Trip Reports

The Trip Around the Sun Tour
The Castaways' Fourteenth Annual Adventure
by Jeff Croucher

8-14 June 2013

Time is a curious thing. Einstein said that time was relative, and while he meant this in more of a fundamental relativity unifying space and time, I think he also knew this applied philosophically. Pretty good for a high school dropout. Seriously though, stay in school. That was 1894 and Einstein was ridiculously smarter than most of his teachers.

Regardless of your gravitational situation, here on Earth we all get the same amount of days, hours, minutes and seconds that everyone else gets in a year. You can't barter for more, you can't steal it from your neighbor, and even the government can't take it from you.

What changes is your perception of the passage of time. When you are a child, time progresses painfully slow: is it summer yet? Christmas? my birthday?? As an adult, time seems to accelerate and one morning you wake up wondering where time has all gone. Granted, when you are six, a year is one sixth of your life. I think you get the idea now.

"525,600 minutes... How do you measure a year in the life?"

Together we ride on this trip around the sun. Once again we gather in our celebration of life and hope.

PRE LAUNCH - Everything Before

  • A stellar year, indeed. Before we even hit the beach the team has made headlines in the Miami Herald. Even more impressive is that not only did we surpass last year's fundraising of $57,000, but we blew it out of the water by topping $100,000. However, this could never have happened without the dedication of Team TotalBank, led by our 2013 Rookie, Lou.

  • In Castaway history, there have been two failed launch attempts due to weather: 2005 and 2007. Also in 2007 we lost half of Day Five (Seven Mile Bridge) when a storm kept us on shore at Sombrero Beach. Two days before the 2013 launch, the wind is howling and the rain is coming down hard. Fear of what I call "The Odd Curse" - where the odd years tend to be difficult - seemed ready to pounce. Little did we know it really was waiting to put its teeth into us when our guard was down.

  • A new and improved skinnier version of Anthony "Hebrew" arrives with Team Captain, Patrick. Patrick declares, "Great, I'm the fat guy on the team."

  • Twelve hours to launch: weather is clearing, all systems are go.

DAY ONE - Virginia Key to Elliott Key

A Journey of 1000 Miles... Can Often Start Very, Very Badly.

  • Launch Day.

  • The whole team gathers early on Virginia Key. We will actually launch on time!

  • It was overcast this morning, slight wind from the East. Gorgeous haze, vibrant colors on shore.

  • Excellent turnout for the launch. The good folks of our title sponsor TotalBank have come out for a big send off. Once again Daniel "Danny" Diaz joins us in a tandem, but this time with Ozzie Valladares.

  • We are honored to be joined by Chris Tart of Hope Floats, our sister team in North Carolina. He will paddle with us all the way to Key Largo. His wife, Kim, is there with their daughter to see us off. Kim, a cancer survivor, is the founder of Hope Floats. They met much of the team when they paddled with us in January, and Craig "Pylon" has been paddling with them a lot in North Carolina.

  • OB is paddling with a Greenland style paddle: imagine a wooden 5 foot long double sided butter knife. Keep in mind, he wore Crocs before they were cool.

  • Two hours off the beach, and Robbie takes a tumble. Let the record reflect that this would be Capsize #1 for this trip. Pete "Recon" (NOT EVER Rico) gets in for a quick T-rescue. Despite a quick re-entry, Robbie is spooked and has taken in a lot of salt water. An hour later, Robbie starts showing signs of serious dehydration. I was hoping to make it to the first break spot to evaluate his condition, but we bail out a half mile earlier. Recon carries saline IV bags for just such an occasion and mainlines two bags into Robbie. We are fortunate to have our road crew to take him to a doctor. Sadly, we are a man down.

  • Cape Florida Lighthouse is truly a point of no return - as we enter the Safety Valve between the Atlantic and Biscayne Bay we bid farewell to Miami and civilization, and we make our way into the Deep Dark. Once you commit, you're in it all the way to Key Largo. Well, usually, but anyway...

  • Big bowl of choppy soup in the Safety Valve. The rookie takes it on the chin like a champ.

  • Stopped for lunch at Soldier Key. "Hey Lou... that feeling you feel right now? That's regret."

  • Like any seafaring crew, we pass the time by focusing on things that bring us joy in life - family, revisiting funny stories of CAC's past, music, (mis)adventures undertaken, and referencing pop culture from television and film. After 12 months of ridicule, prior to the trip, Eric "Vino" carefully selected one special film from which he could study and later grace our ears with the many hilarious lines from... Schindler's List.

  • OB announces that he is leaking two different types of fluid.

  • Sands Cut - some people have no shame, but it doesn't stop us from trying to save the day. We help push a boat off the sand bar to no avail.

  • Friends of the Columbus Boys invite us over to their yacht, Jopaju, where the staff offers us fresh fruit!

  • Incredibly low Spring Tides at Elliott Key. Usually we're a few yards from dry land, today we were about 100+ feet away.

  • Elliott Key is a wreck. Hurricane Sandy damaged many of the docks, so the National Parks Service has shut down the site and put up barrier fences. It is the Island of Dr Moro... Half-Tiger-Half-Man-Half-Hippie. At least the showers work!

  • Our friends Diana Couillard and Ray Rodriguez (both from TotalBank) and Carter Burrus (Columbus teacher) deliver cold drinks and food!

  • Update on Robbie... the medics that checked him out suggested he call it quits and stays on the dock for the rest of the trip. Second time in CAC history a team member is sidelined on a medical concern.

  • 24 miles down.

DAY TWO - Elliott Key to Key Largo

I am serious, and don't call me Ishmael.

  • Woke up crazy early to the Milky Way over our heads, and some fairy had magically added totems to many of our boats: a Saint? (Lou), a squatter (Adam "Hemingway"), a gymnast (OB), a runner (Vino), a magic lamp (Craig), a ballerina (Patrick). We got out of Dodge before the mosquitoes knew we were awake.

  • Calm morning, but started to get choppy in the afternoon. The push from Elliott Key to Card Sound Point is a mind bender. Lots of slop and chop.

  • Break at Card Sound Point: Vino's feeling queasy and crashes out in the woods - the same spot as OB some 13 years earlier, but for entirely different reasons.

  • Cameo kindly stays with Vino during the push to Alabama Jacks. After obtaining permission to film Vino if he chums the water, Cameo capsizes (#2). Out of nowhere, a lone kayaker appears to offer assistance with the rescue. We later learn that the mystery kayaker, Wayne, is a friend of Recon's and had left South Miami at 3am and crushed 45 miles in only 9 hours. Seriously.

  • Well deserved lunch at Alabama Jacks. We refresh and recharge.

  • Vino admits he may have trouble in Barnes Sound and opts-out. His choice proves wise as the Sound is a kick in the teeth per usual. I miss the glass calm crossings and spectacular sunrises of yesteryear here, but I'll gladly accept our new reality to avoid the mosquito hell and careless human trash can that is Short Key (where we used to end Day Two).

  • The Rookie picks up a remora on his hull somewhere in Barnes Sound. Certainly, this must be what is making him so slow. Certainly.

  • Chris Tart rows like a Viking. He is truly a kind soul and a pleasure to paddle with all day. It is an honor to have him on the trip this year, albeit, just for a few days, it solidifies the bond between HFNC and CAC.

  • Vino has not read Moby Dick. Call me Ishmael? Just don't call me late for the movies.

  • We bid adieu to Chris and Kim Tart as they head home. They're driving all the way back to NC in one day.

  • Pizza at the Marriott Key Largo. Eight pies lasted about 10 minutes.

  • People always ask why we like to jump in a pool after paddling all day. It could be because we miss the water, or because there are cold adult beverages involved. There is a clear difference between seawater and pool water.

  • Standard Castaway pose when relaxing in water: body in, up to neck, both hands out of the water. This is to keep our hands dry after being wet all day. Some refer to this as "The Jesus", or "Holy Hands". In 2013 the Captain unveils: "The Full Pontiff"

  • 27 mile day, 50 miles complete.

DAY THREE - Key Largo to Islamorada

Release the Bull

  • We are joined by FBO's Frank and Monica through the Dusenbury's. A Castaways first?

  • Road Crew Rick joins us for the full day! He paddles like a champ and is hilarious.

  • Milky white waters in Florida Bay just after lunch at Salty Piece of Land. Decent waves from behind make for occasional surfing. A perfect afternoon.

  • Attempting to use a shortcut around through Tavernier Creek Point I failed to realize I was being followed and inadvertently sent OB and Anthony on a wild goose chase. Somehow I dropped a bottle of sunblock in the water which drifted to the left of the entrance - I, however, had turned right - and the boys followed my false trail of breadcrumbs.

  • The Castaways' Toilet Seat has incredibly survived another trip around the sun! Unfortunately, she's only half there as the 'seat' portion is now missing.

  • The Rookie, Lou, receives his official Delta Tau Chi nickname: El Toro. For he is one with the bull, paddles like the bull, has run with the bull, and we think he may secretly drink Red Bull (not a sponsor).

  • Cameo gets a wicked sting from something underwater - most likely fire coral, or a jellyfish. He bravely asks for someone to urinate on his sting - but oddly nobody will oblige. "Seriously, none of you have to go??"

  • Crossing over to the Atlantic side, we stop to honor Delay's father. During this time, Hemingway's boat goes AWOL and is rescued by Vino. Rick captures a cool red snake... non venomous, of course.

  • The tide is low... so we take the Northwest Passage to get to the Postcard Inn. First time since 2009.

  • Dinner runs late - and laundry runs even later. The washing machine is broken, but we're given permission to use the secret washer/dryer in the staff quarters. The midnight trio watches from the sky down on the little ants.... and we laugh.

  • 21 mile day, 71 miles complete.

DAY FOUR - Islamorada to Grassy Key

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  • OB discusses a capsize near-miss. "'Kick the left rudder', they said! Before I know it I'm buying a round for the team!"

  • Another amazing brunch courtesy of the Hungry Tarpon. We are halfway to Key West.

  • One of many items Patrick brings on the trip is a can of tennis balls. Not to play the age-old game of tennis, rather, we play the less civilized game of 'bean the guy in front of you'. The tedious push between Anne's Beach and the Long Key Viaduct is sweetened by this pastime.

  • Lou falls victim to one of the Great Castaway Rookie Blunders: believing we claim to know how far it is to the next stop. "See that pole waaaay over there, yeah that's it. (two hours later) Wait, um, I meant the next one.... waay over there."

  • Getting back in the boats to finish crossing the Long Key Viaduct: "Let's put this girl to bed." To which the Captain replies, "But she's ugly, and she's wide awake."

  • And she was ugly. Very ugly. While the Pineapple Coast has claimed a few victims, the Viaduct always takes a bite out of my soul. The devil himself swims below my bow, beckoning. The light pleads... don't rush, but don't ever stop. I love this trip, but I truly hate that part, so I go slow and crawl through it.

  • Arrival at the Gulf View Waterfront Resort on Grassy Key. Mike and Stephanie are quite possibly the greatest hosts in the Keys. Their hotel is a perfect slice of the Conch Republic and they welcome us in each year like family. Scratch that... because we are family.

  • 26 mile day, 97 miles complete.

DAY FIVE - Grassy Key to Bahia Honda

Charlie Foxtrot on the Seven Mile Bridge

  • Departing Grassy Key on the bay side. Flowing glass seas, our silhouettes cut through.

  • Last year, Greg "Rainman" - my brother-in-law, had to watch us leave from here as he left to go home for work. A true Castaway and dedicated man - and he rows like a beast.

  • Dolphin show off Grassy Key. Woah's and Wow's from the guys in the front row. Chased the pod for about five minutes. I love the Keys.

  • Vaca Cut, the strongest (fastest) current in the Keys, was calm this year. We got lucky. I've given up trying to time the tides and currents in this channel. So sayeth the Oceanographer / Hydrographer.

  • Played an epic round of the Name Game crossing the Cow Key Bight. About every fifth name a distant "Pisst, Pisst" would echo across the water coming from a proud Vino giving his "Who-is-that-never-seen-it-Shrug".

  • Stephen Levine and Michael from Publix deliver goodies at Sombrero Beach, Marathon.

  • Nice crossing from Marathon to Molasses Key - the Seven Mile Bridge is just a distant view. This is one of the furthest points from land we ever are on the trip.

  • Molasses Key Revelations 2013:
    - Haven't even stopped and strangers are offering us cold drinks.
    - Lou presents OB with a 64oz commemorative 'bladder relief jar' emblazoned with our tour name. Each Castaway's name marks the volume of relief expelled.
    - Earlier that day, Lou saw an otter and it mouthed the word "OB" to him.
    - I promised OB that when he dies I will put his ashes in an urn on the next CAC toilet seat.
  • We watch a storm building to the north and tracking east. We make the call to break for Bahia Honda, putting the clouds behind us. Twenty minutes later, the storm shifts south and the squall line comes directly at us. The winds pick up to 20 knots. The seas get choppy, light spray blowing over my right shoulder - I realize I don't have my skirt on - keep moving. I turn back to check on the stragglers, and my brand new Boston Bill sunglasses fall off my head, another sacrifice to the deep. OB would be proud and sympathetic. The 2 - 3 foot seas are now hitting us from the side making things unstable. The situation is deteriorating, and Vino's feeling seasick...

And that's when things went sideways. The following events took place in a 45 minute span:

  • Cameo capsizes (Trip Capsize #3) - Vino attempts rescue - Vino capsizes (#4) - Recon rescues Cameo - Recon moves to rescue Vino, Vino goes over again (#5) - Hebrew capsizes while trying to assist (#6) - Heffe rescues Hebrew - Cameo capsizes again (#7) - Recon rescues Cameo again - Heffe, Hebrew, Vino head to closest shoreline - there is lightning everywhere - Cameo capsizes again (#8) - Recon rescues Cameo a third time and ties off.

  • We all arrive safely to the bailout spot under the west side of the Ohio-Missouri Key bridge. You don't need to be a mind reader to know Patrick was very concerned.

  • The last push to Bahia Honda is surreal. My boat is covered in beaded drops of fresh water. Little is said about the incident for now. It crosses my mind that whenever Vino starts to get seasick - Cameo flips over.

  • An evening at Tortuga Beach Club (thank you Mike!) and an incredible homemade meal, courtesy of Pedro and Maria Almeida.

  • 24+ mile day, 121 miles complete.

In retrospect, I am pleased with how I handled myself on the water. A few feet of chop is a lot when you're in a boat a little over two feet wide and 20 feet long. When the wind blows that hard, all bets are off. When you get caught in a wave trough trying to turn around (my biggest fear), it's easy to go over, but at no point did I feel unstable. I channeled my inner-Pete and continuously said to myself, "relax and concentrate"... and there were likely a few expletives fighting my boat and the waves, but I did it. I looked my fear right in the eye and told it to go straight to... well you know.

That night Stephen and I transfer our video files to his hard drive. Stephen's camera was running the whole time during the Seven Mile incident. The 48 minute clip is like the Blair Witch Project on the water. It's shakey, the camera moves around on its own, and nobody would believe it unless they see it.

DAY SIX - Bahia Honda to Sugarloaf Key

A Diet Cooks at Shorty

  • Gorgeous morning on Bahia Honda. The team is well rested and yesterday is a distant memory.

  • Part of the crew paddles over to Blue Jeans Key, last visited in 2005. The rest cut closer to the Old Bahia Honda Bridge.

  • Arrival at Little Palm Island - a true oasis.

  • It's no secret that this trip makes you appreciate the little things in life. However, even the little things are better on Little Palm Island. As Lou pointed out... "Lettuce is amazing."

  • A guest of Little Palm, Murray Clark, greets the team and gives us a donation on the spot. The goodwill never stops.

  • Best Key Lime Pie in the Keys, and dare we say anywhere? Yes, we dare. But you pay for it out on the water... it's a tough push to Loggerhead Key and then Tarpon Creek on a full belly.

  • Lovely break in Tarpon Creek. The tidal flow was rather manageable, but started picking up as we left.

  • Pete admits his fear that he may have broken Excalibur (his paddle).

  • We meet Sue, from Brighton, England, and cancer survivor. That night at the Sugar Loaf Lodge Tiki Bar she and Rick raise money for the team. She continues to raise more cash donations and meets the team at Higgs Beach with a big water jug filled with cash.

  • The Captain joins the band and nearly loses his Jimmy Buffett SuperFan Card by forgetting the lyrics to "A Pirate Looks at 40".

  • 20 mile day, 141 miles complete.

DAY SEVEN - Sugarloaf to Key West

Enjoy the ride, until it's done.

  • The last day is always a blur. You can't believe it's almost over, but it's hard to realize what you've been through.

  • It dawns on me today that Scott "Delay" has been paddling almost all week without a rudder on purpose. Darn overachievers.

  • Doug Helliesen and Charlie Merritt meet us with ice cold on-the-water beverage service in the channel just before the Boca Chica bridge. Excellent!

  • Deirdre and Bruce of Lazy Dog Stand-Up Paddlers meet the team on the water to escort the team the last leg of the trip. Good people, indeed.

  • For the first time in 14 years, the Castaways complete their journey in a new location: Higgs Beach.

  • Dozens of family members, friends, and the Vice Admiral of the Conch Republic Navy meet us with open arms. One of our most heartfelt arrivals in Castaway history. Carrie and her team truly outdid themselves to welcome us home again.

  • 160 miles complete.

DAY EIGHT & NINE - Everything After

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  • Excellent ACS Reception at JD's. The place was packed.

  • Carrie Hellisen informs us that we are the first Lower Keys RFL Team to ever break $100,000. Wow!

  • The Rookie, sheds his rookieness. El Toro and Delay are abducted inducted into the Conch Republic Navy. Because of his coolness under fire, Recon is promoted from Able Seaman to Chief Warrant Officer, SOG (Special Operations Group).

  • A new location was chosen for the Honor Ceremony, and we changed things up a bit. Excellent speech by the Captain. Every Castaway shared the reason they paddle to the attendees. Very moving.

  • The trip officially ends here, but the fight continues.

We leave the Keys and return to our lives. The "Kayak Blues" creep in and we long for the adventure, revelry and brotherhood. We look forward to next year and know that every trip really is different, but the goal never changes. We are here to make a difference in the lives of people dealing with cancer, and we are going to win this one day.

"Yes, I'll make a resolution,
that I'll never make another one.
Just enjoy this ride
on my trip around the sun.
Just enjoy this ride,
until it's done."
- Jimmy Buffett

Update: In November of 2013, we learned that the Lower Keys Relay for Life ranked #3 in the State of Florida. We also learned that the Castaways Against Cancer ranked #9 Relay for Life Team in the entire United States. Thank you all!

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