Here I am again being awakened by a loud noise. Some mechanical contraption that seems to be bent on running us over. At least this time I wasn’t waking up thinking I was on the flight deck of some aircraft carrier. As soon as I was awake, I knew what it was. We had camped on this little island right next to the channel. These were commercial fishing boats heading out to fish. They seem to be flying through the channel and man did they have some loud diesel engines. Hmmmm, I wonder how the canoes are fairing. We pulled them up quite a distance and had tied them off to some large branches, but the prudent thing would be to check on them. My options: (1) Crawl out of a nice warm sleeping bag, then crawl out of the tent, find some shoes and then walk over the rocks, tree branches, and sea grass hoping I don’t get my feet wet or sink into some mud or, (2) just roll over and go back to sleep and hope everything is ok. Option 2 seemed like the preferred one but then I am stuck with thoughts of the canoes banging against the rocks until there was a hole in the hull and then filling up with water. Wouldn’t that be a bummer to be two days from the finish and we both cannot finish because I didn’t want to get up and get my feet wet. So off I went to inspect the canoes and lucky I did. It was low tide when we had come in and the tide had come in to float the canoes and the wakes of the commercial fishing boats had them banging into each other. That was better than banging against a bunch of rocks, but still not good. So I quickly rearranged the canoe and jumped back into my tent for some sleep. Throughout the rest of the early morning hours I would be briefly awakened by another commercial boat heading out but it didn’t take me long to fall back to sleep.
I found that waking up this morning was different from previous mornings on the UFC. This morning, instead of waking up with the thought of what was facing us, I had the thought that if today was a good day as far as speed, I could be sleeping in my bed verses on some small island by a channel. I knew that was a long shot because we had a lot of miles still to cover, but it was a possibility. The other thought that was crossing my mind was all the big challenges had been tackled. No Boca Grand Pass, no Florida Bay, no Biscayne Bay, no 40 Mile Portage, no Big Shoals rapids, no Upper St. Mary’s and no big water crossing South of Cedar Key. I was getting into my home waters and by this afternoon we would be in the protected waters of the inter coastal. So packing up this morning really wasn’t that bad. What was bad was the pain in both of my wrists as I started to paddle away. I was having problems with my wrist before we entered the St. Mary’s River and the pain was pretty manageable in the rivers. In fact, it had decreased quite a bit. I was not so lucky in the Gulf of Mexico. I guess it was because this type of paddling was putting more pressure on my hands. The first two hours of paddling were real bad. Luckily, after about two hours, my hands just seemed to go numb.
The waters in this area are very shallow and for a long ways out. For a big boat this is a problem but for us it made for some beautiful paddling. We had no wind, flat calm seas, and the water was so clear we could see the bottom. We could see fish, sponges, and fans. Sure was more interesting versus paddling towards a landmark way off in the distance, which is what we had been doing. Interestingly, our last major landmark was the Crystal River Nuclear power plant and now we are finding that our next major landmark is the power plant at Tarpon Springs. Tarpon Springs was a great site to get to since I had paddled here multiple times and it was just another sign that we were getting closer to home. I also knew that there was a park called Fred Howard Park just south of the channel into Tarpon Springs. I knew that they had done some remodeling of the park but in the past there were bathroom facilities and a place that sold hamburgers. As we approached the island something hit me that wasn’t that apparent to me before but became apparent the closer we got. People, and I mean lots of people were there. From the time Rod and I had left the Daytona Beach area we really were not around a lot of people. Small groups of 3 or 4 people but no where near the number of people were we seeing on the beach at Howard Park. As soon as we landed folks were asking us questions. It was great talking to them but I sure didn’t want to spend all day there. The finish line was so close and maybe, just maybe, we could put in a really long day and finish tonight. As I walked to the bathroom it felt really strange having so many people around me and wouldn’t you know it, the bathroom was packed with people waiting in line for the heads. Unfortunately for both of us, the food prep facilities had been closed down, but there was a vendor that had cold Cokes and SNICKERS bars!!! Ahhhhh, may not be high-tech and probably not as good for you but for my body a Snickers bar is right up there.
I am not sure Rod and I were having the same feelings as we paddled further south. For me, I felt like I was slowly being returned back to my normal life. Each mile we paddled I saw more and more sights that I have seen multiple times both through my childhood and the times I have paddled in these waters. People, boats, bridges, and the big hotels running along the beach. It was getting close to evening and the Coke was just not enough to fuel Rod and I started to see him go into restaurant hunting mode. There he goes paddling a zig zag pattern stopping people and asking them about any places close to the water where we could get food. Oh gee, on the east coast I didn’t really care. No one knew me so looking and smelling like some homeless person on the water was no big deal. Here on the west coast and close to Tampa, different story. Sure enough I get the wave to follow him. He is paddling in the direction of this big yacht club and the closer I get the more I see these folks in coats and a parking attendant running around in white shorts and white shoes. Oh no no no no, we are not going to stop there. Rod kept right on paddling right past the club to the end of the marina where we stopped at a place called “Olde Bay Cafe and Dunedan Fish Market.” Thankfully, it had an outdoor section where we grabbed a table. I looked around and didn’t see anyone familiar or who knew me. Well, that didn’t last long with Mr. Social Butterfly. Needless to say, we had a great meal there and left with a whole group of supporters. I felt like some kind of movie star when we were leaving. People were waving, toasting us and wishing us well from the restaurant’s railing. Pretty amazing.
As I previously indicated, seeing lots of people was not something we had experienced over the last couple of weeks. I guess it is normal though that with lots of people come some jerks. Well, we encountered our first jerk as we paddled under the bridge to Clearwater Beach. About the same time that we were coming under the bridge the pirate boat out of Clearwater Beach Marina was coming out of the channel leading to the marina and entering the channel we were in. A big Sea Ray was also entering the channel. I guess the captain of the Sea Ray thought it would be funny to throw up a big wake for both us and the pirate boat. So he changes speeds sufficiently to throw this huge wake up causing life to be a little uncomfortable for us but not near as uncomfortable for the poor captain of the pirate boat. He immediately started to try to maneuver his vessel in a manner to minimize the impact of the huge wake on the partiers on his vessel. As the Sea Ray sped off laughing and yelling, the captain of the pirate ship was doing all he could with his engines wide open to keep his vessel from being thrown out of the channel and into the shallows. I really didn’t think he was going to make it but slowly he crept out of the shallows and got back into the channel.
It was starting to get dark and we still had at least 6 hours of paddling in front of us. I didn’t want to keep pushing it and be finishing in the early morning hours. We were not racing anyone at this point so why do that? There was an island that looked like a good camp site coming up and we could get a good night sleep and finish tomorrow. It didn’t take Rod and I a whole lot of conversation to come to the conclusion which option we would choose. The island had one tree on it which came in handy for Rod. He could tie the top of his tent to it and finally get a night’s sleep with his tent supported. Hey, what better way to spend your last night out on the UFC. Lucky for me I hadn’t lost my tent poles and even though a couple of the pole couplings were split, they still worked. Last night out. Tomorrow night we both will be sleeping in our own beds.