Kayaker makes tough trip from Key West to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas

rmccarthy@keynoter.comJune 25, 2014 

Richmond, Va., resident Grayson Cobb paddles last month on the open water during a two-day, 70-plus-mile kayak trip from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park. The 24-year-old launched on Memorial Day and reached his destination the next day.

GRAYSON COBB

Richmond, Va., resident Grayson Cobb took his fascination with solo adventures to a new level on Memorial Day, paddling a standard kayak 70-plus miles during a two-day trek from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park.

There's no way to say for certain, but the 24-year-old said he believes it's "highly unlikely" it had ever been done before.

"If you do something that crazy, usually somebody publishes something about it," he said. "I was doing a lot of Google searches and trying to find any evidence. The park rangers, they said they've never seen anybody come up on their shore on a kayak."

Cobb has been vacationing in the Keys for 15 years or so and said he spent May at his parents' Duck Key home preparing for the trip. His original intention was to paddle to the Bahamas.

"When the east winds didn't let up, I decided I should alter my adventure. I knew I could find no record of anyone paddling from Key West to the Dry Tortugas," he said.

Cobb, a Virginia Tech graduate who said he's headed to Eastern Virginia Medical School this fall, said he's pursued similar journeys on land. He's climbed mountains in Newfoundland, Canada and "backpacked most of the Appalachian trail by myself."

He wanted to pursue a similar journey on the water and was inspired by other kayakers who'd done similar trips. Most notably, in 1987, San Diego native Ed Gillette paddled 2,400 miles from California to Hawaii in 63 days.

Cobb admits his trip had "an insanity factor," but pointed out several modifications to his kayak that, without them, would have made the trip "all but suicidal."

Homemade foam outriggers allowed him to keep the kayak steady to "sit and eat and relax." He had a line set up for a sea anchor, and installed a small sail on the front "to give me a little push."

Cobb said he completed the trip with no assistance, guided only by a handheld GPS and a compass.

"I found a heading using the GPS to find out exactly which direction [the Tortugas] were in and point the boat in that heading and hold it as long as I could. Every two miles I would turn it on to make sure," he said.

Cobb said his family could track his movements in Virginia by way of a "spot satellite messenger."

"They could follow me on a little map online and there's an SOS button that would go out to the Coast Guard [if necessary]. Other than that, I was totally alone," he said.

Cobb saw only a few boats, including one commercial fishing boat whose crew feared for his safety.

"They dropped their dinghy in and he came racing over to me to make sure I was alright. He didn't accept my answer the first couple of times. He kept asking me and asking me and said, 'Are you sure you're OK?' " he said.

"Once I told him the Dry Tortugas, he kind of relaxed a little bit," Cobb added.

Cobb says he paddled 25 miles the first day, sleeping for the night on a beach at the Marquesas Keys. He completed the next 50 miles the second day, with the Loggerhead Key Lighthouse coming into view 10 to 12 miles out.

"The sun was setting and I had to truck to get there in time," Cobb said. "When I landed on the island I couldn't even walk because I was in my boat for so long. My hands had been clenched in that position for so long they just stayed there."

Whatever pain Cobb experienced apparently was not enough to deter him from similar trips in the future.

"It's hard to explain in words. It was incredibly beautiful being out there solo open water," he said. "Next up is to the Bahamas. As long as I can get some stale air or east wind less than 10 knots."

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