It’s a bold concept: run a small, open skiff from the Florida Panhandle down the Gulf coast of Florida to Key West before heading north up the east coast and across the state through the Okeechobee Waterway to Sarasota. It was attempted last year unsuccessfully. This year, three teams hope to change that outcome. Their rain-or-shine start date: March 24.
“This is a very unique event,” says organizer Heath Daughtry of Yellowfin Yachts. “It’s a gentleman’s race for bragging rights only. We’re not competing against each other but rather against the elements — the seas, the weather — to see who can even finish the entire 1,200 miles.”
Only Florida skiff manufacturers are eligible for entry, not the general public. The boats must be open fishing skiffs, 18 feet or less in length, carrying a maximum of 22 gallons of fuel and powered by an outboard motor of 70 horsepower or less. The teams plan to travel close to the coastline and may use any electronic navigational aids they choose, including radar and night-vision devices. They may stop as often as necessary for fuel, food and rest but if a boat is removed from the water, that team’s challenge is over.
“The weather is the real unknown, especially in late March,” Daughtry says. “Last year, we had a cold front that swept over us and when you’re navigating open water in pitch-black darkness with the winds and seas, it’s a lot more difficult than most would think. It’s definitely an adventure, especially considering that we’re going from Gulf Breeze in the Panhandle all the way around Key West and back up the east coast.” Most teams plan to use a two-person crew in the skiff and another two-person team in a support vehicle ashore.
This year’s contest also benefits the Coastal Conservation Association’s habitat restoration efforts in Florida. “This is really a competition to see who can raise the most money for CCA,” Daughtry says. “Each team is soliciting sponsors and donations, so we’re hoping to raise $10 per mile—that would mean that each team is raising $12,000 to go directly toward CCA’s habitat restoration programs. Florida’s waters and our game fish are the real winners here.” (The donations will be presented to CCA in April during the organization’s annual fundraiser in Orlando.)
This year’s contestant include teams from Yellowfin, Hell’s Bay and Panga. Heath Daughtry and Chase Daniel from Yellowfin Yachts in Sarasota (who started the challenge last year) return this year in a 17-foot Yellowfin skiff. Todd Fuller and Chris Peterson from Hell’s Bay Boatworks in Titusville, Florida, and Tom Biller from the Sarasota-based Panga Marine round out the field.
Biller will run a standard Panga 18-foot EVO skiff powered by a 70 hp outboard. “It’s going to be a pretty grueling test of endurance but as a lifelong boater, all you can do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best, especially when it comes to the weather,” he says. “I like the conservation aspect as well. We sell boats because of what Florida has to offer, and we need to be good stewards of those resources.”
Todd Fuller from Hell’s Bay echoed those statements, saying that his team is very excited not only to test themselves and their equipment but also to assist in the conservation efforts. “We’ve been a huge supporter of CCA for many years and feel that it’s an excellent recipient of the funds we’re able to raise as a conservation partner in this event,” he says. Fuller and Hell’s Bay Boatworks owner Chris Peterson will run a 16-foot Hell’s Bay Biscayne, equipped with the latest in electronics from Raymarine.
“If you don’t prepare then you fail,” Fuller says. “We’re going to be ready with a plan A, B and C and also be ready for the unexpected. It will be grueling but I’m sure we’ll have some fun along the way.”
This year, spectators can track each team’s progress via a live link on the challenge website and also through social media. For more information, visit www.floridaskiffchallenge.com or find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/floridaskiffchallenge.