They’ll never forget dragging their kayaks over the squishy muck of oyster beds for miles. Or endless barriers of mangrove trees. The sand that got into clothing and tents.
Or the bottle-nosed dolphins that shot out of the water. Startled manatees that exploded from hiding places, rocking their kayaks. And the harsh, wild beauty of much of the Florida coast.
Charlotteans Marc DeLuca, 58, and Jim Windle, 50, spent four months on the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, coping with strength-sapping headwinds and enjoying arm-relieving tidal currents.
Saturday, on the brackish Amelia River, the two shaggy-bearded and tanned paddlers completed their 1,515-mile, round-the-state excursion. They came ashore at a public boat ramp adjacent to Fort Clinch State Park to cheers and applause from some 20 friends and well-wishers.
Along with hugs and handshakes, they got souvenir T-shirts imprinted with the trail route from Floridian Gus Bianchi, who finished the trek in 2013 and provided shuttles and lodging.
“It was an overwhelming journey,” said Windle, his infected left foot wrapped in a plastic bag to keep it dry. “It was very challenging. But at the same time, the rewards were 100 times greater.”
DeLuca nodded in agreement as they reflected on their coastline expedition, which ended near this small, northeastern Florida town south of Georgia’s Cumberland Island and started at Big Lagoon State Park next to the Alabama line.
“We were in primitive transportation,” DeLuca said of their heavily laden, 16 1/2-foot-long sea kayaks. “We were going so slow we got to absorb all this wonderful beauty that few people get to see.”
DeLuca and Windle, retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers, are dedicated outdoorsmen. In 2008 DeLuca bicycled solo from Yorktown, Va., to Astoria, Ore., pedaling 4,400 miles in 69 days.
The next year, he hiked the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail. Windle is a kayaker, master scuba diver and fly fisherman.
It was DeLuca’s idea to take the GPS-marked trail, both as a rigorous challenge and as a way for Windle to “decompress” into retirement after 27 years with the police department.
After extensive preparation, they set out Nov. 2, while Charlotte’s trees shimmered with fall colors, Halloween candy lingered in bowls and families began to think about Thanksgiving.
They got a rude baptism on the third day near Pensacola. Gale-force winds blew. “The wind pulled out Jim’s tent stakes,” DeLuca said. “There were waves and swells 6 feet high. This is what we signed up for.
“I lost sight of Jim (in the wave troughs). Waves were crashing over our bows. Heard this sound, pssssh. Looked around to the right. Three dolphins had surfaced. Pssssh. Now I see the eye of one of them looking at me.”
It was then DeLuca discovered his rear hatch cover had failed, and water was filling his boat. The kayak of his girlfriend, Kim Sloat, was ferried from Charlotte. Later, he got a replacement kayak from the manufacturer.
That wasn’t the only mishap. Near Marco Island, in southwest Florida, Windle’s double-bladed paddle broke. He and his kayak rolled over three or four times in the surf. At St. Augustine, on the final leg of the trip, Windle’s foot became infected, requiring an emergency room visit and a regimen of antibiotics. His foot is healing.
Windle said they overcame obstacles by breaking the trip into small bites, taking each day at a time. “We’re going to get through today,” he recounted.
The adversities only heightened their resolve. “We are not going to quit on a bad day,” DeLuca said.
Overall, they averaged 15 miles a day, excluding “zero” days, when they stopped at a motel to rest, resupply and do laundry.
They tapped into the goodwill of strangers at campsites. “We have no car,” DeLuca said they would tell disbelieving campers. “ ‘We have no car.’ That was the catchphrase.”
Still, they often walked to grocery stores. “Every aspect of your life requires physical labor,” Windle said, not only nonstop paddling for seven hours a day but also hauling kayaks through muck and mire and putting up tents. Each lost about 20 pounds.
Their fantastic voyage was more difficult than they had imagined. “We were naïve on what it would take to finish the trip,” Windle said.
Well-wisher Carl Anderson of Fernandina Beach finished the trail in 2013. “You really have to make it your mind that’s what you want to do,” he said.
The mariners savored the splendor of remote landscapes like the Big Bend and the Everglades and the abundant aquatic wildlife. Sharks swam under their boats. “You had dolphins shooting out of the water like a Polaris missile,” DeLuca said.
DeLuca and Windle became the 12th and 13th trail finishers, according to the Florida Paddling Trails Association’s website. “It was the trip of a lifetime for them,” said Carole Millberg of Charlotte.
The men said their friendship deepened during the expedition as they relied on each other to get through danger and toil.
At the boat ramp, friends Wes and Carol Payne of Charlotte drew laughs when they gave each paddler a medal for enduring – each other. “I survived 4 months & 1,515 miles with Marc,” Jim’s medal read.
“I survived 4 months & 1,515 miles with Jim,” Marc’s read.