Blown Away!  The 2016 Florida Keys Challenge

This was my fourth Keys Challenge.  I really hadn’t planned on doing this trip again.  But my buddy, Bruce Romanchak was looking to escape the northern winter.  This looked like an interesting adventure to him.  So he put out the call for others who might want to do this Paddle Florida trip.  Four others saluted: Tom Doo (North Carolina), Robin Raskin and Kaare Christian (NYC) and Alan Lovgren (Pennsylvania via Fort Myers, FL).  So, counting me, there would be six of us.  I signed up one more time.  

Day 1 - John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: The itinerary for this trip was different from past trips (See the side bar). 2012 marked the first Paddle Florida Keys Challenge.  It was planned to coincide with the centennial year of the completion of Flagler’s railroad connecting Miami with Key West.  That year we paddled the entire length of the keys from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo to Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West. 

To shorten the trip and ease the logistical requirements in subsequent years, the trip was begun at Long Point State Park in Marathon (2013, 2014 and 2015).  From there we paddled to Curry Hammock State Park.  Apparently the Long Key State Park officials would not grant Paddle Florida a permit to camp this year, so the planners had to arrange this odd start to the trip by beginning at Pennekamp, paddling eleven miles to Harry Harris County Park, loading our boats onto trailers and us onto shuttles, for a forty-five mile ride to Curry Hammock State Park.  But that was just the beginning of what made this trip different.

Day 2 - Curry Hammock State Park: I have really enjoyed Curry Hammock State Park over the years.   The park officials allow us to tent camp in an area behind a wood rail fence in the day use section of the park.  Those who want to wait till after four o’clock can camp closer to the water.  A few folks did, but today that was not a great idea.  The wind was becoming stronger and it was beginning to rain.  Everyone was advised to do a good job of setting their tents so they would stand up to the expected conditions.  

At six o’clock, dinner hour, the wind was blowing the rain sideways right through the pavilion set up for our meal.  A wonderful crew of young women, not dressed for this weather, served dinner with a laugh and a smile while we huddled under the pavilion in rain gear, with our backs to the wind and rain trying to eat.  After dinner, Bill Richards, Paddle Florida CEO, announced that no one would paddle tomorrow.  Our Coast Guard Auxiliary escort would not venture onto the ocean in the morning and said we should not either.  

Day 3 - To Knight’s Key Campground: The wind howled all night.  I could hear it high up in the trees.  But it only effected me a little bit.  The tent’s rainfly would breathe, in and out, like it was drawing deep breaths, as the wind pressure pushed it in, then released it.  Accept for an occasionally stronger gust that would somehow reach me and rattle the whole tent, I was warm and secure.  Too warm actually.  Even with the strong wind it was warm, very warm in the tent.  In fact, I slept shirtless and in my shorts on top of my sleeping bag for most of the night.  My sleep was restless because of the incessant howling of the wind and the warmth of my tent.

About 5:30 am I decided to walk to the nearby bathroom to relieve myself, as I couldn’t sleep.  I thought I’d survey the area to see how others were fairing.  When I crawled out of my tent into the night wind I found a clear sky, filled with stars.  The flag on a nearby flag pole was standing straight out, snapping loudly in the gale.  I found a vantage point away from the building’s lights and surveyed the area.  Everyone seemed to be OK.  Relieved, I headed back to my tent, crawled in and dozed till almost seven o’clock.  Then I started my usual routine of packing up.  The morning dawned gray and damp.  But the rain had stopped during the night, allowing us a window in which to pack up our wet tents and gear under gray but dry skies.  

The wind was still howling at breakfast and the rain began again.  The catering crew once again did yeoman’s duty, providing us with coffee and a hot meal in awful conditions.   Announcements at breakfast confirmed that we would not paddle that day, so we grabbed a second cup of coffee and waited for the trailers and shuttles to arrive for our trip to Knight’s Key.  They would not arrive for hours.  

There was a lot of frustration among the paddlers, as this was the third day of our trip.  We had come to paddle and in three days we had paddled only eleven miles!  But the decision to stay off the water that day was the right one, which everybody understood and agreed with.  

After breakfast the sun came out, but the wind continued to howl.  The campers, waiting for the transport of their boats, gear and themselves to Knight’s Key were restless.   Some hiked.  A few paddled in a protected mangrove area to the East of camp.  Others sat and read or talked with friends.  Scott Keys and I managed to get our boats secured on the only trailer in camp.  Shortly thereafter, Jill Linguard offered us a ride to Knight’s Key.  Scott, I and one or two others grabbed the gear we needed (mostly our tents) and headed with Jill to the campsite.  

Knight’s Key is another one of my favorite campsites.  Camping is in a large field with many picnic tables available.  The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming.  There is a laundry, hot showers and a Tiki Bar out on the point featuring glorious sunsets.  But not on this trip, or any other for that matter.  Wind and overcast skies ended any idea of a beautiful sunset this day.  And we learned the campground had been sold.  It would be turned into resort condos.  The Tiki Bar would be torn down the very next day!  At least dinner was served inside the closed campground restaurant, where it was warm and dry. And folk singer-song writer Rod McDonald performed after dinner.

Day Four - Bahia Honda and the Seven Mile Bridge: 

Finally, we got a day when we could paddle!  It would be eleven miles to Bahia Honda State Park.  Even so, the wind continued to blow all night, moving from Southwest to Northwest, rattling my tent.  And it got cold, cold by Florida standards at least, with temperatures in the high fifties.  I slept pretty well until about five o’clock when I held my usual debate about whether to get up and empty my bladder, or tough it out till six o’clock.  I was kind of curious about what the outside conditions were, so I got up.  The wind was still strong with occasional stronger gusts, but everything in camp looked OK.  After returning to my tent I held another internal debate.  Should I stay up and read?  Or go back to bed?  The warmth of my sleeping bag won out.  An hour later I was up and packing my gear.  The tent was surprisingly dry both inside and out, but it was very difficult to take down and pack in the strong wind.

On this trip, we paddle on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Keys.  Paddling in the ocean often requires more advanced paddling skills than many other Paddle Florida trips.  I say, “often”, because, like that box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get as far as paddling conditions go on any given day.  And a day that starts out with mild conditions can change dramatically over the course of a fifteen or twenty mile paddle.  In fact, by the time we reached Bahia Honda, twenty percent of our group had left the trip, some after the first day.  For some it was lack of experience.  For others it was the challenging paddling weather.  For many it was the constant rain and wind.  Those folks who remained were, as a group, the best paddlers I had ever been with.  I am often out front with the fastest paddlers.  Not in this group.  They were really good, and because of that, we were all safer.  

The day dawned somewhat overcast but showed signs of clearing.  The wind had died to ten to twelve miles per hour out of the Northeast.  It would be behind us, giving us a push from the rear. This would be a eleven mile day, seven miles of it across the open water of the famed Seven Mile Bridge.  

Conditions along the bridge were challenging, with a following sea on the rear port quarter.  The wind increased, and combined with an outgoing tidal flow coursing toward us from under the bridge, created the feeling of being in a agitator washer.  Seas could come from any direction and the occasional rogue wave would rear up unexpectedly shaking our confidence.  I had to fight to keep my boat on track as it wanted to constantly round up into the wind.  This went on for miles and was very tiring. 

Finally we made it to the West side of Molasses Key where we all took shelter and regrouped.  Everyone was OK.  On the next leg of the trip, the seas were also pretty confused but less intense.  After lunch at Veteran’s Memorial Park, conditions improved substantially.  In the end, we had two capsizes.  One occurred when a strong paddler broke his paddle and went over.  The Coast Guard Auxiliary was right there to assist him.  He was paddling again as soon as another paddler loaned him his spare blade.  The other was Robin, of our northern paddling group.  She rolled over in the surf as she approached the landing at Bahia Honda.  She was able to swim and walk her boat to shore, OK but humbled.  

Bahia Honda State Park is one of the loveliest in the Keys.  There are many beaches scattered around the key.  There are excellent RV and tent camping sites and cabins for rent.  There are hiking trails, a small museum and a gift shop that sells the most generously sized ice cream cones in the keys.  

Our group was given a secluded, protected area at the Southwest end of the key where the Seven Mile Bridge begins.  The area is nestled between a bank of trees on the South and a high berm created by Flagler when the railroad was built over one hundred years ago, on the North.  Here we would be well protected from the wind and rain that was to come.  

Scott Keys had paddled through to camp, not stopping for lunch, so he was one of the first on the scene and had his pick of camping spots.  A lot of the good spots along the railroad berm were taken when I got there.  Scott convinced me that his location in the shade was a good one and offered me a spot.  As soon as my tent was set up he also offered me hot water for  a cup of coffee.  It’s an addiction we share.  Once camp was set up I wandered over to the gift shop only half admitting that I wanted one of the great ice cream cones they sell.  Ice cream on the deck overlooking Florida Bay, even in the cold wind, was wonderful. 

Day 5 - Layover Day at Bahia Honda State Park: 

Once again the wind howled all night.  But we were tucked down in our protected area between the railroad bridge berm and the stand of trees, well protected from the wind’s effects.  Still, all night long we were bombarded by the sounds of wind blowing through the trees above us and the constant crashing of waves on the windward shore behind us.  I awoke several times during the night.  At four-twenty AM I seriously considered getting up to see what was happening outside my tent.  But the wind and cold, and the warmth of my sleeping bag made me roll over and go back to sleep.  The next time I awoke it was after seven o’clock, much later than I usually sleep on these trips.  I quickly got dressed and hustled off to our 7:30 breakfast.

What to do with this day?  My plan was to join several other paddlers for a circumnavigation of Bahia Honda.  I had done this once before and really enjoyed it.  But given the wind and sea conditions, that wasn’t going to happen.  Many paddlers had planned on taking a dive boat trip several miles out to a coral reef to snorkel there.  But all dive boat trips were cancelled for the next several days.  We were skunked again by this incessant, unrelenting wind!

Bruce, Robin and Kaare decided to take a bus into Key West and spend the day.  They actually spent more time on the bus than in Key West as the traffic was terrible and the bus was a local, making many stops.  Tom, who doesn’t sleep well, went back to bed, emerging in the afternoon to hike the island.  Alan and I visited the island museum and walked the length of the island, a round trip of five miles or so.  Then it was read, talk, drink coffee, have more ice cream, and eat dinner. 

After dinner we had a great concert by American Dulcimer artist Bing Futch.  We all sat huddled on benches, wrapped in coats and hats, arms folded and hands tucked in protecting ourselves from the wind and cold, while Bing performed in a short sleeved Hawaiian shirt.  I don’t know how he did it.

Day 6 - On to Sugarloaf KOA: 

We awoke to mixed sunshine and clouds, a nice change.  But the wind was still strong, though not as strong as our paddle to Bahia Honda or yesterday’s layover day.  It appeared to be a decent paddling day.  This would be a seventeen mile day, three miles of it across the open water of another Overseas Highway bridge.  

There were no small craft warnings this morning despite the constant wind.  The Coast Guard Auxiliary would be on hand to shadow us and offer support as needed.  The decision was made to paddle.  Everyone was apprehensive as we entered the water.  We were underway about nine o’clock.  Conditions were mild until we rounded a point of land and came into the full force of the wind, waves and current.

We crossed a stretch of open water along a three mile bridge where the seas were a bit more challenging and confused, with quartering seas on our rear starboard quarter most of the time.  This, combined with a strong outgoing tidal current created a need to ferry or crab into the wind, setting our bows at nearly a forty-five degree angle away from our intended goal.  Through this section we encountered very confused seas, again giving the sense of paddling in an agitator washer.  Waves were often running to three feet.  Our decks were awash with  breaking waves flowing over the cockpit, sealed with a spray deck.  An occasional large roller would appear out of nowhere, throwing us off balance.  We were constantly alert to avoid shallow water and the breaking seas that formed there as well.


On all three previous paddles I had gotten lost on my way into Sugarloaf.  I was determined not to get lost this time.  The thing is that when you round Gopher Key, you think you are there.  But there are at least three more miles to go across a wide bay and up an inlet, with Sugarloaf on the back, northeast edge of the key.  It is completely out of sight from the bay.  In the end we had paddled our seventeen miles in moderately difficult conditions in five hours.  

The Sugarloaf KOA is a lovely spot.  We were assigned a camping area in a spacious open treed area.  The biggest disadvantage to this location is the distance between our boats, sleeping, meal and shower areas.  But I was so tired after the day’s paddle that I don’t really remember setting up my tent, what I did or where we had dinner.  I believe I showered and shaved.  I might have taken a nap.  Who knows what or where we ate.  I just don’t remember.

Day 7 - On to Boyd’s RV Park, Last Stop Before Key West:  

Boyd’s RV Park is my least favorite camping spot on this trip.  The facilities are fine.  It’s just that we camp in RV sites.  The ground is hard as a rock and the land slopes toward the water making it hard to set up level in a location that won’t capture runoff in a storm.  Adding to the aggravation is that we are expected stuff three to four tents in each of these spaces.  It makes sense to try and get there early, to get a good spot.

This was a nineteen mile day, the longest of our trip.  Conditions were not difficult, just long.  We made a lunch stop around seven miles out at Sammy’s Creek, leaving a long twelve miles to complete the paddle.  It’s funny how the terrible weather days generate so much description and comment, while these relatively mild days do not.  This day was more about slogging it out, putting one stroke after another in the water, pulling the boat forward until you reached your destination.  

As I said before, I was not among the fastest paddlers in this group.  So I arrived somewhere in the middle of the pack.  Grabbing my tent, I headed to the camping area and was told by a Boyd’s employee that I had better do a good job of setting up as heavy rains and high winds were predicted over night.  This announcement caused a lot of discussion.  One by one or in small groups, many paddlers decided to end their trip at Boyd’s that night.  That included Tom, Robin and Kaare.  Tom had ridden down from North Carolina on a motorcycle.  Rain, Ice and snow were predicted on his route home.  He picked up his motorcycle in Key West and left immediately, hoping to get ahead of the storm.  Kaare and Robin were due at Robin’s mother’s house on Florida’s West coast the next day.  They picked up their rental car a day early and headed for Mom’s.  Alan, Bruce and I decided to sit tight to see what tomorrow might bring.  

After dinner and before the wind and rain, I went for a walk around the RV Park.  I walked by row after row of half-million dollar motor homes all cramped in together.  I reached this place in a $3,200.00, human powered kayak and am sleeping in a $200.00 tent.  I suppose I should feel inadequate or inferior in some way.  But I don’t.  I really have no desirer for the lifestyle represented by these expensive behemoths.  

In the space next to my tent Paul Gelderblom has set up his hammer dulcimer and is giving a lovely impromptu concert in front of a camp fire, the only campfire we’ve been able to have on this trip.

So, I sit here in my tent once again, listening to the music and feeling a little sore after paddling those nineteen miles.  The predicted rain has arrived right on schedule, breaking up the campfire concert.  I can hear it falling lightly on my rainfly.  But it will soon get much heavier and will be accompanied by high winds.  Half of our posse has already left for home.  Alan, Bruce and I  are still here, hoping that things will not be as bad as predicted.  But if conditions are bad in the morning, we will end our trip here as well.  

January 20 - 5

The Crew (minus Tom) Bruce, Yackman, Robin, Alan, and Kaare

Day 8 - An Anticlimactic End:   The wind blew hard and it rained all night.  I was up at my usual hour of six o’clock, but I didn’t venture out.  I stayed in my tent, breaking down and repacking all my gear.  I knew that this was the end of the trip.  There would be no paddle into Zachary Taylor State Park beach on this day.  I hauled my gear to the truck in a misty, on again, off again rain.  Then I dropped my sodden tent knowing that I would have a serious cleanup job to do when I got home.  After breakfast Bruce and Alan did the same.  Then Alan and I  hooked a ride to Key West to retrieve our cars.  

On our return we loaded our boats, Alan’s on his car and Bruce’s and mine on my trailer.  Alan had reserved a room for the three of us some months earlier, so we headed back toward Key West.  The final post scrips to this saga are these: 1) We actually saw the sea conditions at the beach we would have paddled into.  They were terrible.  It confirmed the wisdom of once more not paddling.  

2) Bruce returned to my place in Sebastian and stayed an extra day to let the worst of the northern weather pass before he traveled home.  He had a day to dry out some of his equipment before getting on the road but I couldn’t help because, 3) I had developed a full blown case of Bronchitis and couldn’t get out of my chair.   Finally, 4) I discovered that my trailer’s license plate was missing and probably stolen.  So overall, this will be a trip I remember, but not fondly.

Bruce’s take on the trip details I missed :-)

You forgot to mention the kayak flying off the van.  The opportunity to compare spaghetti and meat balls from three different caterers.  Paddling in the shallows.  How about Jon and his sailing kayak? Big, confusing chop. Patty getting the inches of water out her tent with a bilge pump. Wind on the back quarter. Mo, who broke his paddle, what a nice guy!  Landing in the surf. Frank and Kay, coffee in the morning. Bob in his beautiful wooden kayak.  Waiting in the water until someone figured out where the channel was. Paul and Debbie, what a really nice couple and not a bad musician. Somebody dropped Karol and Farley’s kayak. The lead paddlers! Don (not Yackman) singing Jimmy Buffet on the water. Greg powering away from us. Jennie, what a great smile. Dave, a Hemingway look-a-like.  The chance to paddle and talk with 30 other people.  All the Brit paddlers. Dick, still paddling at 81.  Tom and Sandy, sailing and surf kayaking. Jim & Kathy, always serene. The mangrove paddle at Bahia. The Chesapeake Bay crew, out-paddling the Hudson Valley crew... I’m lost, where is my compass?, it’s on the other boat stupid. The nice Paddle Florida people, all the great food serving staff, the outfitter staff unloading boats in the downpour... lots of stick paddlers...iguanas…manatees… did Rebecca make it out to the sail boat?

 © Don Yackel 2020