Probably haven’t been this anxious or hyped for a paddle since going through Baton Rouge on the Mississippi. Crossing the Tampa Bay you hear horror stories. People tell you to hit it fast and keep your head on a swivel. They also say to not cross it unless it’s perfectly flat early in the morning. That was the plan. I had about 3 miles till I hit the actual bay crossing. It was a little choppy for those 3 miles but I figured it had to do with the barrier island so I pushed on. When I hit the edge of Fort Desoto I had to make the decision. It was still a little choppy across the bay but I figured it was now or never. I floated out and when my watch chimed 10 am I hit play and blasted Hells Bells and dug in. It wasn’t terrible but definitely tougher than I would have liked. I found the rhythm of the waves and paddled into them. It took me off course and I had to correct often. For about 3 of the 6 Miles I was rolling up and down over the waves. When I would be at the bottom of the set, the waves would pull be taller than my flag pole on both sides and I was completely blinded. I had scoped out the channel before I took off to make sure no tankers or cruise ships where coming in or out. Luckily I had checked because I was blinded when I was in the bottom of the wave set and could only see a wall of water. I finally got my eyes locked on the Rod and Reel Pier on Anna Maria Island and headed for it. The last mile the waves kicked out to a small chop and guided me in. It was an interesting moment paddling up to the restaurant that was the first place I went when I moved down here 11 years ago. I had gotten drunk there several times. I pulled up on shore and walked the long pier to the restaurant. It was like walking a plank. I got some food and was ready to take off when I heard back from my best friend from the islands that he would be there in an hour. I sat on my boat and answered tons of questions. I felt like a tourist attraction but didn’t mind at all. My buddy arrived and we went to eat again. I thought about eating again but I just ate up the conversation. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have friends from my drinking days that are still just as strong to this day. No matter how much time passes it seems just like yesterday. I had to get moving to cover the miles to where I planned on camping. And if I wanted to get there by sunset it was going to be a push. The sun was out and high. I was sweating and realized that it’s December. But a cold front is moving in. I made it to the Cortez bridge and docked and ran up to the Circle K to grab some drinks. I used to frequent the Circle K regularly. (I will stop referencing all the places I used to drink to save time.). I paddled the last two miles around Anna Maria and made the turn into the gulf as the sun was about to set. I went under the draw bridge and landed on the north end of Longboat Key. The key that I called Home for 2 years. A place that still holds a huge part of my heart. A place where my addiction and isolation took off. The north end know as Beer Can Island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Not just because of sentimental reasons. There are dear trees sticking out into the water that look like something out of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The sunset was amazing. It was like the key was welcoming me back and congratulating me for so many different things. A few people were spread out over the key watching the sunset and slowly starting to leave. I hung around and scouted out a place to set up my hammock after it got dark so no one knew I was there. I found a nice spot tucked away behind a natural shelter some one made and hid my boat and loaded my gear into the shelter to hide it from sight. I could hear a guy and girl a little ways down the beach having a good time. I decided to go over and just let them know I was hanging out over here (no pun intended) incase they saw a light they didn’t freak out. I’m guessing they won’t even remember they saw me in the morning but no judgement since that used to be me.
There are several “milestone” locations on this trip, reaching the Ohio, the Mississippi, New Orleans, Florida line, Tampa Bay, but they don’t compare to reaching Longboat. I’m not even sure if where ever I finish will compare to what it means to me personally to get here. It only took several years of addiction and 2,690 mile to get back here.