July 9, 1981: “OPERATION GULF STREAM”
- BAHAMAS (CAT CAY) To FLORIDA (DANIA BEACH) CROSSING -
[frequently referred to as the "BIMINI (Pedal) Ride"]
Point of Departure: NORTH CAT CAY (*), Bahamas
Date/Time of Departure: July, 8, 1981, 11:40 pm
Point of Arrival: DANIA BEACH (**), Florida, U.S.A.
Date/Time of Arrival: July 9, 1981, 10:30 am
Distance Traveled: 63 miles (102 km)
Time at Sea: 10 hours 50 minutes
Lead Escort Vessel: TRITON, Skipper Bob Ball
Support Escort Vessel: WARDI, Skipper Don Ward
AquaCycle Technical Advisor: Ted Riggs
Liaison/PR: Andrea Le Caer
(*) - NORTH CAT CAY, Commonwealth of the Bahamas,
is a small island located 55 miles Southeast of MIAMI
and 8 miles South of the Island of BIMINI
(**) - DANIA BEACH is located about 23 miles North of MIAMI
“Weather permitting, we go at midnight July 8th.” When I finally took that decision on June 3, 1981, I had gone through several months of unexpected and endless frustrations, not because of poor weather and sea conditions alone, but also due to unthinkable interferences to the development program of the craft and the inability of some key people to simply meet their commitments as well. Left bitter by this lack of support, my will to make the crossing successful was such that I knew I would eventually overthrow all roadblocks.
But what I did not know then was that during the next 3 weeks all my earnest wishes were going to be fulfilled. Within days I met Robert (Bob) Ball and Don Ward, skippers, respectively, of TRITON (Tavernier, Florida) and WARDI (Crandon Marina, Key Biscayne). Both skippers voluntarily committed their time, expertise and vessel for the same motive: just play a part in a stunt never attempted before. Equipped with an automatic pilot system, a radio communication system and Loran C electronic position finder, TRITON would be the lead boat. As for WARDI, equipped with a radar system, it would be the support vessel. Now, with my wife Andrea by my side, and my long-time friend and technical expert Ted Riggs, also eagerly committed, I found myself with the best escort & support crew I could have hoped for.
With my extensive cycling background playing a decisive part in regulating my training schedule, my objective was to be physically fit and reach peak condition at the right time. With this goal in mind, my road work was not actually any different from that of past seasons, except for a sensible increase in mileage. For the last six months preceeding the crossing, my training on land (7,729 miles = 12,436 km) consisted primarily of rides of 90 to 120 miles, sometimes across the State from Key Biscayne to Marco Island or Naples on the South Florida west coast.
That said, my training on water which, until then, had been dependable on sea conditions, became a vital priority during the last three weeks in June. Rain or shine, smooth or rough seas, all conditions were willingly accepted. Reaching the 165-hour mark on the eve of the crossing, my training on water was an experience in itself, quite often exhausting due to air temperature reaching at times the mid nineties (95°F = 35°C). Great loss of body fluid was then a huge concern. From June 17th to July 6th (day of my last outing on water), I spent precisely 50 hours on the AquaCycle, with 5 to 6-hour rides every other day. Also, most significant were my “intrusions” in the Gulf Stream on June 19th, 23rd and 27th; yet, if I was impressed to find myself in this incredibly forceful and beautiful body of water, my presence there, however, was far from being arrogant.
MONITORING THE WEATHER (... No satellite meteo available then)
If my physical/mental readiness was essential, one of my main concern was undoubtedly dealing wisely with the weather, the sea conditions and also the unpredictability of current velocity within this sometimes treacherous and dangerous waters named the Florida Strait, or rather Gulf Stream. To this effect my visit, on July 3rd, to the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, on Virginia Key in Miami, was very informative in that sense that I met with Professor Deferrari, expert in Gulf Stream activities, and Rainer Bleck, weather specialist. Their vast knowledge and advices were put to use and greatly appreciated too.
PLOTTING THE COURSE (... No GPS available then)
Plotting the projected course was not such a complicated task. Relying on opinions, documented information and personal convictions, we, Ted Riggs and I, calculated a projected route that we plotted on a NOAA Nautical Chart-Loran C overprinted. As a result of these calculations, primarily based on a due west (270°) course, a distance of about 65 miles (105 km), the anticipated northwardly current drift and a conservative speed (my part), we marked on said chart, and along the projected S-shaped route, the position I expected to be each consecutive hour after leaving North Cat Cay. This document turned out to be our battle plan and it would be then for Bob Ball on TRITON to give me, hourly, my position with reference to the calculated one. Using the flow of the stream intelligently, staying on a due west course and sensing the drift by carefully monitoring our progression, were essential decisions we decided to include in the navigation procedure.
DEPARTURE FOR THE BAHAMAS
Ted Riggs, Andrea and myself left Miami for North Cat Cay on July 7th. We boarded a Chalk Airways seaplane flight which left Watson Island in early afternoon, landing on the blue waters of Cat Cay 40 minutes later. Fifteen minutes before landing we got a glimpse at WARDI and TRITON on their way to the same destination. The two boats and crews had left early that same morning, TRITON leading the way and WARDI with the craft on board. Weatherwise, a low pressure system was in the area and that night the conditions deteriorated as a violent storm hit the island. Nevertheless, for comfort, and thanks to the contribution of George and Mary Bolton of Biscayne Engineering Company in Miami, we enjoyed great accommodations at the exclusive Cat Cay Yacht Club.
The next morning, in calling Rainer Bleck at said Rosenstiel School on Virginia Key, I learned that the low pressure system was gone, replaced by a high pressure one which would most likely prevail during the next 24 hours. All of a sudden, after months of waiting, of poor weather and impossible sea conditions, could it be possible that, at last, the coming night would be “the night”?
During the meeting held later that afternoon with all parties concerned, the opinions, as to the adequacy of the weather and sea conditions, were rather diverging. Well, I did not hesitate much, nor did I wait long after listening to everyone's views: “We go tonight” was my response.
ACROSS THE FLORIDA STRAIT / GULF STREAM
Running northeastwardly through the Florida Strait, the Gulf Stream flows at a substantial speed between the mainland of the United States and the Bahamas. Off the Miami coast, the Gulf Stream is about 45 miles wide and 1500 feet deep. There, in its narrow central axis located about 18 miles from shore, the current can reach speed of as much as 6.9 miles per hour.
JULY 8, 1981, 11:40 pm (23:40) ... all systems are go... the AquaCycle is launched on the South side of NORTH CAT CAY in the middle of the night... air temperature 84°F (29°C), water temperature 81°F (27°C), humidity 77%, easterly wind 10 knots (12 mi/h = 19 km/h), seas 2 to 3 feet. After a few minutes of confusion during which the escort vessels lost sight of me, everything got organized and we were finally on the way towards the Florida shores. The night was magnificent and it seemed to me then that the soft moon and all the stars were watching me. However, a very difficult task was at hand, the unknown was everywhere in the darkness and, at the time, the dark sea appeared to me like an enormous monster ready to strike.
What could I posssibly tell of the next 11 hours? By the clock, it seems a long time, but was it so? Not at all, would be my answer. As a matter of fact, I was so focused on my job that I became, particularly during the first part of the trip, a machine with no inner feelings nor notion of time whatsoever. The result was immediate (sort of) as, 4 hours after “take-off”, I had opened a 24 mile-gap (39 km) between Cat Cay and that point on the water where, at 03:40 am, I took my first 5-minute break on AquaCycle; time had come for us all to evaluate the overall situation.
Above all, our position then could not be better; in being 3 miles southerly and 1.5 miles westerly of point N°4, it meant that not only were we progressing much better that expected, but we were also coping well with the drift. With regard to my speed, it was faster than I had projected. As to the weather and sea conditions, they were not too bad, but not that great either. Although the prevailing 10 knot wind was giving me an appreciable push, the 3 foot swell caused AquaCycle to brush WARDI a few times. However, with my strength almost intact and AquaCycle performing well, I knew then that if said conditions were to remain as they were, I was going to make it to the sandy coast of Florida.
Yet, few minutes after resuming ma progression at 03:45 am, I became concerned about the changing weather. The moon was gone and it was really dark. Yet, my concern was certainly not the darkness, but rather lightning which was striking miles away, seemingly on a collision course with us. I kept watching the sky, but did not make any mention of the coming storm to Bob, Don or Ted, as I was certain that they were as anxious as I was. But, when a life jacket was handled to Andrea onboard WARDI, then I knew for sure that the group was ready. Water spouts, in fact mini tornatoes on water, are not uncommon in the area and they are known to be real killers.
At 04:40, I got my position from Bob, my food and “fuel” from Andrea, then kept “rolling” over the choppy waters in the wake of WARDI... waiting for the storm which was now closing in.
At 05:19, trying to skirt the squall which seemed to be moving to the Southwest, TRITON changed course to 286°, therefore deflecting more to the North, while increasing wind had shifted to the NE. The maneuver was wisely executed by both skippers and, in taking evasive action, we avoided the bulk of the storm, although the rain was quite welcome to me. Slowly, the storm seemed to be moving away and at 05:40 the course was corrected to 280°. At last, minutes before daybreak, the rain stopped, the wind died down and the sea rescinded. To our relief, and after one hour of close watch, the storm was finally gone.
06:20, the original course of 270° (due west) was resumed, and only at this time did I feel that it would all be “downhill” to the finish, as we say in cycling slang.
When the sun rose above the horizon, the spectacle was magnificent and I turned around a few times to just look and watch that splendid mixture of colors and brightness. It's true that daylight brought a sense of relief to all of us but, after all these hours of darkness, contemplating the open sky and the wonderful dark blue color of the water was an incredible moment, never to be forgotten. The time was 06:40 and we were then very close to the Gulf stream axis. With mood and spirit quite high, I gave myself a 10 minute break and drifted on AquaCycle while having a cup of hot tea and a piece of coffee cake.
By 07:00 am the sea was relatively calm with no more than a 2 foot swell. Far away, and still barely visible, one could see the U.S. shoreline extending from Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale. I had dreamt of this moment before and that first glimpse of land will also remain an unforgettable sight. By 08:00 we reached the shipping lanes and gave way to a cargo ship and a barge... just before 2 dolphins showed up. At 09:30 we are 6 miles east of Hallandale... 09.45 we get some company: a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.
By now, the odyssey would be over soon, and when the first press helicopter appeared in the sky above and circled around our “fleet”, the same feeling I had experienced the night before leaving Cat Cay, filled my heart and soul once more: emotion, pride, exuberance, but above all, it was gratitude for all those who participated or contributed to the effort. At last, all my concerns had vanished and I was coming home gliding over water at full speed.
10:30 am, the propeller gets stuck in the white sand of Dania Beach. My next step would be on shore. IT'S ALL OVER!
But now that I have landed, let's set the record straight. All in all, I did not speak much here about my dealing with physical strain during the event, and one may wonder what it was like riding almost 11 hours over water and through the night. Well, with a down-to-earth knowledge of my body strength, potential and limits too, let me just say that I approached this ride as if it was the longest, toughest and most important cycling race of my entire life! To put it into perspective, I simply handled the situation the way I knew best, but it was neither a simple affair, nor “a walk (or ride) in the park.”
For instance, while keeping a close watch on the dehydration problem, it must be said that my intake of fluid during the ride reached the 5.1 gallon mark (2.1 gallons of Gatorade, 1.1 gallons of dietary supplement and 1.9 gallons of water). In doing the math, that would be 12.35 miles to the gallon (3.78 liters), or close to half a gallon every single hour, for 11 hours. In my judgement, it certainly says something about the physical demands of such an effort, isn't it?