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It Gets Stormy, but Some Paddlers Still Succeed

The journey was intended to promote goodwill at a time of particularly strained relations between the United States and Cuba.

But at one point, on a dark ocean between the countries, the bickering could probably be heard back in Miami’s Little Havana, where they’ve heard plenty since a little boy named Elian came into their lives.

This was to have been a small gesture, really, by three teams of American paddleboarders trying to become the first to make the dangerous 110-mile crossing solely via arm-power, in shark-infested waters against the notoriously powerful Gulfstream current.

The paddlers, all experienced “watermen,” had intended to live aboard the self-contained assistance vessels and not spend money in Cuba, abiding by U.S. law. The commodore at Marina Hemingway near Havana had extended a warm welcome.

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But it wasn’t in the cards.

The same strong current that delivered Elian Gonzalez to Florida was working fiercely against the paddlers. After the sun had set, the eerie black ocean played tricks on their minds. News reports before the trip, of shark attacks off Florida and Alabama, fueled the paranoia.

One of the paddlers said a large hammerhead passed briefly by his heels. Another quit after something scraped against his leg. Others began having second thoughts. The captains of the two assist vessels--a third had pulled out at the outset, citing rough weather--wanted only to get to Cuba.

Things came to a head 60 miles and 21 hours into the voyage. Only Team Hennessey, from the South Bay, seriously wanted to continue, feeling that it needed only to change directions to get through the Gulfstream and quicken its pace.

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The captain pulled the plug, however, threatening to leave if they didn’t come aboard.

Team Hennessey was not happy. As members of the Southern California Paddleboard Club, they had paddled across the English Channel and Straits of Gibraltar. They had circumnavigated New York’s Manhattan Island and the Southland’s Santa Catalina Island, and paddled most of the California coast.

They were not willing to accept failure simply because “the captain and his girlfriend wanted to get to Cuba to hang out.”

They blasted the organizer, Michael O’Shaughnessy of Santa Monica, for everything from his choice of captains to his deciding to paddle against the current instead of with it. Suffering severely from seasickness, a Team Hennessey spokesman claimed, O’Shaughnessy was helpless to do anything about it.

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O’Shaughnessy did not respond to a message left by a reporter on his answering machine this week. However, Derek Levy, 41, a Manhattan Beach chiropractor and Team Hennessey member, was more than eager to vent.

“It was mutiny, man,” Levy charged. “When he yanked us and said, ‘I’m the captain of the boat, what I say goes,’ we considered that mutiny. This guy was hired for 48 hours.

“There was yelling and anger and even when we got off the boat at the dock we were like, ‘You quit on us! You lied to us!’ It was terrible.”

But not a total loss. None of the paddlers were eaten by sharks and all made it to Cuba for a few days of sightseeing and partying.

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Of a country Elian’s mother died trying to flee, Levy offered his assessment:

“It’s a third-world country, but I think Fidel Castro has done a great job. People are fed and dressed. Cuba is beautiful and clean. . . . I think the U.S. is wrong with this embargo thing. There’s no reason for it. These people are genuinely friendly.”

What he obviously meant was, it’s a nice place to visit, even though U.S. citizens aren’t supposed to go there.

Still irked by the aborted voyage, four of the paddlers decided to “make lemonade out of lemons,” as Levy says, and paddle back to Florida instead of flying home through Mexico City.

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Levy, Michael Lee and Jeff Horn, all from the South Bay, and O’Shaughnessy made amends, hired the charter vessel Tiburon--Spanish for shark--and departed Havana Harbor at 1 a.m. last Friday, paddling as a relay team alternating one-hour shifts.

The black water was just as eerie, but paddling in the current was like riding downriver. In the same Gulfstream they had averaged 1-2 mph in on the way over, they were now averaging 6-7 mph.

Horn had the pleasure of traveling alongside a sperm whale for about 15 minutes last Saturday morning.

“It rose like a submarine and blew this big spray,” he said. “Out of the right corner of my eye I could see this guy pacing me. He was going alongside me at the exact same speed, at my exact same pace. He’d look at me and we’d look at each other. It was very weird and exciting at the same time.”

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They rounded Sand Key before the setting sun and pulled into Key West at dusk, after 19 hours 19 minutes 52 seconds at sea. They will submit the details for potential entry in “The Guinness Book of World Records.”

Said Levy, “We grasped this back from the jaws of death, because it was taken away from us by our boat captain in the middle of the night during our first paddle.”

Their new captain was much better. He even waited till after the voyage home to tell his clients that the biggest great white shark ever caught was taken off the northwest coast of Cuba.

“Otherwise we might not have [gone],” Levy said, laughing.

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DEATH AT SEA

He caught what is believed to be the heaviest yellowtail ever landed on rod and reel. But Ron Fujii will never see his name in the book of world records.

The Los Angeles angler died last Saturday after suffering an apparent heart attack a day after boating an 88-pound 2-ounce California yellowtail aboard the long-range vessel Shogun, out of Fisherman’s Landing in San Diego. He was 57.

Fujii was stricken while battling another powerful game fish, a 30-pound albacore, during the last day of fishing in an area 140 miles southwest of the landing.

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He was pronounced dead en route via helicopter to Scripps-La Jolla Hospital.

“My feeling of Ron was that he was a loving, caring man who never had an enemy,” his fiancee, Lois Tateishi, told the Japanese American newspaper, the Rafu Shimpo. They were to have been married soon after the eight-day voyage.

At the request of Fujii’s daughter, Stacee Fujii of Montebello, and Tateishi, the application for a record will be submitted to the International Game Fish Assn. and the fish will be mounted and displayed in Fujii’s honor at Fisherman’s Landing.

Fujii’s catch, at Mexico’s Alijos Rocks on a two-pound mackerel fished on 60-pound-test line, eclipses the current record, an 80-pound 11-ounce specimen caught last year at Alijos aboard the Royal Polaris.

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HAMMERHEAD INVASION

The Cabo Pulmo area in the East Cape region of southern Baja is not known as a hot spot for hammerhead sharks, but the schooling predators have been putting on a show, thrilling divers in the area on and off for the past week.

Mark Rayor of Vista Sea Sport in Baja’s East Cape region said the first sighting was by a group of snorkelers who saw more than 100 sharks milling about in only 20 feet of water. Most were about four feet long but a few measured about 10 feet, Rayor said, adding that the snorkelers were afraid to jump in.

Not the scuba divers.

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“I was the first one in,” Rayor said. “The splash frightened them off and we were not able to locate them underwater.

“Our other boat returned with the snorkelers’ confidence up from listening to us. They got in and had a bird’s-eye view of a lot of sharks up close. I told one of the other Pulmo boats about it. They could hardly believe what I was telling them.”

Vista Sea Sport can be reached at 011-52-114-10031 or on the Internet at https://www.vistaseasport.com.

HOT BITES

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* Albacore have fled U.S. waters and are being targeted almost solely by the San Diego fleet, leaving some to wonder if this albacore season is even going to come close to matching last year’s.

The big news this week is the first yellowfin tuna haul of the season by the 1 1/2-day boats. The Apollo and Conquest skippers on Thursday reported catching a few dozen football-sized yellowfin, along with albacore and bluefin, 120 miles south of Point Loma.

Long-range veterans are no longer as optimistic about a productive albacore season but believe the warming water will bring an abundance of yellowfin.

* More of the sand bass being targeted with so much success off Huntington Beach have migrated north and into Santa Monica Bay. But the buzz in the bay remains the white sea bass bite off Torrance Beach. Trouble is, they’re only biting at night, says Rick Oefinger, owner of Del Rey Sportfishing in Marina del Rey. The landing is running sea bass specials, departing at 6. The Spitfire got 25 sea bass Wednesday night, returning at midnight.

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* “It seems like the Cabo fishing is about to blow open,” says Tracy Ehrenberg at Pisces Sportfishing in Cabo San Lucas. Indeed, fishing has improved dramatically this week for grand exotics such as black and blue marlin, sailfish and big dorado. East Cape fleets report a similar improvement.

WINDING UP

The Department of Fish and Game recently christened the patrol boat Thresher, which it hopes will vastly improve marine enforcement. The 58-foot aluminum catamaran replaces the 95-foot Hammerhead and 40-foot Marlin, both of which were decommissioned for budgetary reasons in 1994, leaving the department unable to maintain a presence on the water.

The Thresher, which will be based in Dana Point Harbor and will travel between Santa Barbara and Mexico, has twin 660-horsepower diesel engines, carries 1,200 gallons of fuel and features state-of-the-art electronics.

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Said DFG Director Robert C. Hight, “The Thresher represents our 660-horsepower message to any commercial or recreational fishermen who would plunder the state’s ocean fisheries.”


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