ORLANDO, Fla. — A Central Florida man and his Minnesota-based friend battled fierce winds and brutal cold in their kayaks on an epic journey of circumnavigating Florida, a daunting task they completed in just over six weeks. Despite the odds, they smashed a previous record to become the fastest-known kayakers to paddle around the peninsula.
Greg Pflug, a 53-year-old Winter Park native and owner of Adventures in Florida, and Minnesotan Fred Goebel, 63, began their odyssey of the seas — following the 1,515-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail (CT) — on Dec. 9 when they set off from Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola.
In the weeks to follow, the pair battled 30-mph winds, subfreezing temperatures, calloused hands, knee-deep mud and water up to the doors of their tents. However, they were rewarded with stunning sunsets, glowing bioluminescence, dolphin encounters and night skies filled with millions of stars.
“I think Florida is the premier kayaking state. We have every kind of water you can think of and you can access it year-round,” Pflug said. “With the Florida Paddling Trails Association putting together the CT: If you love your state, what better way to see it? I don’t want to be in a car stuck in traffic.”
Pflug and Goebel finished 44 days later on Saturday at the trail’s Atlantic terminus next to Fort Clinch State Park with triumphant smiles and a crowd of supporters waiting to greet them.
The paddling pair survived on a diet of cheese, dried fruit and lots of jerky, occasionally splurging on bites at waterfront restaurants or being treated by supporters who delivered burritos or served up delicious home-cooked meals.
One “trail angel” picked up the kayakers and took them back to her house, where they soaked in a hot tub while having their laundry done. A paddler near Miami named Ted handed the guys $100 for food, drinks or whatever their hearts desired.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I figured, ‘We’re going and we’re going to have to make it work.’ It’s been an adventure,” Goebel said. “Everything has gone pretty well. Campsites have just shown up for us.”
Since the CT was completed in 2007, 35 paddlers have finished the entire trail. The previous time record was set by Esteban Blyar, the 25th finisher who accomplished the CT in 60 days. The longest recorded CT paddle was done in sections and took nearly 14 years.
“We had the previous record of 60 days and now these guys are coming in at 44 days. It’s remarkable, I’m amazed and kind of speechless,” said Dorsey DeMaster, president of the Florida Paddling Trails Association who completed the trail herself in 2021. “They’ve both been a gem to watch and I’m living vicariously through them always.”
Pflug and Goebel didn’t intend to set a speed record but found they were paddling 40-50 miles per day after their first week of conditioning on the water. Their average pace hasn’t typically exceeded 4 mph, but many days have involved pre-dawn starts and long hours in the kayaks.
Even more surprising is that this is only Goebel’s second paddling trip.
“I went on an Everglades trip with Adventures in Florida about eight years ago,” said Goebel, with Pflug adding: “This is his second trip in a kayak, ever.”
The pair quickly discovered they were evenly matched in their pace, although perhaps opposites in their approach and style.
“Fred is rational and levelheaded. I’m the opposite, like, ‘Let’s do stupid stuff,’ ” Pflug said.
Some of the most harrowing moments involved frigid temperatures around Christmas and waves that stood several feet tall. But for every tumultuous time, there were several magical moments in nature.
“We had dolphins racing us for 15 minutes under our boats, then jumping out of the water,” Pflug said, who then recalled a nighttime paddle in calm waters: “The water was level with the sky and you couldn’t see where it ended. You could see the stars reflected. All of the comb jellies were bouncing off the boat and sparkling.”
There were also unexpected lessons that emerged from the epic voyage.
“We saw a lot of wealth, like personal yachts the size of a city block with a house the size of a Marriott. Then every hundred yards, there’s a Cuban life raft where people are coming over with absolutely nothing,” Pflug said. “When you travel the whole state, it’s hard to see this much development and not get upset.”
Even before the end of this adventure, Pflug is planning a future hiking escapade in the Pacific Northwest. But before then, he has a business and a dog to return to, plus more immediate goals.
“I’m going to go home and take a bleach bath, then a baby oil bath,” he said.