To win Le Mans, you need an over-engineered supercar that can run at maximum revs for 24 hours straight. To finish an Ironman, athletes must overcome a grueling course that comprises a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon. The Ironman tests personal mettle; Le Mans pushes metal and man to their limits. The Skiff Challenge requires a bit of both.
There are no rain delays and no lay days during the Skiff Challenge, a 1,300-mile, body-pounding race around the Sunshine State to raise awareness of the state’s water issues and money for Everglades restoration. Once the boats leave the starting line at the Florida/Alabama state line, the race isn’t over until they reach Fernandina Beach, Florida, on the Georgia state line — unless a team puts the boat on a trailer and retires.
Standing at the Flora-Bama beach bar on the Gulf Coast on April 8, the four teams competing in the 2021 Skiff Challenge knew they were in for an arduous, wind-in-your face ride around the Florida peninsula. Winds blew out of the south at 25 knots for the start, driving in offshore swells and turning inland bays into a washing machine of 2-foot chop, miserable conditions for running a skiff.
“This is the Skiff Challenge — we wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Heath Daughtry, vice president of sales with Yellowfin, who helped conceive the race on a barroom napkin in 2015. Team Yellowfin won the Challenge in 2019, the last year the race was held because of Covid and by far the gnarliest conditions in the race’s five-year history, with torrential rains, heavy winds and lightning.
“There’s never two Challenges that are alike,” says Chris Peterson, owner of Hell’s Bay Boatworks, a past winner who ran this year’s skiff, powered by a 70-hp Suzuki, with his 31-year-old son J.C. “Even when you run the same course, the weather is never the same; the wind never blows the same. This time it was windier throughout the entire course, but it wasn’t horrid like last time. Just more of an ass-beating. At no point could one of us even lay down and veg out.” In 2019, the Hell’s Bay team sheared a jack plate and didn’t finish.
Competing alongside Yellowfin, which ran a 60-hp Mercury Racing outboard, and Hell’s Bay were two teams representing builders from South Carolina: Key West and Sea Pro. They each had one Challenge under their belts and were looking to improve upon past performances. “The first year, I approached it as an exploratory mission, not expecting to win. That pressure wasn’t on us,” says Mike Marlowe, a Key West sales representative and Skiff Challenge captain. “We were the little guys on the playground. They let us play but didn’t expect us to do anything amazing. The following race we wanted to do everything we could to be respectable.”
Marlowe drove a Key West 1720 this year, a model the company has produced since 1993. Key West laid up its Challenge contender using “different exotics to make it a little lighter,” Marlowe says. While Hell’s Bay and Yellowfin ran microskiffs designed for fishing water not much deeper than a puddle, the Key West has more deadrise and freeboard, which helped cut through the chop as they raced along with a 70-hp Yamaha.
“The start went well, but it was a tough run,” says Sea Pro driver and brand ambassador Chris Kalinowsky, who was competing in his second challenge. “Seems like as soon as we hit go, everything was in our face. Running across the Panhandle, we took a pounding.” After a fuel stop in Placida, the Sea Pro team jumped back on the course toward Marco Island. Around 4 a.m., Kalinowsky looked at the outboard and saw the flywheel staring back at him. The cowling had blown off, exposing the 70-hp Suzuki’s internal organs. “At that point, there was nothing we could do but keep running,” he says.
They met up with their pit crew at Marco Island and found a cowling halfway down the Keys in Marathon, a long stretch from the team’s location. They rolled the dice and kept going. They made it about 16 miles out of Marco in 4- to 5-foot swells. “Every time the stern came down, the motor would get inundated on the back half of the wave,” Kalinowsky says. Salt water knocked out the outboard, and they made the tough decision to limp back to Marco. “It just wouldn’t go.” That was the end of the race for Sea Pro.
The same conditions claimed a trim tab on the Key West. “I noticed the boat listing a bit to port, looked back and saw the power cord for the trim tab actuator flopping in the water,” Marlowe says. The boat began to lose voltage, so they had to turn off their light bars, a scary endeavor when running at night, but they repaired the tab during the Marco stop to keep their race alive.
“The thing is, you can’t race the other competitors,” Marlowe says. “You’re racing yourself; you’re racing the elements. Take the emotions out of it, focus on what you can do and don’t make any mistakes.”
Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, marks the race’s halfway point. Hell’s Bay arrived first, followed by Yellowfin and Key West.
In 2015, Daughtry decided to test the capabilities of a 17-foot Yellowfin skiff by circumnavigating the Florida peninsula just to see if they could do it. Other builders, including Hell’s Bay Boatworks, also wanted to see how their boats would do, and the Skiff Challenge became a true competition the following year.
“The event originally started with boat manufacturers as something to test their products and their physical and mental endurance,” says Chris Wittman, co-founder of Captains for Clean Water, which partnered with the Skiff Challenge in 2019. “Eventually, it gained some interest, and they thought it could be useful to help bring awareness [to Florida’s water-quality issues] and came to us.”
Captains for Clean Water manages the race and uses it to showcase its Everglades restoration efforts and expose the water-quality problems throughout the state to a large audience using social media. “The Challenge is an opportunity for the teams to say water quality is so important to us that we are willing to put in a tremendous financial investment, build these boats and run this course,” Wittman says. “They put their bodies through a great deal of stress — test themselves mentally and physically. They’re willing to do that to bring attention to Everglades restoration.”
The builders also know that clean water is vital to boat sales, boating and fishing in the Sunshine State. “I consider the water Florida’s soul,” Peterson says. “That’s what keeps us going as a state. We’ve got to keep attention on the fact that we the people love our water and want good water, which means good fishing and good recreation. No one wants to sit on a dock with blue-green algae sliming by.”
Skiff Challenge entrants must be accredited, legitimate boatbuilders. Safety is paramount, and organizers don’t want hobbyists building boats to compete. New entrants must also go through an interview process. “We ask why they’re interested and what they hope to achieve by being part of it,” Wittman says. “We really want to bring in manufacturers that carry the same values as the other teams and embrace the purpose underlining the event.”
The liability waiver rivals the Good Book in size, but the rules are straightforward. The boats must measure 18 feet or less, and outboards are limited to 70 hp. The maximum fuel load is 22 gallons, and auxiliary tanks aren’t allowed. Fuel can only be supplied by the pit crew, except for the stop in Key West, where the racers use the fuel dock because the pit crews can’t make it there from the media stop in Key Largo in time to meet the boats. Only the two skippers on board are allowed to drive the boat. Any work that the boats require must be conducted by the pit crew or the captains, and the boats cannot be taken out of the water while the race is underway.
Production Models Only
The boats must be current models that the builders still produce. They can’t be one-off designs built just for the Challenge. Builders can tweak their boats — for example, using lightweight materials or shock-absorbing seat bases — but if the model isn’t available at retail, it can’t run in the race.
Surviving the race requires a dedicated support crew that follows along on land, coordinating pit stops and refueling. That’s where the strategy comes in. “It’s not just getting in your boat and running around the state of Florida as fast as you can; there’s a lot of other things involved,” Daughtry says. “You have to coordinate, know where to meet and where someone can get to you. You and your team have to work that out. How far can you go, and how much fuel do you need? There’s a plan A, B, C and D.”
And after you’ve been kicked in the face for 36 hours, making those calls can get a bit foggy. To speed up their fuel stops, the Hell’s Bay crew began using a dry-break system (like NASCAR pit crews), which fills the tank in less than a minute. The other teams now do the same. “Pit stops are critical. We have approximately 10 pit stops,” Peterson says. “If we can shorten each pit stop by five minutes, that’s 50 minutes.”
This year, the Petersons wore breathable dry suits. Staying dry and warm helps keep you alert. Water will find its way in through the neck and cuffs of foul weather gear, no matter how good it is. If you get wet, you may waste precious minutes peeling off layers and putting on dry clothes. As for bathroom breaks, there are none. And the crews hardly eat. “I ate a corn nugget at Cedar Key, half a protein bar in Key Largo and nothing else till we hit Fernandina Beach,” Marlowe says. “You’re not thirsty or hungry. I forced myself to drink. You are getting so shook up. Your body doesn’t want to digest anything.”
Hell’s Bay was the first crew to leave Key West, hoping to put more time between their skiff and the Yellowfin and Key West behind them. As the boats reached Florida’s east coast, the wind was at the racers’ backs, and they could ride the waves a bit. Daughtry knew he had to make up time.
Leaving West Palm Beach around 9 p.m., he found a nice cadence with the boat running 32 mph approaching Vero Beach. “I was heading to Cape Canaveral 119 miles away, and about 40 miles out everything changed,” he says. “I was protected from the ground swell by the Bahamas, but once we got past Vero we weren’t protected anymore. It just blew up.”
The swells grew to 6 to 8 feet with chop on top. “It was about the worst I’ve ever been in,” Daughtry says. “It wasn’t something I’d ever want to be in again. I will sacrifice just about anything to win, but I’m not going to sacrifice a life.”
Knowing that the shoals on the north side of Cape Canaveral are tough to navigate even in good conditions, with breakers and shifting sandbars, Daughtry decided to head back in. He got stuck at a canal lock, then had to backtrack before he could put the skiff back on course. It was a tactical mishap that allowed Key West to move into second place.
Hell’s Bay ducked back in at the St. Lucie Inlet, ran up the inside waterway and found calm conditions to make a beeline toward the finish. At 44 hours and four minutes, Team Hell’s Bay was first to the finish line in Fernandina Beach, taking the win for the third time. The prize for all of the sleep deprivation and bodily harm? A custom, engraved Yeti jug and a sense of pride that you can’t put a price tag on.
At 58, Peterson had told his wife, Wendy, he would retire from the Skiff Challenge if he went out on top. After the event, when he had caught up on sleep, he seemed to have second thoughts. “I’m retired under this format,” he says. If the rules are changed to make it more of a relay race, he says he might reconsider.
Band of Brothers
Key West was next to finish, completing the race in 49 hours, 11 hours less than their 2019 Challenge. “I was trying to get to 48,” Marlowe says. “We didn’t achieve that goal, but hey, we shaved a full sunrise off. The first time around I watched the sun go up and down three times.”
Waiting at the finish was the Sea Pro crew, who celebrated with the other teams instead of sulking back to South Carolina. “We’re competitors out on the water, but we’re all brothers,” Kalinowsky says. “We wouldn’t miss the opportunity to shake their hand and hug their neck at the finish line.”
That camaraderie is not something you often see in a race, but these teams are joined by a bigger cause: to help Captains for Clean Water and improve Florida’s waters for the next generation of anglers and boaters. “We did what we set out to do and helped raise awareness. We brought the event to more people, and that’s a good thing,” Kalinowsky says. “We didn’t finish this year, but we didn’t lose. We raised awareness; we raised money and helped spread the word. You never lose.”
When the Yellowfin crew reached the finish line, all four teams were together again, a band of brothers who had overcome Mother Nature and helped Captains for Clean Water generate 5 million impressions to help elevate the cause. “We’re like-minded brothers, but at the same time brothers wrestle and beat each other up — but they still love each other,” Peterson says. “I like all of the competitors. They’re all good guys, and they’re doing it for the right reasons: to show grit and to show that boats in this country are well-made. I don’t care if it’s a production boat or more of a custom boat — we all make good boats, and we like to show that. And every one of us are passionate about clean-water issues.”
Sore, battered and sleep-deprived, the teams departed and headed toward their home waters, each replaying the race in their minds, wondering what they may do differently next year. As NASCAR legend Richard Childress said, “Once you’ve raced, you never forget it and you never get over it.”