Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Scariest Moments during the Challenge

Certainly an incredible adventure, and lots of fun. But, participating in the WaterTribe Ultimate Challenge was also scary. The question I'm most asked is "What was the scariest thing during the Challenge?". I can't really identify one thing that was the "scariest", as each seemed to be the most scary at the time.

Naturally I was worried about sharks, alligators, rough inlets, bad weather, getting injured, and being a woman alone. These were the things I was most scared of before the Challenge began. But once on the water, there was other things to really worry about, and very little time to spend thinking of these things.

I've listed below the scariest moments, or things I was most scared of during the Challenge, in the order of how they appeared.

1 - Leaving Key Largo for Miami. Leaving the familiar route of the Everglades Challenge, paddling away from Key Largo at 5 am early that Sunday morning, in the dark, by myself, I was petrified. Chief had asked me to wake him, and he saw me off, wishing me well. This was the real beginning of my personal challenge. See Paul's posting of my adventures on that day at DAY9.

2 - Paddling alone at night in the dark. This is one of the hardest things during any WaterTribe Challenge. To meet the deadlines you have to paddle late into every night, sometimes paddling all night long. Distances are distorted, navigation markers are hard to see, every light looks like a red or green navigation light. And though recreational boat traffic is low, the barges and other working boats are out (and not expecting you on the water).

Locating potential and safe camping sites in the dark is also quite stressful. My first night after leaving Key Largo, a few miles South of Miami, I found what looked like a nice park through a small opening in some bushes. I paddled through the bushes and waded onto shore pulling my Dreamcatcher up, right behind a small sign. I walked in front of the sign thinking it would name the park. Much to my horror, the sign warned me of crocodiles in the area.

3 – A barge encounter near Cape Canaveral. It was late, ~1 am, I had sat on shore most of the day due to high winds, and was now planning to paddle through the night. I was closely following the Intracoastal Waterways (ICW) navigation aids to stay on course. A large and quiet barge was coming towards me. Only seeing a small white light ahead, and not hearing anything, it was almost in front of me when I realized what it was. They also saw me, flashing me with their spotlight while looking for the navigation markers. I paddled over to the left to move away from them, but had read the chart backwards at a point where the channel made a turn. Oops! I cut the barge off about 50 yds in front of it, paddling as hard as I could when I realized my mistake. I can still hear the Captain cursing me out over his load speaker as he was forced to turn a bit off channel to avoid me.

4 – Coming into shallow water to camp, every night after the Manatee encounter. At 4am, paddling in fairly shallow water down Mosquito Lagoon (the same morning of the barge encounter), I paddled over and awoke a large sleeping manatee. All of a sudden I heard a huge explosion, my stern was lifted out of the water a couple feet. The next thing I knew, the Dreamcatcher and I were upside down.

Many have commented on how scared I must have been. Actually I was too busy reacting (pumping water, getting to shore, changing wet clothes) to be scared. But every night after that, needing to paddle to shore to find camp, I was very nervous and anxious. And noisy, as from then on, I'd paddle 3-4 strokes than bang the paddle on the side of the boat to wake up every thing up on my way in.

5. Crossing the many Inlets on the East Coast. I'd chosen to follow the ICW up the East Coast (I believe most of the challengers also followed this route), figuring this a safer route then dealing with potentially bad weather on the outside and avoiding having to come in the Inlets. Crossing the inlets were the most challenging, there was often boat traffic, including large ships, navigational challenges (many intersecting channels going in different directions) and large tidal influences. It seemed that every time I came to an inlet, it was night, and I had to cross in the dark. Very scary. Photos below are aerial shots of Sebastian, St Lucie, and the Port Everglades Inlets.

"A half dozen boaters die each year using South Florida Inlets. Boaters should have good seamanship skills before using inlets. Strong currents and shoaling (in the inlets and just beyond the jetties) are common Florida inlet dangers." as reported on this SITE, that describes the many inlets on the East Coast of Florida.

6 - The fog (and dark and cold) on the Suwannee River, 3 nights in a row. There are often trees down and branches overhanging on the banks of the River creating what could be a very dangerous situation. There was also no moon the nights we were on the Rivers, it was very dark. Three nights in a row, on the Suwannee, in the pitch dark, the fog was so thick, that we often couldn't even see the outline of the tree line. Even more frightening because there were constant turns on the River, sometimes as often as every 50 yds. These nights were also some of the coldest, with lows in the 30s. One night the fog was so bad, that DrKayak, RiverJohn, and I had to raft up and float, knowing we were going in the right direction because of the current, but worried if we hit a bank, we needed to be together, in case there was trouble.

And there were often trees and stumps in the middle of the river.

7 - Alligators. OK, and I was scared of alligators too (we saw 8 alligators, heard coyotes every night, and heard a bobcat one night).

8 – The shrimp boat/commercial fishing fleet encounter on the Gulf 4 miles from shore. After leaving the final checkpoint at Cedar Key, DrKayak and I managed to get past the man-made spoil islands going out about 6 miles from shore at Florida Power just before sundown. From here, my planed route was to stay about 3-4 miles from shore, any closer and we would be in very shallow water in this area of the Gulf. Little did we know that we were paddling right through a commercial fishing zone, and the fleet had just arrived.

We suddenly found ourselves spending an hour continually trying to avoid a large shrimp boat. No matter which way we moved, it seemed to move right on us. It started to get very stressful, and very scary. In the dark, we could not be sure it could see us. At one point it got so close that DrKayak yelled to me "paddle fast to the right, quick". By this time I'd had it, I simply replied "No! I'm not moving any more, he is too fast". Now the boat was less than 15 yds away, and the Captain yelled out to us "Are you guys OK". Boy did I let him have it. His response, "I can't hear you over the engines. You really shouldn't be out here. I see you have lights on, but there are lots of big fishing boats out here, it's pretty dangerous". We moved into the shallow waters and stayed closer to shore for the rest of the trip down the Gulf to Tampa Bay. It took a few hours before our heart rate returned to normal.

In Summary: It's interesting to go back and look at a posting I wrote last December as I was training. This was titled 'Dealing with the Mental Challenges'. In this posting I talked about the things I was most scared of. Seems many of them were the things I had to deal with during the Challenge. Even then I worried about paddling alone, in the dark, and finding camping spots.


Igor said...

Hi, Dawn! I have been reading your blog since I started folowing the the Florida Challenge via WT site this year. Originally I read about it in CS Monitor. Great race! I am hoping to start kayaking regularly one day. Meanwhile it is very inspiring to watch videos and read forum posts at WT, or read blogs like yours!

Interesting notes about your experience. Hope your injury would be healed soon!

Marek said...

Great article!

I remember that before the UFC you wrote about your fears. I wonder which of those early fears got confirmed during the race as the scary moments and which were not.

Igor said...

Dawn, in light of recent alligator attacks in Florida, did you consider gators a danger while in kayak? Could they attack a kayak, overturn it?