Against a backdrop of a partial moon and stars, plus a throng of cheering fans, a tired but triumphant Team Hell’s Bay was the first skiff to idle to the dock at the Cabin Bluff Lodge late Wednesday night, April 4, after a punishing 1,600-mile run circumnavigating the state of Florida.
Capt. Chris Peterson, of Hell’s Bay Boatworks and his son, JC Peterson, were defending their title in the 2018 Florida Skiff Challenge, a charity endurance race benefitting Captains for Clean Water.
The pair ran a custom 16-foot Hell’s Bay Biscayne powered by a 70-horsepower Yamaha outboard and completed the grueling marathon in 38 hours. Dan Hunt and Steven Hobbs provided logistical ground support throughout the race. Teams Yellowfin, Chittum and Panga Marine finished second through fourth, respectively, early Thursday morning.
“We had a great team and a plan and everything came together,” Chris Peterson said afterwards. “We learn a lot every year and made some adjustments, but I never thought we’d be here on Wednesday night.”
“We were definitely able to go faster this year, averaging 38 to 39 miles per hour inside,” added JC Peterson. “Along the beach and the heaviest chop we could do about 35. The Marco Island to Key West stretch was pretty rough. There are so many variables. You start to feel everything in the boat and as cliche as it sounds, it starts to feel like it’s a part of you.”
The 16-foot skiff was built using special resins and an infused carbon fiber layup. The Challenge rules cap entries at 18 feet or less. According to Hunt, this year’s model weighed 100 pounds less than the 2017 version. Since the rules also stipulate a maximum fuel capacity of 23 gallons, every ounce counts. Hunt said a custom enclosed electronics pod at the helm also protected the team’s Raymarine displays from salt spray.
All four teams competing finished this year’s race. Team Yellowfin, with Heath Daughtry and Chase Daniel aboard the 17-foot production entry, also with 70-hp Yamaha power, finished second again at 41 hours. Yellowfin’s support team includes Guillermo Nazario, Yellowfin’s inshore rigging manager and Ty Nelson, owner of Florida Fishing Products. Team Yellowfin reached the finish line around 1:30 a.m. Thursday, April 5.
“Our strategy was to run outside the whole way,” Daughtry said after reaching dry land. “That’s the best way to make time. The waves weren’t the worst we’ve encountered, but it was just pounding, pounding, pounding for 1,600 miles. It feels like walking out of McDonald’s after midnight and getting jumped by five bad dudes.”
First-time Challenge contestant Team Chittum finished a few hours later, followed by Team Panga Marine, which completed the race after coming up short in two previous tries. The Chittum team was running a Islamorada 18 (Snake Bight edition) carbon fiber custom skiff with a 70-hp Honda, while Panga Marine raced in a production 18 EVO with a 70 Suzuki outboard.
Hal Chittum and George Sawley, the main partners of Chittum Boatworks, started the race together at dawn from Pensacola. When Chittum developed a medical issue, however, he was replaced by support team member Mike Casey in Key West to complete the Atlantic coast leg. Shane Casey was the other member of the ground team.
“We wanted to get involved to support Captains for Clean Water,” Sawley explained. “We liked the competition of going up against the other builders and thought it would be a lot of fun. We didn’t realize how hard it would be though.”
“It’s not just the boat, it’s the people,” says Team Panga Tom Biller, the general manager of Panga Marine. He shared the helm with Ryan Till. “You really have to be committed. At some point you know you’re going to get into the rough stuff and get beat up. I really came to appreciate the blow-up donut the guys bought me from the drug store and was sad when it blew overboard.” Rex Sutherland and Chelsea Matheson served as the Panga Marine’s ground crew.
The Florida Skiff Challenge, a concept Daughtry developed “on a cocktail napkin,” is open to Florida boat builders meeting the length and horsepower stipulations. Daughtry said several other companies were invited to participate but declined. Followers of the race could pledge donations to Captains for Clean Water to raise awareness about the serious water quality issues facing the Sunshine State.
Cabin Bluff Lodge, a historic resort on the Intracoastal Waterway across from Georgia’s Cumberland Island, was the host facility. The other 2018 sponsors included Raymarine, Yeti, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Justin Boots, Saved by Spot and Costa.