight or until our arrival at Caya Costa, whichever came first. In short, I promised that we would get at least 6 hours of sleep before making any decision.
Jim quickly discovered that the steering problem was unrelated to the first, due not to a break, but to shifting gear. This was good news. We now knew the cause, and rearranging our stowed gear proved to be the solution. Despite the fact that it was getting dark, we re-launched almost a full day behind schedule and at the back of the pack. At least the winds and tide were in our favor as we set out across Boca Grande Bay. Off in the distance was Caya Costa, clearly visible in the moonlight. Then came a very difficult decision. Despite making good time riding the outgoing tide, we realized that we would not reach Caya Costa by midnight. I had promised Egret that we’d stop before Day 3 began, and, when I put out feelers to see if I could re-negotiate, I realized that it was not an option. I must say that, despite the fact that we would be fighting the incoming tide the next morning, I was not displeased with the decision because I was running on fumes, as well. We headed to the nearest shore, looking for a stretch of beach that was not private property. After a couple of miscues, we finally found a spot, and, after considering the outgoing tide, I knew that there was no risk of finding ourselves floating away in our sleeping bags. I secured the boat while Raleigh set up his tent. Since it was a clear night, I again opted to sleep beneath the stars. That’s all I remembered until the rising sun awakened me.
DAYS 3 and 4. KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON (Bob Dylan)
It was a beautiful morning with a stunning view. Birds were leaving their roosts, headed to their fishing grounds; the blue sky was interrupted only by the occasional cloud. They were the white, puffy variety, which offered shade, not rain. There was only one problem; the now low tide had exposed about 30 yards of sand, dotted with tidal pools. The boat and gear weighed close to 300 pounds; therefore, dragging this heavily-laden boat to the water was going to be no trivial task. Fortunately, the sand was packed hard, enabling Egret to use his canes to maneuver to the water’s edge. But, it was slow going for us both. I unloaded some of the larger and heavier items, such as the amas and the water containers, and then I set about getting the boat to water deep enough in which to float. I’d dragged it a few yards, and then I stopped to rest after I found myself short of breath. At times, my heart was beating so fast that I thought it would fly out of my chest. I intentionally aimed for the tidal pools, despite the fact that this required a slightly longer, zigzag course. It was worth the extra distance because after I reached these tidal pools, pulling the boat was less effort. In the end, it was quicker doing it that way. Eventually, I reached the water’s edge, where Egret had arrived a few moments earlier. We re-attached the amas and stowed our water containers. It was almost 9AM, but it felt good to be rested and, finally, underway.
At first, we made reasonably good progress against the now incoming tide. But, as we approached the entrance to the bay, the water came rushing in. We found ourselves struggling to make forward progress, despite the illusion of flying through the bay because the water was rushing past us. However, a quick glance at the GPS revealed that it was the water that was doing most of the moving, not the boat. How true were the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Never mistake motion for action.” In this paradoxical situation, we felt like the paddling and peddling poster boys for Augustus Caesar’s maxim, “Make haste slowly.” Our forward speed was barely 2 miles per hour. Before we had stopped the previous night, we were doing 3.5. What a difference the tide can make. It was noon when we finally reached the entrance to Boca Grande Bay and headed into the Gulf of Mexico.
“Pelican, I have to take a crap,” Egret announced. “Are you sure?” I stupidly asked. I guess I was hoping that he was just joking. Normally, such matters easily are dispatched on a boat like the Adventure Island fitted out with amas. The extra stability that the amas provide enables one to stand with ease and move to the edge of the boat, where, with a little creative maneuvering, it’s possible to do anything you could do in a well-equipped restroom. But that doesn’t work if you don’t have two functional legs. Stopping was essential; and, so, we changed course and headed to the shore. As luck would have it, we landed on a public beach with a restroom. It was a good distance from the shoreline; so, with the extra time that it took Raleigh to negotiate the sand, I topped off our water containers and inspected the boat one more time for the long run to Marco Island. Our plan was to cover this distance non-stop. That would mean another all-night crossing, but there was no other choice. We had lost too much time; and, if we didn’t adjust, we’d be disqualified for missing the deadline at the finish. At least we were well-rested, the marine weather forecast was favorable, and the moon was full. I also should point out that we had an EPIRB, SPOT, submersible VHF radio with a spare battery, flare gun, handheld flares, strobe lights on each pfd, whistle, air horn, navigation light, and two cell phones in waterproof containers, thus permitting their use without their removal from their protective encasings. No, we weren’t paranoid. Most of this equipment is required for WaterTribe events. The other stuff, along with the redundancy, is just a darned good idea. Sometimes, equipment can fall overboard or malfunction just when it is needed most. I’ve learned those lessons the hard way. As Joe Paterno aptly observed, “The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.”
There was little, if any, wind until late afternoon when a westerly breeze started to fill the sail. Prior to this, we had to use human power for most of the day. The temperatures were in the 70’s, and the sun was shining. Of course, with no wind earlier to assist us, I had to use my legs and Egret his arms until we both were feeling quite tired. Eventually, we reached the part of Sannibel Island where the beach turned east. Off in the distance was the shoreline, dotted with condos lining Ft. Meyers Beach. When the sun was beginning to set, we decided to make one more stop to put on our dry suits and to set up the navigation lights. We would have been able to perform both chores in the boat; however, it was much easier to accomplish these tasks on land. It also would provide a chance to stretch and to move around before the long, offshore portion of the run to Marco. Our heading was a straight line, marking the shortest distance to the Marco River. The reason we would find ourselves nearly 10 miles offshore is due to the curvature of the land toward the east. Eventually, the southern part of Florida bulges out again; therefore, the last part of the journey would find us once again just a short distance from the beach. There were other options. One was to follow the protected waters of the intra-coastal waterway, and another was to hug the shoreline. However, both choices would have added significant distance and time to the trip. We also would have been in waters frequented, even at night, by large powerboats. Another advantage of being offshore was the greater likelihood of picking up a breeze and being able to use the sail.
A serendipitous advantage that we discovered near midnight was the spectacular light show that we were fortunate to witness. The moon was full; and, because of its position in orbit, it was closer to earth and brighter than I ever have remembered it. Indeed, there was so much moonlight that there was no need to use the headlamps or flashlights that we carried. I even could make out the contours on the nautical chart. However, the best part stretched all around us for as far as the eye could see, an enchanting example of Eden Phillpotts’ observation, “The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” The now steady breeze had produced a light chop; this transformed the moonlight into a constant glimmer of sparkling light. It were as though we were moving across an undulating carpet of candles. It produced enough contrast against the dark water to enable Raleigh to enjoy this display, as well. In all of the years that I’ve been doing WaterTribe events, with many night runs, I never before had witnessed such an extraordinary sight. My closest equivalent was viewing the Northern Lights during a race around Michigan in 2004. It also was easy to spot the floats, which seem to form an endless line from Tampa to the Everglades. They mark traps set by fishermen. In the past, I’ve tied up to them when in need of a power nap. It’s easier than going all the way to shore and then having to look for a spot to camp. Having journeyed from adversity into this spectacular transcendence was a boon from Nature, indeed. We sat awestruck with her splendor.
Staying on course was not difficult since the sky was full of stars. Typically, I line up with a distinctive constellation directly in my path; then, after every hour or so, I verify the course by checking the compass heading. It’s easier than constantly watching the compass, and it also enables me to keep an eye on the surroundings. Eventually, beckoning beyond the westward curvature of the land was the glow of Marco Island dead ahead. It was still miles away, but it was reassuring to know that we now were getting closer, not farther from shore. Plus, the wind had not only held, but it had us streaming along to the entrance to the river, the route that we would take into the 10,000 Island portion of the Everglades. We were making such good time that I was confident that we would make it in time to ride the tail end of an incoming tide. That would be a tremendous assist. If we missed it, we’d have the current against us. Lady Fortune’s Wheel resumed her spin.
The nightglow of Marco Island gradually was blending into daylight. It was too early to see the sun, which partially was blocked by the shore. Now, the shore was only a mile away, and we were running almost parallel to the nearby beach. The entrance to the river was straight ahead, and we were on schedule to catch the tide. We also had made it through the witching hour, when every biological rhythm is at its ebb. There were several times during the hour approaching sunrise when I had to force myself to keep my eyes open. Raleigh was having the same problem. Occasionally, spray would break on the bow, and the unexpected shower of cold water, “the flung spray and the blown spume” that John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever” so eloquently celebrates, abruptly would restore me to a wide-awake state. That would last perhaps a minute or two or until the next spray hit me in the face. Whether it’s the association of daylight with being awake, the triggering of brain signals by the light, or the fact that there is more to see once dawn arrives, making it easier to stay focused upon what’s outside the mind, not in, I can’t say for certain. However, I have learned over the years that if I can make it until sunrise, I’m usually good for at least a full day. That doesn’t mean that I’m working at full capacity. Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It, was right on the mark when he observed, “At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear.” Statistically, studies conducted by the armed forces have revealed that for every 24 hours of sleep deprivation, there is a 25 percent reduction in judgment, but there is no significant decline in performance. As a friend in the military explained it, “You can put a bullet between a person’s eyes; you just don’t know whether it’s the good guy or the bad guy.” That’s where we were. We still could paddle and pedal. There was just a much higher risk of making a bad decision. Not that we were dwelling on such matters, for when the sun finally appeared over Kiweedon Island, we were focused only upon the fact that sacrificing a night’s sleep had put us somewhere in the vicinity of the other challengers who had rested. We had made up for some of the lost time, and we were about to get lucky with the tide. Despite what we were thinking a few hours earlier, it was now worth it. The optimism of Bern Williams’ observation, “There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope,” resonated with our spirits.
“Hey, Pelican,” I heard Egret say. “I have to take a crap.” After a long pause, I queried, “Are you sure? Can it wait?” The answer was no. In a couple of hours, we would have been paddling in the river, where nearby was a waterside restaurant and marina. Alas, staying on the present heading wasn’t an option. I realized that I needed to stop for the same reason, but I had been blocking it from my mind. That’s all part of the judgment thing. Because the wind had been blowing out of the west, we had been making excellent time on a beam reach. Now, we found ourselves moving at half the speed as we headed downwind, directly towards the island. Out came the pedal drive and paddle to provide an assist. Kiweedon Island is a long island with a beautiful, white sand beach. I’ve camped there on several occasions in the past. However, this was going to be a quick turn-around. As we approached, I spotted a white boat with what appeared to be a canopy above the cockpit. “It’s probably a pleasure boat that anchored too close to shore and then got caught high and dry at low tide,” I commented to Egret. We headed farther south than I originally had intended in order to get some privacy.
Despite being in a state of near exhaustion, we planned a very short stop in order to continue making up for lost time. At that point, we had not slept in 24 hours. With the exception of the folks with the stranded boat and us, the beach was empty of anything resembling humans. While waiting for Egret, I inspected the boat, and I was eating a Power Bar when I glanced up and noticed a couple walking towards us. They had been with the other boat, and I thought that they might be coming to ask for help in getting it back into the water. There was no point in doing this until the tide came in, which I was prepared to tell them, except that my judgment was totally wrong. The couple was Jim and Elena. And what had appeared to be a stranded powerboat actually was their tandem kayak, propped on its side in order to receive additional layers of fiberglass. What I had thought was a canopy actually was an ama sticking up in the air. They had recognized us as we sailed past; and, as they arrived, Jim handed me a cup of coffee that he had brewed. We soon learned that they had spent the night there so that they could patch some new leaks that they had discovered. Meeting up with these two delightful people was a wonderful way to start the next phase of what previously had been “a hard day’s night.”
We set out within thirty minutes of stopping, Jim’s “One more cup of coffee for the road, One more cup of coffee ‘fore I go” (to quote Bob Dylan) as refreshing as their friendship. Egret and I caught favorable winds and tide until a point about a mile upriver. That’s when the tide turned, and we found ourselves in what felt like a washing machine. The wind was blowing against the flow of water, and the surface was covered with an array of boats, some angling towards mariners and others aiming up or downstream. It was slow going nearly all the way to the start of the 10,000 Islands portion of the Everglades. However, we made it eventually, and there were no further problems until we arrived in the late afternoon at the mouth of the Chokoloskee River. Egret couldn’t be certain, but he thought that he could feel the symptoms of an infection brewing in the stump of his leg. Despite his efforts to keep sand and debris out of the space where his prosthetic leg was attached, it was not a guaranteed process, especially when undertaken in the dark and when tired. From past experience, he knew that an infection would require immediate medical attention. Insufficient blood circulation would prevent his white blood cells from efficiently fighting the microbes. There was only one problem. He didn’t dare remove the leg to check unless there was an ample source of fresh water as well as facilities where he thoroughly could clean the infected skin. Neither was an option on Indian Key at the river’s entrance. It was best to press on, despite the fact that, in the words of Dylan, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” and we would be fighting an outgoing tide all the way to the checkpoint. We had no choice.
Egret was paddling as hard as he could, while I pumped the pedal drive. Normally, we would have been cruising at around 4 mph with that amount of effort. Riding the incoming tide would have seen us moving at closer to 6 mph. Instead, we were struggling to make 2 mph; and when we slacked off, we found ourselves being pushed back downstream. Breaks carefully had to be coordinated in order to make certain that at least one of us was expending full effort while the other rested. It took several hours before we eventually rounded a bend in the river and spotted the distant lights of Chokoloskee to the east. However, the now nearly dead low tide had exposed mud flats and oyster bars that would prevent us from taking the most direct route in. Instead, we had to continue north, staying well within the channel in order to keep from damaging the pedal drive. I’d never arrived here before under such conditions. If the tide were outgoing, I’d catch a few hours of sleep on Indian Key before proceeding in order to make the tide work for, and not against, me. This was something that I had done several times before over the past 8 Challenges. However, the possible infection required that we get to civilization and to medical facilities as soon as possible. Several times, I carefully maneuvered the boat out of the channel with the hope that it would now be deep enough to start heading towards the checkpoint, instead of continuing to angle away. But each time, we felt the crunch of an oyster bar and carefully paddled back into the channel. During one of these forays, we heard the deep, rich tones of a powerful motor. Rapidly, it was getting louder, indicating that a large vessel was moving at a fast pace up the river. We were well illuminated with our navigation lights; however, as an extra precaution, I turned on a lantern to illuminate both us as well as the boat. It worked. The vessel that we heard was at least 40 feet in length, and it appeared to be some type of industrial workboat. Perhaps it was a large tug, although in the dark and while making sure we didn’t capsize in its wake, I was paying more attention to keeping our boat steady than assessing the one that was passing. According to the chart, there was a marked channel heading east, very close to the north shoreline of the bay. We continued towards it, only to feel another crunch while we were in what I thought was still the channel.
I had one eye on the chart and the other scanning for channel markers when Raleigh proclaimed, “Pelican, head to the right.” My first thought was that fatigue was taking its toll on Egret because how could a legally blind man know which way to go in the darkness. He’d never been in those waters before, and he had no chart to ponder. When I asked him how he could know that, he replied, “Because while you were studying the chart, I watched to see which way that big boat went. He made a sharp right turn just about here.” Yes, fatigue had taken its toll, but it was on me, not on Egret. While I was fiddling with the GPS and gazing at the chart, Raleigh had resorted to the most valuable asset we all have – common sense. He’s legally blind, but he was able to detect the lights on the larger vessel, whose dog-leg path we were now tracing. Soon, we found ourselves in the elusive channel for which I had been searching; and within the hour, we were nearing the checkpoint. However, there was yet one more obstacle to overcome. It was dead low tide, and getting to the beach would require walking through about a 20-yard stretch of exposed mudflats. I’d experienced them in the past, and I knew that with each step, our legs probably would sink in the mud up to our knees. Our present quagmire was as dangerous as the pivotal one in The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was not an option. I called Doug, the race manager, on the cell phone and asked him if he could tell me if a boat ramp on the opposite side of the island were accessible at low tide. Doug had even better news, telling me that there was a campground with a ramp just a short distance from where we were. He told me to watch for his light so that he could guide me to the spot. It was close to midnight when our boat touched the concrete ramp. Doug was there and at the ready to render any required assistance. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, especially when I realized that there was a building nearby housing a shower and restrooms, where Raleigh would be able to determine if he had an infection and take steps to deal with it. That sigh of relief was premature, though. While securing the boat, I heard a loud splash. I quickly turned to see what had happened. There was Egret sitting in waist deep water. He had stepped onto the ramp, which, at low tide, was covered with a slick film of algae. When I looked up, he was sitting on the partially submerged ramp. “Holy sh#&! His friggin’ leg just fell off,” I heard a startled fisherman, who had been watching our arrival with his buddy, exclaim. Sure enough, Raleigh’s leg somehow had disconnected during his fall, and it was floating away into the Everglades. It was a $25,000 carbon fiber leg; and, while its stainless knee joint now was completely frozen due to corrosion, the leg, itself, was essential if we were to complete the Challenge. Doug and I both went after it and, luckily, retrieved it before it disappeared for good. Excalibur and Lady of the Lake this was not, but life certainly has a way of imitating art. By now, the startled fishermen, as well as some WaterTribers who had stopped there for the night, had made their way to the source of the commotion. They plucked Raleigh from the water and helped him maneuver to a low wall so that he could reinstall the leg. All I could think was, “What next?” as he slowly made his way to the shower so that he could inspect the painful skin. Shakespeare got it. He knew. “When sorrows (or, in this scenario, problems) come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
Lady Luck was smiling upon us at last. The discomfort that Raleigh had felt was not an infection. It was due to sand trapped beneath the neoprene sleeve that covered his stump and to which the prosthesis was attached. All that was required was a good wash, something that had not been possible since before the launch. There was no infection and, therefore, no reason to discontinue the race. It had been 42 hours since we last had slept, and we both sank into a seemingly comatose state when we finally turned in.
DAYS 5 and 6
We were not the only WaterTribers setting out from Chokoloskee that morning; however, we were the last to leave, having chosen to sleep in and then take our time breaking camp. We were still at the back of the pack; but, at least, our decision to proceed through the night had enabled us to make up some of the time, which our problems had robbed us of having. Navigating out of Chokoloskee is always a challenge, even during the daylight. However, eventually, we saw the open expanse of water, indicating that we successfully had negotiated the maze of mangroves and oyster bars. The winds, initially, were favorable; however, they were forecasted to swing around to the east later in the day. We weren’t looking forward to having strong winds in our face, but the Old Irish Blessing, “May the wind be always at your back,” eluded this Brit and his paddling buddy; nevertheless, the boat was sound, at least, and there had been no mechanical problems since leaving the first checkpoint on the evening of Day 2. Once we reached the Shark River, we would be on different headings as we followed first the river and then Whitewater Bay into Flamingo. Therefore, we weren’t likely to have headwinds the entire way. Still, we had a distance of about 60 miles to cover. Most of the day and well into the evening were spent sailing, although I continued to pedal, having found that it gave us an extra knot or so of speed; plus, peddling enabled us to point more closely into the wind. This nautical dynamic was once explained to me, but I still don’t understand how it works. However, I do know from past experience with peddling thousands of miles using the Hobie Mirage Drive that it does work, and that’s all I really cared about. Sailing as close as we could into the wind was very important since they were now blowing mostly from the direction in which we were headed. As the sun began to set, these winds really picked up, and we were moving along at well over 6 MPH. Thank goodness we had our dry suits on, for we had a seemingly continuous spray of water coming over the bow as we rammed through the wind-swept waves. I had hoped to take a short cut into the Shark River; however, we had to angle towards the more distant main entrance in order to benefit from the wind. It added distance, but it cut our time significantly. Plus, feeling the wind and the spray at almost double the speed we had been doing during the earlier days felt great.
It was dark when we entered the Shark River, and Raleigh paddled while I relaxed and took a short power nap. He was able to steer from the rear cockpit; and, by making out the shadows of the mangroves, he kept us in the channel. It was one of the advantages of having two people in a boat, and for our team, comprised of an Egret and a Pelican, there was a special symbolic relevance to this anonymous author’s depiction of teamwork, “It is a fact that in the right formation, the lifting power of many wings can achieve twice the distance of any bird flying alone.” Earlier, Egret had gotten some sleep since the wind was doing most of the work, and steering was really the only contribution we made. I call it “sleep,” but sitting in a small, plastic indentation in a kayak while being peppered with salt spray is hardly conducive to any semblance of restful sleep. However, hovering in the twilight zone between consciousness and sleep still felt good, and it helped to energize us. The incoming tide was scheduled to turn around well before we would arrive at the bay, so we decided to take advantage of Nature’s temporary assist and trade off in playing the role of skipper. With Mother Nature aiding the synergy of our teamwork, our spirits took flight, lifted by the optimism of Henry Ford’s words, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” We also decided to go non-stop into Flamingo. Even though we had caught up with the pack, any additional delay would find us missing a checkpoint deadline or arriving in Key Largo after the finish line had closed. Mindful that, as an unknown author wittily observed, “The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places,” we pressed on. We also knew that once we reached Flamingo, we were within easy striking distance of Key Largo, assuming that the conditions were favorable. Our intent was to sign the logbook and to keep on going to the finish. That plan was amended when I realized that we had missed a turn, another Dylanesque “simple twist of fate” moment. Somehow, we had paddled right past the marker indicating a sharp left into the main channel; and, so, we continued straight ahead. At about the time that we realized our mistake, our moving the boat required considerably more effort.
The tide had changed, and we now were fighting a very strong current. It was so strong that, when we stopped to look at the chart and the GPS, we were being pushed back down the river. Both navigational aids showed that we could connect with the main branch by continuing in the direction that we were headed; however, there were no channel markers. In addition, we would be making multiple turns as we followed a maze-like route through the mangroves, the Everglades’ version of Theseus’ Labyrinth at Crete. That’s why I wanted to be absolutely certain that we could get to where we needed to be without having to do much backtracking. To keep the boat from drifting backwards, I tossed the anchor into some twisted roots so that I could take the time to commit to memory the route that we would be following, our version of Ariadne’s golden thread. The GPS mapping software was pretty good, but it didn’t have the same detail as the paper chart, so I used both. That’s when I made a huge mistake. In the dark, I didn’t notice a large branch high up in the tree. However, the mast did, and it became snagged. The current was so strong that the anchor line seemed as taut as a piano wire. And the branch’s grip on the mast prevented us from pulling the boat forward to free the anchor. The only way to extricate ourselves would have been to cut the anchor line and let the current push us back into the channel. Losing the anchor was not a problem since we had a spare. But we didn’t have a spare SPOT, which methodically was transmitting our position every 5 minutes to our families, friends, and race officials. I must have dislodged it while I was maneuvering to the bow in order to cut the line. These SPOT units are waterproof; they float; and they will transmit for up to two weeks with fresh batteries, which had been installed. I could well imagine the surprise of those people following our progress if the unit were to continue to transmit for a couple of weeks as it remained hung up on a mangrove root deep in the Everglades or as it floated in the current to the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, I realized that it probably would trigger a Coast Guard search; so, as soon as I had a cell phone signal, I called the race officials to explain what had happened. Although two pieces of equipment had been lost due to my carelessness, the extra time that I had spent looking at the chart had left me confident that we could make our way back to the main river channel without having to retrace the entire distance back to the missed turn. The bright moon that night was a huge asset, as well; and, before long, our light picked up the distant reflector attached to the channel marker. We were back in the Shark River, and Whitewater Bay was not far off. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sage advice on perseverance, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on,” would pay off in nautical miles, nearly 70-fold.
The remainder of the night was uneventful as we made our way towards the large antenna and the soft glow of light coming from Flamingo. Two narrow channels had to be negotiated; however, after we had arrived at the end of the second one, we found ourselves at the boat ramp on the freshwater side of the park. Even better, the race official who had received word of Egret’s mishap in Chokoloskee greeted us, and he was determined that nothing untoward would happen at Checkpoint 3, aware, as was Cervantes in Don Quixote, that, “Forewarned is forearmed.” We positioned the boat into the cradle of a set of wheels that we carried; and, with much appreciated help, we made our way to the boat ramp on the saltwater side of the park. It was midmorning, and we learned that Jim and Elena had arrived during the night and had set out shortly before we arrived. Other boats were still behind us, so our persistence in going through the night was continuing to pay off. Slowed by unexpected challenges, the finish line now beckoned, within the paddle of possibility. As Charles H. Spurgeon, my great-great-grandfather, once noted, “By perseverance, the snail reached the ark.” Despite the temptation to press on, though, it would have been pure folly to do so in our sleep-deprived state. However, getting rest during the day at this popular fishing destination was not likely, either. We tried, and we did get enough rest to feel confident about pushing off late that afternoon. I was apprehensive about doing this. Nevertheless, I knew that there would be even stronger, unfavorable winds the next day, and I didn’t relish the prospect of moving at a snail’s pace again. I also was uneasy about setting out at night, but I decided that as long as we could get well underway before dark, we probably would be all right. We felt the truth of Walter Elliot’s observation, “Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.” There were at least three hours of light left when we set out. We also made good time, at first, as we headed to the first of several channel markers, which would guide us along our eastward trek across Florida Bay. Our next stop would be the finish line at Key Largo. It felt good–at least for a while.
As we approached the first marker, I attempted to turn the boat into the channel, but the boat wouldn’t turn. I was unable to steer. It felt different from the first time that the steering had failed. At that time, the lever operating the rudder swung freely. This time, however, there was excessive pressure preventing me from turning the rudder. There was nothing that we could do except head back to Flamingo and attempt a repair. Once again, Egret had to steer with the paddle, while I laid into the pedals. There still was plenty of light when we pulled up to the boat ramp, and I began the repair project by looking for something obvious. Much to my surprise, I found it. There was a plastic sleeve that served as a guide for the rudder line as it passed from the inside of the hull. Somehow, it had worked its way out of the hole and protruded well beyond where the one on the other side was. It prevented the rudder from turning to the left. The fix was as simple as pressing it back into place. Within 5 minutes, it was fixed; and, if it happened again, I now knew how it could be repaired, even on the water, if necessary. However, we had lost two hours of daylight with less than one hour remaining before the sun would set. We had wanted to press on, but the combination of darkness, fatigue, and the possibility of additional mechanical failures provided us with the motivation to do the only sensible thing. As Theodore Roosevelt aptly advised, “Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.” We unpacked our sleeping bags, and we joined several other WaterTribers, who had arrived during the day and were planning on getting some sleep before setting out at daybreak.
It was still dark when we crawled out of our sleeping bags. The other WaterTribers were also stirring. The wind still was blowing out of the east, which meant that it would be right in our faces for most of the final run across Florida Bay, that Old Irish Blessing eluding us still. That’s why we were all getting an early start. It would be a slow crossing, which we wanted to complete in the daylight. No one wanted to make camp another night. Any shelter without sand and bugs is pure bliss after surviving an Everglades Challenge. We dragged the boat to the bottom of the boat ramp; and, after Egret had settled into his seat, I towed us into waist-deep water. Then I heard it. The thunderous roar of a very fast and powerful boat split the air. It was sleek and jet-black, the type made for speed, not for comfort. As I glanced up, it came roaring into the basin as the person at the wheel made a sudden turn and slid the boat up to a dock. Waves of water thrown up by the wake slammed our fragile boat into the pilings and then pushed us back onto the concrete surface of the ramp. I was scrambling to steady the boat, while Egret tried, in vain, to fend off the barnacle-encrusted pilings with his paddle.
As I glanced over, we could make out in the shadows men descending onto the vessel and carrying away what resembled very large ice chests. The transfer was completed in less than a minute. Then, the boat spun around and headed to the ramp adjacent to ours. A large truck with a massive trailer expertly backed down the ramp; and, as the wheels of the trailer disappeared below the surface, the skipper revved the engines one more time and shot the boat onto the trailer. The entire episode was over in less than 3 minutes. Earlier, we had been frustrated by the time that it had taken to repack our boat as well as by the longer delay due to our decision to spend most of the night at Flamingo. But now, we were relieved that we had not left earlier. Shakespeare’s, “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety,” succinctly summed up our good fortune. Chances were that we would have found ourselves in the path of this very fast-moving boat, which was running without lights. I doubt that we would have been spotted, given the speed with which this boat was travelling, along with its correspondingly angled pitch. Nor is it likely that steps to avert a collision would have been taken, given the nature of what we were witnessing. While the scenario certainly was suspicious, we didn’t know for certain what the purpose of this surreptitious rendezvous was. We still don’t, but there’s no question that it was criminal in nature. We later learned that shortly after we departed, nearly a dozen law enforcement vehicles had surrounded the large truck with its boat in tow as it attempted to leave the park. Most likely, we had witnessed a drug smuggling operation.
Our adrenaline was in the red-zone, and we were both wide awake as we left the boat basin and kept the boat between the channel markers. The water is very shallow, and it’s not uncommon for even a kayak to touch bottom just a foot beyond the channel markers. During previous WaterTribe Challenges, I also have damaged more than my fair share of Mirage Pedal Drives on the bottom of Florida Bay. We proceeded with a great deal of caution. I also was concerned that the rough treatment to which we had been subjected during the initial phase of our departure might have caused yet another leak. I breathed a sigh of relief when I detected no abnormal amounts of water below the hatch. Yet again, Lady Fortune was smiling upon us. Plus, the steering was working flawlessly as I turned successfully into the first of a series of shallow channels, called Tin Can Channel. Sailing was not an option in the narrow confines of this channel. There simply wasn’t enough space to tack between the markers. We mainly would have headwinds until cutting through Manatee Gap, after which we would be heading northeast. However, until making that turn, we would get no assist from either the wind or the tide. It didn’t matter. Despite the slow progress, we were confident that we would enjoy dinner with my wife, Hazel, and Egret’s wife, Nancy. Several WaterTribers who had departed Flamingo after we had left passed us during the day – a testimonial that a heavy boat, fully loaded, and with a two-person crew was no match for a sleek sea kayak. It didn’t matter. Few WaterTribers pay any attention to their placement amongst the finishers. It’s all about finishing. However, it still was comforting to know that we were not lagging too far behind. There’s a sense of being part of the group, despite the fact that we seldom see each other. Once, during an Everglades Challenge, I had to leave my boat in Chokoloskee to return to Saddlebrook Resort to coordinate a team-building event for one of my corporate clients. When I resumed the race more than 24 hours later, I felt as though I were no longer a part of the social fabric that serves to bond the participants, despite being separated. It was not until I had caught up with some of the other WaterTribe Challengers, who had been delayed because of a storm, that I felt this overwhelming sense of once again belonging, the kinship implicit in Watertribe’s “Kindred Spirits.” It was the same feeling that I had experienced when, after our all night marathon runs, we had once again become a part of the pack – albeit the wagging part. There also were a considerable number of fishermen plying their skills in the breeding grounds of many aquatic species. Over the years, I’ve observed just about all forms of marine life in or about these pristine waters. However, it was mainly wading birds and osprey that we spotted on this particular crossing.
Small keys were all about; however, when we came out of the Twisty Mile, we finally were able to spot some of the larger, inhabited keys off in the distance. At night, their presence was revealed even sooner by the lights atop the many cell phone towers and other antenna that now are part of just about any populated landscape. Eventually, we arrived at the Jimmie Channel, which was the final obstacle course that had to be navigated before negotiating the Manatee Pass. Remaining in the deeper water was not easy due to the serpentine meandering of the channel. Flimsy posts, many at storm-induced angles, were our only guides; and, if we were not careful, we might have headed toward a more distant marker, not realizing that another, off to the side, was actually closer and, therefore, should have been the initial target. I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve made that mistake, and I have ended up in the grasp of the thick muck that is just below the surface. Perhaps because I’ve finally reached the top of the learning curve in navigating this area, or, more likely, because I had the benefit of Egret’s heightened, non-visual senses, we glided with ease through the last of these mazes. I knew that we would soon be crashing through the small, windswept waves with a powerful wind propelling us to the ever-closer finish line. Just before leaving the protected Manatee Channels, we donned our dry suits and secured everything to the deck. We were about to encounter an exhilarating and very wet ride to Key Largo.
We had to perform a series of tacks to line up with our final destination, but the wind was our sole means of propulsion all the way to the protected cove behind the Bay Cove Motel. We almost were finished. However, something was wrong. The shoreline didn’t look right. I could have sworn that we had to turn into a bay before being able to see the finish. The GPS confirmed that we were right on course, but I thought that I must have programmed the coordinates incorrectly. I pulled out the cell phone, and I called ahead. Our fellow WaterTribers were massed on the beach, along with Hazel and Nancy, watching our approach. That’s what a bewildered Doug told me. What I was looking for did not match reality; and, so, I mistakenly thought that we were headed to the wrong place. Louis L’Amour captured this maze-like moment in my exhilarated amazement, “Knowledge is awareness, and to it are many paths, not all of them paved with logic.” Yes, the mind plays deceptive games when both fatigue and exhilaration collide. Egret was chastising me in his good-natured way. “How many times have you done this?” he queried. I ignored his ribbing and changed the subject to a less embarrassing one by asking him what insights he had gained as a result of this experience. “I’ve come to realize that I can do anything I set my mind to,” Egret replied. We arrived 6 days, 11 hours, and 50 minutes after the start at Fort De Soto.
EGRET’S ULTIMATE CHALLENGE
One moment, the water may be mirror smooth with not even a cloud breaking the expanse of sky. Then, with little warning, the seas kick up, and dark thunderheads appear on the horizon. Egret’s personal challenge also appeared out of nowhere and without warning, much like many of the ones we had encountered during the Everglades Challenge. One month to the day after celebrating his safe arrival in Key Largo, Egret found himself in the emergency room of a Tampa hospital, where he had gone after experiencing severe stomach pains. I was in New England on a speaking tour when I received his message. The doctors had found a stage-3 cancer growing in his colon. It already had metastasized to forty percent of his liver. Surgery was scheduled; however, it was decided that, due to the tumor’s size and the high risk of dislodging additional cells, it would be best to commence with chemotherapy and, then, at the conclusion of this treatment, more safely remove the, hopefully by then, shrunken mass. It is now December, and the treatments continue. Remarkably, Raleigh remains in good spirits, despite an unexpected blow that would send most people into a downward, emotional spiral. He is using the same tenacity that enabled him to accept and successfully to complete the Everglades Challenge now to surmount this latest obstacle. And take it on he has. Both in undertaking the Everglades Challenge as well as in undergoing his current medical challenge, Raleigh is the living embodiment of the indefatigable spirit poetically celebrated in Dylan Thomas’, “Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
He has not missed a single treatment due to side effects; and, at this writing, the tumor markers in his blood have been reduced to zero. Equally important is his immune system’s ability to maintain its robustness, despite the cocktail of poisons coursing through his body. Egret’s white count, while low, remains within range of where it still can protect him from infection. However, he can’t exercise. A port surgically has been implanted in his upper chest, and his colostomy bag restricts his activities. Hence, training for the 2010 Everglades Challenge, his fervent wish, is currently on hold. It’s not likely that there will be sufficient time between the completion of his chemotherapy and the subsequent surgical removal of what remains of his cancer to allow for him to train sufficiently for the next WaterTribe Challenge. If it were simply a matter of mental toughness, then Egret definitely would be there at the start on March 6, 2010. However, there are biomedical considerations that must proceed at their own pace. I also might add that if support and encouragement could alter the progression of the cancer, Egret certainly now would be cured. He has received dozens of letters from the students at Frontier Regional High School in Massachusetts. Each year, they follow the WaterTribe Challenge, which has been incorporated into their English Literature curriculum by their exceptionally insightful and creative teacher, Ms. Barbara Furtek. During the 2009 Challenge, Raleigh was at the center of their attention. In addition, shortly after the cancer was diagnosed, I mentioned Egret’s plight to the Tampa Bay Buccaneer Cheerleaders, who had come to my headquarters at Saddlebrook Resort for a team-building session. They immediately responded by writing words of support to Egret on their annual calendar, along with posing for a picture holding a giant get-well poster they made for him. Nevertheless, despite all of these positive encouragements, there’s only so much that a normal person can endure. Thank goodness, Egret is not normal.
Raleigh was not expected to survive the accident that robbed him of his mobility. He did. Then, the doctors told him that he would never walk again. He did. Not only did he learn to walk with the aid of a prosthetic leg and canes, but he also found a way to conquer the Everglades Challenge. Raleigh’s triumphs over adversity personalize the significance of Epictetus’ insight, “Difficulties are things that show what men are.” So, while the prognosis is never good for a cancer that already has spread, the rules and statistics really don’t apply to Egret. A highly effective reframing exercise is to complete the statement, “I am glad I am not _____” whenever faced with adversity. Thinking of something worse that one has overcome helps to instill a sense of optimism that even the current storm can be endured. The more adversity a person has experienced, the more likely he is to adopt the attitude that even, “This, too, shall pass,” as expressed in the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor. Raleigh is a living example of this. Compared with other challenges that he has overcome, the cancer he currently is battling is not the worst. He already has defied death and is living proof that statistics don’t apply to him. In William A. Ward’s observation, “Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records,” Raleigh shines in the latter category. Another advantage that he has going for him is that he is in the best shape possible for taking on the aberrant cells lurking deep in his body. The weight that he lost, coupled with, as he puts it, “being in the best shape I can ever remember being in” as a result of training for and completing the Everglades Challenge, place him at the top of his game as he now faces this ongoing medical challenge. I’m betting on him to not only survive, but to be on the beach in March, if not to compete this time around, at least, but very importantly, to inspire his fellow WaterTribers. In the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Raleigh’s Ulysses’ spirit shines through and inspires us all.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.