Pedaling Around

A Frenchman with a dream propels himself across the Atlantic — in high hurricane season

A white boat about the size of a Cadillac labors out of the shadows beneath the 17th Street Causeway. Dwarfed by the gross displays of marine ostentation floating around the Fort Lauderdale Grande Hotel & Yacht Club, the tiny vessel — flying the French national flag — crawls across the Intracoastal toward the small cement pier at the 15th Street Fisheries. As it coasts in, the man at the helm leaps to the dock. He's slight with glasses, a head of dark curls, and a thin beard. His polo, once light green, is now gray from sweat. He ties his boat to a rusted hook and mumbles in French.

Jean-Gabriel Chelala, a 27-year-old engineer and freelance journalist, is arriving from a journey that began months ago on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It wouldn't be a remarkable feat except that the boat he made the trip in has no engine or sails. It doesn't even have oars. Chelala made the daunting, 5,000-mile journey in a pedal boat.

He left Lagos, in southern Portugal, on March 7. He pedaled alone for 107 days, eating military-style dehydrated meals and fish from the ocean, sleeping on a six-foot mattress in the tiny cabin, braving hurricane season and all manner of sea creature.

After leaving Portugal, Chelala headed to Morocco, then west to the Canary Islands. Next, following the route used by Columbus more than 500 years ago, he crossed the deep blue wonder of the open ocean to Saint Martin. Then it was around Puerto Rico and into Fort Lauderdale. Chelala averaged about 2 knots, pedaling for as many as 20 hours a day into strong winds. At one point, he went more than two months without human contact.

But the journey from Portugal to Florida is just the second leg of a trip Chelala has been planning for more than two years. He's aiming to be the first person to circumnavigate the globe using only human power, he says.

It started in January, when he biked from his native Paris to Lagos. From Florida, he plans to bicycle across North America to the eastern tip of Alaska. There, he'll get back into the pedal boat (which will be transported by truck) to cross the Bering Strait, then back on a bicycle to ride across Siberia and Europe all the way back to France.

"Human power is the most powerful resource we have," he says. "And intelligence is the greatest human power. I want to prove that we can do anything we want with just the power of humans."

Waiting for him on Fort Lauderdale's shore is his father, Jean-Marie Chelala, who hasn't seen his son since he departed Portugal. Dad tells him to pose for the camera.

Chelala introduces himself to the handful of strangers gathered on the dock for his arrival: fans who've followed Chelala's trip on his blog, representatives from the local Rotary Club, a reporter and a photographer, and a few marina employees who couldn't resist the chance to come over and give this odd contraption a closer inspection.

Designed by Guy Saillard, a French naval architect who specializes in building boats for extreme adventures, Cyclomer is 25 feet long and five feet wide, with a single chair in the middle. Solar panels line the sides. Beneath the front of the vessel, in the bow, Chelala keeps a desalinator ("It makes the water taste like plastic," he says with a smooth French accent), some electronics, and his garbage. In the cabin, at the stern, he has a small, gas-powered hot plate, a bed, and GPS and radio equipment. The pedals are attached to a propeller beneath the hull, and Chelala steers with a wheel on the starboard side. The whole thing cost 100,000 euros, more than $165,000.

Ron Yentz, a manager at the marina, invites Chelala and his father inside for lunch. Chelala takes a seat at a table overlooking the water. What he's been craving most during his time at sea, he says, is "a very, very cold Coke with lots of ice — it gets very hot in the middle of the ocean."

When asked how he feels about his son's daring trip, Jean-Marie beams. "I have three words: very, very proud."

So far, the most difficult aspect of the trip for Jean-Gabriel has been the solitude. "It gets lonely," he says. "I miss my family. I miss being around people. You realize how much you need to talk to someone, anyone."

Loneliness was far from his only challenge, though. Just 20 miles off the coast of the Canary Islands, as he slept in the cabin, something large and powerful struck the bottom of the boat, lifting it out of the water, jarring Chelala awake. When he started pedaling the next morning, he noticed that the boat was not responding to his steering. He put on goggles, jumped into the water, and went down to examine the underside of the boat. "When I put my hand down to feel the rudder," he says, "I had a... a — how do you say? — a heart attack." The large fin beneath the boat that helps steer was gone. He says he took the boat back to shore by pedaling, jumping out and pushing the boat in the right direction, then jumping back in and pedaling more.

"I think it must have been a large whale," he says. Within a week, though, he had a new rudder and a renewed passion to pump his calves across the current.

He also had his share of quasi-crazy moments on the water, he says. Early in the cross-Atlantic journey, four small fish started following his boat. He could look down into the clear water and see them first thing every morning. He began talking to the fish, naming them Andy, Charlie, Bobby, and Teddy. "They thought I was the mother," he says. They were small when he first saw them, but as the weeks passed, he says, they grew to three times their original size.

Every person at the dock eventually gets around to asking Chelala the obvious question: Why do you want to pedal around the world?

"Is it just cheaper than plane tickets?" a woman asks.

"I want to remind people to dream," he says. "Critics told me I couldn't pedal across the ocean. If someone sees me trying and they try to accomplish a dream of their own, this whole thing will be worth it. This is a human adventure — challenging myself against the elements."

Chelala, who says he plans to write a book and make a documentary about his adventures, would also like people to think of ecology and the ceaseless possibilities of man-powered travel. "I want to sensitize people," he says. "If people like me don't talk about it, who will?"

There is no way to verify Chelala's tales, though a blog on his website recounts them in three languages, complete with photos from the middle of the ocean. And French and Spanish newspapers have written about Chelala's extensive training and his European departure. He has a weather-beaten look, and he speaks with the hyperanimated cadence of someone who's been alone for weeks at a time. Everyone at the dock is convinced he's telling the truth about his adventures.

Soon, the waitress brings Chelala a sparkling glass of ice-cold cola. It's just what he's been waiting for. He takes several large gulps, swallowing almost half the soda in his glass. Then he looks down at the cup in his hand. "Oh, the incredible things humans can do."

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