The Castaways' Fifteenth Annual Adventure
by Jeff Croucher
"Keep Calm, and Halcyon"
Fifteen years of paddling and thousands of miles behind us. It started as four men and a
wild idea. Each Castaways adventure is a journey built on the years of trial and error from
our misadventures paddling down ‘Thunder Road’; our foamy sea of flotsam and flipsam with
formidable challenges and a beacon of hope at the end. People say we are brave, people say
we are crazy, and people have even called us heroes. I respectfully decline all of these
titles. I am a storyteller – armed with a paddle and a camera, a foolish mind, and the
inspiration bestowed upon me by Steve O’Brien.
Therefore and hitherto my departure from this mortal coil: I am a Castaway.
The real heroes are the ones fighting for our country overseas. The heroes are
in your own city protecting and saving lives of the helpless and injured, putting their
own lives in danger in the process every day. The heroes are sitting in a chemo chair with
a needle in their body or having their body irradiated while fighting for their life, which
is far more difficult than just giving up and saying goodbye.
I am a Castaway – making a difference in the fight against a disease that has taken so much from so many.
I am a Castaway – showing others that they too can make a difference in changing the world around them.
I am a Castaway.
The Gathering |
Day One |
Day Two |
Day Three |
Day Four |
Day Five |
Day Six |
THE GATHERING - Before the Beach
Getting there is Half the Fun – Team Brewmaster, Anthony, just before getting on the highway in Georgia, accidentally rear ends a car. After sorting things out with insurance, while making his second attempt to head to Florida, his front driver side tire bolts fail causing the unexpected liberation of his front tire while in motion. Everyone was fine, but talk about driving it ‘till the wheels fall off! While getting the tire fixed, he notices a nice big crack in the hull of his boat.
Nightmares Before Christmas – As mentioned in previous trip reports, I often have nightmares starting months before the trip involving the day of launch and I’m missing essential items. My first official 2014 Tour Nightmare was documented in November 2013. Fortunately, I only had a few this season, but I would have taken one every night to trade for what I did to myself this summer. In my haste to depart Mississippi for my 16 hour drive to Miami, I made it all the way to Florida with half my gear sitting in my garage. I had taken the bag out of my trunk while looking for my tie-down straps. Don’t worry, I received it 11 hours before we launched. Although, I may have trouble paddling without my arm and leg.
Misspelled Revisited – In 2002, we accidentally misspelled “Against” on our team shirt as “Againts”. In May 2014, a solid 340+ days after the 2013 team shirts had been proofed, printed, distributed, worn and thoroughly photographed; Cameo’s wife says… “Do you realize Castaways is misspelled on the arm of your shirt?” Casataways: Insert infinite facepalm here.
La Casa del Toro – Launch Party at the home of Lou “El Toro”. His home is gorgeous. Towering old oaks in the front, and spacious yard complete with tennis court. So many old friends and family gather. The band is back together, and we’re about to make some killer music.
Shoot the Messenger – 13 hours until launch. Anthony arrives at the final group logistics meeting and tells me he left my gear, overnighted from Mississippi by my wife, at OB’s in South Palmetto Bay (we were in Kendall). I laugh, he laughs and tells me, “No really, I left it.”
THE LAUNCH - Dragon Rules
Saturday, June 7th
Virginia Key to Elliott Key
0500 – My grandmother’s house is filled with stirring Castaways. Time to get moving. Adam "Hemingway" and Pete "Recon" are due to arrive at 0600 to ferry our boats to the beach only ten minutes away.
For many years it’s been difficult to explain my career. Using cutting-edge technology surveying the bottom of the ocean, be it nearshore coastal mapping with airborne lidar, or ultra-deepwater autonomous underwater vehicles for archeological and hazard multi-beam sonar surveys in the Gulf of Mexico. After attempting to explain to Stephen “Cameo” an aspect of my job deploying a CTD to collect a sound velocity profile, he blankly looked at me half-asleep and said, “I like pancakes.”
0615 – The team arrives at Virginia Key beach on time. Possibly our most organized assembly.
0700 – Our Captain and Master of Ceremonies, Patrick, gives a rousing speech before launch and huge thank you to the TotalBank “Army” which OB corrected as “Navy”.
OB calls out his wife, Candy, to perform the 2014 ceremonial first stroke. Very cool gesture. Everyone cheers.
Joining us on the opening push to Key Biscayne is a Dragon Boat powered by 10 people. Scott "Delay" met the gang through one of his benefits he put together this year in Miami. He is a man of the people.
DAY ONE - The Legend of the Levitating Buddha
Saturday, June 7th
Virginia Key to Elliott Key
Eleven boats push off from Virginia Key at 0730. Each vessel proudly displaying the logos from our Iron Manatee Sponsors on our port side. On our starboard side, we’re each carrying the logo to show our love for TotalBank.
Dragon boat hauls booty. They stopped to thank us for what we do. They lost a member this year and the woman who spoke is a Leukemia survivor.
We’re honored to have Chris Tart from Hope Floats NC join the team this year. Less than two months ago he and his team paddled 208 miles for the cause. He’s a big dude and a heck of a paddler, all around teddy bear. Us South Florida folk don’t get too much Southern drawl in these parts, but his smooth accent and great sense of humor make you love him instantly. We have been trading video and trip tracking secrets back and forth the last couple years and he certainly brought his A-game. His boat is basically a floating electronics store/tripod complete with three foot camera boom that hangs out over the water and gets great reverse shots in 1080p.
New to the crew is the rookie, Ozzy, another hardcore Team TotalBank member. He paddled with us to the lighthouse on Day One in 2013 and has been heavy training and fundraising with OB and Lou. He’s the youngest official Castaway and has the smallest bladder. It was clear that no one explained to him the intricacies of: The Bathroom Question. Only two hours into the day and I notice that the 26’ long tandem has slowed down to a crawl. Scott is still paddling and the rookie appears to be either: a) standing, or b) levitating. Gee whiz.
Approaching the break on Key Biscayne, a seagull lands on the head of a pelican. OB demands a photograph and wants Pulitzer rights.
First break at Key Biscayne. Our first ever “Junior Castaway”, Danny Perez, and his tandem counterpart Frank Sotolongo joined us as guest paddlers for launch. They hang up their paddle in the shadow of the Cape Florida Lighthouse. Danny, 13, is the youngest person to paddle with the team on the trip and he helped raise over $500!
Glass calm and super clear water crossing the Safety Valve. We were able to see all the way to the bottom – I don’t remember the last time it was that clear.
Departing the Point of No Return - a barrel of laughs crossing to Soldier Key. Like a good best friend, I took a stab at Patrick’s 2013 mental lapse of Jimmy Buffett lyrics while singing “A Pirate Looks at 40” at Sugarloaf Lodge. Upon which he replied, “Next time, why don’t I bring up your most embarrassing moment on every trip as soon as I see you.”
Well-deserved lunch on Soldier Key. Upon arrival, Ozzy asks Scott if this is Elliott Key. He seemed to take it well when informed we had only gone halfway.
Huge nurse shark in the flats past Soldier – 8 to 10’. Paddled directly over a small five-footer and got a great video of it. Gorgeous creatures.
Stopped on Boca Chita for the first time since 2009. Got a first real taste of the Spring Tides passing between Sands Key and Chita.
If there was a battle between the best music on the trip, this year’s contenders would be Stephen, Adam, Patrick, Chris, Lou and Greg. I have to exclude myself this year as I lost my iPod nano a few days before the trip (I found it three months later). The years have seen a technological leap from the vacuum tube and transistor powered rigs that OB would ceremoniously drop into the blue each summer, to the advanced and compact iWhatevers with Bluetooth speakers (not sponsors, btw). My personal favorite setup is Greg’s highly technical ‘Shower-Radio-stuffed-in-but-doesn’t-completely-fit-inside-a-large-Ziploc-bag’. While slightly laughable, you can’t beat its longevity – 8 years strong. Regardless of technology, this afternoon’s tunes were won by Stephen. He has the most eclectic selection of music of anyone I’ve heard on the team. From Tu Pac to Richard Cheese, Beatles to Bowie, or Manilow to Metallica. For the first time in the history of the trip we push forth on the ocean side of Sands Key and it feels good to be a gangsta.
Over 50 boats at the Sands Key sand bar. I meet a local named Tony Teran who asks what we’re doing so far from the mainland. After hearing our story he yells to his boat and hands over a cash donation. After the trip, I spoke with him via email and put his late wife’s name on our Honor List. Incredibly nice guy who has been deeply affected by this disease.
Arrival at Elliott Key. We are met by Columbus Alumni, Ray Rodriguez and his 43’ Intrepid Bank on Smiles along with TotalBank super-fundraiser and supporter Diana Perez and our Junior Castaway and guest paddlers Danny and Frank. This is the 3rd year that Ray and his crew supply our team with much awaited food and adult beverages on Elliott Key. Dr. Carter Burrus came aboard to supervise the proper distribution of all fermented drinks.
While unpacking the boats, OB announces that his phone is soaking wet. Knowing in past years his storage holds tend to leak, he cleverly hid the device from Neptune on Chris’ boat, safely in a dry bag. I consider myself a man of science, but I can’t explain the supernatural physics behind OB’s luck in this field. So, whoever bet that OB would lose electronics before the end of Day One – we owe you $50.
24 miles down.
DAY TWO - A Thousand Strokes to Nowhere
Sunday, June 8th
Elliott Key to Key Largo
Up before dawn, humbling sun rising behind us over Biscayne Bay. Another good departure that was low on mosquitoes… we are so gonna get killed next year.
Looking at himself in the mirror after a long night of restlessness fueled by muscle aches and the hard ground at Elliott Key, Ozzy begins to understand what we mean by “a night in the box”.
Glass calm water crossing Card Sound to Card Sound Point. Makes for easy paddling on a Sunday morning, but with little wind comes sweltering heat.
Music catches my ear rolling over the smooth water… Stephen introduces me to another Brit indy band “South” and their song “Loosen Your Hold”. Not many bands can pull off a harpsichord and a banjo, but these guys sure as heck did.
OB asks Stephen, a devout Ohio fan, if the name of his boat (which is Buckeye Bullitt) or the Ohio State mascot’s name is “Gensler” (it's actually Brutus). Gensler is, in fact, an international architecture firm and corporate sponsor for the team this year. As the days progressed, “Gensler” lovingly became the name of an unseen ‘manservant’ for whom we would ask outrageous requests… i.e. “GENSLER! Bring me my cold towel and glass of bison milk chilled to exactly 34.5 degrees!”
Scott’s wife Cherie meets the team at AJ’s and graciously accepts to lighten the load of camping gear for the Barnes Sound crossing.
Lou’s shoulder is radiating pain to his wrist. Must be from years of sipping Mai Tai’s and playing tennis. The game of musical boats begins… he jumps into the back of the tandem with the Rookie in the front. Delay takes Babalou.
Departing AJ’s, it’s crazy hot. My phone warns me that it’s exceeding operational temperature. According to Motorola, that’s about a 125°F internal temp. In a panic, I dump a few mouthfuls of ice cold water I just got from the restaurant to bring the temp down.
It’s a hard push across Barnes. Little less chop than last year, but like in 2011, we have a massive storm growing behind us. The tops exploding to 50,000 feet. The tandem is dropping behind due to Toro’s weakened wrist. Pete ties on to provide assistance. The Viceroy makes the call to bail out to the SE side of Short Key (aka Main Key) due to concern with the storm. I offered to help with the tandem and Pete rigged a line around me so we could have two boats helping get to safety faster. The boys managed to pick up speed without our help and it was evident that I was having a harder time fighting the drag from the rope and the attached small float than the pull of the tandem. How embarrassing.
After a weather review, Hemingway jumps in the back of the tandem with Lou up front and they take off to Jewfish Creek like a fart in the wind. The rookie mounts Adam’s trusty steed, Sunshine Daydream, to take on the rest of Barnes Sound. Ozzy later begins getting a headache and complains that his water is too hot to drink. Turns out it’s affecting his delicate young stomach.
Entering Blackwater Sound we come across a pair of juvenile dolphins. Just about everyone had a close encounter. Closest I’ve been to these creatures in the wild in years, cresting just a few feet away, swimming underneath. I followed them for a while. It’s so hard to break off this chase, but the beach is calling.
Huge group of family and friends meet us on the beach in Key Largo! Wonderful welcome for such a hard day. We enjoy pizza around the snazzy waterfall/fire pit on the Marriott beach. If you ever make it out here, I highly recommend the hammock during sunset. Simply amazing.
27 29 mile day, 50 miles complete.
DAY THREE - Flatuloo
Monday, June 9th
Key Largo to Islamorada
0530 - Good morning to Patrick’s face. I can deal with the snoring, but stop stealing the covers, dude.
Today our pseudo-rookie, Chris, truly jumps into the unknown. Last year he departed after only the first two days on the water, but now he has earned one of the best days of the trip.
Quick stop at Florida Bay Outfitters to see Frank & Monica, and relieve any gear envy. The paddle from the Marriott to FBO was inappropriately named "The Widowmaker" by Berger. (It takes 5 minutes)
Dusenbury Grotto, possibly my favorite 20 minutes of the entire trip. Incredibly tranquil passage through the mangrove tunnels. Eleven trips for me, and this never disappoints.
Crossing Buttonwood Sound, OB "The Viceroy" says he wants to do a ‘Half Eskimo Roll’ on the Long Key Viaduct. You could write a book about all the hilarious things that come out of that man's mouth... wait, somebody already did.
Lunch Break on Salty Piece of Land, the dredge spoil from the Intercostal Waterway and our respite on the edge of the Florida Everglades.
Second attempt at the Tavernier Creek Shortcut proves successful. Shaved a half mile off last year’s route. Didn’t lose any Castaways either.
The CAC Toilet Seat continues to hold on strong in Toilet Seat Pass!
Rookies get their Delta Tau Chi nicknames… Ozzy: “The Whizzard of Oz” or simply “The Whiz” for his front seat acrobatics, and Chris: “Boomer” for his tech prowess and as Patrick stated, “Next year that guy will have a boom mic in our faces!”
Ozzy learns the hard way why they call it fire coral. There is an old pipe (possibly where our original seat used to live) near the toilet seat encrusted with nematocysts of death. I used to love this spot, but I always leave with both legs burning from the critters attacking me in the squishy flats. I didn’t even touch the old girl this year.
Passing back to the ocean side at Snake Creek. We briefly pause to honor Jerry Stabler, Scott’s father-in-law who bravely fought cancer.
Anthony’s sister Peggy and her husband Joe Plumadore meet us again as we land at RumRunner Beach.
Dinner at Shula Burger (not a sponsor), ditching the hike to Wahoo’s (also not a sponsor) since we don’t have easy transport across the bridge. Plus we didn’t want to be up until midnight doing laundry again.
Kinja Laundry – it appears that the washers and dryers at Postcard are either a) still broken from last year, or b) broken again upon our arrival. Three Castaways learn, the staff is watching you, and never admit you’re using their washers.
Never underestimate the power of bathroom humor. Patrick and I keep Stephen up for at least an hour longer than he’d hoped by dropping a few inappropriate, yet accurate, flatulence impressions.
21 mile day, 71 miles complete.
DAY FOUR - Concrete Relations
Tuesday, June 10th
Islamorada to Grassy Key
0500 and I can’t sleep. The bed is comfortable, but wake to find Patrick’s face is three inches from mine and he’s snoring like he’s trying to inhale South Florida through his nose. I take the opportunity to gather my things and give a call to Greg who is in route from Central Florida – ETA 0700.
Greg “Rainman” arrives at 0700 exactly. The group is officially complete.
The rookie, and recently baptized “Whiz”, gives the morning prayer. He also takes the boss’ boat while El Toro jumps into the front of the tandem with OB. Delay takes the Viceroy’s noble steed, Virabhadara.
“Live between your thoughts” - OB
Cruising the slaloms along Indian Key Fill. Anthony slaps the water behind Scott scaring the doo-doo out of him four times.
Ozzy tries on a hat from the Pineapple Cutter store at Robbie’s Marina. Thinking Robbie’s and Hungry Tarpon were the same thing, he walked away from the store with it on his head. We ask, “How much was that?” “I don’t know, but I think I’m going to get it.” Anthony replies, “Um, I think that means he just stole it.” Pete and Anthony also join the Pineapple Mafia.
Amazing meal courtesy of Hungry Tarpon.
Today at Anne’s Beach, Pete began giving “Tips of the Day”. While many believe we are all hardcore amazing certified kayak paddling specialists, in truth we are not. We just paddle a lot.
At some point Lou and Patrick started referring to Pete as a contestant on American Ninja Warrior.
Recon picks nose for the first time in his life, and I caught it on film.
Crossing from the Atlantic to Florida Bay side we approach the unassuming Channel #2 Bridge, here’s what happened in a span of five minutes:
- Adam hits the current passing between the arched supports of the old bridge, he’s thrown towards the left side and narrowly misses the wall. While paddling at top speed to escape – his paddle separates into two pieces! He has it back together in two seconds and gets out of the mess unscathed.
- Only 30 feet back from Adam’s near-miss, I realized I had to gun it and stay perfectly in the center of the arch. I hadn’t realized how close Ozzy was off my right side when I prepared to enter and the current threw his boat towards me. Knowing that I was either going to collide with Ozzy or scrape the wall, I slammed on the breaks by shoving my paddle into the water on my right side which pulls me away from the barnacle encrusted wall, missing it by inches, but heading backwards. I take a few strokes and dig hard to the left side which swings me directly behind the arch support – now stuck in the eddy between two bridges, padding in place with no forward momentum. I give it some gas to aim for the opening and jam the paddle down on the right briefly, pulling me far out and into the middle of the arch but turning me parallel to the bridge. One final dig on the left and my boat finally swings perpendicular to the bridge and into position to escape but moving backwards. I give it everything I have, full steam to make it through, still just few feet from the wall.
- Rapidly approaching and seeing my issues, Stephen slows to give me room and makes the same mistake I did but instead gets too close to the right side of the same arch opening. The rushing current throws his bow to the left rocketing him towards the wall and he T-bones the 90 year old super-concrete but maintains his balance. I turned back and saw him disappear behind the support and now stuck in the eddy I had been trapped. Fearing I may soon be heading after him, five seconds later he appears on the next arch over, escaping the mess and happy he practiced all those bracing techniques.
- Patrick took a different route closer to the abutment. This was also a bad choice. After emerging out into the Bay side, his paddle gets wrapped around fishing line attached to a fisherman up on the bridge. Greg also was clotheslined by another fishing line. Nothing is safe!
We fight the current, crabbing all the way across to Fiesta Key.
The Whiz officially has the smallest bladder of anyone in the history of the Castaways.
I paddled a solid two hours with the Lord of the High Stick, Adam. He is usually a mile ahead of the entire team, discernable by his blade nearly perpendicular to the water. He certainly earns his nickname ‘Hemingway’ and is never without an exciting or amusing story. I was treated to classic rock from Zeppelin, The Eagles and Dave Matthews (“Bee bow boing!”) among others. For years, Adam has gathered trash along the way to dispose of properly on shore, acquiring random flip-flops, cans and milk jugs like some sort of urban marine camouflage. Yes he is a hippy, 50 years too late.
We finally found the perfect break spot off the Long Key Viaduct. In 2010, determined to make life easier, Pete located shoals 1.3 miles to the north of the LKV to avoid the typically strong current between Long Key and Grassy Key. We started with “Pete’s Patch”, then upgraded in 2011 to another spot we called “The Pools”. In 2013, when departing The Pools we noticed a really nice shallow spot that looked even better. Pete secretly took a waypoint and led us directly back to this tiny oasis exactly one year later. It’s a gorgeous spot that shows off the moving tide. It is a 100’ wide and five foot deep pool surrounded mostly by few inch deep flats. The water rushes out in a 270 degree fan leaving a glass like surface over the pool. Don’t forget to bring your anchor… to “Pete’s Paradise”.
While stepping into the deeper water, El Toro sinks his flip-flopped-foot into a patch of marl. In his efforts to escape, his flop breaks. I turn to catch the tail end of his debacle as he pulls the white sandy busted flop from the water, holds it above his head and in full-Shatner exclaims, “Khaaaaaaaannn!!”
The push from LKV to Grassy Key is its typical brand of hard. Birthplace of the Four O’clock Blues. The falling sun sparkles across the water sunburning our faces from the reflection off the water. I hate this section, but this year proved much nicer. I paddled most of the way with my brother-in-law, Greg. His kind hearted nature and laid-back attitude mixed with a killer playlist make for great paddling. As Patrick says, “We get through this together.” Sweet sounds of the 80’s and 90’s filled the air… The Cure, U2, Depeche Mode, James Taylor, OMD and Peter Gabriel led us back to our family at Gulf View Waterfront Resort.
We are greeted by Mike and Stephanie, owners of the Gulf View Waterfront Resort. They are the coolest couple in the Keys. They have been sponsors for eight years and they basically reserve half of the hotel for us for that night.
Scott spends quality time with the Gulf View parrot, exchanging sweet nothings… Hello Iloveyou Hello Iloveyou.
On the road to dinner at Shorty’s, Patrick fails miserably at trying to repeat the iconic ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ tone. To this day, he insists that “buuu beee buuu” is correct. No, Patrick. No.
26 mile day, 97 miles complete.
DAY FIVE - It’s All About the Water
Wednesday, June 11th
Grassy Key to Bahia Honda
Very nice breakfast of yogurt and organic fresh fruit provided by one of Delay's contacts.
As I’m loading my boat, I can’t find my sunglasses. I said it before… I’m turning into OB. Patrick kindly lends me his spare Bill Blass glasses donated to the team last year. Today we’ll pass by the resting place of my own Bill Blass sunnies: the Seven Mile Bridge.
Scott takes OB’s boat for the day. Taking a page from the Hope Floats crew, he has been adding ribbons to his boat to honor the people he’s paddling for this year. Today he’s honoring his father-in-law and recites a great morning prayer: “May we together be a nurturing, welcoming, healing family of faith.” Scott has truly been a fundraising machine this year. He has made so many contacts and is constantly thinking of ideas to improve fundraising and has been all around incredible.
Flat calm leaving Grassy Key. One of those perfect mornings where you can’t tell where the sky ends and the sea begins. Gorgeous.
Excellent discussion about the future of the Castaways, fundraising ideas and the typical banter. Rousing revival of “who would play who” in a Castaways movie. Actors worth noting were: Jack Black or Zach Galifianakis as “Patrick”, Steve Buscemi or Quentin Tarantino as “Stephen”, and Danny Trejo (aka Machete) as “Pete”.
Expecting the worst in Vaca Cut, home to the fastest current in all of the Keys (8+ knots). We stuck to the sides and really only saw, ‘kinda tough’. If we only got one break on the tough tides, this is a good spot to get it.
We are met at Sombrero Beach by Suzy Curry from a local restaurant called Stouts. She’s a huge fan of the CAC as well as a breast cancer survivor. She made a big pan of banana pudding for the team. It was thoroughly demolished by the hungry team. Additionally, our friends at Publix deliver sandwiches that were properly devoured by the team. Thank you!!
Seven Mile Bridge struck fear deep into our hearts. Memories of the storm and multiple capsizes off Molasses Key in 2013 still fresh in our minds; we crossed into one of the longest open water stretches of the trip prepared. I stuck close to Pete, supreme wielder of the GPS – the best certainty of paddling the shortest distance across. The seas were typical offshore swells making for the occasional surfing, all was a joy until we reached Moser Channel where the outgoing tide met the incoming swell. As we approached, the increasing chop bled into ominous whitecaps. Not a good sign, and it went bad fast.
- In my eleven trips down Thunder Road, I can honestly say, without embellishment, that this was the worst water I have ever experienced in my life. These are appropriately called “confused seas”. No more than fifty feet away, I watched Pete go over the crest of a wave, his boat quickly disappearing as the last quarter of his stern stuck out of the water – poof, gone. Eyes like saucers, heart jumped to 160bpm, adrenaline exploded into my bloodstream. Seconds later, I slipped what seemed like 50 feet down into the trough of waves going three different directions. The first five feet of my 19 foot long boat penetrated perpendicular into the wave face rising some three or more feet above my water line, stopping my forward momentum dead. The northbound swell grabbed my stern swinging me counterclockwise with my bow as the pivot point. The southbound current and the instant three foot heave was trying to flip me. I dug my paddle in the water and had the passing thought, “Pete’s gonna be so mad at me if I go over.” Instantly I felt the third westbound wave pick me up from behind as my bow popped out of the water. I was launched forward. It was a battle to stay upright. I gave up trying to go forward and focused on staying relaxed and letting the current take me where it wanted while keeping my bow west. And as fast as it started, it spit me out and laid down to sleep.
- Exhausted, Pete and I talk about what fresh hell we just experienced. Incredibly, no one went over. I must note: that was not in the brochure.
After the events of Moser Channel, we hit shallows on the east side of Molasses Key forcing us to exit our boats and drag them across the water. In my infinite wisdom, I exited my boat planning to don my shoes once in the water to walk across the marl. My first step into the water landed directly on a sea urchin. Three spines deep in my foot. Insert colorful expletive here. Couldn’t get the black spines out with tweezers on Molasses, going to have to wait until we get to a proper environment.
Arrival at Bahia Honda sends the local park rangers into a tizzy… the head ranger claims he’s never heard of us in the 10 years he’s been working there. Rather than stating the obvious that we’ve coordinated with the good folks at Bahia Honda State Park and used their facilities for 15 years, our diplomatic Captain diffuses the kerfuffle and calms the ripples in the big fish’s little pond.
Urchin spine update… somehow during the last push across to Bahia, my Wolverine-like body decided to spit them out. Don’t mess with me, man, I’m a Castaway.
Another incredibly comfortable and belly filling Night Five. We stay at Mike Lawrence’s Tortuga Beach Club townhouses and are treated by Pete’s parents to an incredible meal. After 120 miles on the water, this is some kind of heaven.
DAY SIX - Hippolyte’s Habitat
Thursday, June 12th
Bahia Honda to Sugarloaf Key
Incredible thunderstorm last night. Pouring rain this morning. Forecast shows the system moving away from us – good news! Even better news, I found my sunglasses.
Who ordered the sausage? I have ten tasty links attached to my hand which I used to call fingers. This should be a fun morning trying to grip the paddle.
Amazing breakfast provided by Leigh Anne’s Coffee House on Key Colony Beach. The boys had coffee there after the kick-off party in May and the owners heard our story and wanted to help.
The Viceroy takes the tandem with El Toro.
My back is on FIRE. Feels like my PFD rubbing back and forth across my back is going to start a blaze so I take it off. What the heck??
Gloomy crossing past the Bahia Honda Bridge. At least the sun isn't baking us.
We stop for a break in the shallows off an unnamed isle of the Newfound Harbor Keys. Much to the chagrin of a nearby flats fisherman. To top it off, someone pulled out a Nerf football dart to toss around for a few minutes. Who’s been hiding this thing for six days??
We reach Munson Island, home of our amazing lunch sponsor: Little Palm Island Resort – Key Deer selfies, Lou’s chair collapses, incredible Key Lime Pie
Little Palm Revelations 2014:
- “As we eat on Little Palm Island, the silence says all.” – Patrick.
- Delay considers his future call home to his wife regarding reflections on a bad day… “It was terrible. I almost choked on my Key Lime Pie, I stubbed my toe petting a Key Deer, and Lou fell out of a chair at a five star resort.”
- Saw a guest at Little Palm kayaking with their paddle upside-down.
- Pretty sure someone asked if Key Deer was on the menu. "You said I could have anything I wanted!!" - Anthony
- Patrick declares that our Facebook page has surpassed 1000 likes!
Gloomy sky leaving LPI, dark clouds hang over the Pineapple Coast to the West. Most of the crew dons their rain gear. The rain never falls, but the overcast sky keeps the temperature down on this typically hot crossing.
Another bad outgoing current approaching the shark flats east of Four Name Key (Monkey, Lois, Loggerhead, and my new un-official name - #youseewhatIdidthere). It’s an eerie feeling when your boat suddenly feels like it is slipping downhill when you’re paddling with all you’ve got. Even more disconcerting when the current is taking you out to sea in an area known for Bull Sharks.
The wind kicks up crossing to the Tarpon Creek entrance. A hundred yards from the opening we can feel the current against us. That makes seven years in a row fighting that current.
Our annual break at the burned out Tarpon Creek bridge. Pete fashions a ‘swing line’ to one of the old wooden bridge supports so we can jump in the rushing current and not get swept away.
At Sugar Loaf Lodge, we are met by our TotalBank family: Frank (who paddled with us on Day One), Diana and her sons Danny and David. TotalBank’s ace photographer Bob Soto and his wife also welcome us and continue to click away – photographing our story - from launch to landing. We enjoy a huge meal of pizza at the Lodge pool.
20 mile day, 141 miles complete.
DAY SEVEN - Champagne Sí, Agua No
Friday, June 13th
Sugarloaf to Key West
Bob Soto came in the night before to take pictures and we get a number of great team shots.
Excellent prayer by Patrick, and touching speech by OB to start the day.
My back is burning again! But I figured out what it is. My Tiger Balm muscle patches have capsicum in them and it hasn’t worn off yet. Burn baby burn.
Into Waltz Key Basin and passing Old Finds Bight, Patrick paddles with a 5-6’ nurse shark for almost 10 minutes. Slowly cutting right then left and straight ahead as if leading the way to its namesake channel.
For the second time this trip, the team makes a significant route change – albeit planned this time – to pass Boca Chica on the south side, thus passing under US1 through Shark Key Channel just north of where the team would portage the boats to get to our former Night Six stop at the Caribbean Club, paddling past Shark and O’Hara Key to get to the ocean side via Similar Sound, finally exiting to the Atlantic side between Geiger Key and Saddlehill Key, and Bob’s your uncle.
We have an unscheduled stop across from O’Hara Key. Greg gets stuck on a 40 minute business call. Without fail, the current north of US1 was strong against us. Somebody tell the oceanographer that he’s fired.
Passing under US1, Recon saves a pigeon struggling in the water. He scooped up the bird and set it on the forward half of his boat. The little guy rode his bow for over an hour as it dried off. Pete later dropped the bird off on solid land.
Stephen is having issues with his camera. Waterproof case good – moisture inside bad. He takes it out of service to avoid any permanent damage. He gets out just south of the exit from Geiger Key and goes knee deep in marl. Thank goodness we stopped at O’Hara Key.
The south side of Boca Chica is open to the Atlantic and quite different than the north side. We crossed a large section with dark red/brown tannic waters and a rocky bottom. Up in the mangroves on hard land we discovered what appeared to be a large yellow raft with metal bars for structural support. Our assumption was that this tattered vessel is one of the hundreds if not thousands of attempts Cubans refugees have made seeking opportunity and freedom in the United States since the 1959 Revolution.
Rounding the final bend from the Boca Chica, we are behind schedule. Usually we make it to Castaway Bar on the Atlantic side of Chica right at the mouth of the channel around 1130. Today we arrived at 1240 – roughly ten minutes after the time we begin the last push to Key West.
The last quarter mile before the break proved rather frightening. While passing on the ocean side, the tide shifted and was now heading out full bore. As each boat ahead of me began to cross Boca Chica channel, they were instantly swept out to sea sideways. Combined with the rolling wakes of incoming motor craft, we had an encore of the Seven Mile Bridge seas. Standing waves, fast current, big swells, rush of adrenaline, soiled armor. This was bad water. Some said it was worse than Seven Mile, while I have to say with no disrespect that what Pete and I went through was much worse being a few hundred yards closer to the bridge. In retrospect, these seas were confused; Seven Mile was downright One Flew schizophrenic. Everyone made it through… but there was one little problem.
Delay is having chest pains. Recon thinks he’s badly dehydrated and prepares to bag him with saline. With the IV just inches from Scott’s arm, a passing boat is waved over by OB… the same boat that wished us a safe trip from the dock at Sugar Loaf Lodge! They offer to carry Scott the rest of the way to Key West. As we finally get underway, Pete confides that he really should have given the IV regardless.
We made good time crossing to Key West, arriving at the White Street Pier at 1420, only 20 minutes behind schedule.
The team passes under the Pier to avoid the bad waves on the end. Now in the final stretch, we see Higgs Beach lined with friends and family as well as revelers for the LGBT Pride Beach Party being held there! The DJ for the party announces our arrival and everyone goes nuts. Over the loudspeakers the DJ begins playing Queen’s “We Are the Champions”. Wow!
The tide is so low that people are gathering out in the water, a hundred feet from the beach. Walking towards us in shin deep water is Scott! He is determined to paddle the last few hundred feet in his boat we’ve been towing since Castaway Bar. He jumps in, and the Castaways paddle to shore together. There are so many people there, we’re surrounded with high-fivers and people cheering us in. It’s amazing.
I set my paddle down, grab the sides of my boat to exit, and slice my middle finger open. Could be worse... I could have done it at the launch like I did in 2009.
Patrick takes the lead and shows the crowd some love and appreciation. Hugs all around from friends, family and complete strangers. Everyone feels it. Carrie Helliesen did an awesome job organizing and coordinating with the Pride folks. She has never failed to make the team feel welcome on our arrival in Key West.
Afterward the crew is treated to drinks and burgers provided by Jim Frigo, and a professional masseuse begins working on the team. There was a little thing where Delay had to go to the hospital, but don’t worry, he’s fine. The docs confirmed Pete’s fear that Delay was just badly dehydrated. Drink your water, people!!
Sadly, Greg immediately departs for Orlando after the landing. He helps transport boats to the Best Western and then heads home.
20 mile day. 160++ miles complete.
That evening, we enjoy a meal at one of our favorite haunts for the final time. According to our sources, Finnegan’s Wake will close the following weekend. A Thousand Welcomes, and a sad goodbye.
EVERYTHING AFTER - Island Fever
Saturday, June 14th
While enjoying a gorgeous Saturday in Old Town, Patrick, Stephen and I are enjoying a cold beer in Captain Tony’s, the original Sloppy Joe’s bar. Without warning, a young couple walk in and surprise us (well, me and Stephen, at least because Patrick already knew – that scoundrel). It’s Eric and Mary Beth carrying Baby Pino!
It's worthy to note that the Castaways made front page of the Key West Citizen. Cooler yet... the mayor declared this past week: Castaways Against Cancer Week. What an incredible honor!
Prior to the ACS Reception, we teased Patrick as he wrote his speech notes. He sat at the hotel desk guffawing at his clever quips on how he would introduce the team. Stephen quickly personified Patrick’s inner monologue: “Ha-HA!! Oh, Linfors, old boy! You’ve done it again!!”
Saturday night we were treated to an amazing reception at the Southernmost House by the ACS Lower Keys. Another spectacular job organizing and planning by Carrie and her co-workers from the ACS, Honora Mastriacovo, and Heather Utset
Once again we were honored by the presence of our brethren with the Conch Republic Navy High Command – Admiral Frank Holden (right), Vice Admiral Bill Grosscup (center), and Rear Admiral Matt Massoud (left). Chris and Ozzy are inducted, and Scott and Anthony are recognized for outstanding service in the last year. The Command later shared with me their secret on how to prevent dehydration: olives. And if you get too hydrated, add gin.
Following the reception we held our annual Honor Ceremony. In past years we would read each name aloud, but as our list has grown we thought the ceremony would be more personal if we each shared why we paddle. Together we stand, grown men, spilling our hearts and tears after such an emotional week. I wasn’t going to cry this year, or so I told myself. Patrick usually lets me go first because I always become a blubbery mess. This year I even prepared a rousing 'I'm taking a stand' speech. But less than an hour before, I received an email from a dear friend I’ve known for nearly 20 years who shared with me privately that she was about to begin her fight against cancer. “This year you were paddling for me.” You know who you are, and I’ll never stop.
DÉNOUEMENT - Time to Go Home
Sunday, June 15th
Key West to Miami and beyond.
Departing Key West is a difficult task. The days go by in reverse in just a few hours of driving. Before you know it you’re back in the real world and the previous week seems like some sort of bizarre dream.
I rode back with Patrick and Stephen before the three of us split to go our various ways. During our brief stop in Miami, we searched for a lunch spot. One place promising pizza caught our eye. To our disappointment, there was no pizza on sale that day. However, there was a large assortment of pastries. Patrick, the ever brave and inquisitive soul, asked what was in a particular batch. Dreams of cherry and apple filling crossed his mind, but the answer came in a quick Spanish reply. Mind you, our fearless leader, born and raised in Miami, speaks zero Spanish. Confronted with a potential awkward moment, he puffed out his chest, squinted one eye and proudly stated. “Mmmm, I’ll take two!”
I departed my Grandmother’s home. Gave it a long look and thought of all the memories I’ve made there. With my parents no longer calling Miami home and my Grandmother three years past, this time next year it may not belong to my family anymore. It’s a sad departure as I make my way north to see Greg and my sister and their amazing little girls.
In a few weeks this will all be a fading memory. This journey is done, but the battle rages on. It’s fought every day in the minds and bodies of those dealing with cancer.
“People don’t join the Castaways because we are different,
people join the Castaways because they are different.”
So, are you a Castaway?
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Chapter titles inspired by the songs from Jummy Buffett's play, "Don't Stop the Carnival".