Florida Keys News
Saturday, August 3, 2013
On the trail of balseros, he sets a record
Ben Friberg paddles board from Cuba to Key West in 28 hours

Following a course blazed by decades of Cuban balseros, a 35-year-old Tennessee musician and watersports enthusiast crossed the Straits of Florida to become the first person to complete the Cuba to Key West crossing standing up on a paddleboard.

Ben Friberg's 110-mile journey concluded Friday afternoon when he stepped onto Smathers Beach, 28 hours and six minutes after launching his board at Marina Hemingway near Havana. A support team provided navigational assistance and encouragement.

Friberg said the biggest challenge of the journey was rippling waves in the dark of night.

"The board was rocking and I couldn't see which way the waves were coming from," he said Friday. "I started getting nausea and put my head on the board for a minute, and a glow stick on my back so the captains could see me if I drifted off."

Those captains were Bob Olin and Chris Holtsclaw, members of his support team who have been on several previous Cuba to Key West crossings.

Olin said Friberg stopped when he needed hydration and nutrition, but there was no set routine for breaks.

Friberg said he was impressed by the beauty of the star-sprinkled night sky and the phosphorescent marine organisms that mirrored the celestial lights.

"It was amazing seeing the shooting star trails stay in the sky over my head forever," he said. "The water was glowing with phosphorescent algae, and it was a brilliant sight."

Friberg said endurance was not an issue -- he never felt like abandoning his quest.

"I fell one time when I was riding a wave for a second," said Friberg. "I was back on my board in no time."

Friberg said he has a passion for the outdoors, and has been kayaking for 20 years. He said he has been in situations where he was nowhere near medical attention, a car or cellphone reception, so he always keeps in mind that things could be worse.

"I've been in places where I've gotten borderline hypothermia. I can always say 'Hey, I've had it worse.'"

Olin and Holtsclaw had a different view of the trip. Working behind the scenes to make sure the trip remained on course, they emphasized the importance of planning.

"With Cynthia Aguilar and Ben, in both instances, the Gulf Stream was lined up right," said Olin. "There were no surprises."

Aguilar, a Miami Beach lifeguard, successfully completed the journey lying on a paddleboard in 2011, but she started her journey 14 miles off the Cuban shore because she could not obtain a visa from Cuban officials.

Holtsclaw said it was important to have a positive, energetic support crew.

"Ben's dad was on board, and when everybody is positive and helping each other, it makes for a substantially higher success rate," he said.

Friberg and his crew view the journey not only as a feat of endurance, but also a step toward better international relations.


Alex Press, an intern with The Citizen, is a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

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