I am a grandmother paddling alone over 2,500 miles from Maine to Guatemala. Along the way I will be:
- telling the story of the children who live in the Guatemala City garbage dump community
- honoring their entrepreneurial mothers
- talking about the success of the Safe Passage model school and
- raising funds for additional grades for the school.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Epic Kayaks and Racing the Everglades Challenge

Everglades Challenge 2013 start line-up - photo by Greg Stammer, who paddled the race in 2013 in a newer version of the Epic kayak I used back in 2005.  We both placed first in our class, but that's where the similarity ends.
For many years, the Epic Active Touring paddle has been my choice for expeditions and for racing.  I'm not really that fast, so I only enter races with distances long enough for my turtle approach to stand a chance.  One race was the 300 mile WaterTribe Everglades Challenge back in 2005, and I'll tell you about a few of that race's many challenges.  But first, let me share some great news.

Epics Kayaks is now a sponsor for The Kayak Safe Passage Expedition!  They are donating a full carbon Active Touring paddle, as well as a number of paddling accessaries.  I've used and abused this same paddle for over ten years, and it's my go-to paddle.  It will be great to have a new one so I'll be sure it can hold up for another 2,500 miles.  The Active Touring is the quietist paddle I've used, which means it's efficient.  Another reason I like the paddle is the large blade area, as it allows me to apply a lot of force when things get dicey and I need to move rapidly.
Epic's photo of the Active Touring Paddle
The Epic Active Touring paddle is also very light weight, which is a real advantage for my aging body.  How much of an advantage?  Well, let's calculate that.  Let's say the expedition is 2,500 miles (I know it will actually be longer, but let's make the calculation easy).  I'll estimate paddling at 3 mph on average.  (While I often average closer to 5 mph, this will be with a fully loaded boat, going against the prevailing winds for the whole trip.)  My stroke rate is usually about 50 per minute.  Doing the math, that means 2,500,000 paddle strokes to get to Guatemala!  If I compare the weight of the Epic Active Touring paddle to one of the near competitors, I find the Epic is 4.25 oz lighter.  Doing a simplified calculation that ignores all those vectors I could consider, I find that with the Epic I'll be lifting 332 tons less weight over the course of the Expedition.  Sounds like a lot less work with the Epic Active Touring paddle!

One place I have used this paddle was the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge back in 2005.  For that extreme adventure race my kayak was also an Epic, a black carbon fiber Endurance 18.  The Everglades Challenge is an unsupported race, which means you have to carry your own food water, camping and safety gear. The course is about 300 miles and goes from Tampa, down along the west coast of Florida, through the Everglades and then across Florida Bay to the Keys.  The catch is you have to complete the race in 8 days or less.  That means you  have to paddle day and night, with little sleep, through whatever weather conditions occur.  That's what makes it trickier than a long expedition, when you can paddle at a safer pace.  When you enter one of the WaterTribe races you have to sign a waiver that includes the line: "If you are not an expert paddler and/or sailor, do not enter this race. Even if you are a well prepared expert you may DIE – yes, you may DIE."  To counter this seriousness, racers have WaterTribe names, and mine is ArcticDoc.

One minor excitement in the race came when my rudder pedal came unattached from all the force I was applying using my legs for power with a racing stroke.  I was able to pull ashore on a small island, get out my tools and two part epoxy putty, disassemble the mechanism, glue together the two offending parts, reassemble and get back on the water.  I called Epic as I paddled under the bridge to Sanibel Island, and they arranged to have a replacement part overnighted to the next checkpoint of the race at Chokoloskee.  Now that's service!

Paddling offshore on a stormy, overcast, moonless night, was a challenge.   I couldn't see the waves approaching, and as they lifted and twisted the kayak.  Not being able to see any horizon made it hard to balance because it wasn't obvious which direction was upright.  I was so glad I was paddling with an informal group of three others, including the Everglades Challenge veteran, Sandy Bottom, who freely shared her expertise.

The next night we were paddling against the current and into the wind, during a storm with increasing winds.  Again we couldn't really see the waves, and just reacted instinctively as they pummeled our kayaks.  Despite working hard, we were wet and cold, and it was disconcerting to glance sideways at the shore and see people laughing and warm as they sat inside the fancy restaurants of Naples.   But the most disconcerting part of looking at the shore was noticing that we were not making any forward progress!  The tide was high, with waves crashing on shore and nowhere to land.   Turning and going backward in a race is not much of an option.  So we just encouraged each other to dig deeper and gradually by two in the morning were able to finally turn, exhausted, into the inlet of Naples Bay. We found a marginal spot to camp and had a few hours of sleep before heading on.  The sleep deprivation is the toughest part of the race, as you lose your ability to make the best decisions.  Perhaps it wasn't the best strategy when we decided to stop during the race to go shopping on Marco Island.  But one of the guys was having such problems with chaffing that he even asked us girls for advice on the best skivvies to purchase.  So it really was an important stop.

It was a great feeling to finally arrive at the finish line.  I had placed first in my class!  However that was not a great feat, as I also placed last in my class: Class 2 solo female.  But I did knock a day and a half off the record time for the class.  I just noticed that my record still holds, 8 years later.  But that's only because no other woman has been demented enough to enter the racing kayak/no sail class in the last 8 years.  Things are changing this year, with two entrants in that class, DeadCat and Calypso. Calypso will be paddling an Epic 18x, the newer, faster version of my Epic Endurance 18.  Go Calypso and Dead Cat, and break that record!

The tee shirt I received at the finish of the Everglades Challenge read "Toughest small boat race in the world."  But that was before WaterTribe added a new race: The Ultimate Florida Challenge, which circumnavigates Florida.  "Oh", you may say, "but Florida's not an island", and that is why it is such a tough challenge!  It includes having to paddle 90 miles upstream followed by a 40 mile portage.  I'm glad I'm only paddling from Maine to Guatemala.

One last point about Epic Kayaks.  It's a kayak company where the boats and paddles are designed and tested and refined by world champion kayak and surf ski paddlers.  So they know what paddlers want, and are generous with their advice.  I know I've appreciated the little bits of advice I've personally received from Greg Barton over the years.  Thank you, Epic Kayaks!

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