I'm a bit hardened when it comes to people trying to get me to write about their endurance feats, such as riding a bike from coast-to-coast, but every now and then, one rises above the ordinary.
Last month, 45-year-old Charleston resident Justin Schaay completed the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge on a stand-up paddleboard.
The challenge is an unsupported, expedition-style adventure race for kayaks, canoes, small boats and paddleboards. The course is about 300 nautical miles and starts at Fort De Soto in St. Petersburg, Fla., travels the Southwest coastline of Florida via the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades National Park and ends in Key Largo. Participants have only eight days to finish.
Schaay, who co-owns Tidal Trails paddling outfitters on Kiawah Island, navigated the course in 275 miles and finished in four days, 20 hours and 41 minutes on a stand-up paddleboard, despite battling, storms, challenging tides, hunger, blistered hands and numb feet, and perhaps the worst, voracious mosquitoes.
"The most dangerous thing out there were the mosquitoes. They were horrendous in the Everglades and each time I slowed to navigate they would swarm and devour me," recalls the South African native. "They took a fancy to my rear end, which was an easy target when I bent over to check the GPS."
So why endure this misery?
"It was an opportunity to be a part of an amazing adventure that very few other people get a chance to join," says Schaay.
He adds that he also wanted to use the experience as an opportunity to raise awareness and money for Surfer's Healing, a surfing day camp for children with autism and their families held every August on Folly Beach. So far, he's raised $2,470 toward a goal of $3,000 and only has a few days until his campaign is over.
Schaay also dedicated his paddle to his sister, Nikki, who discovered she had Stage 4 breast cancer two weeks before he started the paddle.
Amazingly, Schaay's longest paddle trip prior to the challenge was 14.5 miles. He credits the help of Shane Perrin, who finished the 2013 event in six days, 14 hours and 13 minutes, in giving advice and encouragement for Schaay's paddle.
Schaay recalls many people saying he was crazy to attempt the feat.
"I did not see it that way (because) I knew one person had done it before, so why not again?" says Schaay.
When he made it to the first check point at 62 miles, he knew he could keep going, if the weather held out.
His toughest day came during Day 2 (March 2) when the paddling felt like "an uphill battle all day as the wind kicked in early and made it difficult to stick to my route, then I battled the tides for many hours. The next day, the hunger kicked in.
"It is an unsupported race so one has to take everything you need with you. The challenge of doing this on a SUP is space and where to put your gear, clothes and food," says Schaay, saying he relied on food powders that could be mixed with water.
"By Day 3, I was really dreaming of ice-cream, burgers and fries," saying he spotted a pier along the Naples, Fla., beachfront that he hoped had a concession. Once there, it was closed but he eventually got a some lukewarm hot dogs and later a burger from a woman selling food off her pontoon boat.
As part of the multiday journey, Schaay camped along the way, but that was a challenge as well.
"Getting into the small one-person tent at night was a challenge as the mosquitoes were determined to join me and once in, I had to start the tedious process of getting rid of them which is tough with no hard walls," says Schaay.
But the event was filled with good memories as well, notably seeing wildlife: manatees, turtles, wading birds, sharks and event two saltwater crocodiles.
Even the final dash to the finish line had its challenges as a cold front from the Gulf of Mexico on March 5 brought strong winds and rains.
"I decided to paddle through the night to try and stay ahead of the storm. This proved to be a good move as there were storms both north and south of my position throughout the final crossing of Florida Bay," says Schaay.
"A dark cloud finally caught up to me a few miles from the finish but I made it to shore at 3:15 a.m. and was relieved to get there. That afternoon a few other challengers made it in just ahead of the front and got blasted to the finish line."
And for his efforts, Schaay and the other finishers were awarded a shark tooth prize.
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.
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