Victor Mooney Fought Pirates and Critics to Row Across the Atlantic for AIDS Awareness
Photo courtesy of Goree Challenge/goreechallenge.com
Victor Mooney's voice lowers and soars like he's performing a one-man theater show. Sitting inside a hot, windowless room on the second floor of the Merrill-Stevens boatyard, not far from dozens of million-dollar yachts bobbing in the Miami River, Mooney is a youthful-looking 49, with a shaved head, broad face, and muscular arms. He's surprisingly paunchy for a guy who recently rowed across the ocean. Alternating between a barely audible whisper and emphatic shouts, he talks for hours about his life's mission — and about how his 24-foot rowboat, the Spirit of Malabo, ended up outside under a white tent, its broken keel and pocked green hull exposed like an open wound.
"When I reached land," he says, his voice low and soft, the words spaced out for effect, "it was like animals. I mean they just all came."
The trouble appeared last October, when Mooney was months into his latest attempt to row from the coast of Africa to New York. That's when he was attacked by Haitian pirates.
He'd just left Monte Cristi, in the Dominican Republic, with a warm sendoff from the local nautical club, he recounts. Early in the morning he began rowing west, toward Miami, but he noticed the weather getting "kind of iffy." Soon his expert navigation team called. "We see something very bad happening," he remembers them saying. "Can you go to a port and wait it out?"
By then Mooney was just past Cap-Haïtien. He saw an island in the distance and began rowing toward shore. He was in good spirits, singing along to "No Woman No Cry" as he pulled closer to safety.
But while he was rowing, a small boat drew near. Then another, and another. They were 30 feet away, then 20. Mooney became concerned. "What's going on?" he yelled, but the men didn't understand English. The boats began bumping the Spirit of Malabo. One of the Haitians threw a rope around his boat's cleat. Mooney screamed, then desperately gestured: "I tried to convey the best way I knew how," he recalls, "I'm black, you're black. We're brothers."
Mooney turns his head and drops his voice as he remembers being towed to shore against his will, stripped of all his possessions, and left alone on what he later learned was the island of Tortuga, a legendary pirate base camp. "I started crying," he says.
Soon after, Mooney's press team released news of the pirate attack, and the story was quickly picked up by media outlets around the world. It wasn't the first dramatic episode from a man who paints himself a modern-day Don Quixote with a noble quest: After losing one brother to AIDS and seeing another suffer from the disease, Mooney has spent more than a decade trying to row across the Atlantic to promote HIV awareness. Since then, he has wooed multinational corporations, foreign governments, and local sponsors. He's been blessed by Pope John Paul II, been invited to the White House, and generated countless global headlines.
But because Mooney's first three Atlantic crossings failed under dubious circumstances, the tight-knit ocean-rowing community has long viewed his maritime claims with thick suspicion. Former suppliers say he lied and stole thousands of dollars' worth of equipment. Mooney's oldest son says his father abandoned his children while claiming to dutifully row in honor of a long-lost brother.
When pressed in person about those controversies, Mooney became evasive. He stopped replying to emails, and neither he nor his spokesperson responded to questions outlined in a detailed letter sent by New Times.
Through it all, the savvy former public-relations worker insists it's AIDS activism that drives his mission. "It was... a lot of failures, but I never gave up," Mooney says. "My end result of all of this is that I can encourage people to follow their dreams."
Amid Mooney's inspiring narrative, though, it's hard to unravel where benevolent determination ends and self-serving fabulism begins.
"We've come to believe him to be a liar," says Kenneth Crutchlow, who along with his wife Tatiana runs the Ocean Rowing Society, the sport's internationally recognized arbiter. "It's gone on many years, and somehow or other he's always been able to wriggle out of it."
When Mooney arrived in Saint Martin after months at sea, he had lost 80 pounds.
Photo courtesy of Goree Challenge/goreechallenge.com
Mooney was born in 1965 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the youngest of a half-dozen siblings. He developed what would become a lifelong connection to the water, he says, when his father took the kids on canoe trips in the picturesque Adirondacks in upstate New York. Paddling in a green Discovery Old Town canoe on the region's pristine blue lakes, young Victor was enamored.
"That was my indoctrination into the water," he says. "It just opened your eyes."
When Victor was around 18, his older brother died of AIDS, an event that shook his family and would later inspire his ocean-crossing adventures. (Mooney has long declined to discuss details about his brother, including his name or how he contracted the disease.)
Around the same time, Mooney fell in love with a high-school classmate who would become the mother of three of his four children. As he moved into a career in nonprofits and public relations, the couple had their first child, Victoria, in 1988; she was followed by a son, Victor, in 1993, and another daughter two years later.
By then, Mooney says, he had his own Discovery canoe and was taking small trips around Long Island. He lived in Hempstead and founded and ran an organization called South Africa Arts International, which facilitated cultural exchange between the United States and South Africa as it emerged from apartheid. Mooney regularly traveled to that country, where he says he was "blindsided" by the devastation wreaked by AIDS.
A meeting there in 1994 set the course for his later oceanic crossings. After arranging a flag exchange on behalf of the government of Hempstead, Mooney received an invitation to the Tuynhuys, the South African president's residence. The visit with President Nelson Mandela lasted only 15 minutes or so, but for Mooney it was life-changing.
"He said, 'Follow your heart,'?" Mooney recalls, adding that the meeting left him with a profound sense of responsibility. "[It's] like someone else opened a door for you so that others may follow you and do greater things."
But as Mandela was opening a door for Mooney, back in New York the activist broke ties with his family, his son says. Around 1997, Mooney left his partner and their three children, according to the younger Victor; he and his sisters moved in with a grandmother and then struggled when she passed away, he said in a series of Facebook messages with New Times. (Mooney did not respond to New Times' questions about his son's allegations.) Mooney later married a woman named Su-Ping, whom he'd met in Durban, South Africa, and the couple had a son together.
By then, around 2000, Mooney had also begun setting the stage for his eventual ocean-crossing attempts. During his first long canoe trip, he paddled seven miles of urban New York waterways from the Queensboro Bridge to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, in Brooklyn, to raise AIDS awareness.
With the support of his boss at ASA College in Brooklyn, where he worked as a communications officer, Mooney took more ambitious canoe trips for AIDS. In the summer of 2003, he circumnavigated Manhattan and Long Island — a multiweek trip of more than 45 miles. While paddling on the Hudson, he stopped to chat with an NYPD Harbor Patrol lieutenant. "He said, 'Mooney! If you get a bigger boat, you can go a little faster and a little further.'?"
It was an epiphany. Browsing online, Mooney was transfixed by the stories of men and women who had rowed across whole seas.
There were plenty. In 1896, two Norwegians completed the first recorded transoceanic row, in a boat called the Fox, departing from Manhattan and arriving at the island of Scilly, off Great Britain, 55 days later. There wasn't another trip recorded for 70 years, when two Brits left Virginia Beach in the Puffin and disappeared at sea months later. But beginning in the early 1980s, crews have been making crossings with regularity. Since then, more than 600 boats have set out to cross the world's seas, most often the Atlantic. About 400 have been successful.
If so many others could do it, Mooney reasoned, so could he. He soon developed his own plan: Row from Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal, across the Atlantic to Brazil, then up the coast of South America, through the Caribbean, and north to New York. The symbolism couldn't have been more powerful: The trip was meant to retrace the world's most famous slave-trade route.
In the fall of 2003, Mooney contacted the Craftsbury Sculling Center in Vermont, the oldest rowing camp in North America. He explained his mission, and Craftsbury agreed to sponsor a weekend rowing camp.
On the pristine Vermont lakes, Marlene Royle, an experienced coach, provided intensive training. Mooney came across as quiet and kind, with an unrelentingly positive attitude, she remembers. He impressed Royle as extremely brave. "And maybe a little bit crazy," she says.
But it was also obvious Mooney had zero real rowing experience, and he wasn't even in great physical shape. "It was his very, very beginning of actually learning how to really row," Royle says. "I was scared for him."
In front of a small crowd of tourists and reporters, Mooney walked solemnly through the House of Slaves on Gorée Island. By the Door of No Return, the final departure point for thousands of African slaves, Mooney sat atop his blue-and-silver stationary rowing machine, facing the sea. He wore shackles as 18th-century slaves were forced to, with a collar around his neck and cuffs around his wrists and ankles. Apart from the steel chains and small black shorts, Mooney was naked, the sweat glistening off his skin as he rowed in place.
"You can feel the spirits inside," Mooney would later say of his visit to the former slave house. "You hear them saying, 'Victor, don't forget us.'?"
It was early 2004, soon after he began preparing for his first transatlantic voyage for AIDS. The image of Mooney rowing in chains was striking, but it also offered a poignant preview: Over the next decade, he would repeatedly try to complete the Atlantic crossing, generating ever more headlines and sponsors but also increasing skepticism and enmity.
After Mooney's weekend at the rowing camp, Royle helped him develop a regular fitness routine. Mooney also vigorously pursued funding and sponsorships, eventually securing $5,000 from Snapple and thousands of dollars' worth of material from a local Lowe's store.
In June 2004, Mooney rowed for two days straight at a fundraiser outside Brooklyn Borough Hall. In November he flew to Rome for a similar row-a-thon; the next day, World AIDS Day, he and his mission were personally blessed by a smiling Pope John Paul II.
Press was pouring in, but just weeks before his scheduled launch date, February 1, 2005 — the first day of Black History Month — Mooney still needed a boat. After he wrote about his mission on the forum of the Ocean Rowing Society, a kindhearted Welsh rower offered to loan hers, and the Crutchlows, the Ocean Rowing Society organizers, agreed to help facilitate. Mooney met the Crutchlows in London, and the three took the train to Wales to inspect his new boat.
In London, where Mooney stayed with the Crutchlows, the rower was initially polite and amicable, the couple says. But it soon became apparent that Mooney knew nothing about ocean rowing or navigating. He proposed ridiculous ideas, like affixing a hammock to the deck so he could lounge in the sun, and the Crutchlows grew worried. Kenneth eventually confronted him in the couple's living room, warning him he would never make it across if he didn't prepare better.
"He said, 'You're racist,'?" Kenneth recalls. "No, it's not because you're black," Crutchlow says he replied. "It's because you're an idiot."
When Mooney refused to take out an insurance policy or follow other basic advice, the Crutchlows say, the Welsh boat fell through. But Mooney soon found another option: He contacted Sarah Kessans and Emily Kohl, two rowers at Purdue University. They were preparing for their own ocean crossing but had changed plans and were eager to sell an unneeded boat kit. In early May 2005, Mooney signed a contract for $7,500, agreeing to pay the first $1,000 down and the rest later.
Mooney picked up the boat a few weeks later and paid the $1,000. But the deadline for the second installment came and went. In a series of emails throughout the fall, Kessans wrote that they desperately needed his payment to fund their own trip. Eventually, Mooney responded that he'd lost volunteers and had only $1.65 in his account. Still, he vowed to "keep my promise."
By the year's end, Mooney had become unresponsive, although he did show up in a February 2006 New York Times feature — along with a picture of the newly constructed boat, which he had named John Paul the Great. Mooney had spent five months building the John Paul in a drafty Brooklyn garage, although he hadn't actually practiced rowing since the previous summer. "If I did that," Mooney told the Times, "I wouldn't have had time to finish the boat."
Mooney says he was attacked by pirates off the coast of Haiti's Tortuga. His boat, the Spirit of Malabo, was badly damaged.
Photo courtesy of Goree Challenge/goreechallenge.com
A few weeks later, Mooney flew to Senegal, where John Paul the Great was shipped courtesy of UPS. The boat was stocked with satellite phones, three global positioning systems, three water purifiers, an abundance of freeze-dried food, 150 liters of donated Snapple, a Bible on CD, Ray Charles albums, and biographies of John Paul II, Mandela, and Bill Clinton, among other materials. Victor Mooney, finally, was ready to cross the ocean.
In mid-morning, on a clear day in front of another small crowd gathered on the rocky shore, Mooney again walked through the Door of No Return. Wearing a yellow wetsuit, he dived into the chilly water, swam to his waiting boat, and began rowing west, toward America. By noon the mission was over.
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John Paul the Great had sprung a leak, Mooney later told reporters. With the boat rapidly taking on water, he was forced to use his emergency signal, less than a few miles from the coast. From aboard a Senegalese navy boat, Mooney watched John Paul the Great slowly dip deeper and deeper into the sea.
He soon returned to Queens, where his financial problems were mounting: Kessans and Kohl won a judgment of nearly $8,000 for their boat — and soon discovered Mooney owed far more in back child support, Kessans says. Told they would never recover the money until Mooney first paid off his debts to the state, Kessans and Kohl eventually dropped the legal effort. "We just chalked it up to a real big mistake," Kessans says. "But what can you do?"
A few months later, Mooney surfaced again on the Ocean Rower's online forum seeking help for another trip. In February 2007, less than a year after the epic failure in Senegal, he announced he would row again.
After the first failure, Mooney inspired some skepticism in the press — one Brooklyn newspaper awarded him its 2006 "Don Quixote Award" — but he was as enthusiastic as ever. He contacted Martin Hardy, owner of Composite Yachts, a shipbuilder on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Hardy admired Mooney's dedication. "If someone's going to do something like that," he says, "I said I'd help them out."
Hardy agreed to build a boat at a heavily reduced cost. As it was being constructed, Mooney would pop in sporadically, but he ignored Hardy's urging to learn something about the equipment. Hardy also noticed that Mooney appeared conspicuously out of shape. "The more I got to see how he operated," the shipbuilder says, "the less impressed I was."
Composite Yachts finished the rowboat a few months later and charged Mooney about $30,000. For weeks Mooney promised he had fundraising coming in, but the money never materialized. Eventually, the day the boat was scheduled to be shipped, Hardy told Mooney he couldn't take the boat unless he paid.
"He gave me a bogus check," Hardy says. The shipbuilder ended up collecting about a third of the $30,000, he says. An attorney later advised him it wasn't worth pursuing the rest. (Mooney didn't respond to questions about Kessans' or Hardy's complaints.)
Mooney named his second boat the Spirit of Zayed, after a late president of the United Arab Emirates. In February 2009, Mooney held a fundraiser outside an HSBC branch in Brooklyn. He told reporters that he needed $50,000 but that the Spirit of Zayed was ready. "This is a world-class boat," he said. "Now I just have to make it back home."
On April 1, 2009, Mooney launched again from Gorée Island. This time the trip lasted two weeks. On April 15, Mooney would say, his water desalinator broke and he was forced to radio for help. He was picked up, in good health, by a nearby fishing ship. The Spirit of Zayed was attached to a tow rope, but the boat wouldn't make it back to land: Mooney's team would later say the tow line broke. The Spirit of Zayed mysteriously was never recovered.
To a disillusioned Hardy, Mooney's whole mission amounted to a glorified PR stunt. "He didn't have anything to lose," the shipbuilder says. "He didn't have any money in it."
Back in New York, it wasn't long before Mooney announced plans for a third attempt. In late May, a French rower, Charlie Girard, had been rescued off the coast of Massachusetts; after Mooney contacted him, the Frenchman agreed to let Mooney salvage the boat.
Mooney renamed Girard's boat Never Give Up. He launched a campaign offering to write the names of up to 25,000 donors on his boat. He also found a doctor, Alex Lupenko, who agreed to sponsor his pretrip medical care. (Lupenko says Mooney seemed genuine. "He was training. He was rowing. He was working out.")
Mooney promised his wife this run would be his last, and he told the media: "I'm not getting off the boat until I'm at the Brooklyn Bridge."
Never Give Up took off from Cape Verde, the island country to the west of Senegal, early February 26, 2011. There was little fanfare at the launch, but one day the next month, Mooney's team announced big news: The rower had been dramatically rescued by a Greek cargo ship called the MV Norfolk. He had been lost alone at sea for two weeks.
Not long after he began the mission, the Never Give Up began abruptly taking on water, Mooney would say. He was forced to abandon the boat and move to his small life raft. On his second day, a ship passed within sight but didn't stop to rescue him. For the next 12 days, he survived only on water from a desalinator he'd salvaged, ginseng roots, and green tea.
It was a fantastic story — even if ocean rowers questioned how Mooney, with all of his sophisticated communication devices, could have been forced to wait so long for a rescue. "I'm blessed to be alive," Mooney wrote while aboard the Norfolk, where he posed for a photo with the crew.
"He was in good health," one release said, "despite weak legs."
As the silver cross dangling around his neck reflected the sunlight, Mooney methodically sliced into the enormous fish with his small knife. It was early May 2014, and he was emaciated and desperate. He prayed often, asking the Father for help. The morning it came, the Spirit of Malabo began rocking. Mooney's small pole jerked forward. "And I said, 'Oh my God — what is this?'?"
Mooney was attempting to cross the Atlantic for the fourth time. But this attempt was different. This time he had already lasted more than 70 days at sea. He had already crossed nearly halfway. But just like the other trips, this one too would be destined for trouble.
Mooney rides on a Haitian police boat.
Photo courtesy of Goree Challenge/goreechallenge.com
After his third failed attempt, Mooney said he was considering giving up rowing. But when he found a great deal on another rowboat for sale online,"it seemed like fate."
By now Mooney had attracted considerable notoriety. Many in the ocean-rowing community distrusted him. A reporter from the Queens Times Ledger revealed that South Africa Arts International was never registered as a nonprofit. (The supposed charity still appears to have never filed records.) Online commenters derided him as a fraud.
But if Mooney noticed the criticism, he never showed it. As he prepared for a fourth trip, he worked out logistics in Brazil, where he was presented a ceremonial oar. For a fundraising event one day in June, Mooney crawled across the Brooklyn Bridge. The first day of the 2014 New York Boat Show, he set up a large diorama highlighting his mission, framed around a portrait of Mandela.
He also attracted his biggest backer ever: the government of oil-rich, dictatorial Equatorial Guinea. In one meeting with an official, Mooney shook hands and smiled as he accepted a check. It was in the amount of $30,000, authorized by H.E. Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the country's strongman leader. Mooney christened the boat the Spirit of Malabo after the nation's capital. (Gerson Canton, who sold Mooney the boat, says the rower paid him its full $10,000 price.)
As Mooney continued to burnish his public figure, he remained absent from his first family, his son says. In the spring of 2012, Mooney's eldest child, 23-year-old Victoria, was hospitalized for more than a month. Mooney didn't visit, his son says. Victoria died a few weeks later. (The younger Mooney declined to provide details on his sister's death.) That May, the younger Victor, then a senior in high school, asked his principal to contact his father on his behalf, and Mooney agreed to a meeting at the school.
"He looked very nervous when I saw him," the younger Victor says. "He shook my hand, which was confusing."
Mooney's preparation for his fourth trip was clearly better. He decided to row from the Canary Islands, a better-established route than the one from Senegal. He also connected with Jenifer and Dane Clark, the navigation team that helped Diana Nyad swim across the Florida Straits, and the two agreed to provide ongoing forecasting services.
On January 20, 2014, Mooney arrived in Grand Canary. He says he was desperate not to be "an embarrassment" and spent a month checking and rechecking all of his equipment and supplies.
The afternoon of February 19, given the go-ahead from the Clarks, Mooney set off from the marina. Under a clear sky, as he was towed out to open water, he stood atop the Spirit of Malabo. A nearby cargo ship sounded three long horns in salute. Mooney waved.
Five days later, on February 24, the rower gave his first update from sea: "Cleared Canary Islands," he wrote through his satellite phone system. He also posted a selfie inside his tiny quarters. Three days later, Mooney wrote, he was "dealing with fifty foot swells" and offered insight into his daily routine. When conditions were good, he said, he rowed for two hours and then took a 30-minute break. He spoke daily with his family and listened to music from Equatorial Guinea.
But within a few weeks, Mooney was in serious trouble: He made a bad miscalculation with his supplies. The freeze-dried food pouches advertised they held four servings, but Mooney discovered that, for him, each was more like one meal. In the middle of the ocean, it dawned on him that he had nowhere near enough food.
"What can I do?" Mooney says. "To keep my sanity, I turned it into a spiritual fast."
A few weeks later, in early April, Mooney wrote on his blog that he had decided to eat only every other day. "God willing, I'll end this fast when I enter the Caribbean." It was early the morning of May 2, when he was hundreds of miles from any coast, that Mooney was blessed with the enormous swordfish, providing enough food for days.
Mooney caught other fish too, but not nearly enough. He was mostly left with his diminishing rations, ginger candies, and cough drops. His face and body grew thin. He says he sometimes sucked up toothpaste — "my soup du jour."
On June 21, Mooney transmitted that he had crossed the 60th parallel. He had made it across the Atlantic. In a photo that day, the rower knelt on his boat under a bright sun, his head and hands held in prayer.
Mooney landed first in Saint Martin, where he was taken to a hospital. He had lost 80 pounds, although he was told he was basically healthy. He stayed several weeks in Saint Martin and then continued west.
He was headed toward Cuba when the boats came for him off Tortuga. Before the pirates could even pull the Spirit of Malabo all the way to shore, Mooney says, he was rushed by a mob of maybe 50 desperate villagers. "At that point, I was ready to die," he says. The mob ransacked his supplies and ripped out all of his electronics and navigation systems, but they left Mooney untouched.
Suddenly, the U.S. Coast Guard flew overhead, he says, alerted by his emergency call, and everyone quickly scattered, leaving Mooney traumatized but unharmed. A kind English-speaking local helped him eventually connect with American authorities.
The Spirit of Malabo wasn't seaworthy, but Mooney didn't want to quit. He later made several trips between Haiti and New York to organize logistics. Eventually, he contacted RMK Merrill-Stevens, the Miami boatyard. If Mooney could find a way to get his boat shipped there, John Spencer, the boatyard's director told him, Merrill-Stevens would make it new again. "I never had anybody call me and tell me they rowed across the Atlantic before," Spencer says.
In Haiti, Mooney says, he quickly let go of his bitterness over the attack. On Tortuga, he helped locals with medical problems and visited schools, where he relayed his message to the community through a chant he developed with the kids: Pa bay le gan, Kreyol for "Never give up."
"Pa bay!" Mooney would yell to a crowd of children. "Le gan!" they would all shout back.
Another morning inside the stuffy room at the boatyard, Mooney is eager to talk about the final leg of his mission. More than a month after the Spirit of Malabo was shipped to Miami, he's spending his days examining nautical charts and studying past rows between Miami and New York, he says. In a few days, he'll visit Big Cypress, in the Everglades, to meet the Seminole Tribe and calm his mind before the final row north.
"I have an opportunity to fulfill a dream," he says. "And that dream is 1,500 miles away."
In Miami, the Spirit of Malabo undergoes repairs at the RMK Merrill-Stevens boatyard.
Photo courtesy of Goree Challenge/goreechallenge.com
It's late March, and the Spirit of Malabo is almost ready. Mooney has rowed across the Atlantic, but he isn't done yet. His mission has always been to row from Africa home to New York.
But after a decade of spectacular failures and improbable rescues, many doubt Mooney's supposed recent triumph. Did he actually make it across the Atlantic? "It's like crying wolf," Kessans says. "My gut feeling is he didn't row it."
Mooney's supporters dispute that claim and say for whatever mistakes he's made in the past, his determination is a testament to the human spirit — and the abundance of headlines has brought real attention to AIDS. "I really feel like it's for his brother," says Lupenko, the doctor who provided Mooney's pretrip care. "He seems very humble, and he's always direct about getting the word out."
Kessans has kept an eye on Mooney's exploits ever since her nightmare selling him the boat kit. She says that she followed the tracking Mooney posted online during the latest mission and that the coordinates were suspiciously clustered near the Canary Islands or in the Caribbean.
"There was nothing across the ocean," she says. After Mooney arrived in the Caribbean, the remaining plots were added, she says, although these were also suspicious: perfectly equidistant and parallel to the Equator. "In reality that's not even possible. I don't know how he got the boat to where he got the boat. I don't know if the boat was actually there."
John Zeigler, a famed ocean rower who first met Mooney years ago at a New York Boat Show, says he's been suspicious of anything Mooney says since his first failed attempt. "Come on. You're getting ready to cross an ocean and you didn't check your boat out?" he says of Mooney's earlier claims of malfunctioning boats.
Tatiana Crutchlow, the official record-keeper of the world's ocean rows, says Mooney hasn't provided documentation of his recent crossing — no witness statements, no logs, and no coordinates — despite repeated requests from the society. She did, however, receive a verification request from Guinness World Records — Mooney was seeking the record as the first African-American to row across the Atlantic.
After five months without verification, Crutchlow says, she is prepared to remove Mooney's name from the database of completed rows and to deny the Guinness request. "The time given to Victor for sending us any proof and documents supporting his claim to row an ocean has run out."
But others are adamant that he finally did cross. Lupenko says he received email alerts with Mooney's position daily while he was crossing, and Mooney's strongest endorsement comes from Jenifer and Dane Clark, the navigation team. While he was in the boat, Dane Clark says, Mooney communicated regularly by email and satellite phone. "He would call us when he wanted a forecast or an update," Dane says. "I think a lot of times he called because he was just lonely."
The Clarks plotted Mooney all the way across, from the Canaries to the Caribbean. There were no gaps, they say, adding that Mooney was also lucky that he never encountered a truly big storm. "He really took the trip," Jenifer says. "If we were tricked like that, it would be unbelievable."
But the Clarks say they never warned Mooney he should seek land because of an imminent major storm, as Mooney says they advised before the pirate attack. "We never heard from him until later," Dane says. And the U.S. Coast Guard says it has no record of any boat attack or emergency involving Mooney near Tortuga, although Lupenko says he spoke with Mooney by phone in the days following the alleged attack.
"He sounded as if he had been in real fear for his life," the doctor says. Mooney's Facebook page also shows pictures of his badly damaged boat and photos of him visiting a school. Pirate attacks are not unheard of near Tortuga. "From what I heard, it was a very dangerous situation," Dane Clark says.
At the boatyard, Mooney shuts down when pushed on the controversies. At the suggestion that his rescue from the life raft was an incredible story, Mooney bristles.
"I don't think it's incredible," he answers quickly. "I mean, I'm not the only one who had issues in the sea."
A few minutes later, Mooney repeats a Senegalese phrase: Amoule baye — "Never give up." He demonstrates how he sang aboard the Spirit of Malabo, breaking into gospel.
As of presstime, the Spirit of Malabo is still stationed under a white tent near the Miami River, but Mooney says his departure for New York is imminent.
For the last leg of his mission, he has raised $10,250 on a GoFundMe page — including $10,000 from the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board and $25 from a more surprising source: a young man named Victor Mooney.
"I was bitter at one point growing up," Victor says. "But especially after my sister passed, I learned to accept the things I can't change."
Victor hasn't seen or heard from his father since that 2012 meeting at his high school, he says. But he still supports his dad.
"He's chosen to move on without us even if it meant losing a child. He's committed to whatever his heart and mind are telling him, and I might never know what that really is," he says. "My father isn't some evil villain. I'll never make excuses, but I've forgiven him... I still love him."
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