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Florida Man Arrested After Fourth Attempt at "Hamster Wheel" Voyage

Baluchi's device after an aborted transit in 2021 (Flagler County Sheriff's Office)
Baluchi's latest version of the device after an aborted transit in 2021 (Flagler County Sheriff's Office)

Published Sep 6, 2023 7:00 PM by Paul Benecki

Once again, the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted and detained a former professional athlete for an ill-advised attempt to cross the Atlantic in a drum-like paddle wheel device of his own design. 

Reza Baluchi, 51, was on his fourth attempt to make a human-powered ocean voyage with an improvised craft. His vessel of choice is a human-powered cylinder, which has been compared to a hamster wheel; by running inside of it, the operator causes it to rotate, potentially propelling it forwards. 

Baluchi's previous attempts have not fared well. In his first, he allegedly signaled for help and was rescued by the Coast Guard. After this incident, the Coast Guard warned him that he would have to conduct any future voyages in this device with a support vessel alongside, or not at all. Baluchi has repeatedly breached that order. In 2021, he explained to the Times that he had put everything he had into the device, and a support vessel would be prohibitively expensive. 

A previous iteration of the device (Reza Baluchi)

The latest attempt, like the previous three, ended shortly after it began. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Valiant intercepted Baluchi at a position about 70 miles off Tybee Island. This time, Baluchi told the officers that he was under way for London, and he resisted a boarding. Baluchi allegedly told the Coast Guard that he would take his own life if anyone tried to detain him. He later upgraded the threat by claiming that there was a bomb on board, and that he would detonate it if needed to prevent arrest. 

The crew of the Valiant took the threat seriously, and they consulted with a U.S. Navy EOD team to determine the potential blast radius of any possible bomb on board. They were joined soon after by the cutter Campbell, which launched its small boat to deliver Baluchi food and water. The officers informed him of the approach of Hurricane Idalia and again ordered him off the vessel. 

After a two-day standoff, Baluchi admitted that there was no bomb on the improvised craft. One more day later, he was disembarked from the craft and taken into Coast Guard custody. The crew delivered him safely to Miami Beach on September 1.

Baluchi has been charged with obstructing a boarding and violating a captain of the port order. "Based on the condition of the vessel – which was afloat as a result of wiring and buoys – USCG officers determined Baluchi was conducting a manifestly unsafe voyage," the arresting officer said in a charging document.

Before his venture into improvised craft, Baluchi was a professional cyclist and long-distance runner, known for his charity fund-raising runs. He has said that proceeds from charitable giving connected to his ocean crossing attempts would be donated to the U.S. Coast Guard, among other recipients.