For The Dutchman
To folks in the Keys, Hurricane Dennis may become a footnote in history -
just another storm that gave the island chain a scare, but never followed
through on its reported potential. To the Castaways Against Cancer, however,
Dennis will never be forgotten.
Part-1 - Red Sky at Morning
Our team of Miami paddlers, eager to once again paddle to Key West in the
name of cancer research, set forth on our 6th-annual adventure in July. The
plan was to push off from the shores of Virginia Key on the morning of the
9th. Virginia Key is the spit of land connecting Miami to Key Biscayne. (We
were foregoing our usual South Beach launch because one of our "veteran"
paddlers capsized the previous summer in Government Cut)
As our launch date approached, our illustrious leader, Steve O'Brien, kept
glued to the Weather Channel. As is his nature, OB worried and predicted
all-ending doom as Hurricane Dennis churned toward the Keys. I tried to calm
his nerves, explaining that it was our destiny to paddle in Category-4 winds.
But as the Lower Keys prepared for what could've been a very bad weekend, my
misplaced bravado was snuffed out by OB's decision to delay our launch. For
the first time in team history, the trip was on hold.
That Saturday, South Florida was blanketed with grey skies, pounding rain and
gusty winds. Thankfully, Key West was spared a direct hit and by Saturday
night, the fur was flying again on Duval Street. As a result, the team agreed
to launch Sunday morning from Black Pointe Marina in south Miami-Dade. We
eliminated the first 25-miles or so and turned the 7-day trip into a 6-day
adventure. That way, we kept on track with our campsite and hotel reservations.
The problem was: Dennis wasn't really gone. The dirty side of the storm left
behind another day of nastiness. The good news was our boats were strong and
sturdy. OB and Chad paddled a Necky Amaruk, Jeff and Craig piloted a Current
Designs Libra and I was solo in a CD Solstice GTS - all graciously donated
for the trip by FBO. As we paddled the kayaks toward the stacks of Turkey Point,
we were blasted with several driving rain storms, buffeted with a 25-knot wind
and kicked in the teeth with plenty of white caps.
Wearing our skirts and life jackets, we stopped for a quick lunch in the rain.
Who would've thought you could be cold on a summer day in the Keys? At the time,
we were making terrible time and I was concerned we wouldn't make our goal of
Short Key. But about mid-afternoon, the sun broke free and allowed us to pick up
some miles. We even squeezed in a meal at Alabama Jack's before finishing the day.
Now, I don't care what the brochure says, but all of the Keys are not fun. Short
Key is inhabited with the most rabid mosquitoes on the planet and on this night,
the natives were certainly restless. Our spraying of bug fogger and repellent
only made them mad. Our pre-dawn wake up and break down of camp probably looked
like a scene from the "Three Stooges."
After battling the weather and the bugs on Day-1, the entire team was already
spent. Some team members were already suffering because their underarms were
cracked and bleeding from the rub of a wet, cotton shirt. But the fatigue and
frustration of Day-1 soon slipped away as the Castaways enjoyed postcard weather
the rest of the way.
As the sun rose, the boats sliced across Barnes and Blackwater Sounds. We
stopped at FBO for coffee, pictures and a visit with Monica and the staff. As
the team paddled the tunnels and channels of the Gulf side, the Castaways looked
forward to leaving their (skid) mark near Plantation Key.
Part-2 - Landmarks
Jeff Croucher gets extra points. In his 3rd-year on the team, the 28-year-old
is one of the guys that actually lives out of state. He travels down from
Mississippi every summer to take part in the adventure. The Miami native, like
everyone on the team, has a personal reason for raising money for the American
Cancer Society. His sister is a survivor.
This year, Jeff wanted to make his mark. And he did, in a big way. I knew
something was amiss when he called me a week before the trip and asked me to
purchase a 6-foot long PVC pipe. The big question is not what he needed it for,
but how he got onto a plane with carry-on luggage that included a toilet seat.
On last year's trip, while looking for a place to take a break in the sweltering
heat, the team stumbled upon the neighborhood channel off Plantation Key that's
lined with toilet seats. The seats are decorated and emblazoned with phrases like
"Crap, I'm 40." We joked about putting up one of our own, but Jeff wasn't joking.
He purchased a toilet seat, painted it red, white and blue, drew our team logo
on the cover and wrote, "Castaways Against Cancer. Since 2000: You Can't Hurt
Steel." He unveiled the masterpiece just before we launched, so we tied the seat
to the deck and wriggled on the PVC pipe. We humped that stuff all the way to the
channel and installed the work of art. Hopefully, it's still there.
We ended a hot Day-2 with a cool hotel room at Holiday Isle. On Day-3, we stayed
ocean side, enjoyed our annual brunch at the Hungry Tarpon, watched an Osprey
catch a huge Permit off Long Key, tackled the Long Key Viaduct and had great
weather for our push to Grassy Key. That's where we first saw signs that Dennis
had paid a visit.
Part-3 - Shelter
The Sea Shell Beach Resort at mile marker 57.5 looked different. As we pulled up
to the shore, the water was a root beer brown, a rotten smell hung in the air and
it looked like seaweed stretched onto the land the length of a football field. We
tested the bottom with our paddles only to feel the blades slip under several feet
of muck. We paddled back out to the end of the dock. I hopped out of my kayak,
trudged through silt and muck, reached the wooden stairs and climbed up. On the
landing, a man lay sound asleep in a plastic chair. I walked up the dock and realized
all of that seaweed was about a foot high and stretched all the way to the sliding
glass doors of the rooms on the 1st-floor. Pieces of debris stuck out and the small
hotel appeared deserted.
As I approached the office, I found an older couple standing outside. The balding
man was wearing long pants, no shirt and was holding a can of Natural Light. His
wife had short brown hair, spoke with a German accent and was sipping a glass of
wine. They appeared tired, hot and a bit weary. They explained to me that their
son and daughter-in-law run the place - but the hotel was closed. The daughter-in-law
was in the hospital because she fell down the stairs during the storm. The parents
had just driven down from Miramar and had been waiting for their son for nearly 3-hours.
A sad story it was, but the fact remained the 'ol Castaways needed a place to
stay. We'd just paddled 27-miles or so and needed a shower, dinner and a bed. As
I explained our plight, the man who'd been asleep on the plastic chair, made his
way down the dock. The older couple perked up and said, "There he is."
With a raised eyebrow, I asked, "That's your son?"
They just had to laugh when they realized he'd been at the end of the dock the
whole time. And despite the situation - hurricane damage, a wife in the hospital
- another wonderful soul in the Keys saw the big picture. He opened up 2-rooms on
the 2nd-floor for us and the Castaways had the hotel to themselves. The father
even was nice enough to drive us down to Publix so we could buy refreshments and
dinner. The well of goodwill, it seems, never runs dry in the Keys..
Part-4 - Red Sky at Night
Maybe it was because we paid the price on Day-1, but for the rest of the week,
the breeze was with us and the tides were not against us. On Day-4, we enjoyed
a nice breakfast on Sombrero Beach, paddled past the Seven Mile Bridge, relaxed
on Molasses Key and watched a beautiful sunset from our camp site on Bahia Honda.
On Day-5, we lunched off Loggerhead Key and tackled the miles and miles of
mangroves that line Sugarloaf and the Saddle Bunches. We cut down the Shark
Key Channel, portaged across US1 and checked into a hotel room at the Caribbean
Village. And on Day-6, we proudly cruised into Key West, landing at the Wyndham
My brother Bob, who is a founding member of the Castaways Against Cancer, was
unable to paddle with us this year. In January, the 38-year-old was diagnosed
with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He endured chemotherapy and wrapped up his radiation
while we were on the trip. Today, he looks and feels great and is officially
cancer-free. (knock on wood) As you can imagine, we were disappointed to not
have him with us, but as we approached the Casa's shore, there he was at the
end of the dock snapping pictures. He, his wife and 2-baby daughters came down
for the weekend to celebrate. It was the perfect icing on the cake.
The best news of all? The Castaways raised more than $22,000 for the American
Cancer Society this summer, bringing our grand total since 2000 to over $90,000.
The goal is to find a cure and despite age, family situations, jobs, geography
and stress, the Castaways will continue to paddle. Plans for the 7th-annual trip
are already in the works.
But one thing is for sure. Next year, we're shipping off in early June. We want
to get a head start on hurricane season.
You've read the story.. now see the Pictures!
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