Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Florida Keys Challenge - 1

Brown Pelican

Today was the first official day of the first Florida Keys Challenge. We were up at 5:30 a.m., left Ed and Ellen’s, and went to wake-up the staff of the Hideout Restaurant nearby. Two men had beaten us inside for their morning coffee, but all the lights and the ’OPEN’ signs still weren’t on. They were happy for the business in such a nice, but out of the way place, where the interior had already been over decorated for Valentines. Besides wall Valentines, and garlands of Valentines around the ceilings, the flight of the sole waitress to and fro would set the inflatable red lips and hearts slowly spinning on their strings that hung from the ceiling.

Home is wherever there's room.

The entire day was to be a race. As soon as we finished breakfast, it was off to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which was still on Key Largo, and only a mile south of the restaurant. We had to get there, drop off our boats, and set up camp. We then had to drive to the finish point at Fort Zackary Taylor State Park at the south end of Key West to leave our vehicles.

The boats were staged in about three openings that gave access to the water.

If you make the trip to the Keys, the first lesson is to forget any attempt at estimating travel time based on distance. Once you hit Rt. 1, the Overseas Highway, sit back and chill, because you’re not going anywhere fast. The Keys are crazy. The Overseas Highway is a two-lane road, and you’re only going as fast as the car in front of you. The idea of passing is insane and nearly suicidal, as evidenced by the traffic crashes we saw any time we drove. With another few thousand cars in front of you going the same way, passing one of them is as fruitless as it gets. There are indeed sections marked 55 mph, but all it takes is one motorhome, one scooter, one tourist determined to see all the sights while driving, and you’re going 35 mph whether you like it or not.

It took three hours to reach Key West. It is a town designed over a century ago with modern crowds. It is Manhattan with wild roosters and Key Lime Pie. You have to share the streets, all smaller than most of your driveways at home, with wall-to-wall people who can’t all fit on the sidewalks, with bikes, with scooters, with all the cars that have driven down the Overseas Highway and now have no place to go, with tourist trains, buses, and jitneys, and of course with a few delivery truck drivers trying to make turns around 20-ft. corners with 55-ft. trailers. After reaching the fort, we got our parking passes, left our vehicles, and boarded a couple mini-buses for the three-hour drive back to Pennekamp.
The first job on arrival back at Pennekamp was to finish our camp set-ups and check our boats and gear in preparation for the push off in the morning. The most important piece of business now would be the mandatory paddlers’ meeting as soon as we finished dinner. All the meals but one were catered. That one was a lunch where food couldn’t be delivered to an island lunch stop, so we packed our lunches for that day. Due to the distances to be covered, we had four catering services picked from locations along the route. The food was varied and outstanding. We had lasagna one night that was to absolutely die for. Several of the guys had taken off to find a sports bar with a TV where they could watch one of the football playoffs, and those of us left behind at camp were the winners as we grabbed their portions. The only chow crisis we had was if the morning coffee was a couple minutes late arriving. We then shoved off each morning around 8 to 8:30, depending on what we faced on the day’s paddle.

With the paddlers’ meeting about to start, Bill Richards, Executive Director of PaddleFlorida, took center stage to brief us on what we should expect. He said, “We’ve had thirteen paddling events so far, and not one of them has had to deal with rain.” With that, a flash of lightning lit the sky behind him, thunder rumbled, and the rain began to fall as we ran either for cover, or to make sure our tents were closed tight. We tried to continue later as we gathered under the picnic shelter. A few were unhappy with what they heard.

It takes a while for any group to find their own group personality and cohesiveness. This one was no different. When asked about safety, Bill was adamant that he wasn’t there to hold anyone’s hand, or plan for every crisis. That didn’t sit well. Many felt that his role was to indeed foresee and plan for anything that might happen. When talking with him by phone earlier, I made the statement that I had never participated in an organized event before. He responded that when I finished this event, I could still say the same thing. Some felt he was too hands off, and there was too little organization. What we came to understand with time, however, was what he didn’t say. He had certainly provided a structure that insured as much safety as such a large group could expect. My impression was that he didn’t want us to come and be part of a Bill Richards event, but to come prepared to create our own adventure, take charge of our own security, and lay claim to our own success or failure. In the end, we all managed to do that.

Even pelicans will pose for the camera.

Each day there would be a lead boat. While many of us carried our own charts and GPS, the lead boat insured we got where we were going. There was also a mid-fleet sweep boat to make sure the group stayed together. At the end was a rear sweep to keep pace with the slower boats and make sure everyone got in. Bill was surprised that so many carried VHF radios, so we also maintained a calling and working frequency. A U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary boat stationed itself at critical points or ran up and down the fleet to check on everyone and provide any emergency response. An EMT carried a medical kit on the trip to address the few bumps and abrasions. Lastly, everyone reported their departure at the start of every day, and checked in when they landed at the end to guarantee that everyone was accounted for. There were some kinks in the system the first couple days, but everything then began to flow smoothly. Weather was discussed each day, and anyone who felt they couldn’t manage in the day’s winds or seas had the option of having their boat loaded in the truck for transport to the next site. In the end, only one person dropped from the fleet after a rudder failure, and the feeling that perhaps with his age, he may be in a bit over his head.

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