A rapidly intensifying Hurricane Franklin had U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) officials preparing off the coast of Georgia in late August when they made a startling discovery—a car-sized “hamster wheel” manned by a marathon runner attempting a transatlantic voyage.
They approached the cylindrical vessel that had a metal frame and flotation buoys encircling each end.
Inside, they discovered, the propulsion system was the legs of the sole occupant—51-year-old Ray “Reza” Baluchi.
The contraption rolled along the top of the water like a floating hamster exercise wheel, officials said.
Mr. Baluchi was trying to navigate his “Hydro Pod” more than 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to London, England.
But there was a problem.
Also spinning over the water was Franklin, then a Category 3 hurricane, and as it approached the east coast of the United States—just south of Bermuda—it was heading directly in Mr. Baluchi’s intended path.
When Coast Guardsmen told Mr. Baluchi he was conducting a "manifestly unsafe voyage," the marathon runner refused to disembark and allegedly held a 12-knife to his chest, threatening to kill himself.
A four-day standoff ensued. Eventually, the incident involved two cutters—the CG Valiant and CG Campbell—and associated crew and fuel costs.
After Mr. Baluchi allegedly threatened to detonate a bomb, Coast Guard officials called for the U.S. Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit for help, reports showed.
Eventually, Mr. Baluchi admitted the bomb was not real, and Coast Guardsmen arrested him on Sept. 1 after bringing him ashore in Miami Beach, Florida.
He was released on a $250,000 bail and faces a penalty of up to $95,000 and seven years in prison.
In court, Judge Jacqueline Becerra ordered his arraignment and preliminary hearing on Oct. 16.
While released on bail, Mr. Baluchi is barred from going near the ocean or boarding a vessel, according to court documents.
The Maiden VoyageMr. Baluchi built and tested his first Hydro Pod in November 2014 when he attempted a trip from Miami to Bermuda. The journey was cut short when the hamster-wheel-like vessel capsized, and he activated his satellite-GPS locator device, triggering a Coast Guard rescue.
Coast Guardsmen flew 70 miles offshore in a helicopter in the middle of the night to hoist Mr. Baluchi out of the ocean, according to a 2015 letter from the USCG to Mr. Baluchi.
Officials noted that he did not seem prepared for his journey to Bermuda. They were concerned that he only had bottled water, protein bars, a GPS device, and a satellite phone when they found him.
Mr. Baluchi insisted that he activated the locator by accident. The cost of the rescue reached $144,000, according to the Coast Guard. In today's dollars, that would be upwards of $185,000.
In 2015, he told Coast Guard officials he planned to try again to reach Bermuda.
In response, officials issued two warnings to him that year and another in 2016. They said he wasn't permitted to attempt another trip in his Hydro Pod unless he met minimum conditions for safety.
“The Coast Guard is, and has been, supportive of arduous individual and team challenges in the maritime environment," Rear Admiral S. A. Buschman wrote in a 2015 letter.
"However, it is incumbent upon the Coast Guard to ensure these events are conducted in a safe manner."
But in 2016, Mr. Baluchi departed again, this time from Pompano Beach, Florida, but was stopped by the Coast Guard in Jupiter, about 50 miles north.
In a letter, USCG Captain of the Port A.J. Gould urged Mr. Baluchi to "develop a voyage plan meeting the requirements I have set forth previously."
He warned that the penalty for failing to use a support boat and seek prior approval from authorities before departure could be seven years of prison time and $40,000 in fines.
During his second 2016 voyage, after Mr. Baluchi was towed into international waters, the Coast Guard followed, USCG records show. For three days, they tried to entice him to exit the vessel.
Intended Voyage Gets RiskierUndeterred, Mr. Baluchi attempted another trip in 2021, this time from St. Augustine, Florida, to New York City. But 30 miles south of his departure point, Mr. Baluchi and his Hydro Pod washed ashore on Flagler Beach.
Startled by the unusual vessel, a concerned beachgoer called the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies arrived and questioned Mr. Baluchi, who said he ended his journey early after losing equipment to theft, according to a police report.
In 2023, Mr. Baluchi aimed higher with a plan to travel 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to London, England. Ignoring orders from the Coast Guard, he embarked in August.
When authorities found him 70 nautical miles east of Tybee Island, Georgia, they tried to warn him about Hurricane Franklin, which was strengthening and heading north toward Bermuda, Coast Guard officials said.
After the four-day standoff, the Coast Guard successfully removed Mr. Baluchi from his Hydro Pod and brought him ashore at the USCG base in Miami Beach.
He was arrested for obstruction of a boarding, and violation of a Captain-of-the-Port Order, according to court documents.
Successful Transatlantic AdventurerCrossing the Atlantic Ocean in a self-propelled vessel is not a simple undertaking.
Aurimas Valujavicius, a 29-year-old Lithuanian endurance athlete, said he trained an average of 12 hours a day for two years before attempting his 5,000-mile journey from Spain to Miami in his single-seat row boat.
Mr. Valujavicius told The Epoch Times that he was inspired to row across the Atlantic after receiving a spirited message from an online follower while paddling down a local river.
The message included a trailer video for the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, an annual rowing competition that takes teams 3,000 nautical miles across the ocean.
He soon formulated plans to beat the current world record—111 days—for the fastest nonstop solo trip from Europe to the mainland United States without a support boat.
He ate four packages of tactical food packs and drank four liters of water a day, which he produced using a Schenker Watermaker, a complex filtration system that makes ocean water drinkable.
He supplemented his usual diet with chocolate bunnies and sashimi he made from a Mahi-Mahi he caught for fun.
To make sure his voyage was approved by authorities in Europe and the United States, Mr. Valujavicius registered his boat, purchased special insurance for transatlantic trips, and secured B1 and B2 tourist visas for the United States after seeking advice from the Coast Guard, he said.
He also downloaded a special app from United States immigration that would allow him to provide information before reaching the U.S. shore.
He was briefly followed by two police boats when he arrived within a few nautical miles of Miami, but they soon departed without asking questions, he said.
The biggest obstacle was the weather. But the most trouble didn't come from storms.
Instead, he hit a lull in the mid-Atlantic, where waves were too calm, providing no help in propelling him toward Florida.
Mr. Valujavicius landed on a beach near Coral Gables, Florida, on April 25 after being at sea for 120 days, 14 hours, and 48 minutes, he said. He missed the world record by nine days.
But, he said, he's proud to have become the first Lithuanian to successfully row from Europe to North America unaided.