KEY LARGO - About 150 paddlers and small-craft sailors will start trekking toward Key Largo this weekend from the Tampa Bay area.
The 14th Annual Everglades Challenge begins at 7 a.m. Saturday, March 1, from Pinellas County's Fort Desoto Park, where 148 kayaks and small sailboats will line the beach. About a third of those boats are focusing on a 60-mile Ultra-Marathon race from DeSoto to Englewood. Most will attempt the 300-mile journey to the Upper Keys.
Three challengers, however, won't call Key Largo their finish. These racers are attempting the Florida Challenge, which continues north to Jacksonville, followed by a southwest river route back to Tampa.
"All three races are difficult in their own ways," said longtime Everglades Challenge participant Steve Isaac.
In addition to kayaks, some will race one- and two-man Hobie sailboats.
The longer races are geared more toward endurance, while many of the Ultra-Marathon group will likely bypass camping and paddle through to the finish.
"This year I get to do it myself," said Isaac, who is among the trio running the 1,200-mile race with the Keys just acting as another checkpoint. Isaac says he has completed the Everglades Challenge six or seven times.
In Key Largo, racer Philip Slama has recently taken his boat into Florida Bay to test the waters. He will be part of a two-man team competing in the event.
The 300-mile race will have checkpoints in Englewood, Chokoloskee and Flamingo.
Safety for the racers is a priority for organizer Paula Martel. Each craft must have a safety tracking device and each lifejacket must also have a locator beacon on it.
"It's about insurance and keeping everybody safe," Martel said. "Without it, they don't race."
Also considered the "Race Mom," Martel plans to visit the checkpoints throughout the course.
The fastest sailors will likely enter the Bay Cove Motel finish line by Monday with kayakers showing up Tuesday night and early Wednesday. To track the race, those interested can visit watertribe.com. An awards ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. March 8 at the Bay Cove Motel, mile marker 99.4, bayside.