Surfing to Miami

Hagridden by rain squalls, queasy in seven-foot seas, kayaker Randy Fine gave up his final bid to break the world speed record for a human-powered Gulf Stream crossing. His defeat at the hands of a rather bitchy Mother Nature occurred on Friday the 13th last month, roughly midway between Miami and the fun-loving island of Bimini in the Bahamas.

Only the most dedicated type of journalist paid attention to Fine's latest escapade. Through no real fault of his own, the handsome 33-year-old chef has built a reputation as a laughingstock among Miami newshounds. "He's been living off those goddamn Eskimo rolls forever," snorts one reporter, referring to Fine's attempted 1991 entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for executing 1796 continuous Eskimo rolls, a maneuver that requires the kayaker in his kayak to go completely underwater and spin back up to a seated position. From another reporter, who accompanied Fine on a much-publicized (Royal Crown Cola, one of five corporate sponsors, painted his kayak to resemble a giant soft-drink can) and miserably failed 1985 attempt to paddle from Miami to Freeport, Grand Bahama: "Oh, God. Is that guy still at it?"

Maybe it's the bee pollen and superconcentrated ginseng tea he totes with him in the cockpit. Perhaps it's the nude spread he did for Playgirl magazine in August 1986. Or the unintentionally hilarious quotes that come out of his mouth during self-induced states of exhaustion: "I'm an American, and Americans are supposed to be the best, so I went for a world record," said a dizzy Fine after the Eskimo roll episode. A friend described the task of observing Fine go round and round as being "like Zen meditation." There is also the contrast with his father, Martin Fine, a staid downtown lawyer and former chamber of commerce chairman. And the fact - cruel irony or funny paradox, depending on your sense of charity - that the man who would be kayak king is haunted by a strong native susceptibility to seasickness. Whatever the reason, a fickle press has forsaken Randy Fine as a flake.

Which is a pity, since Fine has genuine credentials as an athlete (the world record for most ocean miles paddled in 24 hours - 120.6; a solid reputation as a top racer in the United States and abroad; and a demonstrated commitment to promoting the sport locally through Wildcat Kayak, his year-old concession on the Rickenbacker Causeway) and a rare, almost chivalrous ability to boldly bite off more than he can chew, then fail imaginatively and with verve.

He has demonstrated this last quality vigorously and often. Following his June 1985 debacle - the attempt to paddle 100 ocean miles to Freeport, which was preceded by Fine appearing on television 27 times, incorporating himself into the Randy Fine Gulfstream Project Inc., spending a lot of his own and sponsors' money, and then foundering on seasickness some 60 miles short of his goal - Fine, dogged by disaster, tried the crossing five more times. Storms and incompetent chase boats led to further imbroglios. At one point, frustrated and impatient, Fine set out at night, gained 25 miles, then was blown backward and northward to arrive bedraggled and ornery on the beach in Hallandale. In April 1989, after weather conditions canceled several scheduled stabs at breaking his own 24-hour distance record, frustration and impatience again galvanized Fine, who set off alone from Government Cut toward the Bahamas. By nightfall he was lost at sea, swept north by the powerful currents of the Gulf Stream. "A boat picked me up and brought me to Freeport," Fine explains. "I took Sea Escape home. I had a real good time."

For at least five centuries, since Arawak Indians paddled their canoes amongst the Bahamas (and occasionally to Cuba and Hispanola), the 42 miles of salt water between Bimini and Miami have been a fascination of boaters. Being the westernmost island in the Bahamas chain, Bimini is a gringo sailor's first landfall, the tiny portal to a world of sun and fun and rum and impossibly clear snorkeling water and good fishing and temporary relief from the fast pace of American life. To the mind of adventurers, be they kayakers or budding yacht skippers, Bimini makes sense as a destination because it is the closest piece of a foreign nation, one that theoretically can be reached in a single day's navigation under sail, or conceivably, through one long nonstop spell of paddling.

But along with the aesthetic, geographic, and psychological enticements of the Miami-Bimini crossing, there are good arguments for humans in small craft to avoid it. (The Arawaks did.) This is no ordinary 42 miles.

Squeezing between South Florida and the Bahamas, the Gulf Stream, a vast river-within-the-ocean, produces northerly currents of up to five miles per hour. At the least these currents will make steering a straight course difficult, introducing in the mind of an outbound Miami boater the very real possibility that he will miss Bimini altogether. And in wrestling matches with the wind (unpredictable in both winter and summer months), such currents will often turn a placid, lakelike Atlantic into a vastitude of gray and ominously rolling ten-foot swells. In addition, the fact that the Gulf Stream between Bimini and Miami serves as an I-95 for cargo ships does nothing to reduce its contribution to Bermuda Triangle lore. (Like suburban Kendall, the Bermuda Triangle is only vaguely demarcated. Some of the more excitable followers of nautical paranormalism consider Bimini to fall within the Triangle's southerly leg.)

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