Surfing to Miami
Hagridden by rain squalls, queasy in seven-foot seas, kayaker Randy Fine gave up his final bid to break the world speed record for a human-powered Gulf Stream crossing. His defeat at the hands of a rather bitchy Mother Nature occurred on Friday the 13th last month, roughly midway between Miami and the fun-loving island of Bimini in the Bahamas.
Only the most dedicated type of journalist paid attention to Fine's latest escapade. Through no real fault of his own, the handsome 33-year-old chef has built a reputation as a laughingstock among Miami newshounds. "He's been living off those goddamn Eskimo rolls forever," snorts one reporter, referring to Fine's attempted 1991 entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for executing 1796 continuous Eskimo rolls, a maneuver that requires the kayaker in his kayak to go completely underwater and spin back up to a seated position. From another reporter, who accompanied Fine on a much-publicized (Royal Crown Cola, one of five corporate sponsors, painted his kayak to resemble a giant soft-drink can) and miserably failed 1985 attempt to paddle from Miami to Freeport, Grand Bahama: "Oh, God. Is that guy still at it?"
Maybe it's the bee pollen and superconcentrated ginseng tea he totes with him in the cockpit. Perhaps it's the nude spread he did for Playgirl magazine in August 1986. Or the unintentionally hilarious quotes that come out of his mouth during self-induced states of exhaustion: "I'm an American, and Americans are supposed to be the best, so I went for a world record," said a dizzy Fine after the Eskimo roll episode. A friend described the task of observing Fine go round and round as being "like Zen meditation." There is also the contrast with his father, Martin Fine, a staid downtown lawyer and former chamber of commerce chairman. And the fact - cruel irony or funny paradox, depending on your sense of charity - that the man who would be kayak king is haunted by a strong native susceptibility to seasickness. Whatever the reason, a fickle press has forsaken Randy Fine as a flake.
Which is a pity, since Fine has genuine credentials as an athlete (the world record for most ocean miles paddled in 24 hours - 120.6; a solid reputation as a top racer in the United States and abroad; and a demonstrated commitment to promoting the sport locally through Wildcat Kayak, his year-old concession on the Rickenbacker Causeway) and a rare, almost chivalrous ability to boldly bite off more than he can chew, then fail imaginatively and with verve.
He has demonstrated this last quality vigorously and often. Following his June 1985 debacle - the attempt to paddle 100 ocean miles to Freeport, which was preceded by Fine appearing on television 27 times, incorporating himself into the Randy Fine Gulfstream Project Inc., spending a lot of his own and sponsors' money, and then foundering on seasickness some 60 miles short of his goal - Fine, dogged by disaster, tried the crossing five more times. Storms and incompetent chase boats led to further imbroglios. At one point, frustrated and impatient, Fine set out at night, gained 25 miles, then was blown backward and northward to arrive bedraggled and ornery on the beach in Hallandale. In April 1989, after weather conditions canceled several scheduled stabs at breaking his own 24-hour distance record, frustration and impatience again galvanized Fine, who set off alone from Government Cut toward the Bahamas. By nightfall he was lost at sea, swept north by the powerful currents of the Gulf Stream. "A boat picked me up and brought me to Freeport," Fine explains. "I took Sea Escape home. I had a real good time."
For at least five centuries, since Arawak Indians paddled their canoes amongst the Bahamas (and occasionally to Cuba and Hispanola), the 42 miles of salt water between Bimini and Miami have been a fascination of boaters. Being the westernmost island in the Bahamas chain, Bimini is a gringo sailor's first landfall, the tiny portal to a world of sun and fun and rum and impossibly clear snorkeling water and good fishing and temporary relief from the fast pace of American life. To the mind of adventurers, be they kayakers or budding yacht skippers, Bimini makes sense as a destination because it is the closest piece of a foreign nation, one that theoretically can be reached in a single day's navigation under sail, or conceivably, through one long nonstop spell of paddling.
But along with the aesthetic, geographic, and psychological enticements of the Miami-Bimini crossing, there are good arguments for humans in small craft to avoid it. (The Arawaks did.) This is no ordinary 42 miles.
Squeezing between South Florida and the Bahamas, the Gulf Stream, a vast river-within-the-ocean, produces northerly currents of up to five miles per hour. At the least these currents will make steering a straight course difficult, introducing in the mind of an outbound Miami boater the very real possibility that he will miss Bimini altogether. And in wrestling matches with the wind (unpredictable in both winter and summer months), such currents will often turn a placid, lakelike Atlantic into a vastitude of gray and ominously rolling ten-foot swells. In addition, the fact that the Gulf Stream between Bimini and Miami serves as an I-95 for cargo ships does nothing to reduce its contribution to Bermuda Triangle lore. (Like suburban Kendall, the Bermuda Triangle is only vaguely demarcated. Some of the more excitable followers of nautical paranormalism consider Bimini to fall within the Triangle's southerly leg.)
Given these reasons for staying home, it's possible that Randy Fine would not have found himself, a few minutes after dawn on March 13, paddling away from the sugary beach of the Bimini Reef Club - if not for a man named Bruce Gipson. In 1984, with little fanfare but with a notary public and two other witnesses watching him, Gipson became the first person to kayak from Bimini to the U.S. mainland. His time of 11 hours and 46 minutes remains the fastest for a human-powered crossing. (Mike Maher and Robert Jones of Fort Pierce completed the trip paddling on surfboards in 1983, taking 18 hours, 27 minutes. In 1981 Yvon Le Caer made the same journey on a bicyle-powered catamaran. And renowned distance swimmer Diana Nyad tried to stroke her way across, quitting a few miles short of success in August 1979.)
That Gipson slipped past him into the record books has bugged Fine for years, an exasperation fertilized through several hopeful attempts to best the record, and the several resultant failures even to complete the crossing. But there comes a time in life when a man casts out his demons permanently, or else invites them in for supper and a cigar. The night before he paddled out of the cove of the Bimini Reef Club, Fine declared this would be his last assault on Gipson's record.
And in the first three hours of the crossing, it seemed he was bound for glory. Even when a swell dunked him briefly overboard, Fine remained focused on the western horizon, never looking back at the three men in the 27-foot Baja Sportfisher who had volunteered to trail him. While he trains diligently for all his serious kayak outings, Fine says their overall organization has sometimes fallen short. Not so for this expedition. With his chase team powering across from Miami on March 12 (carrying with them his blue-and-white kayak wrapped in foam-rubber packing blankets), Fine flew to Bimini in a Chalk's seaplane as a precaution against mal de mer. He had gathered two new sponsors: oil giant Texaco, and Gulfstream Surf Skis, an Orlando-based kayak manufacturer.
The president of Gulfstream skippered the chase boat, posting two jolly company investors as lookouts. In the kayak, Fine carried his superconcentrated ginseng, a pair of waterproof radio headphones tuned to Power 96, a compass and watch affixed to the bow, and a gallon drinking-water jug bungeed behind his cockpit, a thin plastic tube leading from the jug to his mouth. The watchful mariners on the chase boat carried with them a not inconsiderable quantity of lite beer and two high-powered rifles, loaded with shark slugs. (The rifles went unused.)
When Bruce Gipson made his record crossing in 1984, he paddled at night, in the summer, and using a kayak any Eskimo would recognize. He also sought the calmest possible sea conditions. By contrast, Fine intentionally picked a blustery daytime run in late winter, a seemingly illogical strategy that in fact makes some sense in the face of recent kayak design and technology.
Fine's 21-foot craft is different enough from a traditional kayak to have earned its own appellation, the surf ski. In comparison with old-fashioned kayaks, surf skis are generally longer and narrower. They are made of molded plastic from sophisticated computer-generated designs. The paddler sits atop the craft in what amounts to a shallow indentation, manipulating a small rudder via foot pedals.
The most important difference is in how the surf ski is used. While traditional ocean kayakers paddle at a steady pace, up and down any watery surface features that may exist, the surf ski aficionado hopes for robust, well-directed seas and a following wind. He paddles like a bee-stung lumberjack up the swell and then gives his arms a rest while being shot along, surfboardlike, down the other side. Depending on the water and weather conditions, surf skis can be dramatically faster (and more fun) than standard ocean kayaks.
At least in theory. Four and a half hours out from Bimini, having covered some nineteen miles through a small craft advisory, Randy Fine was no longer having much fun. Nor, finally, was his chase crew. As they struggled to keep Fine in sight - losing him once for a full minute among the roiling crests - the observers onboard the Baja Sportfisher clung to the gunwhales with both hands, abandoning all hope of festive beer-guzzling. Like Fine's kayak, the thick-hulled open speedboat began unexpectedly to surf down the swells, barely outrunning the galloping seas that threatened to wash over the stern.
Rain showers plus unusually low temperatures in the upper 50s made the going less than a delight. Yet Fine kept up a brisk 80-strokes-per-minute pace for the better part of the morning, stopping only once to resupply his water jug, and again to eat a candy bar. Shortly after 11:00 a.m., Fine's westward compass heading started drifting toward the north. He began to slow down noticeably. At some point a subtle shift in his posture declared that his concentration was broken. The culprit was nothing more than slight change in weather. In the space of fifteen minutes, the swells Fine had successfully surfed for hours deteriorated into directionless chop.
At last he hove to and called it quits. The chase boat crew loaded him and his surf ski aboard and, with some consoling words exchanged, slammed toward Miami. Fine wrapped himself in a beach towel and vomited modestly over the transom.
The next day Gipson learned he is still the only kayaker ever to paddle all the way from Bimini. Fine's latest effort caused him to recall the night of his own voyage. "It's been eight years and no one's done it, so maybe no one will," Gipson mused. "I did it because I wanted to do it. I didn't do it to prove something. I was more or less in awe of the whole situation. After I got into the mode of the paddling and knew what lay ahead, I settled down. I had a waterproof Walkman. After about twenty miles I could see the mainland. By dawn I could see the radio towers. We never did have any problems, really. I can't even say I was exhausted."
As for Fine's latest try at surfing to Miami, Gipson says he doubts it would work even with the best of luck. "The theory is right, but the conditions to allow it may not ever be there," he says. "If you really want to set a record, there's no way you can do it in the daytime. There's some things you just can't go against."
Randy Fine had dreamed of establishing an international kayak race from Bimini to Miami. A similarly grueling competition already exists in Hawaii, where for each of the past fifteen years as many as 70 kayakers have gathered to surf ski the treacherous 35-mile channel between the islands of Oahu and Molokai. Winning times routinely measure under four hours.
Fine says he is now convinced the Bahamas-South Florida passage is unsuitable for such a race. "The seas are too unpredictable," he says, smiling wistfully. "I'm glad I found that out instead of going ahead and bringing people over here and getting a couple killed and having others marooned up and down the coast."
It remains, both Fine and Gipson say, to find other ways to promote a pastime that is gradually catching on in South Florida. Surf skis were developed in Australia more than a decade ago, then found a following in California and Hawaii during the 1980s. Within the last two years, salt water kayaking has become wildly popular in Puerto Rico. But something in Miami's psyche - a penchant for noisier means of marine conveyance, perhaps - makes the city slow to receive the sport.
Whether or not it survives future attacks, Bruce Gipson's record for a human-powered Gulf Stream crossing needs to be kept in perspective, as does the fearsomeness of the Bimini-South Florida passage. Twenty-four years ago another Dade County resident, Hugo Vihlen, sailed solo across the Atlantic Ocean in his boat April Fool. The boat, which today occupies a corner of Vihlen's garage, measures just under six feet, the smallest craft known to have earned the adjective transatlantic. Vihlen still sails every year in the British Virgin Islands. But he has never set sail to Bimini, and displays only a mild interest in Randy Fine's most recent paddling exploit. "That's a muscle deal," says Vihlen. "I don't know nothing about muscle deals.
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