Water Wheeler : Adventurer Plans to Pedal His Way to Australia in a Boat Equipped With a Bicycle Assembly


They’ve done it all. So naturally members of the venerable Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles figured they’d heard it all.

But that was before Donald Spaulding stood beneath a pair of mounted water buffalo heads at the club’s Lincoln Heights headquarters to tell how he intends to pedal nonstop across the Pacific Ocean.

The 55-year-old shuttle bus driver hopes to shove off for Australia this summer in a 24-foot boat powered by a propeller connected to a bicycle’s chain-and-sprocket assembly.

Never mind that Spaulding has little experience riding a bike. Or that his propeller froze solid the first time it touched the water. Or that his rudder was wrecked on the boat’s maiden voyage, sending it onto rocks and ripping a hole in its inch-thick wood bottom.


He’s committed, Spaulding said, to putting the pedal to the mettle.

For six years he has been building the “Human Powered Yacht California,” as he calls his $30,000 craft. Shaped like a miniature submarine, it can be sealed with him inside during storms.

Lead weight in its keel will right the boat if it rolls over, he said. Inflatable beach balls stuffed into its storage compartments will keep his year’s supply of food from flying out in rough weather.

In fact, Spaulding told Adventurers’ Club members, the boat’s 22 tiny watertight compartments will make it--dare he say it?-- unsinkable.


“If the Titanic had been built this way, it wouldn’t have gone down,” he said confidently.

Club members exchanged glances. Not only have some of them climbed Mt. Everest to the top of the world, one has dived to the bottom--to the wreck of the Titanic. Three times.

The club was formed in 1922 for “gentlemen adventurers” and has about 200 members.

Visiting explorers regularly beat a path to the club’s door at a onetime Masonic lodge that is decorated with stuffed bears, hand-hewn canoes and flags from dozens of expeditions.

Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Everest, addressed club members. So did the wildlife artist who the other day told of his recent trip to Antarctica, where he became “the first person ever to toss a Frisbee” across the ice.

“You mean the first person since 1968,” gently corrected club member London Steverson .

Spaulding’s plans were greeted with plenty of interest. And skepticism.

“When he’s ready to go, if I’m not there he can start without me,” joked Roy Roush, an Indiana Jones-like treasure hunter from Woodland Hills who once fought off pirates on a cave-laced island in the Caribbean.


“It seems to me he isn’t going to have enough power to make much headway. Those waves are going to turn him every which way but loose.”

Spaulding, a Fullerton resident who works at Disneyland, admitted that he will probably be “tossed around like clothes in a washing machine.” But he said he is confident he will survive.

It will take about eight months to pedal the 8,500 miles to Sydney, he said. He’ll pump his legs for an hour, rest 15 minutes and pump for another hour. Once he gets into a rhythm, he expects to pedal at a consistent two knots--about walking speed. He figures winds and currents will help double that speed.

The boat will have a bucket seat for pedaling from the inside. A bicycle seat will allow Spaulding to pedal upright in good weather and poke his head out through a hatch.

Pointing to his waist, the 5-foot 4-inch, 180-pound Spaulding explained that he has purposefully retained a pot belly in anticipation of losing 40 pounds during the pedaling. “I’d rather burn off fat than muscle,” he explained.

He will have solar panels to power radios, a pair of tiny ventilator fans and a tape-and-CD player, he said. He’ll carry about 100 compact discs--mostly of classical music and jazz. He will study Spanish and French tapes.

There will be room on the boat for 26 gallons of fresh water. He will use a reverse-osmosis hand pump to desalinate sea water at a rate of 1.4 gallons per hour. He plans to “grow sprouts” in his four-foot-high cabin to supplement canned food and freeze-dried meals he will heat over a second-hand kerosene stove.

But eyebrows went up when Spaulding acknowledged that he has completed only a few daylong bicycle rides in preparation for his trip. And he hasn’t been on any of those since he crashed his mountain bike into a curb in August “and broke the frame.”


The boat’s design, he said, will include a porthole over his sleeping platform. “That way I can lie back and watch the stars at night,” he said.

From the side of the room came a chortle. “You mean you can lie there and watch for the running lights of freighters,” someone said in a stage whisper.

Spaulding detailed how he has improved the rudder and propeller system that failed him during initial tests. Everything now is sturdy bronze, not plastic. And a rubber bearing that swelled when it got wet and disabled the propeller has been redesigned.

As his talk ended, Spaulding was surrounded by adventurers with suggestions. Get yourself an autopilot device, urged one. Prepare yourself mentally for the months of isolation, counseled another. Don’t think about starting without some darn good shakedown cruises first, said a third.

Spaulding replied that he plans to do all those things. He said he intends to pedal to San Pedro, where he grew up, and then pedal around Santa Catalina Island.

“I’m sure a cross-section of people think I’m nuts,” said the father of two grown children.

“But I’ve thought this through. Since 1987 I’ve been thinking of little else. I’ve exposed myself to so much ridicule over the years that I’m not afraid of it. I’m a very patient man.”

When it was over, maybe it hadn’t been that difficult for Spaulding to peddle his idea to fellow adventurers.

Long-distance sailor Milt Valois of Sierra Madre recalled that fellow adventurers were skeptical when club member Frank Guernsey set off last year to sail solo around Cape Horn. “But he made it.”

Veteran helicopter and airplane pilot Jim Freeburn of Pomona said if Spaulding’s tough enough, “he can ride it out.”

Even Roy Roush was trying to look on the bright side.

“We have the greatest respect for his ambition,” he said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”