Sometimes when you go to see a movie, a friend will tell you, "If you can make it through the first 15 minutes, youíll survive." Well, the same idea held true for the Castawaysí fifth annual kayak trip. While the 2004 adventure will be remembered for great weather and awe-inspiring marine life, the trip will always be defined by its opening act.
Chad, in his fourth year on the team, was determined to paddle by himself in a wooden kayak he built. We called it his "vision quest." It was a special mission for Chad, especially in light of his fatherís untimely death earlier this year.
With pride, Chad launched his "JB Eagle 7" from South Beach just after sunrise, Saturday, July 10th. His boat was one of four. Bob was back in the saddle as team navigator paddling his newly purchased Current Designsí Storm. Jeff and Craig returned for their sophomore seasons and paddled in the front seats of two tandems, captained by myself and Steve ('OB').
The launch was normal with waves off the beach and soft rollers past the break. But as we approached Government Cut, six to eight foot waves could be seen chopping up the deep water channel. The kayaks entered the mix master. Bobís kayak and the two tandems were nearly through the nastiness when a cry was heard from Chad. I looked over my left shoulder and saw the hull of Chadís wooden kayak pointing to the sky. Chad had capsized.
The two tandems started to turn around and head back into the channel. Chad was holding onto the submerged kayak, bobbing in the waves. As Jeff and I pulled up to the accident scene, OB spotted a powerboat coming out of Miamiís port and paddled toward it.
I grabbed the cockpit of the flooded kayak and talked to Chad in hopes of getting the blood back to his face. Heíd already lost his self-made foam seat and some small items off the deck. He was scared, angry and wounded all at the same time.
The powerboat pulled up and one of the Good Samaritans helped Chad out of the water. He flopped over onto a bench and put his face into his hands. A young blond woman put a bottle of cold water on his arm. As the powerboat pulled out of the channel, I yelled, reminding them to come back and tow them out.
While Chad, the powerboat, OB and Craigís tandem and Bob were all now safe on the south side of the Cut, Jeff and I were still in the blender. Jeff dug his paddle deep into the water, but with a massive kayak packed full of gear and me holding onto another kayak full of gear, we were going nowhere.
Thatís when we saw it. As it entered our peripheral vision, Jeff and I turned our heads to the left. A huge, towering Panamanian freighter was making its way out of the Port and heading straight for us. Jeff had stopped paddling to look while I screamed for him to keep going. The freighter got closer and closer. Jeff wanted me to drop the kayak and paddle.
Finally, with the freighter only about 200-yards away, the blue hull started turning starboard. We could only imagine the discussion inside the shipís pilot house when the Captain eye-balled the two kayaks bouncing in the channel.
After the ship passed, I looked over my shoulder and realized the powerboat wasnít making any effort to come back. I screamed at the top of my lungs, hurling insults and demands peppered with colorful and salty language. The boat eventually turned around and came back.
The boaters stopped nearby and tossed a rope to Jeff. With the bouncy waves now rocking the idling powerboat, Chad stood up, leaned over the side and gave back the seawater he had swallowed earlier. He then tied the rope to the tandemís bow and gave the boaters the thumbs-up. The engines revved and started to pull the dead weight out of the channel. Holding on to Chadís woody with just my right arm, I leaned left to counter-balance the weight. The kayaks bounced across the waves hard until a sudden calm enveloped the us. We were out of the channel.
After thanking the Good Samaritans, the whole team paddled, walked and swam toward Virginia Key. After Chadís hatches and cockpit were pumped out and after some more puking, the burly optimist refused to quit. With no seat, no foot pegs and no rudder, Chad climbed back into his wooden kayak and demanded to paddle on.
It was an ominous start for the Castaways Against Cancer, but in hindsight, we were simply paying our dues. For the rest of the week, the weather and paddling conditions were amazing. The calm water, slight breezes and glassy surface allowed us to see tons of marine life. We sneaked up on at least a half-dozen loggerhead turtles, several nurse sharks, sting rays and two pods of feeding dolphins. Craig even hopped in the water to snorkel after spotting a 9-foot wide brain coral off the Saddle Bunches.
The lack of headwind also allowed our team to move more quickly, which allowed for more breaks. One of the favorites: a toilet-seat lined neighborhood channel on the bayside of Plantation Key. The seats are painted with messages, such as, "Crap, Iím 40." The boys slapped on their life jackets and floated down the channel on a swift current. Toward the end, a fast moving powerboat buzzed by, heading north. The woman on-board, wearing only a white t-shirt and black bikini bottom, drew stares from the Castaways. But as the boat passed, the team horrifically realized, the man was driving the boat naked. Only in the Keys.
The team changed up some of its destinations this year, stopping at Elliott Key, Short Key, Holiday Isle, Grassy Key, Bahia Honda, Big Coppitt and, of course, Key West. The toughest spots: battling mosquitoes on Short Key and sweating through the night in our Bahia Honda campsite. Some of the highlights: enjoying burgers and beer at the Purple Porpoise Pub, mile marker 10 and watching the stars and satellites from the dock at Sea Shell Beach Resort, mile marker 58.
The most success though came in fulfillment of the actual mission. Our goal for 2004 was $20,000 for the American Cancer Society. Upon arrival in Key West, the team was just over $18,000. But thanks to the amazingly generous contributions that continue to roll in, the Castaways have raised nearly $23,000. Since the team was created in 2000, the Castaways have raised more than $67,000 for the ACS.
2004 was also a great year for exposure. We had our first ever TV news exposure on CBS-4 in South Florida. In addition to my usual morning interviews on WIOD, a pre-trip interview with Paul and Ron on Big 105.9-FM proved to be helpful. Several boaters knew who we were before the team could toot its own horn. Many said they heard about the trip on the radio. Upon arrival in Key West, we were front page news in The Citizen. The Castaways were also inducted into the Conch Republic Navy.
The Castaways had a blast in 2004. Money was raised, beer was guzzled and stories were created. All six paddlers are eager to do it again, so stay tuned for details on the 6th-annual kayak tripÖ and watch out for those waves in Government Cut!