As seen in the Naples Daily News:
Everglades Challenge: Father and son paddle 300 miles of open water
The Everglades Challenge is not for the faint of heart. Running from St. Petersburg, down the west coast of southern Florida and the Everglades to Key Largo, it calls on boaters under their own power to sail, or paddle, or both, with no help from shore and nothing except some short breaks for sleep.
This was the course that Mark Cecil of Naples, 59, and his son Maxfield Seixas, 18, set out on March 3. Cecil is a repeat racer, having paddled the course last year with another adult, but this was the first time for Max.
The Everglades Challenge is an unsupported, adventure race. The distance is roughly 300 nautical miles with a time limit of eight days or less.
Unsupported means that there are no safety boats or support crews to help during the race and participants are not allowed to have a support crew follow or meet during the race. It is OK to have family or friends at official checkpoints, but they cannot provide anything other than emotional support.
“You need to be an expert,” said Cecil, noting that the Water Tribe, the organization sponsoring the Everglades Challenge, tests participants before they allow them to participate – although as a previous finisher, his inspection was waived. “The whole idea of an expedition race is to be self-sufficient.”
The Water Tribe manifesto reads: “The purpose of WaterTribe is to encourage the development of boats, equipment, skills, and human athletic performance for safe and efficient coastal cruising using minimal impact human- and wind-powered watercraft based on sea kayaks, canoes, and small sailboats.”
While contestants can’t receive help from on shore, they can help each other, and Cecil said the experience makes for great bonding, not just for the father and son boatmates, but for all the participants.
“You are bound together by the effort. For being a race, it really is a group effort.” They won their class, he said, made up of “older expedition boats,” but that had to do with the small number of boats in it. Last year, 104 boats overall started the race, and just 44 finished. “Some people try four and five times, and don’t manage to finish.”
This year, said Cecil, one racer, a man in his 30s, collapsed and died of a heart attack underway.
“He was doing what he loved,” said Mark.
Once underway, Mark and Max paddled or sailed essentially non-stop, with only short breaks for rest, ashore on a lonely beach, or waiting for currents to be in their favor, for instance when transiting Big Marco Pass to enter the Everglades portion of the run.
They were helped by a strong northerly breeze, that allowed them to pop up the tiny sail on their 12-ft. Alaskan-style sea kayak. The sail is only one yard square, said Cecil, but when your boat is shaped essentially like a sewing needle, and the wind is behind you, it makes all the difference. It’s all about the winds.
“We were leading everybody at first – even the sailboats. Last year, the conditions were brutal, and it took two extra days to finish,” he said. Max said he feels like he cheated, getting help from the wind, and hopes to paddle the Challenge again next year.
Food underway was grab and go, he said.
“There’s no time to stop and cook anything. We had nuts, fruit bars, jerky and Cliff bars – stuff like that.” They did make a pit stop at Lowdermilk Park in Naples, where family members gathered for a quick visit, and indulged in sandwiches from the concession stand.
There were mandatory checkpoints, including one at Chokoloskee outside Everglades City.
“Once you pass Chokoloskee, you’re committed,” said Cecil, as there is no human habitation until reaching the southern tip of Florida at Flamingo.
Max, who is an Eagle Scout, and in the middle of applying to colleges, planning to major in aerospace engineering, took the rear seat in the kayak, which put him in charge of steering and navigation.
“The bow man, he’s essentially the motor,” he said of his father. Cecil, who owns a software company in Naples, is an instrument-qualified aircraft pilot, so he probably could handle some navigation chores, but let Max take the lead.
Their navigation was flawless until, at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, just before the finish line in Key Largo, he piloted the duo to the wrong beach. They were just about 100 yards away from their aiming point, he said, but the strong wind prevented them from reaching it till the next morning.
“We were greeted by friends, part of our Scout family,” said Max. Then, he said, “we had breakfast, and more breakfast.”
Max was off to college interviews, but Mark, the Scoutmaster, headed out on March 16, leading a group of Boy Scouts kayaking down into the 10,000 Islands.