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Given these reasons for staying home, it's possible that Randy Fine would not have found himself, a few minutes after dawn on March 13, paddling away from the sugary beach of the Bimini Reef Club - if not for a man named Bruce Gipson. In 1984, with little fanfare but with a notary public and two other witnesses watching him, Gipson became the first person to kayak from Bimini to the U.S. mainland. His time of 11 hours and 46 minutes remains the fastest for a human-powered crossing. (Mike Maher and Robert Jones of Fort Pierce completed the trip paddling on surfboards in 1983, taking 18 hours, 27 minutes. In 1981 Yvon Le Caer made the same journey on a bicyle-powered catamaran. And renowned distance swimmer Diana Nyad tried to stroke her way across, quitting a few miles short of success in August 1979.)
That Gipson slipped past him into the record books has bugged Fine for years, an exasperation fertilized through several hopeful attempts to best the record, and the several resultant failures even to complete the crossing. But there comes a time in life when a man casts out his demons permanently, or else invites them in for supper and a cigar. The night before he paddled out of the cove of the Bimini Reef Club, Fine declared this would be his last assault on Gipson's record.
And in the first three hours of the crossing, it seemed he was bound for glory. Even when a swell dunked him briefly overboard, Fine remained focused on the western horizon, never looking back at the three men in the 27-foot Baja Sportfisher who had volunteered to trail him. While he trains diligently for all his serious kayak outings, Fine says their overall organization has sometimes fallen short. Not so for this expedition. With his chase team powering across from Miami on March 12 (carrying with them his blue-and-white kayak wrapped in foam-rubber packing blankets), Fine flew to Bimini in a Chalk's seaplane as a precaution against mal de mer. He had gathered two new sponsors: oil giant Texaco, and Gulfstream Surf Skis, an Orlando-based kayak manufacturer.
The president of Gulfstream skippered the chase boat, posting two jolly company investors as lookouts. In the kayak, Fine carried his superconcentrated ginseng, a pair of waterproof radio headphones tuned to Power 96, a compass and watch affixed to the bow, and a gallon drinking-water jug bungeed behind his cockpit, a thin plastic tube leading from the jug to his mouth. The watchful mariners on the chase boat carried with them a not inconsiderable quantity of lite beer and two high-powered rifles, loaded with shark slugs. (The rifles went unused.)
When Bruce Gipson made his record crossing in 1984, he paddled at night, in the summer, and using a kayak any Eskimo would recognize. He also sought the calmest possible sea conditions. By contrast, Fine intentionally picked a blustery daytime run in late winter, a seemingly illogical strategy that in fact makes some sense in the face of recent kayak design and technology.
Fine's 21-foot craft is different enough from a traditional kayak to have earned its own appellation, the surf ski. In comparison with old-fashioned kayaks, surf skis are generally longer and narrower. They are made of molded plastic from sophisticated computer-generated designs. The paddler sits atop the craft in what amounts to a shallow indentation, manipulating a small rudder via foot pedals.
The most important difference is in how the surf ski is used. While traditional ocean kayakers paddle at a steady pace, up and down any watery surface features that may exist, the surf ski aficionado hopes for robust, well-directed seas and a following wind. He paddles like a bee-stung lumberjack up the swell and then gives his arms a rest while being shot along, surfboardlike, down the other side. Depending on the water and weather conditions, surf skis can be dramatically faster (and more fun) than standard ocean kayaks.
At least in theory. Four and a half hours out from Bimini, having covered some nineteen miles through a small craft advisory, Randy Fine was no longer having much fun. Nor, finally, was his chase crew. As they struggled to keep Fine in sight - losing him once for a full minute among the roiling crests - the observers onboard the Baja Sportfisher clung to the gunwhales with both hands, abandoning all hope of festive beer-guzzling. Like Fine's kayak, the thick-hulled open speedboat began unexpectedly to surf down the swells, barely outrunning the galloping seas that threatened to wash over the stern.
Rain showers plus unusually low temperatures in the upper 50s made the going less than a delight. Yet Fine kept up a brisk 80-strokes-per-minute pace for the better part of the morning, stopping only once to resupply his water jug, and again to eat a candy bar. Shortly after 11:00 a.m., Fine's westward compass heading started drifting toward the north. He began to slow down noticeably. At some point a subtle shift in his posture declared that his concentration was broken. The culprit was nothing more than slight change in weather. In the space of fifteen minutes, the swells Fine had successfully surfed for hours deteriorated into directionless chop.