The Old Man and the Spree

Maybe it takes an ego as big as the ocean to think you can swim underwater from Havana to Miami. Especially if you're 75 years old.

The ancient YAK-42 Cubana de Aviación jet lumbered loudly through heavy gray clouds on its way from Nassau to Havana. Belted into a worn seat in the chilly cabin, Fred Baldasare was already planning the press conference he would call when he arrived in Cuba late one afternoon this past October.

"It's going to be picked up by all the media," he predicted matter-of-factly, unwrapping a hard candy distributed by a flight attendant. "This is going to be all over the international news."

Baldasare's thinning white hair is combed straight back from a lean, photogenic face that, after years immersed in sun and water, is crisscrossed with fine wrinkles. That is about all that hints at his age, 75 years old. He's six feet tall and trim, neither skinny nor overly muscled, and wears a black T-shirt and black jeans. Rarely does he dress in any other color. When standing, he strikes deliberate and stately poses, his gray eyes squinting into the distance.

In 1962 Fred Baldasare made headlines in dozens of languages with his English Channel crossing and record-setting swims throughout Europe
photos courtesy Fred Baldasare
In 1962 Fred Baldasare made headlines in dozens of languages with his English Channel crossing and record-setting swims throughout Europe

Baldasare wasn't intimidated by his near-total ignorance of the Spanish language and of Cuba, where he intended to meet with government officials -- which ones, where, and how he didn't yet know. The fact is he didn't have a clue how to call a press conference in Havana. He'd made no plans at all. It was only a few hours earlier, with the help of a Nassau travel agent, that he bought a plane ticket to Cuba and reserved a hotel room. But after 35 years in pursuit of a singular dream, Baldasare has been brushed off and turned down often enough to simply have stopped listening to reason. If he really put any stock in accepted wisdom, he'd be sitting around his Palm Harbor living room watching game shows and polishing his trophies. He'd give up this ridiculous notion of swimming underwater, nonstop, 250 miles from Havana to Miami Beach.

Baldasare is sane enough to appreciate how insane that sounds, and probably is. No one, not even a very young man, has ever completed a 250-mile underwater swim. The generally accepted world record is 66 miles. Baldasare, however, feels no obligation to abandon his goal. He always had his doubters, as far back as the early Sixties, when he first conceived the idea of following the Gulf Stream from Cuba across the Florida Straits. That was when Baldasare was riding the crest, so to speak, of a series of record-setting swims. His most notable feat remains in some record books (and is a Trivial Pursuit answer): On July 11, 1962, Baldasare was the first person to swim the English Channel underwater without surfacing. The next day a photograph of him adorned the front pages of newspapers all over the world. As he emerges, scuba-suited, from the English surf, his German baroness fiancée rushes to his arms and lingers in a giddy embrace, one knee bent as in a ballroom dance.

In the next few years he would make more headlines with unprecedented underwater crossings. He appeared on popular American television shows of the Sixties: What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret, the Steve Allen Show, Today. The Guinness Book of World Records added Baldasare to its pages, and he joined the gallery of wonders in Ripley's Believe It or Not. He never cashed in big on his celebrity; this was long before endorsement deals and promotion packages could create instant superhero millionaires. It was usually enough, in those simpler times, just to attract plenty of sponsors and to bask in the attention of the press and pretty women.

Baldasare wasn't alone in wanting to conquer the warm, shark-infested waters between Cuba and Florida. The grueling course (it's 90 miles between Havana and Key West, though the current naturally flows toward points farther north) calls irresistibly to marathoners. But the early Sixties was when relations between Cuba and the United States were at their most hostile and volatile: the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, the trade embargo, the assassination attempts on Castro. Baldasare figured he'd wait until things calmed down between the two nations.

Years went by, the world evolved, the Cold War ended, Baldasare grew old. "Just about every year since 1963 I tried to do that swim," he muses today.

He never did attempt it, though he tried time after time to secure permission from the U.S. government (because of the embargo, contact with the totalitarian state by private U.S. citizens is almost always prohibited) and to sign up sponsors and a support team. In 1990 Baldasare filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service alleging the government had been confiscating his mail in an attempt to deter him from the project. The suit was dismissed in 1991. Then early the following year, the U.S. Treasury Department notified him of its "final determination." Referring a bit testily to Baldasare's frequent letters, Foreign Assets Control Office director R. Richard Newcomb wrote, "If you can arrange the swim with absolutely no payments to Cuba ... there would be no prohibited transactions ..., and Treasury approval would not be required."

As recently as 1997, it looked as though the Campbell Soup Company was going to sponsor a Cuba-Miami swim (Baldasare's primary nourishment during swims was soup sucked out of a plastic bottle), but Campbell's dropped him. Baldasare never learned exactly why.

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