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December, 2002
Table of Contents

Surviving When Gods Play
By Steven John Isaac

Make a Hypothermia Kit
By Steven John Isaac

Modify Your Space Blanket
By Steven John Isaac

Dozing Off
By Steven John Isaac

Fueling the Fire
By Steven John Isaac

Hydrate Or Die
By Steven John Isaac

The WaterTribe Kit
By Steven John Isaac

How To Finish a Challenge
By Steven John Isaac

Tow, Tow, Tow Your Boat
By Steven John Isaac








Finish A Challenge

By Steve Isaac (aka Chief)

You're thinking about entering your first WaterTribe Challenge.  Great!  Go for it!   It could be the adventure of your lifetime or it could be the start of a series of adventures for the rest of your life so give it your best shot.

But let's take stock.  So far the WaterTribe Challenges have been difficult to finish.  Only about one third of the Challengers who start end up at the finish line.  We all know that "stuff" happens during a race and not everyone will finish, but I believe that with proper preparation any competent paddler/sailor can finish a WaterTribe Challenge in six to eight days.  Follow the advice in this article and I'll see you at the finish line.

Skills Required

A WaterTribe Challenge is a very dangerous event.  You will be navigating open or moving water without assistance, safety crews, or even spectators.  Your safety is completely up to you.  You need to be a competent paddler and/or sailor in order to even consider entering a WaterTribe Challenge.  But what skills are essential?

Consider A Team

The WaterTribe Challenge is far safer and can be more fun if you do the event with a team.  Two or three boats traveling together will give you company on those long and lonely sections.  It will also add to your safety.  Try to have all team members roughly equal in skill and endurance level.  Also, make sure you all have the same goal.

Don't enter a WaterTribe Challenge unless you have mastered the following:

  • Intermediate Paddling Skills -- You need to be able to make your boat go where you want it to go in any sea state.  You need to know how to keep your boat upright in any sea state.

  • Self Rescue In Rough Water -- Capsizes are common in these races.  Usually there will be nobody around to help you get back in your boat and keep going.  Any competent kayak or canoe shop should be able to provide instruction.  Make sure you can do it in storm conditions.  Some aids to consider are SeaWings (sponsons) and/or paddle floats.  Make sure your boat has good flotation and consider an electric or foot operated bilge pump.

  • Navigation -- Know how to use your charts, compass and GPS.  If you don't have a GPS, get one.  Mistakes in navigation cause wasted time and mental stress which takes its toll on your performance.

  • Night Paddling -- Make sure some of your practice sessions are at night.  Get used to it and make the night your friend.  Make sure your boat has both legal lighting and usable lighting.

  • Common Sense -- In any 8 day period chances are good that there will be some bad weather.  If the sea state is beyond your abilities, camp and get some rest.  Then get back in the race when the weather clears.  Later in this article we will plan a race that includes allowances for down time.

What about the Eskimo Roll?  Nice to have, but you don't need it if your self rescue skills are adequate.  Besides, anyone can miss a role.  Lots of sea kayakers have been killed because they got too self confident in their rolling abilities.  I'm not saying don't master the skill.  I'm saying it isn't essential.

Boat Selection

Boat selection in this article only deals with Class 1, Sea Kayaks and Canoes.

For the Everglades Challenge (aka Cruising Challenge) select a sea kayak or sea canoe.  Do not select a standard canoe.  A standard canoe is not up to the challenge in my opinion.  The only exception that I can recommend are the decked, sea-going canoes made by Kruger Canoes (Dreamcatcher, Sea Wind, and Kruger Cruiser).  Bell also makes a decked canoe that is probably up to the task.  And there are several canoe designs for custom building that include decks and sailing equipment.

For the Okefenokee Challenge you can select a sea kayak or a canoe.  A canoe has certain advantages in the river sections but is at some disadvantage in the salt water sections at the start and finish.  Since these sections are short, the canoe can still be a good choice.  If you select a canoe, make sure it has a very good spray deck that covers the entire boat.  Keep the boat as light as possible since there are lots of small portages and one very long portage.

Most good cruising sea kayaks or decked canoes can complete the Challenge in good time.  The first criteria is comfort.  You will be paddling the boat for 12 to 16 hours a day for 6 to 8 days.  If the boat isn't comfortable, you will be forced out very soon.  

The second criteria is volume.  Make sure your boat can hold the gear you are required to carry under the cruising rules.  There should be plenty of reserve buoyancy left over.  Your boat should be able to handle big water and that means high volume.  Sure, you can do the race in a low volume sea kayak, but you will be wetter and working harder.

Third consider length.  The longer boat will usually have the higher cruising speed.  Unless you are very small get a boat at least 17 feet long.

And finally, make sure your boat has a rudder.  A rudder will increase your paddling efficiency and could prevent stress injuries that can knock you out of the race.  I know of a few paddlers who got tendonitis in the Cruising Challenge last March and had to quit.  They were continually fighting the wind to keep their boats on course.  If they had a rudder, all that power would have gone into moving the boat forward.

Physical Fitness

Are you fit enough to paddle 12 to 16 hours a day for 6 to 8 days?  

This is the bugaboo that keeps a lot of people out of these Challenges.  The surprising answer is that you probably are able to do it or could be able to do it in a very short time.  It all depends on your goals for the race.  If your goal is to win the race, then you better be very, very fit, and this article is not directed at you.  But if your goal is to finish the race before the time limit, then you could be ready in as little as a couple of months.  Read on.

Slow down your paddling.  You have plenty of time to go at a comfortable cruising speed as long as you can hold that speed all day long.  Let's consider the Key Largo or Everglades Challenge.

  • Total distance is 260 to 288 miles depending on your coarse selection

  • There is an 8 day time limit

  • Let's allow 2 days for down time due to weather

  • Then 288 / 6 = 48 miles per day

  • Assuming 12 hours of paddling per day we have to make 4 knots

  • Assuming 16 hours of paddling per day we have to make 3 knots

Cruising Speed vs Effort

Find a back issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine that has a boat test for your boat.  Check out the table showing Speed vs. Resistance.  Now graph the table and you will see that your boat has an optimum cruising speed.  Resistance increases more or less linearly until a certain point and then curves up at a sharper rate.  This is called the "knee of the curve."  Keep your speed just below the "knee" for optimum results.  Remember that the speeds in the table are through the water, not SOG.

Let's split the difference and use 3.5 knots as our target cruising speed.  Most of us can maintain 3.5 knots fairly easily.  Remember that this is Speed Over Ground (SOG).  Sometimes you will be going slower and sometimes faster depending on currents.  But your average speed over 16 hours is what counts.  Keep the boat moving as Verlen says.

OK fine.  So how do you get in shape.

  • Get your doctor's approval

  • Buy a heart rate monitor

  • Read my articles on hydration and fuel

  • Keep your heart rate in zone 2 (see my article) or use 180 minus your age

  • Walk/run for 1 hour 3 days a week - watch heart rate

  • Ride a bike for 1 hour 2 days a week - watch heart rate

  • Do a calisthenics tape 3 to 5 times per week.  Don't use an aerobics tape.  Get one that concentrates on core strength like sit ups, push ups, and stretching.

  • Paddle as much as possible, try for a long paddle once per week.  Let your speed be determined by your heart rate.  Don't exceed your optimum cruising speed.

  • Rest one day per week. If you don't rest, you can't progress.

That's it????  Yes, it is a simple plan and it works.  The walk/run and bike provides cross training and basic cardiovascular fitness.  If you keep your heart rate in the zones recommended, you will also burn lots of fat and may lose weight if you don't pig out.  No dieting necessary.  

The calisthenics provide flexibility and core strength.  Core strength is necessary for dragging your boat up the beach, self rescue, and for short bursts of paddling such as a tide race.  Flexibility will help you stay in the boat longer.

But it's not enough paddling you say.  Hog wash.  If you can paddle more go ahead.  But I don't get out as much as I would like to for practice, and I can paddle 16 hours and cover over 60 miles day after day.  You can too.

Training vs. Recreation

The typical kayaker day trip is almost worthless as a training session.  Think about it.  You paddle for bit.  Then you get out and wander on the beach.  Then you paddle for a bit.  Then take a lunch break.  It's better than nothing, but it's not training.

The training sessions require that you keep swinging your paddle for the entire time.  Go ahead and take a 1 minute break every 20 minutes or so.  Do some in-boat stretches, chew on a piece of jerky, take a drink, update your "situational awareness," and then start paddling again.  Do that for at least 4 hours and preferably 8 hours and you will gain some real endurance.

What's a long paddle?  Minimum time is 4 hours.  8 hours is real good for training.  12 hours is great, but you don't need to do that every week.  You don't need to train at 16 hours.  Do it once or twice if you want to just for confidence, but it really isn't necessary.  If you are comfortable swinging your paddle for 8 hours, you can do 16 hours in a race.  Remember that your body undergoes significant adaptations for long range endurance when your training time reaches 4 hours and beyond.  Keep your heart rate in zones 1 or 2 or use 180 minus your age.

Don't over train.  It is far better to be 10% under trained than 1% over trained.  Over training takes the fun out of it and prevents progress in your overall fitness.  Make sure that the day following your long paddle is a rest day.  If you don't rest, you can't progress.

The heart rate limits will seem too low.  You will probably find that you have to really slow down to keep your heart rate at the levels recommended.  Do it. Slow down.  In a short time of training your speed will increase with your heart in the right training zone.

Gearing Up

Cruising Rules vs. Unlimited Rules

Note that these recommendations are for Challengers racing under the "Cruising Rules."  If you are racing under the "Unlimited Rules," the required items listed below are only suggested.  The Unlimited Rules do not have required camping equipment.

Take the minimum needed.  Keep the weight down as much as possible.  Excess weight is one of the major contributing factors to dropping out.

  • Required Shelter -- Get the lightest tent or camping hammock you can find.  I recommend any Hennessy Hammock.  If you don't like hammocks, get a tent or tarp.

  • Required Sleeping Bag -- Get a high quality synthetic bag.  Don't bring a down sleeping bag.  A Golite "fur" is a viable option too, and it works better in a hammock.  The bag needs to be rated for about 40 degrees.  Anything "warmer" than that is too much weight.  A sleeping pad is a good idea even if you are using a hammock just in case you have to make it into a tent.  Get the smallest and lightest pad you can find.

  • Required Stove -- Get the lightest stove you can find that is very easy to operate.  Carry only enough fuel for one race.  I use an MSR SuperFly with one full canister and no spares.

  • Required Pot -- One pot is enough.  I use a coffee pot as my only pot.  Any other cooking utensils adds unnecessary weight.

  • Required Fire Kit -- This is your last line of defense against hypothermia.  You must be able to build a fire with one match while shivering uncontrollably.

  • Required Repair Kit -- Avoid unnecessary tools and parts.  Think about what could go wrong and what is required to fix it.  Your rudder might be the most difficult to fix.  What about your boat?  Carry a small roll of duct tape too.  Don't over do it.  This repair kit can get real heavy if you aren't careful.  

  • Required Safety Equipment -- PFD, Signaling, EPIRB, VHF, Lighting, Spare Paddle, Paddle Float and/or SeaWing, etc.  Not much to be said here.  All electronics has to be submersion proof.  Water resistant is not enough.  Got enough batteries?

  • Dry Clothes -- Keep one set of clothes dry under all conditions.  Primarily you will be sleeping in these clothes.  Never, never, never paddle in your last set of dry clothes.  One set of long johns is essential.  I recommend Marino wool or synthetic.  Don't bother with cotton.  These dry clothes are your first line of defense against hypothermia.

  • Paddling Clothes -- It's up to you.  It is essential to have a light weight paddling jacket.  Boat shoes are good for walking on rocks or oyster bars.  Be prepared for 50 degree water if you take a swim.  A dry suit is too hot most of the time.  A wet suit is too uncomfortable.  I use a Golite breathable rain jacket as a paddling jacket.  I use a light synthetic shirt for sun protection.  A light weight Polartec vest or sweater can be used if it gets cold.  My PFD also adds warmth.  I usually paddle in running shorts but if it's really cold I wear my RailRider long pants.  It's nice to have two sets of paddling cloths so one can be drying on deck while I'm wearing the other one.  If you're in a sea kayak, plan on being wet.  Can you get back in your boat fast enough to avoid the effects of 50 degree water?

  • Food -- Beginners usually take too much food.  Remember, you are not going to be cooking pancakes and eggs for breakfast.  Most can't even manage instant oatmeal.  It takes too much time, weight, and effort to do much cooking.  I make a pot of coffee in the morning and fill a thermos that lasts into the night.  I eat two MultiGrain Breakfast Bars or HarvestBars.  For paddling fuel I use Gatorade or Accelerade and jerky.  I always carry a few snacks like cookies, chocolate, nuts, pudding cups, sports bars, corn chips, but don't overdo it.  I use one serving of EnduroxR4 at night.  I carry one freeze dried meal for every two days.  Forget health food.  Carry food that goes down easy.  Use my Fuel the Fire article to calculate your needs but remember that you should stay in zone 1 or 2 all day long.  Carry a few PowerGels for emergencies but again you only need to pack perhaps one per day.

  • Water and Sports Drinks -- Water is available at each checkpoint so only carry enough to get to the next CP.  Mostly I drink Gatorade.  I buy it in 20 ounce bottles so no mixing is required.  Usually an 8 pack is needed for each day, but I restock by purchasing as I go along .  I also carry a tub of Gatorade powder for backup.  In addition I carry two gallons of water.  This is used for coffee, for drinking,  and to make Accelerade and EnduroxR4 as needed.

  • Supplements -- Vitamins, antioxidants, electrolytes, caffeine pills, etc.  They don't weigh much and take up only a little room so use whatever you like.

If you take only the essentials, you will have plenty of room left in your boat and a much lighter load.  Your chances of finishing will be much improved.

Planning and Executing the Challenge

We have already decided that we will allow six days of paddling which gives us a cushion of two days to allow for bad weather or repairs to broken boats or equipment.  Planning our race is a three step process:

  1. Charts -- You do have charts for the entire course, right?  You would be surprised at how many don't.  
    a)  Plot the shortest possible course from the start to the finish making sure that you pass through each checkpoint.  Do this in light pencil first.  Every time your course changes direction or you hit a checkpoint or you get to some other important point draw a small circle and give it a sequential number.  Study this course for a few days until you are sure that it is the best possible course.  Now use permanent ink to mark your charts so your primary course is easy to see and read.
    b) Now go back and add bail out points and alternate routes.  Be sure to mark pass entrances from both sides of the pass.  Plot complete alternate routes.  Your primary route may be blocked due to bad weather or a contrary tide.  Study these backup routes and bail out points for a few days.  When you are happy, use your permanent marker and continue with the sequential numbers for each turn or end point.
    c) Note potential campsites.  Find these by looking at a Florida Gazetteer and noting any "green" areas along your route.  Don't get too hung up on this.  You will find a campsite when you need one.  Be ready to "stealth camp" when in populated areas.  Have a good sob story ready if you get rousted by police or security guards. 
    d) Now transfer every numbered point on your charts into your GPS.  Depending on how many characters your GPS allows you may add some sort of descriptive name to the way point.  But I like to make sure and put the number first so that the list is ordered.  It makes finding a way point from your charts much easier.  For example, 23CP1 would be used if the way point was the 23rd in my chart and it was for checkpoint 1.   One more example, 71Camp might be used for a potential camp site.
    e) Some cut their charts up into usable sections so they are easy to manage in your cockpit.  Sometimes you have to buy more than one set of charts to do this.  Others fold and refold.  It's up to you.  Or buy charting software and make a series of 8.5 by 11 inch custom charts.

  2. Tides -- See my article titled "Using the Tides."  Make sure you know the optimum time to hit any areas that may have a strong tide.  If you see that your projected course and paddling speed puts you at the entrance to Indian Key Pass at the worst possible tide, maybe you should decide to take a strategic sleep break for a few REM cycles (see my Dozing Off article).  Note that when you plotted potential campsites, you should always plan one for this eventuality. 

  3. Plan Your Sleep --  
    If you discover that you have a wet boat during your training sessions, your body maintenance needs to include an application of Desitin to your backside.  If you don't do this in a regular basis, you will have a case of diaper rash that would make your mother weep.

    If you read the "Dozing Off" article you will see that our six day race requires 4 REM cycles each night.  That is roughly 6 hours of sleep.  If we allow 1 hour before sleep for recovery eating, drinking, and body maintenance and one hour in the morning for organization, breakfast, body maintenance, and breaking camp, we are left with 16 hours for paddling.  Perfect.  We will rise with the sun to keep our natural rhythms in sync.  So about 22:00 we will begin to look for a good campsite.  By 23:00 we should be setting up our hammock and drinking our EnduroxR4.  Eat a big meal and take any supplements that you use.  By midnight we should be in the hammock and beginning the most important part of finishing a WaterTribe Challenge -- Recovery.  Don't forget to bring a pee bottle inside your hammock.  Our alarm watch is set for 06:00.  By 07:00 we are on the water for a fresh day.

Don't be afraid to modify your plan as the race develops.  Planning is an important part of any endeavor but you must stay loose and adapt as needed.  The necessity for adaptation does not invalidate the importance of planning.

You're Ready

You have your skill set perfected and your boat is fully rigged.

You have been working out and your core strength, flexibility, and endurance are up to the task.  

Your doctor says she envies your physical fitness.

You have a plan.

What's stopping you?  Absolutely nothing.  You're good to go.  

Let's roll!

© Steve Isaac



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