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.

Around that same time Baldasare began dating a woman he met at the Ramada Inn. "Eventually I found out she was the mistress of a man who owned a hotel in Miami," he recalls. "He had her all set up in the hotel where I worked. Well, she was getting restless, so we decided to take off on a road trip. Just like that. I had an old two-door blue Coupe de Ville. We drove to Washington, D.C., New York, California, and all the while she's wiring her boyfriend for money. I remember JFK was assassinated when we were going through D.C. I remember listening to the news on the radio. The town was at a standstill. I later found out I was investigated for the assassination, being as I'd suddenly disappeared from Cocoa and was in Washington when it happened."

By the time he and the rich man's mistress got to California, Baldasare recounts, he was tired of their picaresque, Route 66-ish existence. He may also have been wondering how long it might take for the boyfriend to catch up with them. "I realized the futility of it all and decided to go to Mexico," he sighs. "I had a friend at a place called Las Brisas. She wanted to go too, but I said no, I want to be alone."

Baldasare stayed at the Las Brisas Hilton in Acapulco for six months. He quickly became Scuba Instructor to the Stars, among them actors Stefanie Powers, Hugh O'Brian, and Albert Finney. Also while in Acapulco, Baldasare got into a conversation with a hotel guest who turned out to be a sales representative for U.S. Divers, a major scuba equipment manufacturing company. "He said, 'We got a great line coming out,' and showed me the brochure," Baldasare remembers. "And there was my invention; it was a composite swim fin with a detachable blade." About a year and a half earlier, Baldasare says, he had met the legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau in Monaco. They had spoken about some ideas Baldasare had for streamlining scuba gear, and Cousteau had invited Baldasare to send him drawings of his designs. "He said, 'Send it to my firm in California. [Cousteau was chairman of the board of U.S. Divers until 1996.] So I did send blueprints by registered mail to U.S. Divers," Baldasare recalls. "I never heard from him again. Then after that time in Acapulco, I saw on TV another of my inventions used by the Calypso dive team; this was a rear-view mirror that snapped on to the mask." He never took any action against Cousteau or his company, and acknowledges it would be impossible, especially with Cousteau dead for three years, to prove his designs were stolen. "But I never forgot it, and I never had anything to do with U.S. Divers after that." Until this month, that is. He's just sent off a letter soliciting the company's sponsorship for his July swim.

Kathy Glasgow
Baldasare was scuba instructor to the stars, including Stefanie Powers and Hugh O'Brian, during a brief stint in Acapulco
photos courtesy Fred Baldasare
Baldasare was scuba instructor to the stars, including Stefanie Powers and Hugh O'Brian, during a brief stint in Acapulco

Baldasare came back to Florida after six months in Mexico. He got a job at Sears as a carpet installer and then as a men's clothing salesman. Soon, though, he was on his way to the Bahamas to work in a glass-bottom tour-boat business. Over the next fifteen years, he operated a series of dive-related businesses, conducting tours and leading dive parties. Soon after his arrival in Freeport, he met Kitty Geisler, a vacationing German model. She never went back to Munich, and she and Baldasare married about five years later. Baldasare (along with Neal Watson) coached Kitty to a women's diving depth record of 325 feet, which she defended for several years. They divorced about fourteen years ago, after almost two decades together. Although Baldasare says he has remained on good terms with his ex-wives, both now remarried, he didn't want them to be contacted for this story.

Baldasare's divorce came around the same time as his sister Maxine's divorce. Eleven years ago they and their mother moved into a trailer home in Palm Harbor's rustic Lone Pine subdivision, some twenty miles north of Tampa.


Following his less-than-fruitful meetings in Havana, Baldasare used the Hotel Copacabana's fax machine to send an urgent appeal to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Since the Minrex official had expressed concerns about offending the U.S. government by supporting Baldasare's project, he thought it would help if he could show the Cubans some proof of American approval. "Would you, could you, fax or e-mail an official letter from Governor Bush stating that he has no objection in me receiving Cuban help for this swim for July of next year?" Baldasare printed laboriously on Copacabana stationery. "This last swim of my career can only be possible with Cuban government or/and Bush's help. Otherwise I will arrange a press conference before I leave, announcing my retirement from swimming. Sincerely, Fred Baldasare." (A Cuban foreign ministry spokesman said recently he couldn't envision any objection by the Cuban government to Baldasare's plan. "The only question is how would it be financed," the official explained. "And the only problem would be if the American government wanted to cause problems.")

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