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.

That visit, according to Baldasare, was a waste of time. "The man wanted money in exchange for his help," he says. "I did meet some divers while I was there, and they said they were interested in being part of my team. But then they'd have to get permission from the government, so I wasn't very optimistic."

The current distance record holder for underwater swimming (66 miles from Islamorada to Miami in 1978) is Neal Watson of Fort Lauderdale. Watson is on the board of directors of the Dive Equipment Marketing Association (DEMA), a scuba-diving umbrella organization. Recently he's been giving shark-diving lessons (swimming with nonaggressive sharks) to high-profile students, including Sarah Ferguson and Geraldo Rivera's brother Greg. Watson met Baldasare back in the late Sixties, when both were living in the Bahamas. "He's an incredible diver," Watson says now, adding he hasn't had any contact with Baldasare for the past twenty years. "I didn't know he was still alive. He was kind of my hero and mentor. I've been diving for about 40 years, and I've never known a better diver. He was a pioneer in the diving industry. He was breaking records with equipment far inferior to what we have now."

U.S. Navy divers assisted Baldasare during two 1962 crossings of the Strait of Gibraltar
photos courtesy Fred Baldasare
U.S. Navy divers assisted Baldasare during two 1962 crossings of the Strait of Gibraltar
Baldasare enlisted in the army before finishing high school
photos courtesy Fred Baldasare
Baldasare enlisted in the army before finishing high school

From Baldasare's imaginary log as he nears the end of his journey: "7 AM, FOURTH DAY, 76th HOUR. Two hundred and thirty miles have been traveled, and the vessel and swimmer have already turned westward, departing from the center of the 40-mile-wide Gulf Stream and heading directly toward the shores of the mainland of the U.S. Copters and boats are dropping men into the waters for 'exclusive' underwater footage. The Coast Guard soon puts a stop to it. Great care must be taken not to get too close to the Largo Keys with their tidal currents. Once past the Keys, only the great inlet going into the heart of Miami must be avoided because of the tidal waters.... A landing on Miami Beach may be the target. A great deal depends on the time of coming ashore, and the way the swimmer feels. It is estimated that the swimmer will come ashore about 11 a.m. on the fourth day of swimming."

When Neal Watson learns that Baldasare is estimating his Havana-to-Miami Beach time at 80 hours, without surfacing, he pauses in surprise. "It certainly would be a kind of Mount Everest of swims," he observes finally. "I mean, God bless him. If there was anybody 75 years old who could do it, it'd probably be Fred. I was under 40 when I [made the 66-mile swim] and it took all my strength. It took me around nineteen hours, and I went through a series of cramps and hallucinations and convulsions and everything else. Just to be in the water for that period of time, just to stay awake and maintain your buoyancy -- just having a mask on your face six or seven hours, much less two days, you'd be experiencing agony you can't even imagine, much less keeping your fins kicking for two days. You even experience space sickness, because it's like you're suspended in space. I'm not saying he can't do it, but it seems Fred could do many things less challenging and still break records."

Fred Baldasare was born in Wellsville, Ohio, in 1924 but moved to Long Island several years later with his parents, older sister Maxine, and younger brother Raymond. His father made gold-plated costume jewelry for a living. Fred enlisted in the army before finishing high school and never earned a diploma.

It was in the army that he first learned to swim underwater using "rebreather" tanks filled with oxygen, a kind of precursor to scuba diving, which he took up fifteen years later. (Even as a child he recalls diving into a pond by his house and trying to breathe underwater using a homemade garden-hose apparatus.) He was a paratrooper during World War II but never went overseas. Discharged in 1945, Baldasare moved to Los Angeles and for the next five years studied acting at a community college on the GI Bill. He appeared in plays, performed a nightclub act, and worked as a photographer's model. "My brother was the handsomest guy," says Maxine Baldasare Miller. A vivacious, blond 78-year-old with a penchant for bright colors and pistachio ice cream, Maxine shares a four-bedroom trailer north of Tampa with Fred, their 97-year-old mother Essie, and Maxine's granddaughter. "He was the first male model on the cover of Two Stories magazine," Maxine notes. "He was even in Brylcreem ads."

Baldasare moved back to New York in 1950 to work for the army as part of a civilian crew producing military training films. He married Jane Lisle in 1952. He and his wife were enthusiastic divers, and in 1959, on a lark, Jane entered an underwater endurance contest being held in Pensacola. This involved wiling away the hours on display in a transparent water tank. "I trained her, and she easily beat out everyone else, men and women," Baldasare boasts. "After 50 hours [underwater] your hands shrivel up so bad it cuts off your circulation, and that's what causes people to quit. So I figured out a way she could blow air through a mouthpiece into a bucket that we inserted underwater, and then stick her hands in, which kept the shriveling to a minimum. In fact I'll be using that same principle to force air in under my gloves when I do the swim from Cuba."

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