The Annual Chokoloskee to Flamingo Camping Trip is a staple among the Hobie AI and TI sailors prior to the Everglades Challenge in March. Keith Wellman, WaterTribe name is Chekika. coordinates the event and to miss it is to miss the social and fishing celebration for January. Many WaterTribers use this as an excuse to get away from domestic chores, and to get an opportunity to test out their camping and sailing skills, as well as to work out kinks in navigation or sailing techniques. The dates and locations are subject to the whims of weather and participants availability. Chekika was to have begun 2017 by entering the Everglades Challenge, a 300 mile adventure race covering roughly 300 miles from Ft. DeSoto down the western fringes of Florida, and ultimately ending in Key Largo. It is not dfifficult to sail, paddle, or row the distance. The trick is to do it in the span of one week, plus a morning on Sunday. This time limit virtually guarantees an interesting journey for all participants, as even the more famous, or well-prepared crews have run amuck along the way. FGortunately I no longer have to worry about such worrisome restrictions since Chief, the head of the WaterTribe, booted my ass out of the Tribe and removed my name from the WaterTribe web site, and the Facebook page. My picture no longer resides in the Rogue’s Gallery, although I would seem to have a pressing claim to belong in that aptly named lineup. Repeat Offenders all! None of this in any way should be construed as my being critical of anyone or anything WaterTribe. Indeed, I made more friends, had more adventures, and collected three Finisher’s Paddles in my time as a genuine member before ending my association in infamy during the 2016 Everglades Challenge! But that is another story!
So there we were, at Chokoloskee, on a sunny saturday afternoon, Jan. 28, 2017. Now Chekika has an air of military precision about his adventures. He is meticulous in his plans and preparations. A worthy trait, and one I have never seemed able to master. It does tend to result in my finding somewhat more adventure in my journeys. Also more pain! After all, good judgement is best derived from experience! Experience comes from bad judgement. Even the best-laid plans often do not pan out, much to Chekika’s dismay, as the three prior Everglades Challenge practice sails were less than inspiring and resulted in his making the decision to not compete in the 2017 Everglades Challenge. Chekika has nothing to prove to any of us who have known him, and subjecting one’s self to the ravages of 300 miles of hardship and adventure along Florida’s left coast is a take it or leave it proposition.. By not going this year he merely demonstrates a trait the rest of us seem lacking. Wisdom.
Launch time is critical to reach Pavilion Key due to the vicissitudes of the brutal tidal flows throughout the passes in the 10,000 Islands and the Everglades. I seem to have a particular talent for flubbing this critical aspect when departing Chokoloskee Bay. Those thoughtful Rangers at Everglades City even print up a monthly tide table and are ever so halpful about local conditions on the water. Their solicitous attitude is gratefully appreciated, but as usual, it was pretty much wasted on me! The plan was to leave Chokoloskee at 3 pm and catch the outgoing tide on a 10 mile sleigh ride out through Rabbit Key Pass, and then make a hard left to catch Pavilion Key in the daylight. With tidal flow reaching 3 miles an hour, sailors and canoers can really make some time. Blow the schedule, and you will languish on the beach through another tidal cycle as it is dang difficult to make any progress through the mangroves agains an unfavorable tide. Between the mud, the mangroves, and the “dragon’s teeth” of coral outcroppings surrounding much of Chokoloskee Island, there a plethora of misfortune that can damage, or even sink you boat quite easily. I can vouch for this personally!
At any rate, Chekika and crew left on time and enjoyed a tidal boost on their merry way to their fists destination at Pavilion Key. I was launching a Hobie AI from the Ranger Station launch ramp which added another 3 miles to my navigational projection. With the tides only ruling the channels to the Gulf I calculated that I would be able to leave comfortably, if late and still make the distance to the Gulf of Mexico through Sandfly Pass, which lies directly across the bay from the Ranger Station. This cuts out the 3 mile run down the Bay to Chokoloskee and would give me a chance to try my navigational skills as I had not been out this Pass since 2001. No problem With modern GPS this should be a piece of cake even though the tide would be dropping, and I would have to be careful about running the fins of my Mirage Drive into the silt.
Arriving at the ramp, I marveled at the mass of soggy humanity clamoring about hauling all manner of paddle craft. The fleet was in, and you could not remove this clog with an industrial drum of Drano! Patience is a virtue, and I calmly sorted my equipment, sequenced dry bags for insertion into the Hobie, and unstrapped the boat. It was 3 pm and I had plenty of time. It took an hour. I borrowed one of the 3-wheeled caddie carts to roll the Hobie between the steel bars guarding the ramp. The thundering herd had disappeared in search of food and drink after a satisfying day on the water. The temperature was above 80 degrees, and the breeze was perfect for bolting out of Sandfly Pass. Ticking off the items on my mental check-list (usually a deficient method as written checklists are far superior, trust me also on this) I noticed my Coast Guard Signals Kit was missing. Dang! That is not a show-stopper, unless you happen to run into the Coast Guard (Which is the major reason I am no longer considered a member in good-standing among the WaterTribers) Having ample experience with Coast Guard inspections on the water I headed off to the marina to procure suitable signals. Surprise, surprise! They did not have any! Fortuately there is a hardware store in Everglades City right adjacent to the gas station. A stunningly well-provisioned establishment with a superior young salesman with experience with the local Law Enforcement Officers, and before I knew it I had tallied a bill of 56 dollars and was in compliance with ALL forseeable emergency condition which would require flags and flares. I also got the latest copy of the Coast Guard regulations to peruse at my leisure. Good show, fellas. I can recommend this hardware store heartily with asolutely no reservations!
So I launched into the sunshine and had a delightful sail across the Bay into SandFly Pass. I had my SPOT tracking. My trusty Garmin GPS Map 78 SC was ticking off the miles accurately. I was also running my DeLorme InReach bluetoothed to my cell phone running on Earthmate so I had supreme confidence in my navigational abilities. I even had a compass. The tides about Chokokloskee Bay could be navigated by a congenital idiot who would only have to throw a leaf in the water and follow it’s path outbound. Then it got dark! Really, really dark! No problem! I can see the lights of Everglades City over my right shoulder. Chokoloskee light pollution over my left! On the forward right horizon is the welcoming glow of Marco Island, and just to the right of that we have the lights of Naples. What could possibly go wrong?
Dang, the wind died and the sail is slatting a bit. By pumping the pedals on the Mirage Drive I can make my own apparent wind, take advantage of the slackening tide, and make up speed in very little wind. GRAUNCH! Crap! The non-retracting dagger boat on the old-style Hobie AI just grounded out. The Turbo fins of the Mirage Drive are useless as they don’t flap well in mud. I crawl out of the left side of my Hobie and jiggle the main hull to get a bit of clearance so I can yank the board out while keeping the fins from being damaged. Yeah, they are down in the mud, too! I yank the Mirage drive and toss it onto the wood haka, I don’t use a trampoline. Now I only have to play with rudder depth and my trusty kayak paddle and I am golden. Earthmate does a creditible job with my phone, but there is no way to keep to the channels since there is always new deposition of mud in the wild. It is good, but not perfect! Man, is it dark out here! Let’s go find that channel.
On reaching the Gulf of Mexico I head southward along the chain of Keys dotting the coast. The temperature is dropping and the wind and waves are kicking up throwing spray into the shallow cockpit of the Hobie AI. Yeah! At this point I am pretty much sitting waist-deep in a plastic bathtub. The commander of my partially submerged U-Boat! Gotta love it, or stay home. Wish I had tied some string around the ankles to seal the legs of my expensive $9.99 yellow Harbor Freight rain suit. Every time I kick the Mirage drive the water entering at the ankles ends up pooling in my crotch. I have a 600 dollar Stohlquist dry suit hanging in my closet at home, which would put paid to such discomforts, but I note I am not going to be sailing past that closet anytime soon. Good planning, Jughead! It’s getting cold, and it is still dark. An old sailor once asked me if I knew the difference between dark and hard! As it turns out, it stays dark all night! You figure it out!
Now I am off of Turtle Key and nominally heading toward Pavilion Key. The GPS always looks like it is straight-tracking from point to point. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Spot and the DeLorme transmit every 10 minutes. There is a lot of directional variability underlying that electronic cursor. A plain compass is often more accurate. I got my polypropylene hoodie under my yellow rain pants but the temps have dropped into the 50’s, and sitting on a pair of wet balls is not conducive to heat retention. So much for proper sailing gear. Next time! Where is that missing island? MY Garmin cursor says it should be near, while the Earthmate cursor and map refuses to move as my cold, damp finger no longer allows me to trigger the touch screen dry and secure in it’s plastic drybag. Wish I had a dry bag right about now. I gotta check into some neoprene underwear!
So where is Pavilion Key? I overestimated my speed on the 5 mile sail in the shallows and had reeled in about half of the AI sail figuring that if I hit anything in the dark it would be better going slow, as opposed to going crunch! Ain’t working out for me, and my ass is freezing! Reel that sail out and kick it up a notch I can see the red blinking navigation light off the South side of Pavilion, but the island itself is lost in inky blackness. In the 2014 Everglades I was captain of a newly-acquired 20 foot G-Cat that had been solely constructed for a run on the Worrell 1000 back in the 1980’s,swhen the thousand mile painfest up the East Coast was still being conducted. We ran into a wind lull that lasted from 11 pm to 7 am and we just gave up on sailing and drifted around in the dark off that infernal red blinking nav light off of Pavilion Key. There were 27 of us captured by the calm and nobody saw nuttin’ all night long. Never even took the sails down! Just curled up and slept with one eye open while the mind-numbing red blinker pulsed on.
Now you gotta love Garmins. Hit the HOME button and it goes from right atop that sandy shoal known as Little Pavilion Key to Hog Key, which is 10 miles down the coast. Hmm! I am close, sorta! I do see the 3 mile line from the coast so by backtracking I can hit Pavilion key, theoretically. Sail on, sailor. The suspense is not killing me, but the hypothermia is having it’s inevitible effect.
With only the rudder hanging out the bottom of the AI I come to an abrupt halt. The eagle has landed! Pavilion Key, and the welcoming lights of my fellow adventurers light up the tents on the shoreline. I drag the Hobie through the shallows up the beach to the camp. In one final comic episode I trip on the rear aka and land face first in the surf soaking the upper half of my body. Talk about dampening the body as well as the spirits! I’m back!