There are all sorts of weekend warriors out there: some hunt or fish, some camp, some mountain bike or ski, some parachute or backpack, and some… well some are a little different. Here in Florida there’s a tribe of warriors, known as the WaterTribe. They like to take little voyages on little boats. This March 3rd, 123 of them will embark upon three of these expeditionary voyages.
The three run concurrently, all leaving Ft. Desoto beach for various destinations. The first expedition is called the Ultra Marathon, which goes to Placida, Florida, a distance of some 67 miles. There are 22 entrants for ths trip, who have just over 1 day to finish.
The second expedition, and the most famous of the WaterTribe events, is the Everglades Challenge. Starting at Ft. Desoto, the 89 entrants stop first at Placida, and then head south through the 10,000 Islands area to Chokoloskee (where, this year, I’ll be manning the checkpoint). From there, it’s through Florida Bay to Flamingo, deep in the heart of the Everglades’ southern edge, and then on to Key Largo, a distance totalling somewhere around 240-300 miles, depending on the route chosen. You have 7 days to finish.
The final expedition, run only every 4 years, is the Florida Ultimate Challenge, goes just a little further than the other two. Starting at Ft. Desoto, you also finish at Ft. Desoto. All the 12 entrants have to do is complete the first two courses, and then proceed up the east coast of Florida to the headwaters of the St. Mary’s River, portage your boat 40 miles over logging roads to the headwaters of the Suwannee River, visit Cedar Key, and come back to where you began. You have 29 days to complete this course.
These are not your average weekend warriors. The boats are kayaks, small sailboats or other experimental craft, and are often custom built by their owners. The rules for the events specifically mention all the dangers, including snakes, sharks, alligators, and death, that could occur (my favorite rules excerpt: 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).
These are real expeditions, unsupported from the outside world, and the boats are loaded with survival gear, dehydrated and concentrated foods, and everything you need to stay alive if shipwrecked, stranded, or capsized at sea. You must have everything you need with you, and you must know how to use it, for you are truly on your own. Last year, a 12 foot boat with two WaterTribers was stranded for a week in Florida Bay when the wind blew all the water out, and left them on an uncrossable mud flat. They survived. We saw 4 to 8 foot seas while sailing 5 miles offshore on our 18′, 40 year old trimaran, and a series of roiling, boiling 6 to 8 foot waves in Boca Grande pass sheared off our centerboard 4 inches below the hull. Many WaterTribers described the 2011 Everglades Challenge as one of the toughest events they ever entered.
Although not all members of WaterTribe have a military background, we all benefit from technology and knowledge developed by the Armed Forces. Elements of almost every branches’ survival schools and courses have been instilled into the knowledge base of those who participate. The men and women of WaterTribe do, in fact, often remind me of soldiers I know… quiet and unassuming, but with a clarity of purpose that quietly surrounds them. Some of them, I suspect, could fall out of an airplane and somehow create a functional parachute on the way down.
Participating in any of these challenges is indeed a life-changing experience, and I am looking forward to our second entry in the Everglades Challenge next year.
For more information go to www.watertribe.org