Charlotte man and his friend are first windsurfers to complete 300-mile race in Florida

03/18/2014 2:07 PM

03/18/2014 8:21 PM

Tony Vandenberg of Charlotte started training a year ago on Lake Norman for the Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile boat race in Florida from St. Petersburg to Key Largo.

From kayaks to canoes, participants could choose their craft; Vandenberg, who loves windsurfing, picked a stock, nonmodified windsurfing board.

When Vandenberg, 48, and his friend, Sean Hawes, 47, of Sarasota, Fla., finished the race on March 7 in seven days, they became the first windsurfers to achieve that feat in the event’s 14-year history.

“We wanted to demonstrate it was possible to do this by windsurfing,” said Vandenberg, who owns a small business that makes windows for professional aquariums. “It was a great adventure that I’ll never forget.”

Vandenberg got in shape for the race with a weekday regimen of morning exercise and afternoon runs of 4 to 6 miles. On weekends, he spent hours windsurfing on Lake Norman. When business took him out of the country, he worked out in hotel fitness rooms and windsurfed on such bodies of water as the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Tonkin.

Starting in St. Petersburg, racers had nine days to complete the course along the west coast of Florida, along Everglades National Park and across Florida Bay to Key Largo.

Except for the next-to-the-last day when they were sidelined by a storm, they sailed 12 to 14 hours day and night. Vandenberg recalled being stuck in the ocean around midnight when “the wind shut off.”

“We were 7 miles offshore in the pitch black,” he said. “The sky was beautiful with 6 zillion stars.”

They camped out along the way, eating quickly and crawling into sleeping bags “so we could shut ourselves away from the bugs,” Vandenberg said.

Sailing along on a 13-foot-long, 2-foot-wide board, Vandenberg bumped into a sea turtle, lost his GPS while trying to avoid a saltwater crocodile, and followed dolphins to get through shallow channels.

At the end of the race “we were in an exhausted survival mode,” Vandenberg said.

Hypothermic and using his last reserves, he came ashore to the cheers of family and friends.

“I was so happy to hug and kiss my wife,” Vandenberg said. “I was so happy we’d succeeded.”

The mosquito bites around his ankles still itch, his hands feel tingly and he’s a little sore. But Vandenberg said he’s already thinking about the next Everglades Challenge – even though “my wife says no.”

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