The Old Man and the Spree
The ancient YAK-42 Cubana de Aviación jet lumbered loudly through heavy gray clouds on its way from Nassau to Havana. Belted into a worn seat in the chilly cabin, Fred Baldasare was already planning the press conference he would call when he arrived in Cuba late one afternoon this past October.
"It's going to be picked up by all the media," he predicted matter-of-factly, unwrapping a hard candy distributed by a flight attendant. "This is going to be all over the international news."
Baldasare's thinning white hair is combed straight back from a lean, photogenic face that, after years immersed in sun and water, is crisscrossed with fine wrinkles. That is about all that hints at his age, 75 years old. He's six feet tall and trim, neither skinny nor overly muscled, and wears a black T-shirt and black jeans. Rarely does he dress in any other color. When standing, he strikes deliberate and stately poses, his gray eyes squinting into the distance.
Baldasare wasn't intimidated by his near-total ignorance of the Spanish language and of Cuba, where he intended to meet with government officials -- which ones, where, and how he didn't yet know. The fact is he didn't have a clue how to call a press conference in Havana. He'd made no plans at all. It was only a few hours earlier, with the help of a Nassau travel agent, that he bought a plane ticket to Cuba and reserved a hotel room. But after 35 years in pursuit of a singular dream, Baldasare has been brushed off and turned down often enough to simply have stopped listening to reason. If he really put any stock in accepted wisdom, he'd be sitting around his Palm Harbor living room watching game shows and polishing his trophies. He'd give up this ridiculous notion of swimming underwater, nonstop, 250 miles from Havana to Miami Beach.
Baldasare is sane enough to appreciate how insane that sounds, and probably is. No one, not even a very young man, has ever completed a 250-mile underwater swim. The generally accepted world record is 66 miles. Baldasare, however, feels no obligation to abandon his goal. He always had his doubters, as far back as the early Sixties, when he first conceived the idea of following the Gulf Stream from Cuba across the Florida Straits. That was when Baldasare was riding the crest, so to speak, of a series of record-setting swims. His most notable feat remains in some record books (and is a TrivialPursuit answer): On July 11, 1962, Baldasare was the first person to swim the English Channel underwater without surfacing. The next day a photograph of him adorned the front pages of newspapers all over the world. As he emerges, scuba-suited, from the English surf, his German baroness fiancée rushes to his arms and lingers in a giddy embrace, one knee bent as in a ballroom dance.
In the next few years he would make more headlines with unprecedented underwater crossings. He appeared on popular American television shows of the Sixties: What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret, the Steve Allen Show, Today. The Guinness Book of World Records added Baldasare to its pages, and he joined the gallery of wonders in Ripley's Believe It or Not. He never cashed in big on his celebrity; this was long before endorsement deals and promotion packages could create instant superhero millionaires. It was usually enough, in those simpler times, just to attract plenty of sponsors and to bask in the attention of the press and pretty women.
Baldasare wasn't alone in wanting to conquer the warm, shark-infested waters between Cuba and Florida. The grueling course (it's 90 miles between Havana and Key West, though the current naturally flows toward points farther north) calls irresistibly to marathoners. But the early Sixties was when relations between Cuba and the United States were at their most hostile and volatile: the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, the trade embargo, the assassination attempts on Castro. Baldasare figured he'd wait until things calmed down between the two nations.
Years went by, the world evolved, the Cold War ended, Baldasare grew old. "Just about every year since 1963 I tried to do that swim," he muses today.
He never did attempt it, though he tried time after time to secure permission from the U.S. government (because of the embargo, contact with the totalitarian state by private U.S. citizens is almost always prohibited) and to sign up sponsors and a support team. In 1990 Baldasare filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service alleging the government had been confiscating his mail in an attempt to deter him from the project. The suit was dismissed in 1991. Then early the following year, the U.S. Treasury Department notified him of its "final determination." Referring a bit testily to Baldasare's frequent letters, Foreign Assets Control Office director R. Richard Newcomb wrote, "If you can arrange the swim with absolutely no payments to Cuba ... there would be no prohibited transactions ..., and Treasury approval would not be required."
As recently as 1997, it looked as though the Campbell Soup Company was going to sponsor a Cuba-Miami swim (Baldasare's primary nourishment during swims was soup sucked out of a plastic bottle), but Campbell's dropped him. Baldasare never learned exactly why.
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.
"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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.")
Baldasare had run out of ideas. He left the Copacabana a week earlier than he'd planned, and he called no press conferences.
It wasn't until early November, after he was back home in Palm Harbor, that he received a phone call from Tallahassee. "Our legal department spoke with him," says Dick Kane, who works in the Bush press office. "We had to tell him we just don't do things like that." Baldasare prefers a different spin on the conversation, one in which the governor's people express great interest in his project. By that time, however, he didn't need them anymore. He had found a sponsor.
It had all come together like a charm: Upon his return from Cuba, Baldasare called a distant relative, Liz Collier-Ortiz, who is a long-time employee of Diversified Environmental Services in Tampa. The company's founder and president, Gerry McCormick, owns a fleet of boats. "When Fred found out I worked in a company that had a lot of boats and barges, he saw an opportunity," Collier-Ortiz relates. (McCormick declined to speak with New Times.)
"So," Collier-Ortiz goes on, "Fred asked if he could have a meeting with Mr. McCormick, which I arranged, and we went over the specifics of what Fred would need. Gary's got a barge that could hold a lot of equipment, also a 90-foot and a 65-foot yacht that could run alongside the barge. This would be something newsworthy, so Mr. McCormick sees it might be of interest just for the sake of being part of that, and once he realized he could basically provide most of what Fred needs, he was really positive about it."
Now Baldasare is advertising for a dozen divers. He says half that many so far have volunteered to accompany him for two weeks in July. He doesn't have the money to pay them, but he hopes that will come after the proposed expedition attracts more sponsors and press coverage. Collier-Ortiz is contacting the local media. Baldasare stays at his computer for hours, writing letters and promotional summaries, and working on his autobiography. A Bally Total Fitness facility recently offered him the use of its pool and indoor track. Soon he'll begin six hours of daily training, which will consist mainly of "an unusual kind of walk I developed when I was training in Italy; it uses the same muscle group as swimming, and one hour of this walking is the same as five hours of swimming."
As Baldasare goes on about his plans, sister Maxine, smartly attired in a lustrous persimmon-orange tunic and black pants, steps through the back door toting a few bags of groceries (among them a new carton of pistachio ice cream). Lately she looks forward to running errands in her brand-new Honda Civic, the apple of her eye. It's parked outside in the carport right behind Baldasare's shiny black Yamaha V Max motorcycle, on which he traveled to Canada and back last year.
Of course nothing will make up for the loss of both of Maxine's children, who died young from cancer, just months apart, about five years ago. Her granddaughter, who's working and going to school, doesn't spend much time at home any longer. But Maxine has been able to catch up on all the years she never saw her brother Fred, while he was gallivanting with beautiful blondes and swimming with sharks. Now they have all the time they need.
"He coulda been rich today," she opines without bitterness or nostalgia, just flat certainty. She leans back into the plush mauve sofa in their living room, reaching for a cell phone on the end table and clicking her tongue. "He knows so many people, and look how he ended up."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.