Sunday, February 11, 2018

RedBull Privateers Treasure Hunt SUP Race

Race: "RedBull Privateers"

Date it happened: 10 February 2018

Host: RedBull North America, in conjunction with the Rookery Bay Aquatic Preserve.

Location: This event was at an interestingly remote location, amidst an archipelago of uninhabited mangrove islands in the Rookery Bay Aquatic Preserve south of Marco Island, FL. To get to the staging area you needed to either boat or paddle 5 km from Marco Island. Many people voyaged to the staging area on Friday and camped overnight (it was quite a party, apparently) and some stayed again Saturday night. My team only went down for the day of the main event.

Course / Distance: This was not a normal race with a set course. Instead, it was a timed "treasure hunt" for teams of four paddlers. Fifteen treasure chests full of uniquely inscribed wooden coins were placed around the beaches and mangrove channels of the area, and the first team to collect all fifteen coins and bring their members over the line would win. The locations of the treasure chests were indicated on a map- actually a sticker that we could affix to our boards. But they purposefully didn't give us the map until 15 minutes before the race started so we couldn't plan and practice our routes ahead of time. Also, each treasure location was just marked with an "X." My team assigned numbers to each X to help track our collecting progress, but since the treasure chests themselves were not numbered, it was sometimes unclear if we were at the chest we thought we were at on the map. You could find a chest, but remain lost yourself. There was a 2.5 hour time limit for completing the course, and most teams split into two or more groups to try to reduce the distance that each member would need to travel in the allotted time.

Conditions: The weather was beautifully sunny and warm, with 5-15 knots of wind from the SE, making it a bit choppy in the open water areas. There was a strong tidal current flowing from E to W through Blind Pass and out of the channels draining the internal waterways of the island. Very shallow water in places was another hazard- it was important to find the deeper tidal channels when crossing the shallow internal bays of the island.

Participants and Gear: There were tons of people at the event. I'm not sure exactly how many, but I heard something like 50 teams of four, plus lots of supporters, spectators, and event staff. Compared to a typical SUP race there were more college-age and party-animal-age people there, but the over-the-hill crowd still represented well, and there were some families with kids. Some folks had come from Tampa or Miami / Ft. Lauderdale, and some from even further, like SIC Boards ambassador Robert Hess from South Carolina. At least one elite, international professional paddler was there: Hawaiian Josh Riccio (F-ONE boards). He was on a team with top Florida paddler Brad Ward (Sunova boards), Robert Hess, and another ripped dude whose name I don't know. Those guys looked like the clear favorites to win if it came down to simply who paddled fastest. If it came down to local knowledge, I thought the team of Collier County Special Olympics coaches led by experienced water explorer Steve Nagy and including CGT Tribeswoman Donna Catron would win. I thought my team had a good chance, too, with Beth Schadd and Saralane Harrer, who are some of the fastest women paddlers in the area, plus Saralane's husband Murray Hunkin who is an experienced South African kayak racers and a fierce SUP paddler. I used my 14x23 Riviera RP, Beth used my 14x27.25 Fanatic Falcon, Saralane used a 12'6x26 Riviera RP, and Murray used a 14x27 Starboard Allstar. Another tough-looking team had a mix of paddlers from the East and West coast of Florida- fitness model Karen Kennedy from the East coast and butt-kicking Cindy Gibson from the West. I also saw Neil Uden, the Australian husband of beautiful SUP starlet and environmental activist Catherine Uden, with a team of savvy East coast paddlers all wearing bright neon orange shirts. I think the team color coordination was a good strategy for locating teammates from far away on the water. Another color-coordinated team that I was surprised and delighted to see was made up of members of the Florida Gulf Coast University Fishing Team, including one of my undergraduate research students. They were all paddling unusual but fast L2Fish catamaran-style fishing SUPs. In addition to the tough looking teams, there were many teams in the event in which the competitors had never, or barely ever, paddleboarded before. They rented tubby beginner paddleboards provided by a Sarasota-based rental outfit, and they seemed to do OK.

Results: A team won (see picture), but it was neither my team nor any of the other teams I had pegged as likely winners. The winners got awesome trophies, money, and inflatable paddleboards. I'll update this post if I find the official results and prize list somewhere. Many teams, including mine, successfully collected all 15 coins, but had navigation and coordination difficulties of one sort or another that greatly delayed one or more of their members.

Play by play: There was some pre-story to this race. It started a month or two ago with me deciding I didn't want to do the race because the logistics sounded overly complicated. Then I changed my mind when Murray and Saralane asked if I could join their team. At the time, CGT shopowner Nick Paeno was going to be our fourth man. But then Murray and Saralane got cold feet about the logistics and our team disbanded. A little later, the team that Beth was on split up, but they had already paid, and Beth was able to sub-in other people; first Murray and Saralane and then me. The final re-formation of our team was only about a week before the race, but Beth helped get us organized with laminated aerial photo maps of the area, and a coordination meeting two nights before the race at Saralane's house. My initial doubts about the event were mostly replaced with excited anticipation. I liked that we had opted not to camp overnight- we would just make one (long) day of it.

The day started super early, when I loaded up the boards, picked up Beth, and drove to Marco Island. We got to Caxambas Park Marina and dropped our boards off at the registration area there. They wouldn't let us park at the boat launch, so we parked at Hilton Hotel and took a free shuttle from there. In addition to the shuttle from the hotel to the boat launch, there was a boat shuttle from the boat launch to the race site. I was leery of that for some reason, and anxious to start paddling and stop waiting around, so I decided to paddle to the race site (5 km). Beth took the boat and got there around the same time that I did, but my red Fanatic Board that she was going to use didn't show up for a long time because of confusion about where the drop-off place for boards for the boat shuttle was. Thankfully that was resolved before the race start by event staff calling back to the boat launch, locating, and loading the board.

My paddle to the event site was great. It had the feeling of leaving civilization (overdeveloped Marco Island) and heading into the wilds. I followed the western shore of the Cape Romano island complex south towards the event, admiring the blue water and the interesting birds along the sandbars and eroding mangrove shoreline. Aside from some distant boats, there wasn't another human in sight until I got near the tidal inlet called Blind Pass where the event was staged. First I saw a few campers' tents among the dead trees and sand-piles, then the whole event outpost came into view. People were swarming around a huge RedBull tent, and a giant inflatable Gorilla loomed over the SunBum sunscreen tent. Boards were splayed out everywhere. It got progressively more crowded each time the shuttle boat arrived, and a lot of people arrived by private boats, as well.

The shuttling took longer than the organizers had expected, so the race start was delayed from 11 until 1230. During the waiting time I socialized with folks and tried out some different boards, including Robert Hess' SIC RS 14x23, which seemed fast and light but tippy, as would be expected for such a narrow board. Finally the pre-race briefing began, and they revealed the treasure maps that we could put on our boards like bumper stickers. The background of the map was in a simplified style, but it was pretty clear how it corresponded with the laminated aerial photo maps we had printed. Since the treasure locations were only marked with Xs, I used a sharpie pen to number each of the treasures on my map and my teammates' maps. That way we knew who would be responsible for getting which treasures, and we had a common reference for which treasures were which, so we could refer to that in our walkie-talkie and cell phone communications during the race. We figured I was the fastest, so I would get the treasures that were farthest from the start and required paddling through the choppy and unprotected waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Saralane with her slower 12'6 board would get the treasures in Blind Pass near the starting area. Murray and Beth would split up the treasures inside Morgan's Bay. (That turned out to be the trickiest job, because of the confusing navigation there).

Once we had our plan, we hoped on the boards and gathered them inside a giant square on the water marked by four RedBull buoys. That corral formed a 360 degree starting line, from which we would radiate in various directions when a cannon blast sounded from a faux pirate ship parked offshore. I lined up on the southeast corner of the corral, which was the most upwind, upcurrent, and closest to my first treasure. When the horn blasted I sprinted off pretty well and headed closer to shore to get in the lee of the wind. I could see Josh Riccio zooming ahead in the same direction as me, but I knew I'd never catch him, so I just tried to go my fastest normal pace. I was abreast of Robert Hess, who was going about the same speed as me. To save energy I crossed into his draft. That was highly effective, because as a big broad shouldered guy he was blocking the wind well and digging a deep furrow through the ocean that pulled my board along. As we went I counted the tidal inlets that we passed, knowing my first treasure to get would be around the third one. It was easy to find those first treasure chests, because I just watched where Josh Riccio went ashore, and followed that route. I had to leave Robert's draft to get the coins, but he soon went in a different direction, anyway, so it didn't really matter. I think I spent longer than necessary undoing my leash and removing my camelback to stuff the coin in each time I came ashore- I'll have to work out a more efficient coin pouch system if I do this next year.

The most distant coin I had to pick up was at a beach near the famous "Dome Homes" at the southern tip of Cape Romano. My next move after that was to paddle into Morgan's Bay and get a coin from a straight, manmade channel. As I approached it I saw a big guy on a Starboard Allstar emerging from it - MURRAY! He gestured that he'd gotten the coin so I didn't need to go down there. Instead I chased him down and offered to help him with whatever coin collecting he was still doing. As I tagged along with him I ran into Beth and decided to go with her, since it looked like Murray was about to finish and Beth might need more help. Some other racers were also milling about that area confusedly, including (to my relief) Brad Ward and Robert Hess. Beth seemed to know where she was going, and we got another coin as we left the bay and entered the Gulf. There was one last coin that Beth needed, and we saw the flag for that one from the entrance to a shallow bay. I said I'd get it, and sent Beth back to the start line to make sure we all got back there as quick as possible. I weaved through the slightly deeper parts of that shallow bay, got the coin as quick as possible, and made haste for the start-finish line. Saralane and Beth were already there, with their coins. No other teams had finished yet. We could win it! We just needed Murray.

It was determined that I would paddle East in Blind Pass to try to intercept Murray on his return, to provide encouragement and a draft. Unfortunately, I paddled and paddled and never saw Murray. Then the ladies radioed me and said the race was over- still no Murray. Doh! I paddled back, and Murray actually beat me there, having returned via the Gulf because he'd never found the back way to Blind Pass that he'd intended to return on. Here's my GPS track from the race:

Our team successfully collected all 15 treasure coins, which we felt was a pretty good achievement despite our troubles and getting lost. Apparently Murray's long period of being lost was in search of a coin he didn't realize he'd already collected. It was really tough to know where you were, even when you were at a treasure, because the treasures didn't have any unique labeling system that corresponded with the map. I would suggest to the event organizers to put numbers on the treasure chests corresponding with numbers on the map, so when you found a treasure you would know for sure where you were on the map.

After the race there was a pig roast, awards, and raffle, but we didn't stick around for that because we wanted to make sure we escaped the island before dark. I did buy a cheeseburger from the Food Boat, though, which tasted pretty good after paddling 20 kilometers that day. Then Beth and I loaded up the boards and we both paddled back to the boat launch, thankfully with a tailwind making it easy. Overall it was a great day, and I definitely see the fun and appeal of an event like this. Some ideas I have to do better at the next one are:

1. Do a preliminary trip to the site to paddle around and get the feel for what it looks like on the water, since studying Google Earth alone doesn't quite cut it.
2. Plan more mid-race "check ins" with teammates by phone, radio, or (best of all) meeting up where our paths intersect on the water.
3. Make sure we don't waste time getting coins that have already been gotten, or that another teammate will soon be getting.
4. Not go looking for lost teammates if there's a possibility they might be about to return.


Johnny Douglass said...

Very entertaining post on what sounds like a very entertaining day. I'm glad you decided to do this event with your fine team.

James Douglass said...

Thanks, dad! You would have enjoyed this one.