Bahama Trauma

Miami kayaker Miguel Hernandez was having the time of his life on a solo voyage to Cuba -- until a multinational team of drug cops crashed the party

A small school of big dolphin followed him for a time. Sharks paid him visits, nibbling at the rudder. By sunset, after 29 hours of perpetual motion, he was having trouble on the compass dial. "Around two in the morning I started hallucinating," he remembers. "I saw beautiful patterns in the sky. Then I looked over to my right side and there was this huge wall coming out of the water. I wanted to tie up to it and sleep. I wanted it to be there so bad, but it wasn't."

Just before sunrise the speed indicator on his GPS nav unit told Hernandez he had finally escaped the Gulf Stream. He started scanning the horizon for the lighthouse on Cay Sal, an important Bahamas landmark for generations of yachtsmen, freighter captains, gunrunners, and coke smugglers. At 9:00 a.m. he saw a rock the size of a railroad boxcar protruding from the water. Just before noon, Hernandez tied up to it and went for a swim. His legs hurt. A lot. He ate two candy bars and drank a beer, part of his three six-pack ballast. After an uncomfortable snooze he moved camp seven miles west to a small scattering of islands, pitching his tent on a sandy beach. He speared a jumbo lobster and cooked it on a fire. "Then," he says, "I slept and I slept."

Back in Miami, a close circle of friends wondered if Hernandez was alive or dead. A VHF radio on the open sea transmits only five or six miles, so Hernandez had no way to contact them. Still, intimates of the high-mileage paddler were betting on his success.

"To kayak from Miami to Key West you have to be experienced and strong," says Dave Berman, owner of Mangrove Coast SeaKayaks in South Miami. "To cross the Gulf Stream, it's beyond that. You have to be willing to play with death. It's a world-class trip. Open-water kayaking is hard as it is, but this is open ocean that's moving. It goes. It's like driving against traffic on I-95. There have been many attempts by people from the Northwest and Northeast, cold-water kayakers who figure they can cross the Gulf Stream, no sweat. Every single one of them winds up getting picked up by the Coast Guard."

Berman sold Hernandez his first serious kayak three years ago, and the two have been fast friends and paddling partners ever since. He calls Hernandez fearless, gentle, tough, contemplative, a great and uncompromising cook, and an aficionado of the Spanish guitar. He often describes Hernandez as the missing link between man and fish. "I've seen him stay underwater so long it scared me, three to five minutes with no exaggeration," he says. "He'll go into a cave where there's a big shark and pull a lobster out. Say you're on a boat with him in a bad storm. Everyone's screaming and wondering if they're going to live or die. He'll turn on Celia Cruz and have a beer and say he can't believe how beautiful it all is.

"Miguel is unique," Berman adds. "It's hard to categorize him. Where the sea is concerned, he never forgets a detail A and it's the details that can get you killed. On land, in complete contrast, he's forgetful. He'll get out of his car and forget to turn off the engine. This is the guy you want to be with when the Titanic goes down, because he'll find something that floats. On the other hand, if you're moving your house, he may not be the one for the job. He might leave your couch somewhere."

Guillermo Lopez, a painting contractor, describes Hernandez as "probably the real-life Rambo. He has no fear about anything." Lopez met Hernandez 23 years ago at a Jehovah's Witness meeting. Both men eventually dropped out of evangelical Christianity but remained friends and spiritual seekers. Lopez helped Hernandez weather his divorce in the mid 1980s. He says his pal is a laid-back, fun-loving guy, but one who ultimately considers life a serious undertaking. "Everything he does is a path toward greater knowledge," Lopez notes.

Hernandez himself shrugs when pressed to describe why, exactly, he embarked on the trip. "Throughout my life in Miami, any excuse I've had to get out on the water, I took it," he contends. "Fishing or diving or just sitting in a sailboat looking up at the stars at night, that's the best. I thought I would get plenty of that on a six- or nine-month trip. It would also give me time to get a better feel for myself and my spirituality. It's hard to talk about a thing like that, or think about it in the first place. But since I was a boy, spiritual things have been important to me. I've gone through a few religions. I decided the best religion is no religion. You make up your own, then you keep it to yourself. I guess mine is about the ocean. So it made a lot of sense to me to take off in a kayak. I never read anything that made me think of doing it. It was just something inside me that made me think it was perfectly sensible."

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