A modern flats skiff floats in mere inches of water, carrying anglers to within striking distance of skittish tarpon, bonefish, and permit. Everything about these sleek boats is designed for stealth in skinny water, silence on the wide-open flats, and the ability to plumb remote backcountry hideouts.
Unless they’ve been designed to rocket across the open Gulf of Mexico and run flat-out for fifty non-stop hours, screaming around nearly every inch of Florida coastline in a hell-bent-for-leather endurance race designed to raise money for Everglades restoration.
That’s the idea behind the Florida Skiff Challenge, which kicks off Tuesday. Four teams of two captains each will depart Pensacola at first light and travel 1,600 miles in a subtropical version of the Iditarod: a run down the Gulf Coast, a hairpin turn at Key West, then a race up the Atlantic to finish at Cabin Bluff Lodge near Cumberland Island, Georgia.
The racing skiffs comprise a who’s who of flats boat design and saltwater fly fishing: Chittum Skiffs, Hell’s Bay Boatworks, Panga Marine, and Yellowfin Yachts. Each boat maker custom designs a skiff for the race, within specific parameters: The boats can be no longer than 18 feet, with fuel tanks capped at 23 gallons (support crews will rendezvous with teams along the way for fill-ups) and outboards limited to 70 horsepower or less. “Racing around Florida in a 16-foot boat puts everything to an extreme test,” says Chris Peterson, co-owner of Hell’s Bay Boatworks. “That includes the boats, the gear, and no doubt the occupants.”
The skiff challenge got its start after two bottles of Clase Azul tequila got two old pals, Peterson and Yellowfin Yachts’ Heath Daughtry, talking about the dumb things they did as kids. The inaugural 2016 sprint—around Key West and across the state through Lake Okeechobee—also included a higher calling than bragging rights: using the race to raise money for saltwater conservation. The first two races benefitted the Coastal Conservation Association. Proceeds for this year’s race are earmarked for Captains for Clean Water, a non-profit begun in 2016 by two Fort Meyers–based guides, Chris Wittman and Daniel Andrews, to pull together Florida anglers to advocate for science-based restoration of Florida’s Everglades and estuarine waters. “This is a perfect match for us,” Wittman says, “because we’re racing to save both water quality and world-class fishing across Florida.”
You can team up with the Florida Skiff Challenge by helping to sponsor a team or donating directly to Captains for Clean Water at captainsforcleanwater.org/2018-skiff-challenge. Follow the action live at saltwatersportsman.com/florida-skiff-challenge.