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.

Jane, who looked very good in a bathing suit, won two subsequent endurance contests and became a momentary media darling. When a reporter jokingly asked if her next feat would be to swim the English Channel, Baldasare got to thinking. "I figured why not," he says. "I could train her, and with all the publicity she'd been getting we didn't have any trouble finding good sponsors. So we went over there, but she couldn't finish the swim. That's when I thought of doing it myself."

The pair divorced soon after Jane's Channel attempt. Baldasare moved to Cocoa, Florida, where his parents were operating a motel, and began arranging for his own Channel crossing in July 1961. Several French divers and one British diver were to form the core of his support team. They would carry fresh air tanks to him during the swim; communicate times, distances, and any other information necessary to keep him oriented and on course; and generally serve as his lifeline to the boat above monitoring his movements.

Baldasare is convinced the English diver sabotaged him by poisoning his food six weeks before the swim, drugging him the night before, and filling some of his air tanks with water. "He was an English spy," Baldasare insists, asserting that the British dive club that had agreed to assist him wanted one of their own to set the Channel record and thus was actually working against him.

Baldasare worked as a model after World War II
photos courtesy Fred Baldasare
Baldasare worked as a model after World War II
And later Baldasare produced and directed training films for the army
photos courtesy Fred Baldasare
And later Baldasare produced and directed training films for the army

He arrived dockside the morning of the swim, disoriented and weak from vomiting the night before. He dived in anyway, and even continued to vomit underwater. On the first tank exchange, he was given one filled with water. Shortly afterward divers hauled him onto the deck of the monitoring boat. English police, Baldasare adds, found tampered air tanks at the home of the mother of the British diver (who had mysteriously disappeared). Baldasare, declaring he wanted only to get the hell out of England, declined to press charges.

His French friends urged him to make another attempt, and a short time later he began weeks of training in France and in Italy. One day in Italy, while making his way down the aisle of a train, a beautiful woman stuck out a dainty foot and tripped him. The playful eighteen-year-old German Baroness Fredericka von Bernhardi thought that would be a good way to meet the handsome diver. Soon they became engaged, and she was immortalized in photographs as Baldasare's joyful greeting party at the end of his successful Channel swim. (She evaporated from his life only months later, as quickly as she'd entered.)

As a tune-up for the Channel, Baldasare was determined to swim the Strait of Messina, which runs between Sicily and Italy's boot. He never realized until he stepped into the eddying water why the people in his entourage thought he was about to die: The Strait of Messina, which Greek myth portrays as a hellish passage between the sailor-devouring monster Scylla and the deadly whirlpool Charybdis, is seven miles of violent vortices. Baldasare amazed onlookers by maneuvering among the wild currents and successfully crossing. On to the English Channel.

"There was excitement in the air on July 10, 1962," Baldasare writes in one of his promotional flyers. "In Europe, Fred Baldasare was already known as a great athlete, and was regarded much as champion baseball players and boxers are thought of in the U.S.A. Accompanied by the Club des Chasseurs et Explorateurs Sous-Marins de France, the most experienced divers in the world, he entered the waters of the Channel at Cap Griz Nez, France. He pitted his superbly conditioned strength against the sea and Mother Nature, and won.... Nineteen hours and one minute later, Fred Baldasare became the first person in history to swim the English Channel underwater, covering an incredible total distance of 42 miles. Following these successes, Fred toured Europe, and incredibly, made a swim almost every two weeks, all underwater, and never a failure."

His sister Maxine was living in Tennessee at the time. "I didn't know anything about Fred's swim," Maxine says, "until a newspaper reporter came out to our house. It happened on the same day Telstar [the world's first telecommunications satellite] was launched, though, so he did have to share the front page with that."

In October 1962 Baldasare crossed the Oresund Sound from Denmark to Sweden. Less than a month later, he swam the Bosporus Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. And before the year was up, he twice swam the Strait of Gibraltar from different points.

After his Gibraltar swims, he retreated to Cocoa. He got work directing athletic activities at a Ramada Inn resort on Cocoa Beach. In the fall of 1963, scientists at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory at Fort Lauderdale recruited Baldasare for a study of the effects of underwater exertion on body systems. Swimming from Key Largo to Fort Lauderdale, accompanied by two navy ships, Baldasare was visited by several curious but nonthreatening sharks (including a great white). He still speaks longingly of gliding through schools of fish and of remoras riding harmlessly on his back as he made his way along the coast. A tropical storm, however, cut short what would have been a record-setting swim.

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