Deltona 500

Chickory Creek is one of the most beautifully isolated and forgotten creeks in the Delta: narrow, shallow passage, choked with buggy whips, cattails and Indian paintbrush. If nature lovers can find it, they will have “arrived.” As long as they don’t arrive on a certain day in late spring when the tranquil paradise is violently assaulted for the annual Deltona 500.

The boat race originated to settle recurring episodes of man-talk about who could run Chickory Creek the fastest. The complete list of rules is as follows: 1) The racer’s boat must be tiller-steered.

There were numerous eager competitors for the inaugural race. As it turned out, after the rules were posted, only Coleman and I qualified – which was fitting, seeing as how we’d started the argument. Coleman’s boat had more horsepower, but I had more experience running the creek. I reasoned that if I beat him by a good stretch out of Chickory, he might not be able to overtake me on the river before I made it to the finish line.

Riding on my front seat was Steve, a relatively new boy in the swamp. Paul, somewhat more experienced, took the bow with Coleman. The start wasn’t very official; I think I just gunned the motor, and we were off.

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Coleman is very competitive, so I hope I don’t get it wrong when I say I think I beat him to the mouth of Chickory. If this was the case, it was only because I surprised him at the start. Regardless, we were soon bottlenecked not far up the creek, like two wheelbarrows rammed side-by-side through the same slot. Both of our bow riders were leaning forward, yelling at the swamp as though enthusiasm would somehow pull them through. Soon, our propellers were wound with weeds and rendered ineffective. Our engines roared, smoked and spit muddy water. Then I executed the move that I thought would ultimately win me the trophy. I slammed the motor into reverse, wound off the weeds, slammed it in gear again, and roared past Coleman.

Once I had the creek to myself again, I kept the foot of my motor in the 12-inch weedless slot running the center of Chickory. I wove it like a downhill skier, slowing only once when I had to stand and tilt my screaming engine over a submerged log. Coleman chewed away at the weeds for a while before he perfected the spin-off and lunged after me. He paused slightly to inspect the foot of his motor after slamming into the log, but was soon closing in on me again like a mad bulldog.

As predicted, I beat him out of Chickory, but the lead was not comfortable. “Hit the floor, Steve!” I yelled as we raced into Grand Bay. “We need all we can get!”

Coleman’s boat was leaping behind me like something insane. I saw him yell mutely at Paul; then Paul was down on the floor too. On the other side of Grand Bay, I knew we’d encounter another cut-through that wasn’t wide enough for both boats. I had to beat him to it. It was my last chance. If he got there first, he’d race on into the river and I’d never retake him before the finish line. “I gotta cut him off at the pass!” I yelled at Steve. “Keep your fingers in the boat!”

I could almost reach out and touch the bow of Coleman’s crazed vessel riding my left wake. I cut hard in front of him, and he smashed into my gunnels knocking me straight again.

“What the hell?!” Steve yelled. I looked back at Coleman’s boat, and Paul was crouched down wide-eyed and expressionless. His driver’s face was glowing like something possessed. It was on.

“Stay down!” I yelled to Steve.

“I’m down! I just wanna stay in the … ”

Wham! Coleman hit me on the port side. I quickly recovered and stared ahead at the pass. A hundred yards to go. I only had about a 3-foot lead, and he was right beside me. I cut it hard. Wham! My boat rose and fell, locking rails with the enemy. Both of us worked our tillers, trying to dislodge like fighting bucks with tangled antlers. We finally came apart and separated for a moment before I turned into him again. Wham!

“Jesus!” Steve yelled.

“He’s about to lap us!”

The mouth of the pass is hard to find if you don’t know exactly where to look. It’s just a camouflaged opening in the swamp grass with only a small cypress tree for a landmark. Had Coleman been more familiar with the route, he might have been able to muscle me aside. But somehow he got off-course and would have run up into the swamp had he not backed off. I shot ahead and plunged into the narrow channel, weaving through it with the hammer down.

After all my effort and swamp tactics, Coleman beat me on the straightaway. He arrived at the finish line victorious, which, truth be told, was fine with me. I’d gotten what I wanted out of it.

Novelist Watt Key grew up in Point Clear. His third book, “Fourmile, ” received a Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.

text by Watt Key • illustration by kelan mercer

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