Reza Baluchi was drifting in the Atlantic Ocean 23 miles off the coast of Florida. The sea was calm and the sky dark. The new moon had dipped below the waves to the west hours earlier. In the quiet night, the wiry, wild-haired 44-year-old rolled over the waves in a contraption that resembled a large aquatic hamster wheel. He planned to take it the 1,000 miles from Pompano Beach to Bermuda.
Suddenly, the serene silence was broken by the sound of an approaching ship. A blue police light lit up the night, and a deep male voice bellowed, "Sir, what are you doing?"
"Going to Bermuda," Baluchi replied.
"No, you're not," the voice responded. "Your voyage has been terminated."
On July 9, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Robert Yered cut short Baluchi's attempt to become the first person to run 1,000 miles across the sea. It was the third time in two years authorities had foiled the Iranian-born extreme athlete's plan to make history. Afterward, authorities sank his bubble, returned him to shore in handcuffs, and committed him to a psychiatric hospital.
"I love Coast Guard," Baluchi says in broken English. "But I don't need save. I just want them to let me go."
Authorities have spent more than $200,000 roping in Baluchi since he began designing and perfecting what he calls a "hydro pod" in 2012. Though the Coast Guard contends it is simply trying to keep him safe, the repeated rescue efforts raise questions about how far authorities should go to save people who don't want their help.
"He's just an ultramarathon runner trying to accomplish something no other runner has ever been able to do," says Craig Tolz, a surf shop worker who helped Baluchi build his latest bubble. "If he wants to do that, that's his prerogative."
Baluchi, who now lives in an oceanfront apartment in Highland Beach just north of Boca Raton, grew up on a rice farm near the Caspian Sea. He says he ran eight miles to and from school each day and worked at a mechanic's shop after class. At age 14, he joined the national cycling team. But the free-spirited boy couldn't keep himself out of trouble with the theocracy that has ruled his homeland since 1979.
As a teen, he was whipped 75 times in a market square for eating during Ramadan. When he was 18, he says, revolutionary cops beat him, branded him, and hung him from a tree by his wrists until his hands turned black for wearing a Michael Jackson T-shirt. They tortured him for 45 days and then sentenced him to two years in jail.
He recalls running laps inside the prison walls every day and shaving six months off his sentence by repairing the warden's car. When he got out, he rejoined the cycling team and defected to Germany in 1992. For the next seven years, he rode a yellow Centurion racing bike through 55 countries to promote peace and oppose authoritarian government. All along the way, he relied on his ability to befriend strangers for food and shelter.
"Everywhere I go, I don't stay in hotel," Baluchi says. "People love my personality. They respect what I do."
In 2003, after the U.S. government granted him asylum, he ran from Los Angeles to New York City, reaching Ground Zero on the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks to show that Iranians stood against terrorism. In 2007, he ran 11,000 miles around the perimeter of the country. Two years later, he ran across the country again, this time picking up an American flag from the White House that he still carries with him everywhere he goes. Then, in 2010, he moved to Death Valley, where he spent two years running and training in the 130-degree heat.
The New York Times described Baluchi's "patriotic fervor for America" during his Ground Zero run in 2003. As he ran through Arkansas later that year, Little Rock's KATV pronounced his name "Balooky"(it's Bah-LOO-chee) but reported on his "cross-country run for peace" all the same. NPR noted that as Baluchi spreads his message of peace, he "doesn't walk his talk; he runs it."
While in Death Valley, Baluchi came up with another plan: to run across the globe — including the stretches covered by water — unassisted by ships or airplanes. He used his years of auto-mechanic experience to design his hydro pod, which consists of an inflatable plastic orb mounted inside an aluminum paddle wheel. When he runs, the bubble rotates, the paddles turn, and the hydro pod moves forward.
He spent the next two years in Newport Beach working at a supermarket deli by day and a hookah bar by night to save the $45,000 he needed to build his first hydro pod and buy equipment such as a GPS, a satellite phone, and a personal locating beacon.
After testing out some early prototypes on the Pacific Ocean, Baluchi packed his pod into a green Ford F-150 pickup and drove it to Pompano Beach in 2014. That October, he launched his bubble from the beach and set out for Bermuda. After five nights running along the Gulf Stream, he had made it as far north as the Florida-Georgia line. Baluchi was 200 miles from the coast when Capt. Brady Peters came across the hydro pod.
"It looked kind of like a spacecraft," says Peters, who has operated a crab boat out of Cape Canaveral for five years. "We were kind of freaked out and didn't know what to think."
As Peters and his crew drew closer, they asked where Baluchi was going and if he needed anything. Baluchi told them he was headed to Bermuda and requested a bottle of water.
"If you're going to Bermuda, you need a case of damn water," Peters recalls saying, and tossed a pack of 35 bottles down to Baluchi.
As the Iranian struggled to pull the case into his bubble, he dropped his locating beacon into the sea, which automatically sent a distress signal to the Coast Guard. Two hours later, a ship, a helicopter, and an airplane showed up to hoist Baluchi out of his hydro pod.
Peters towed the pod to shore, but rough seas damaged it beyond repair. "When [Baluchi] saw it, he was in tears," Peters says. "There went years of work and thousands of dollars."
Soon, Peters hired Baluchi to work on the boat. He spent the next two years fishing, saving money, and puking over the side of the ship. "He was seasick the whole trip, for years," Peters recalls. "But he was one of the best workers I've ever seen."
Earlier this year, Baluchi spent $22,000 from his crab boat savings to build a new hydro pod. He spent three weeks assembling it in Pompano Beach, enlisting the help of strangers he met on the beach such as Craig Tolz, a Hollywood native who has worked in watersports all his life.
Meanwhile, he exchanged letters with the Coast Guard, which demanded that he hire a safety boat to accompany him on his next try — just as swimmer Diana Nyad did when she swam from Cuba to Miami in 2013. But Baluchi refused to hire one. "I don't want other people risk their lives for my dream," Baluchi says. "I am adventurer. If boat go follow you, this no adventure."
Instead, he decided to try again without a safety boat — and without Coast Guard approval. He ran his bubble into the waves from Pompano Beach April 24 and made it only as far as Jupiter before the Coast Guard stopped him.
This time, the Coast Guard towed the bubble in safely. In a statement later that day, Miami Coast Guard Commander Austin Gould called the voyage "inherently unsafe" and said Baluchi's "adventure unnecessarily risked the lives of Mr. Baluchi, the maritime public, and our Coast Guard men and women."
"I think a lot of people want to dismiss him for being a nutjob just because of his accent or his appearance or his personality," says Tolz, the surf shop worker. "But he's a good-hearted person who's not trying to harm anyone."
Hoping the Coast Guard would leave him alone, Baluchi resolved to begin his next attempt at running to Bermuda from international waters. Pompano Beach free diver Michael Dornellas agreed to tow Baluchi and his bubble toward the Bahamas July 8, free of charge.
"I had known who Reza was and about his determination to complete this journey," Dornellas says. "I was happy to be a part of that."
After the Coast Guard stopped them 12 miles out and found a half-full fire extinguisher onboard, Dornellas and Baluchi had to return to shore. They replaced the extinguisher and started out again. The Coast Guard stopped the two a second time but couldn't find anything wrong with the boat and let them go. Dornellas cut Baluchi loose 20 miles east of Jupiter.
"It was tough to watch him go," Dornellas says. "I was scared, thinking he's going to be so alone out there."
But he wasn't for long. That night, the Coast Guard stopped Baluchi a third time. When the blue light beamed from the Robert Yered and the deep voice told Baluchi his trip was over, he refused to leave his bubble. He said he didn't want to be saved.
For the next three days, Baluchi and the Robert Yered drifted north. They were at an impasse. Baluchi ate protein bars and drank Gatorade as temperatures inside the plastic bubble reached 130 degrees. The Coast Guard tried to talk him out of his hydro pod.
This is where the story diverges. According to a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office incident report, Baluchi "pulled out a knife, held it to his chest, and stated that he would kill himself if the U.S.C.G. did not unhook their boat from his raft and allow him to continue his travel."
Baluchi flatly denies that version of events. "Why would I want hurt myself? I am survivor-man."
In any case, at 2 a.m. July 11, 90 nautical miles from Jacksonville, Baluchi finally agreed to abandon his voyage. Another Coast Guard ship, the cutter Ridley, arrived to take him back to land. But as soon as he stepped onboard, the crew slapped handcuffs on him.
As the Ridley sailed into Jacksonville, the Robert Yered stayed behind to sink the hydro pod. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Nyx Cagemi said it had drifted too far out to tow and posed a hazard to other ships.
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On land, Jacksonville Police committed Baluchi to the Jacksonville Mental Health Resource Center, a psychiatric hospital. The next night, Baluchi met with a group of patients being treated for substance abuse, depression, and schizophrenia. Asked why he was there, Baluchi said, "Running to Bermuda in a bubble."
That's when the meeting spiraled out of control, according to Paul Hoffman, who volunteers to lead group sessions at the center. "Everybody just wanted to talk about the bubble," he recalls. "[Baluchi] reminds me of those old-timey daredevils who would get in a barrel and go over Niagara Falls. He has an insane idea, but he's not insane."
Baluchi was released the next day. Without a car, he began running the nearly 300 miles home. Hoffman spotted him on the road, picked him up, and drove him back to Highland Beach. "I feel blessed to have been able to help him out," Hoffman says. "He has an infectious personality and a charisma that makes total strangers want to step up."
Back home, Baluchi is burning through the last of his savings from the crab-boat gig and looking for a job. He plans to build another bubble. "My message is... no matter how many times you fail, you can do it," he says. "My goal is make this so people say, 'My God, they stop him three times, they destroy his bubble, but he made it. I can make it too.'"