Let’s see Ponce de Leon tackle this. At 7 a.m. on March 6, seven intrepid paddlers and sailors will take off on a 1,200-mile, round-the-clock paddle/sailing adventure race called the Ultimate Florida Challenge. Starting near the entrance to Tampa Bay, the course will take them on a 1,200-mile counter-clockwise circumnavigation of Florida in 30 days or less. The blister-inducing event is open to boats propelled by human and/or wind power only — no motors, tows or rides.
The setup is similar to Alaska’s Iditarod, except instead of dog sleds it involves canoes, kayaks and sailboats. “I designed it to be the toughest adventure/endurance race for small boats anywhere in the world,” says event founder Steve Isaac, a former US Marine who will be one of the seven boaters competing. “I’ve wanted to compete in this race for years, and I’m not getting any younger.”
The race rules are simple: First one back to Tampa Bay wins. Another rule: Competitors must be able to drag their boats without assistance off the launch beach and into the Gulf of Mexico at the start of the race. This rule is designed to filter out larger, faster boats from the competition.
Joining Isaac are a boat designer from Jensen Beach, Fla., a commercial pilot from Raleigh, N.C., a University of South Florida professor from Tampa, Fla., a truck driver from Staten Island, N.Y., a retiree from Fort Myers, Fla., and a utility superintendent from Delray Beach, Fla.
Racers must complete the course within the 30-day deadline or be disqualified. In north Florida, they face a 40-mile portage on foot (towing their boat behind them) between the St. Mary’s and Suwannee River.
The current record was set in 2006 in a kayak: 19 days, 6 hours, 48 minutes. It involved round-the-clock paddling and “one very sore butt.” The second-place boat, an expedition sailing canoe, arrived at the finish line 50 minutes later.
Modern GPS tracking units allow race officials to follow each participant in real time. Race commentary, a locator map, and other official information, including media contacts for the racers, are available at WaterTribe.com.
The March 6 start coincides with the start of two other WaterTribe races: the 300-mile Everglades Challenge from Tampa Bay to Key Largo, and a 67-mile “marathon” from Tampa Bay to Placida, near Boca Grande. With three races starting at once, more than 50 boats will be launching simultaneously.