In 2013 when Travis Suit conceived and executed the first Crossing, paddling across the Gulfstream from Bimini, Bahamas to Florida with three other paddlers—Joseph Morel, Kyle Igneri, and Shane Pompa—they were supported by two 34-foot boats maned by captains Lee Heaton and Brad Nolan along with a motley crew that included a paramedic, a photographer, and some brave family members. They met many obstacles (including the inhospitable August weather and 4-6 foot seas) that paved the way for the evolution of what has become the biggest boating event currently held in the Bahamas, bringing over 82 boats to Bimini in 2019, with a projected 100+ in 2020.
For paddlers the challenge of the Crossing can be mitigated by training, proper gear, nutrition, and good conditions. But this extreme endeavor would not be possible without the support of the experienced boats and captains donating their crafts, skills, and time. In fact, the success of The Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis depends on it. The challenges of shepherding athletes across the Atlantic Gulfstream involve careful navigation, constant attention with readiness to attend paddlers’ needs, awareness of wildlife and other sea vessels, and diligent communication with admiral Sean Dunlevy. Idling in Gulfstream conditions is not for the faint at heart or stomach.
As a two-time crusader I can say that the relationships my captains and I created during the event were life changing and replete with lessons. They stretched and strengthened my ability to trust and broadened my awareness as a team player. To say that my appreciation of what it takes to operate sea craft in the ocean was broadened is an understatement. I was floored.
A captain with experience crossing the Gulf will make all the difference in how quickly you land on that beach in Lake Worth. In 2018 my father, Augie Diaz, a world class sailing competitor with decades of experience on sailboats, captained for me and three other paddlers. I had never seen him in action. Reading currents and meticulously, sometimes stubbornly, correcting his course, he was truly in his element and completely immersed in his flow: the art of navigation. I sort of fell for him all over again. And he got us to the beach in Florida in just 12 hours.
My captain in 2019, Pablo Conde, an entrepreneur with Bahamian interests that had him crossing the Gulf on a regular basis, was equally impressive and took amazing care of my team. Conditions that year were definitely challenging, especially trudging along at slow speeds, but he made it look effortless while keeping a razor sharp awareness. He was also an amazing presence in Bimini in the days leading up to our launch, easing all our nerves with his commitment to enjoy the experience and his sense of humor.
I’m not the only one singing praises about my captains. Ask any Crossing Crusader and they will tell you they owe the success of their Crossing to their captain. 2019 Crusader Jeremy Howard, shares:
“Captain John Fitsgibbons of Quisisana and Captain Scott Meier of Sketchy were my team captains. Given our work schedules, we opted to cross over to Bimini on Thursday instead of Wednesday with most others. Wednesday night we received a call from another captain that one of the boats that had to turn around had a couple paddlers that needed a ride over or that would’ve been the end of their crossing experience. Although we were already pretty full with our team, gear and supplies, our Captains never hesitated to help out our fellow crusaders. That next morning we met at the dock to discover not 2 paddlers but 4 paddlers, multiple coolers, gear, supplies and paddle boards! So, we divided up the new load and took off east for Bimini.
During the actual crossing, ‘Captain WOW’ was born on the vessel Sketchy as Scott delivered an off the cuff, emphatic, motivational speech to keep a fatigued paddler driving forward across the gulf.
Both of our Captains not only made a significant and generous commitment of time, sweat, wear and tear but also in funding the fuel, oil, food, rooms and other costs that most don’t see. If not for their generosity and dedication, this event would not have been able to survive and certainly wouldn’t have raised as much money towards the true mission! I am truly grateful for our captains.”
International Crusader, Jack Cox shares another inspiring anecdote about his captain, Bobby Hocks, one that has become Crossing legend because it involved a very persistent bull shark.
“I was on the final stretch of the 80-mile paddle with under a mile to go. After 14 hours I was exhausted, but the more I paddled the more I could hear the cheers from the beach. I could see other paddlers finishing their journey. I wanted to take in this moment as I knew this feeling of achievement would only be felt a handful of time’s in a lifetime, however during this time a bull shark appeared next to my board only 5 feet away.
The shark swam up next to me with his dorsal fin showing proudly. Now, I am from London, England, so I have never seen a shark up close in the ocean before. I dropped down to my knees to avoid falling in and continued to paddle on with the shark staying close. Because the large shark did not appear to be losing interest in me, I called my captain, Bobby, over and he came to make sure I was safe. He revved his engines in such a way that the shark was finally spooked enough to back off. At the time I was pretty scared by the shark, but looking back now I feel lucky to have seen such a beautiful animal in its natural habitat on my Crossing, and even more lucky to have had a fast-thinking captain around to make sure I could experience the encounter safely. I felt this moment summed up the crossing: excitement where ever you turn, once in a lifetime experiences, the need for determination and bravery and an incredible story to look back on and tell people about.
For boat owners and captains considering the Crossing, think about this: you employ your valuable skills and vessels for work or pleasure and the enjoyment of your friends and loved ones, and it feels good. How good would it feel to employ them for a purpose, a purpose that could mean a significant for someone that wakes up everyday to fight for breath and life?
–Dani Diaz, Two-time Crossing Crusader