Paddling an outrigger canoe from Florida to Bimini? Across the treacherous Gulf Stream? In hopes of answering a historical question, 12 adventurers set off Monday on the 60-mile journey.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published June 22, 2003
[Times art: Amanda Raymond]
Twelve crew members will be on the voyage. Six will paddle at a time, and they will change shifts after one hour. Its crucial to change paddlers without losing momentum or speed. Heres how they make a fast, in-water change without stopping: Changing the crew (graphic)
The old style Lucayan paddles were carved from the wood of the koa tree, which is similar to mahogany. See the new paddles
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."
This week a small group of adventurers hope to prove Keegan wrong.
Members of Outrigger Outreach, a St. Petersburg-based canoe club, plan to paddle 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.
The 60-mile journey, across one of the swiftest-moving ocean currents in the world, will 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 easily send the canoe out in the blue Atlantic.
If successful, the paddlers will prove that the pre-Columbian Indians of Florida could have had contact 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 evidence any of the Caribbean Indians knew how to sail. 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," he added. "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 Rica 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 do-able," 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.
Word of the Bimini expedition spread quickly through the Outrigger Outreach ranks, and by the spring of 2003, Edwards had dozens of people hoping to secure one the 12 available spots.
By May, Edwards had narrowed his team to two six-man crews that he would change out every hour on the proposed 60-mile trip from Key Largo to Bimini.
Last month, 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 will 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 goes as planned, Edwards and his team hope to make landfall Monday night, 12 to 18 hours after they begin, and prove once and for all that a human-powered craft could defy the odds.