As seen in the Naples Daily News:
Bonita Springs man, 62, takes kayak on Ultimate Florida Challenge
Lance Shearer Daily News Correspondent
Mark Cecil enjoys taking on a challenge. Unlike some people who go out on the water for relaxation, the 62-year-old software entrepreneur, scoutmaster and father of seven has made a habit of taking on extended kayak races under difficult conditions.
Three times he has paddled the Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile sprint from Tampa to Key Largo, with no support crew or reprovisioning allowed, but he was ready for something bigger.
On March 7, Cecil set out alone on a course four times as long as that race. Organized by the Water Tribe, the event is called the Ultimate Florida Challenge — paddling and portaging around the Florida peninsula.
The Ultimate Florida Challenge is a 1,200-mile unsupported expedition race, beginning and ending in Tampa, contending with blue water open sea passages, rampaging speedboats, and fallen trees across rivers entirely blocking the way. Along with paddling up the St. Mary’s River and down the Suwanee, it requires a 40-mile portage, dragging the kayak and gear along backwoods logging roads on a makeshift wheeled cart.
This spring, there was an additional challenge. After Cecil started his odyssey, the state largely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Stay-at-home orders were put in place, and state parks that were the check-in points for the various legs of the race were closed. Luckily, race participants made it through the Florida Keys before they were entirely closed to visitors.
In addition, the freeze-dried camping foods Cecil was counting on to provide the 5,000 calories per day he burned while paddling vanished from store shelves as consumers went on a panic-buying spree.
“I lost all my body fat. I lost 16 pounds over the duration, but I became the most limber I’ve ever been,” said Cecil. “You need to eat a lot. I ate a lot of protein bars, granola, figs, dates, raisins and nuts,” along with coffee and oatmeal he would heat up on his one-burner camp stove.
“Sometimes you get this sugar low, and you need a hit of energy. I had a bottle of honey, and I would just straight-line it into my mouth.”
There were also occasional treats, such as a rack of ribs at the Gator Motel in North Florida, grouper delivered by his wife, Jennifer, at a break between stages, and what he said was the best meal of the trip at the Capri Fish House on Isles of Capri.
Mostly, he camped on spoil islands and river banks, wherever he could find at the end of the day’s run, looking for enough dry land to erect his one-man tent, and hoping to remain dry at high tide. One day, he never broke camp at all, sitting out extreme adverse winds that made any attempt at making progress that day an unsafe proposition.
Several times he considered quitting, including when he capsized in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and when the rudder on his 18-foot expedition kayak malfunctioned, causing him to strip his feet raw in the attempt to control it.
The kayak featured a minuscule 1-square-yard sail that could propel it with favorable winds, but Cecil left the sail behind for the final stages across Florida and down the west coast.
Despite gales of wind and capsizing, Cecil said the greatest danger he encountered on the 1,200-mile journey were the reckless boaters on the Intracoastal Waterway while traversing up the east coast of the state.
Knowing the social distancing rules that had been put in place, he was also appalled at how throngs of students on spring break crowded together.
“There would be 50 boats pulled up to a sandbar, and every college in America was right there, kids packed together with the music blasting. In my opinion that was reckless,” he said.
Paddling solo and sleeping in the wilderness, “I believe I may have been the most socially distant individual in the state,” said Cecil, who was on his own except to be resupplied by family members every 300 miles.
But while he may have been alone, he was not out of touch. With two cell phones and recharging “power bricks,” two GPS units and a personal locator beacon, Cecil posted to Facebook every day, sending his “morning monologues” and brief video clips to hundreds of friends and receiving hundreds of posts in return. Some offered encouragement, and some who had done the challenge previously offered tips and insights into where to find a hot meal or a dry camping spot.
“I talked to my wife every day. I used the phone for weather and tides. I had a number of people helping as tacticians,” Cecil said.
While technology gave him support, and a measure of comfort to family members at home, Cecil said that one of his most satisfying experiences came when the high-tech devices broke down.
“My primary GPS failed, my secondary GPS failed, my phone was out, and I was happy,” Cecil said. “I was back to my student pilot days, just sailing along,” navigating by dead reckoning and the feel of the wind on his face.
After 40 days — “Calluses on my calluses,” he said. “I stopped wearing gloves.” — Cecil completed his journey at Fort De Soto State Park in Tampa Bay where he had started. Even with the state’s lockdown, a group of friends and supporters gathered to greet the returning circumnavigator as he grounded his kayak on the beach, knelt and presented his paddle to Jennifer in a romantic gesture.
“This fulfilled something I’ve wanted to do for 15 years. My takeaway from this race/expedition/journey is that there are transformative powers at work,” he said. “It is transformational.”
In his 20th and last year as a scoutmaster, Cecil has mentored a generation of boys. “Mister C,” as the scouts of Troop 109 in Bonita Springs call him, was modeling for his troop what scouting is all about.
“We live in a beautiful country, and as long as we keep our social distance, we need to be encouraging outside activity,” Cecil said.
Water Tribe founder and organizer Steve Isaac said experiences like this help people find things in themselves they didn’t know were there.
“Why do crazy stuff like this? I started Water Tribe for people looking for a challenge. I’ve been told by many it’s a life-changing experience for them,” Isaac said. “They realize, no matter what you put in front of them, with will and self-reliance, they can handle it.”