Row-Around-the-Island Challenge: Done

The row-around-the-island challenge almost qualifies as a legend. It’s always someone who heard that so-and-so has done it, like, a Coach saying, “Oh, yeah, Harvard’s 8+ once came down and did it,” or, “I heard that John Doe’s ex-wife used to row out in the gulf.” 

It’s been on my bucket list for a long time. Two years ago I tried to get an 8+ to go do it, but it fell through. Our 4x has talked about it. But it’s always been about the planets aligning in a perfect row. You can plan for the around-the-island row, but there’s no guarantee all the chips will fall in order.

The Route

Here’s what the around-the-island row is:

Around the island path.

Around the island path.

Launch from the Blackburn Point boatyard and head south all the way to Venice. Go under the Albee Bridge, past Snake Island, and out the Venice jetty. Head back north following the Casey Key coastline all the way to Midnight Pass. Carry the boat over the dunes and row back.

Doesn’t sound like much of a challenge, except most small crews heading south turn back at marker 15 for a 10k row. Occasionally boats will go to Albee Bridge or even to Snake Island, which is about 8k. 8+’s training for head season will go to the Bridge or island and back north. There and back is 16k. 

Our inter coastal is tidal, and the further south you go, the more the tide matters. Hit the Albee Bridge at the wrong time in a 1x and you’ll move only inches per stroke at full power.

And the Venice Jetty! Just a few weeks ago some girls on paddle boards were swept into the tidal current and ended up bashed on the rocks lining both sides. They escaped with stitches, but the incident scared them and their parents. The current whips up huge rollers, even whitecaps, at times. It’d be impossible to row against a high tide, but a stagnant tide would be best.

Then there’s the ocean. For a row, it needs to be calm, not foamy hurricane-whipped breakers!

Hence aligning the planets: the right tide at the right time of day with a calm ocean and low winds.

When our 4x discussed doing an around-the-ocean row it was always in the calmer months, not now when the air is thick with humidity, the sun boiling at dawn, and winds unpredictable. It was always assumed we’d be prepared with multiple bottles of liquid and fruit. And it was never, ever, discussed as a single-boat row.


Weekends are for sleeping in; for us, a late row is 7 a.m. After two days of a strong onshore wind, the flag dangles limp around the pole with a half-hearted effort to stand up. I’ve forgotten half my usual equipment, like my butt pad and my hat. I do have a towel, extra water in my car, and I smacked some sunscreen on my neck and shoulders before leaving the house. My dry bag has beach sand it from somewhere; the phone is left in the car. 

As a trio, the Night Crew jumps in singles and heads south on an easy incoming current. After picks, I start a 10-20-20 warm-up thinking I’ll do 100-stroke pieces on the way back. My goal is to make marker 15; I want to row a full 10k today. El Capitan is moving up on me in a sleek Fluidesign and I decide to make it a personal goal that she not catch me until marker 15.

By marker 15 we’re still feeling good and the tide is slack. El Capitan asks if I want to go up to Albee Bridge; I’m good for that. The Hot Pink Machine agrees and off we go. It’s only another kilometer or so down, so no big deal. We’ve got time.

Somewhere along the way between the mangroves, on the turquoise water, El Capitan suggests the conditions might be right for a ocean row. After all, the wind’s way down for the first time in ages and water’s pretty flat. What’s the harm in checking it out? The three of us pull into a small beach ahead of Albee Bridge decorated by boulders and fisherman. By now the current’s turned around; it’s pulling my boat towards the bridge slightly. Hot Pink Machine watched the boats while we checked out the gulf.

The ocean’s a calm blue speckled with tarpon boats. We watch their waterline, but there’s no discernible bob. The wind is low and slightly onshore. El Capitan and I decide it’s good to go. And why not? When would this opportunity happen again?

Jacked and ready for the adventure, we top off our water bottles and deliver the news: the around-the-island row is on!

Our stop to check the gulf; Albee Bridge in the background.

Our stop to check the gulf; note the dork in the background.

By now we’ve come nearly 7k. A fisherman nearly hooks me as we push off the shore and scoot under the bridge. The water changes from jewel-green to a murky brown I haven’t seen before. The last time I rowed around Snake Island, the water was clear as a Florida spring and full of manatees–not a nasty run-off stained color.

I’m out front and get the first view through the jetty. It appears relatively stable and definitely is outgoing. Once we cross through there’s no going back. The ocean sparkles beyond. With one last check, yes, we’re going, I row in between the markers.

At first it’s easy. The current has a pull to port, and the channel width is deceptive. It’s narrower at the sea end, so the boulder-hewn walls encroach on both sides.  As I get closer to the ocean, growing rolling swells lift and drop my little boat, larger and larger as the opening gets closer. I stay easy and loose, but it’s a little scary. Fishermen along the shore are watching our pass through, and chasing boats thankfully don’t hit the throttle and zoom past. They’re patient as we rock’n’roll by.

Then we’re through. I make the turn out and the water returns to a cloudy blue. We’re through and in the ocean!

The going is not as calm as it looked onshore. Waves roll in sideways in long, huge swells. Our blades smack on water, miss water, go a little too deep, all depending on whether I’m on the crest or dropped into a trough. There’s no white caps, but it’s rocky. The ocean pushes us around to its whims and not ours. We thread through a field of tarpon fisherman, all whom stare at us in wonder as our Night Crew slides by in our skinny shells.

After a while, the vertigo of rowing on an unstable surface ceases. I find it’s easier to stroke on the wide crest than in the bottom, but it’s not always easy to get the right timing. I stay loose and roll with waves. No crazy moves, just easy, long rowing. The further north we row up Casey Key, the less pronounced the swells become and the water gets easier to row.

Nothing but ocean. Weird after rowing on inter coastal waterways, rivers, and lakes.

Nothing but ocean. Weird after rowing on inter coastal waterways, rivers, and lakes.

The view is amazing. Off to the port side is nothing. Absolutely nothing. No points to navigate by, no boats, no markers, just a mirror of blue with an occasional fishing bird or dolphin fin. Ahead is the fading mirage of the Venice jetty. To the left is Casey Key, a mix of small beach homes and mega-mansions. One El Capitan and I refer to as a hotel because it was the size of one, with huge arches and windows, multiple wings and two stories. The Hot Pink Machine said it was built by an inventor with a plastic molding company. Other houses are stacked angles, or Art Deco, a splash of Mediterranean, wide porches, or all windows and tin roof. Pink-flagged turtle nests dot the sand in all directions.

The sun burns off the haze and the heat turns on as the breeze dies. Blisters start forming on my heels. The Hot Pink Machine gets a blister on her palm and opts to get out at Blackburn Point Road. While she used the phone on the beach, a tiny black dog, like a pomeranian, starting chasing after its owner up the beach dragging the purple beach chair it had been tied to! 

By now I could see the condos on Turtle Beach and figured we had 2.5k to go to Midnight Pass. The stop was long enough to make my back protest as we pushed offshore and continued north. I tried rowing feet out but with the rocking ocean, it wasn’t working. I counted 100 stokes, and another 100 strokes. We could see people swimming along an isolated stretch of shore. Another 50 strokes and there, a kayaker emerged over the dune towards the swimmers. We’d arrived.

IslandRow3To celebrate, I collapsed into the cool water. By now we’d come 21k. The ocean at Midnight Pass was clear all the way out over my head, and calm, unlike other visits. We threw the oars on the beach and one by one, carried the boats up and over, put the oars back in, and set out for the final push.

Boat traffic zoomed along the inter coastal waterway. One guy made comments about our rowing shells sliding by in the pass; he waked us when we reached the channel. We stopped a few times for short, choppy waves to pass underneath. All the morning haze was gone, and so was the energy. I started counting again, rowing feet out and socks off to prevent the burning blisters on my heels from growing. 

We pulled in at 10:50, 24.2 kilometers (15 miles) later, around-the-island row accomplished. In singles, no less!







All photos: El Capitan.


About camckenna

I write; I row.
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