When asked if ancient Floridians paddled dugout canoes to the Bahamas, anthropologist Bill Keegan didn't have to stop and think.
"No. It can't be done," the University of Florida professor said. "The currents are just too strong."
But this reporter and some adventurous friends set out to prove Keegan wrong by paddling a 45-foot Hawaiian outrigger canoe from Key Largo to Bimini, settling once and for all a question Florida historians have been debating for more than a century.
We predicted that the 60-mile journey, across one of the swiftest-moving ocean currents in the world, would take 12 to 18 hours if conditions prove favorable.
But Bimini (it is actually two islands, North and South) is a small target. With a total land mass of just 9 square miles, a small error in navigation could have easily sent us out in the blue Atlantic.
But if successful, we would have proven that the pre-Columbian Indians of Florida could have traded with their island neighbors in the Bahamas. "One would think that they did," Keegan said. "But there is no hard archaeological evidence. And then again, there is the Gulf Stream."
This ocean current, a veritable river within the sea, flows through the Florida Straits at speeds close to 5 knots.
"It's intense," said Dr. Frank Muller-Karger, a professor of Oceanography at the University of South Florida. "There is a lot of water moving through a very small space. I'm sure it was a natural barrier to those early inhabitants of Florida."
The Biminis, the most westerly of the Bahamian chain, lie 50 miles from Miami. The islands, a favorite haunt of pirates, rum runners and drug smugglers, are a two-hour boat ride from the Florida mainland.
But the Tequesta, the Miami area's early residents, didn't have twin-engine powerboats. And there is no hard evidence that the Caribbean Indians used sails. So if they wanted to cross "The Stream," they had to rely on one thing: muscle.
"I think it can be done," I told Keegan. "If you start far enough south, paddle due east, the current will push you north, straight to Bimini." My hypothesis sounded feasible, Keegan said, but could it be proved?
"There have been dozens of papers written on this subject," he said. "The academic community has reached no clear consensus. There are a lot of people out there that would be interested in seeing if this could be done, myself included. Good luck."
Kon-Tiki and Hokulea
The idea of recreating an historic journey to test its feasibility is nothing new. Thor Heyerdahl, the late Norwegian adventurer, postulated that islands of the Pacific could have been colonized by Indians of the Americas.
To prove his theory, Heyerdahl and five friends set out from Peru in April 1948 on a balsa raft called Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl and his companions drifted more than 4,300 miles in 101 days before making landfall, defying skeptics and earning a place in the history books.
In 1975, a group of similar-minded adventurers launched the first traditional, ocean-going, Pacific-voyaging canoe built in more than 600 years. The double-hulled Hokulea left Hawaii in May 1976 and sailed to Tahiti, navigating only by the stars.
Members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society crossed more than 16,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean without modern tools of navigation, helping prove many theories of ocean migration. But what about the Caribbean?
Unlike the Pacific, where native peoples can trace their ancestry back a thousand years, the original inhabitants of the Caribbean (and Florida for that matter) were wiped out by war and disease.
"Most of what we know about these people came from the writings of the early explorers," Keegan said. "Unfortunately, we don't have any examples of pre-Columbian canoes to look at."
By the time Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas, the Lucayans had been there several hundred years. "These were ocean-going people who had worked their way up from South America," Keegan said.
In comparison, the Tequesta, the indigenous people of southeast Florida and the Keys, were river-oriented. Researchers know something about their watercraft because the dugout canoes of other Florida Indians have been found submerged in muck of lakes. But whether these first Floridians had canoes that could handle the open sea is matter of pure conjecture.
Columbus, however, did take note of the Bahamian canoes. According to Samuel Elliot Morison's Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, the legendary mariner was impressed by what he saw:
"They came to the ship in dugouts, which are fashioned like a long boat from the bole of a tree, and all in one piece, and wonderfully made (considering the country), and so big that in some came 40 or 45 men. They row with a thing like a baker's peel and go wonderfully (fast)."
Researchers believe that long before Spanish sails flew on the horizon, the residents of the Bahamas traded with the residents of Cuba. "The distance between Puerto Rico and the eastern Dominican Republic is only about 60 miles," Keegan said. "They probably did that on a daily basis, like a commuter flight."
Since none of these original canoes exist, historians can only look to the modern Hawaiian canoe for answers. These long (45 feet), narrow (18 inches), fiberglass watercraft are popular throughout the Pacific, and recently in Florida, for both recreation and racing.
Researchers have looked at modern outrigger paddlers to evaluate fatigue, and its relation to speed and distance, to gauge how far ancient people might have traveled. In the study, the test subjects paddled an average of 4 knots for a distance of 52 miles. Most researchers agree that is not far enough or fast enough to overcome the Gulf Stream and reach an island on the other side.
"Experiments seem to make the possibility of contact between Florida and the Bahamas unlikely due to the strength of the Florida Current," concluded Ryan M. Seidemann, an academic who most recently examined the subject of Florida/Bahama contact in The Florida Anthropologist.
While contact may sound plausible because of the relatively short distance between Bimini and Miami, there is no archaeological evidence, such as pottery or other artifacts, to prove it, Keegan said. "I think the academic community would be willing to accept it," he said. "But we find ourselves in sort of a defensive mode trying to explain why something didn't happen that we expect would have happened."
When first approached about the Florida/Bahamas connection, John Edwards was intrigued. The 54-year-old real estate salesman has paddled a variety of watercraft since the early 1970s. "Sounds doable," he said. "I guess we'll just have to try and see."
In 2000, Edwards, along with a St. Petersburg chiropractor, Dr. George Stovall, and Dan Harvey, owner of Harvey's 4th Street Grill, pooled their resources and bought three Hawaiian-style outrigger racing canoes. The trio formed Outrigger Outreach, a member-supported club dedicated to introducing the sport of outrigger canoeing to anyone who cared to paddle.
For nearly three years, Edwards has met every Saturday morning (except when the club is off racing) on Gandy Beach in St. Petersburg. He started with three six-person canoes and has purchased a fourth. "There are days when we have too many people," he said. "A few years ago I didn't think that was possible."
The club's typical Saturday training session starts with an hour warm-up paddle along the shore, followed by a more intense, two-hour session on the waters of Tampa Bay. Outrigger canoes carry six paddlers and each one sits in a numbered seat. The paddler closest to the bow, No. 1, sets the pace, which is typically 60 strokes a minute. The Nos. 3 and 5 paddlers follow the first paddler's lead, while Nos. 2 and 4 paddle on the opposite side. No. 6 steers.
On every eighth stroke, the No. 3 paddler yells, "Hut," the signal to switch sides. On the ninth stroke, the rest of the crew yells, "Ho" in response, then they switch. The key to speed is synchronization. If a crew works together, the boat begins to glide. And on a good day, it can reach speeds of more than 6 knots.
As word of the Bimini expedition spread quickly through the Outrigger Outreach ranks, Edwards had dozens of people hoping to secure one the 12 available spots. Edwards narrowed his team to two, six-person crews that he would change out every hour on the proposed 60-mile trip from Key Largo to Bimini.
But before heading out into the Gulf Stream, Edwards gave the paddlers their first taste of true open water. They met early one Saturday morning at the east beach of Fort De Soto Park, then paddled out to the "Whistler" buoy that marks the entrance to the Egmont Shipping Channel. "I wanted everybody to experience what it feels like to paddle 15 miles from shore," Edwards said. "There is no substitute for experience."
For the Bimini crossing, Edwards would have a 65-foot safety boat, the R.V. Tiburon, following the canoe and a designated safety officer, a retired member of the U.S. Coast Guard, to run the dinghy and supervise the "in-water" changes of paddlers.
If all went as planned, the paddlers would start in the morning and make landfall by that night, 12 to 18 hours after they began, proving once and for all that a human-powered craft could defy the odds. All they needed was good weather. A few short days later, we would find out if our luck would hold.
The power of the paddle
The seas kicked up without warning. The gentle breeze that had lapped at our backs all morning disappeared with the sun. Storm clouds on the horizon would only bring more wind and much-dreaded lightning. Now, halfway through our 76-mile ocean crossing from Florida to Bimini, I was beginning to think that our fortunes had changed..
"Keep together," Courtland Reilly yelled from the stern of our 45-foot outrigger canoe. "Cadence!" Reilly, our steersman, struggled to keep the canoe on course while 4-foot rollers battered the fragile craft as if it were a toy boat in a bathtub. "Keep paddling," he said as waves broke across our deck. "Keep up the speed!"
The canvas spray skirt that covered our canoe did little to keep the warm Florida Current from pouring into our boat. And with each breaking wave, I could feel the canoe moving slower and slower. "Lean left!" Reilly screamed as a rogue wave lifted the ama out of the water. The crew complied and kept the craft from rolling. "Whew!" he said. "That was a close one."
A half mile away, our 65-foot support boat, the R.V. Tiburon, motored on, oblivious of our plight. Reilly tried to calm everybody's nerves, but we had taken a beating and there was no relief in sight. "Heads in the boat," he said, knowing that one glance to the right was all it would take to turn the canoe over. Then it happened . . .
Nobody saw the wave that hit us. We each had just enough time to take a deep breath and then over we went. Hanging upside down in almost 3,000 feet of water, I looked down into the void below and searched for signs of life. I never realized the ocean could be so blue, I thought to myself.
After fighting the waves for nearly an hour, the sea seemed calm and reassuring. Then I felt the urge to breathe. Air, like food and water, is something you take for granted until it is gone.
I had only been underwater for seconds but it seemed like minutes as my lungs began to burn with spent carbon dioxide. Then, as I tried to slip out of the overturned canoe, my beer belly snagged on the spray skirt.
I fumbled for the zipper, but couldn't find it. I started to panic, but then years of scuba training kicked in and I stopped, assessed the situation and then reacted.
"One, two, three, four, five," Reilly counted heads on the opposite side of the canoe. "Who are we missing?"
"Nobody," I said. "I'm over here."
Reilly swam under the boat and then together we leaned on the wooden akus as our teammates lifted up on the ama. The canoe rolled back over and one by one we climbed in. It took about five minutes to bail the water out of the boat and re-zip the spray skirt.
By then the support boat had doubled back to see if we needed any help. "Want to switch crews?" John Edwards yelled over the drone of the diesel engines. "No," Reilly answered. "We need to keep moving."
The best thing to do when you get thrown off a horse is to climb back in the saddle. Bimini was still 25 miles away. The only way we were going to get there was one stroke at a time. "Okay, gang," Reilly said. "Now who came to paddle?"
Sharks and seaweed
Edwards, the leader of our expedition, never doubted that a human-powered canoe could overcome the swift current of the Gulf Stream and reach Bimini, the most western island in the Bahama chain.
But if the pre-Columbian Indians did paddle back and forth between the islands and the mainland, they undoubtedly used canoes that were much longer, wider and heavier than the modern outrigger and employed teams of up to 50 paddlers.
The Hawaiian-style outrigger canoe Edwards chose for the trip was designed for racing. Like most of the canoes in its class, it has a fiberglass hull, weighs 400 pounds, measures 18 inches at its widest point and carries six paddlers.
"You cannot compare the modern outrigger canoe to what the Indians might have used," he said. "It is like comparing apples and oranges."
While the Lucayans, the original inhabitants of the Bahamas, did not have sails, they did navigate across large expanses of open ocean using the sun, clouds and stars to guide their way.
Our expedition also differed from those of early explorers in that we enjoyed the benefit of modern navigational equipment, specifically a GPS (global positioning satellite) system, and the knowledge that somewhere off to the northeast, lay islands, 9 miles square. And for safety, we brought along an EPRB (emergency positioning radio beacon) and a diesel-powered support boat that carried a second crew of paddlers.
At first, shortly after we left the luxury of Key Largo's Ocean Reef Club, it seemed as if we had gone hunting for rabbit, armed for bear. Calm seas and warm summer breezes allowed us to make record time across the swiftest currents of the Gulf Stream. Our biggest concern was the in-water change-out of crews, which occurred first at 90 minutes, then on the hour.
And although it was never discussed, we all knew the ever-present threat of sharks. The Gulf Stream carries its share of big game, specifically blue and white marlin. And where there is prey, predators are not far behind. Floating for 10 minutes in open water, waiting to be picked up by the support boat, the mind begins to wander.
I recalled hearing about a record great white shark that had been caught in the Florida Straits and scanned the horizon for a telltale fin. Then I remembered that great whites usually attack their prey from below and I stopped worrying. In the end, the only marine life we encountered in the 10-hour crossing was seaweed and flying fish. As Edwards had predicted, our greatest challenge would be to overcome our own limitations.
As a marathon canoe paddler, Edwards is used to paddling 60 strokes a minute for two hours at a time. Most canoe races are held on the flat water of rivers, lakes and bays. There are a few events, including the Hinano Molakai Hoe 41-mile outrigger race from Molokai to Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands, held on open water. But the crossing from Key Largo to Bimini is nearly 70 miles. And as the trip wore on, the weather got worse. It didn't take long before the crews began to break down.
Islands in the Stream
For an outrigger to hit top speed and "glide" across the water, all six paddles must enter the water at the exact same time so the force is equally distributed throughout the length of the 45-foot canoe.
An experienced crew can maintain a speed of 6 knots for hours at a time on flat water, but introduce waves into the equation and all bets are off. That's because as the bow rises on a wave, the No. 1 paddler, the crew member responsible for setting the pace, must "reach" for the water.
When it is really rough, it is not uncommon to stroke hard and miss the water altogether. This leads to an increase in injuries, fatigue and a decrease in speed. The steersman, the paddler in the No. 6 spot at the rear of the canoe, has the most difficult job, especially in a quartering sea.
Steersmen snap paddles trying to keep a canoe on course in rough water, and it can take a toll on arms, shoulders and back, regardless of their level of fitness. "Where's that change-out?" Reilly yelled in frustration toward the support boat a quarter mile away. "Let's go."
We had been in the canoe for 40 minutes, 10 minutes past our agreed time to switch. Paddling at a rate of a stroke a second, a few extra minutes seems like an eternity. It takes everything you have to stay focused and keep moving when all your mind wants to do is stop. But the sight of land in the distance, Ernest Hemingway's fabled Islands in the Stream, buoyed our spirits.
I pictured myself sipping an ice cold Kalik on the beach at the Bimini Big Game Club, and before I knew it, it was time for the final change-out. It was fitting that Edwards, along with Rea Sieber, the team's only woman, and Bob Terbush, who at 72 was our oldest expedition member, powered the canoe in through the Bimini.
Cut to the beach near the Big Game Club. They made landfall approximately 10 hours after the first crew had left the beach at the Ocean Reef Club some 66 nautical miles to the southwest, proving to those who cared that a human-powered canoe could make it across the Gulf Stream.
Walking down an alley, just minutes after landing, the rest of our team met Edwards and doused him with a bottle of champagne. "Congratulations," said Lia Head, our Bahamian host. "So what's next?"
Edwards took a sip of champagne and then looked over his shoulder back to his canoe. "I guess we will just have to paddle back," he said.