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.

Then he got the idea of going to Havana. If he couldn't drum up enough support here, he might as well try the Cuban side. Fidel Castro would probably love the idea of some white-haired American, even older than he, valiantly bridging the watery gap between their two countries. It would be like The Old Man and the Sea. Only months earlier Fidel himself had wined, dined, and had a shark cage built for Australian marathon swimmer Susie Maroney. In September 1999 she swam from Jamaica to Cuba enclosed in that shark cage. Earlier she set records from Mexico to Cuba and from Havana to the Florida Keys, near Marathon.

Although she is a surface swimmer and Baldasare navigates underwater in scuba gear, he considers Maroney's feats undeserving of the laudatory attention they received, mainly because a shark cage creates a draft that increases a swimmer's speed. (With fins his speed has been clocked in the vicinity of one mile per hour, but Maroney, without fins and in a shark cage, averaged almost five miles per hour on her Cuba-Florida trek.) Baldasare was approached by fearsome sharks during a 1963 swim, but he's never used a cage and he never would.

"Hordes of newsmen are busily recording Fred Baldasare as he prepares for his epic swim.... This man is considered by rational experts as the greatest athlete of all time, although almost totally unknown." That is Baldasare writing about his Havana-Miami Beach swim as if it were really happening. It's promotional/biographical material he churns out on his computer, all written in a high-flown third person and brimming with superlatives that, despite the pretentious tone, are mostly not overstatements.

Second wife "Mermaid Kitty" set depth diving records and attracted tourists to Baldasare's glass-bottom boat tours in the Bahamas
photos courtesy Fred Baldasare
Second wife "Mermaid Kitty" set depth diving records and attracted tourists to Baldasare's glass-bottom boat tours in the Bahamas
Baldasare's sleek Yamaha V Max, on which he recently toured the eastern United States and Canada
photos courtesy Fred Baldasare
Baldasare's sleek Yamaha V Max, on which he recently toured the eastern United States and Canada

"With the signal for the start of the swim, to catch the outgoing tide, he puts on his personalized fins," the imaginary scenario continues. "Then he pulls on a strange-looking hood. Only two large, slanted eye openings are seen, with slits to accommodate the nose and mouth, giving him the appearance of a space alien. The last of his attire is his mask. While it is still dry, he spits on the inside of the lens, rubs it vigorously, then rinses it twice, quickly, in a pail of salt water. He places the mask over the eye slits.

"The mask, too, is strange. Projecting out six inches from the mask lens, from top to bottom, is a thin band of steel. Affixed to the band is a watch and a compass. Media cameras are busily taking pictures. Premier Fidel Castro shakes Fred's hand and surprisingly says, 'Good fortune, amigo.' They walk together to the edge of the dock. Baldasare turns his body awkwardly because of the weight of the tank on his chest [he prefers this unorthodox placement of the tank]. He waves to the crowd as they cheer loudly. As he jumps in he wonders if this crowd of onlookers is thinking of the sharks and other perceived dangers ahead. He notices some of them are crossing themselves, as had onlookers during his Strait of Messina swim. Too, he wonders why the many years of communism have failed to dissuade the religious few."

A bus from Havanatur, Cuba's state travel agency, met Baldasare that October afternoon when he disembarked at the shiny new José Martí International Airport. He and other tourists were dropped off at their hotels; Baldasare had reservations at the Copacabana overlooking the ocean.

First thing the next morning he found a hotel secretary who spoke English. "I asked her for Fidel Castro's phone number," Baldasare recounts. "She said she didn't know it, but she did give me a number for something called the central committee." That would be Communist Party headquarters.

Then Baldasare asked the secretary's advice about who might be able to help him arrange a press conference. After puzzling for a few seconds, she looked up a number for the offices of Granma, the party's daily newspaper. "Well, I called them," Baldasare continues, "and they passed me around all over the place, and I never found anyone who spoke English. So I said I'm not getting anywhere on the phone. I need to do this in person." He walked outside to the queue of taxis waiting at the hotel entrance and showed his hastily jotted phone numbers to a driver, who assured Baldasare he could take him right over to the central committee offices at the Plaza de la Revolución.

"He was a great guy," Baldasare says of the taxista, who like most Havana cab drivers these days was a university-educated professional who abandoned his career to earn dollars. "He told me he had family in the States. He went inside [the central committee offices] with me and we talked to someone at an information desk or something. They called around and finally found someone who spoke passable English, a man named Orlando Brito. He was -- " Baldasare consults his notepad " -- someplace called Minrex." That would be the foreign ministry.

"We spoke for about four hours," Baldasare recounts. "He had two secretaries there who helped interpret. He was very interested, but he had two concerns. He didn't want to offend the U.S. government by helping me out. And he was worried about what would happen once the boat got into the twelve-mile limit. Then he gave me the name of the guy who's in charge of Hemingway Marina, and I went over there."

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