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Sunday, September 19, 2021

He tried to walk on water from Florida to New York. It didn’t go so well

Reza Baluchi, a former professional cyclist who was born in Iran and was granted asylum in the United States, said that he was hoping to use the attention from his trip to raise money to help homeless people and for other charitable causes.

By: New York Times |
July 28, 2021 12:40:46 pm
Hydro podA photo provided by the Flagler County SheriffÕs Office shows the 'hydro pod' that Reza Baluchi washed ashore in on Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Palm Coast, Florida. Even in a state accustomed to strange things washing ashore like cocaine bricks, corpses, sharks and unexploded military ordnance, the floating contraption that beached itself had the authorities doing a double take. (Flagler County Sheriff's Office via The New York Times)

By Neil Vigdor

Even in a state accustomed to strange things washing ashore — like cocaine bricks, corpses, sharks and unexploded military ordnance — the floating contraption that beached itself in Florida over the weekend had the authorities doing a double take.

A man popped out of the top hatch of the contraption, a makeshift human hamster wheel. He had made it only 25 miles on what was supposed to be a 1,000-plus-mile journey from St. Augustine, Florida, to New York, using the power of his two legs and, if all had gone according to plan, the Gulf Stream.

The man, Reza Baluchi, said in an interview on Monday that he had spent thousands of dollars and nearly a decade on making improvements to the homemade craft, called a hydro pod. It was equipped with a satellite phone, a water filtration system, a solar array, neoprene wet suits and a stockpile of granola and ramen noodles for when he embarked from St. Augustine on Friday for what he expected would be a three-week trip.

But the next day, when Baluchi, 49, realized that his backup GPS device and charging cables were missing — he said they were stolen — he cut short his Homeric odyssey. His aborted adventure startled and bemused beachgoers.

“I open the top door and jump out,” he said. “They’re laughing. They’re taking pictures of me. I know what I’m doing. I am not dumb.”

In a Facebook post, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office said that some concerned people reported on Saturday morning that a vessel had washed shore in a part of the county known as the Hammock. The office said that it had referred the matter to the Coast Guard, which would determine if the vessel was compliant with marine safety regulations.

A spokesperson for the Coast Guard said in an email Tuesday that Baluchi would not be allowed to continue his voyage until he complied with a directive known as a captain of the port order that requires him to have an escort or support vessel, specific safety and navigation equipment, and a voyage plan.

“Failure to comply with Captain of the Port Orders is punishable by a civil penalty of up to $95,881,” said the spokesperson, David Micallef. “There may also be criminal penalties for violating the order.”

Baluchi, a former professional cyclist who was born in Iran and was granted asylum in the United States, said that he was hoping to use the attention from his trip to raise money to help homeless people and for other charitable causes. Over the years, he said, he has received puzzled reactions — including from the Coast Guard — after performing similar stunts on the water.

“They say, ‘Why do you do this?’” said Baluchi, who lives in Boca Raton, in South Florida.

Constructed from aluminum and plastic balls that are buoyant, the hydro pod can carry several thousand pounds, according to Baluchi, who provided a copy of a vessel registration form that he said he had filed with the state of Florida.

On the form, in a box specifying what kind of propulsion system the vessel has, Baluchi wrote that it was the outboard type. He checked off “other” for the fuel type. And in the space for the odometer reading and the name of the vessel’s manufacturer, he wrote, “Florida homemade boats.”

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles did not immediately comment on Monday. Under state law, non-motor-powered vessels less than 16 feet in length are exempt from being titled and registered. Baluchi said his hydro pod was about 6 feet long and 10 feet wide.

Baluchi seemed unable to fathom life without the craft.

“Now, I’m dead,” Baluchi said, referring to what would happen if he were to lose his hydro pod. “I don’t have a car. I put everything in my life in it.”

Baluchi, who is a father and was once homeless himself, is no stranger to tests of endurance. He previously drew attention for a cross-country run for charity.

In an earlier model of the hydro pod, he said, he traveled nearly 400 miles in the Pacific Ocean, reaching Santa Catalina Island. But the contraption was destroyed several years ago off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, he said.

Baluchi, who has experimented with using an elliptical trainer to power his hydro pod, said it would be too costly for him to have an escort boat.

For his trip from Florida to New York, Baluchi estimated that he could have reached speeds of up to 6 knots in the current version of the vessel, which has a hammock for him to sleep in. He had planned to catch and eat fish and to chew special anti-nausea gum to manage seasickness. To protect himself from being bounced around in rough seas, he said, he had a bicycle helmet and a harness system.

To shield himself from the beating sun, Baluchi had put up a shade with a photo of Nikki Ziering, an actress and former model on “The Price Is Right” who has appeared in Playboy. Her pinup photos are featured prominently on his website, which has a page for people to track his progress.

Ziering said in an interview on Monday that mutual friends had introduced her to Baluchi.

“He said, ‘Can you be my Wilson like in ‘Cast Away,’ the Tom Hanks movie?’” Ziering said, referring to a volleyball that was Hanks’ companion on a deserted island. “I said, ‘I would be honored to be your Wilson.’”

Ziering said she was impressed by Baluchi’s fearlessness.

“He’s going to have a spear in case there’s a shark,” she said. “He’s going to run in a hamster wheel, basically, across the ocean.”

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