Reza Baluchi wants his bubble back.
The seagoing cylinder, encased in a metal frame, allowed him to run on water, like a hamster in a wheel.
Baluchi, 42, is an endurance athlete with a dream of spreading peace — and the bubble was his latest attempt at doing that.
But right now, he said Sunday, “My bubble is in the middle of the ocean.”
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When a Coast Guard crew plucked him from the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, the bubble remained bobbing in the waves.
Wednesday afternoon, Coast Guard crews spotted the circular vessel off the Florida coast. Passing boats reported a man inside a bubble, and that he looked disoriented and was asking for directions to Bermuda.
Crews followed for hours as the man bubbled north, and by Thursday afternoon, had pieced together what he was trying to do: travel more than 1,000 miles from Pompano Beach to the island cluster 640 miles east of North Carolina.
Bermuda was just one stop in Baluchi’s ambitious mission to outline the Bermuda Triangle: a thousand miles to Bermuda, another thousand south to Puerto Rico and another thousand northwest, back to South Florida.
Baluchi was on his own. No support boats followed him — a common safety net for athletes attempting open-water travels.
Eventually, the Coast Guard deemed Baluchi to be in “grave danger,” and asked him to end his journey — 185 miles north of his starting point, and 80 miles off the coast of St. Augustine.
Coast Guard Capt. Todd Coggeshall reached Baluchi by phone Thursday and offered to get him back to shore. Officials feared he wouldn’t have enough supplies to survive. They found out he was carrying little more than protein bars, bottled water, a GPS and the satellite telephone where he was reached.
Coggeshall told Baluchi that he hadn’t made much eastbound progress on his intended track and warned him that the weather was going to get worse.
“I’ve been two years practicing for this,” Baluchi responded. “I don’t know what I can do. ... I will continue, though.”
And so he did. Until Saturday, when the Coast Guard airlifted him out of his bubble.
Officials say they responded when Baluchi’s positioning beacon went off, and found him “fatigued.”
They wanted him back on shore.
“He activated both his spot beacon and personal locating beacon. That’s a distress call. When he activated those two things, he was calling for help,” said Petty Officer Mark Barney, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard.
Baluchi disagrees. He said Sunday that he didn’t turn on the beacon intentionally, and had the energy to keep going.
He said people thought he was disoriented because he was sleeping during the day and bubbling along at night. Baluchi calculated that temperatures inside the bubble would top 120 degrees during the day, so for the four days he was at sea, he waited until nightfall to move forward.
“I never quit,” he said. “It’s not me.”
When he was pulled from the water Saturday morning, he said he was told that a fisherman would haul his bubble back to shore.
Now, Baluchi is being told that the fisherman is nowhere to be found, and neither is his bubble.
“The bubble was left adrift,” Barney said. “Our concern is not the bubble. Our main concern was to get him out of the water.”
Officials say it now could be hundreds of miles from where they left it.
“It was caught up in the same Gulf Stream he was caught in,” Barney said. “If it didn’t sink, or unless someone retrieved it, the stream shot it up north. It’s a very powerful current.”
Baluchi says his valuables remain in the bubble — his green card, passport, phone, even his shoes.
The bubble looks like fun — like a backyard inflatable, or a daredevil’s prop at the circus — but he says it’s no toy.
Baluchi combined his knowledge of physics with $4,500 — all he had in savings — to design and build what he calls his Hydro Pod.
“I was working two jobs,” said Baluchi, who worked on and off as a mechanic and restaurant dishwasher. “It took a long time.”
Without money, or a boat, he says he’ll need help to get his bubble back. He also needs to do it quickly. The law of maritime salvage states that anyone who recovers another person’s ship or cargo after peril or loss at sea is entitled to a reward equal to the value of the property.
“I’m in trouble,” Baluchi said from the home of a friend in Tampa where he is staying. “Big trouble.”
Baluchi has made headlines before.
In 2007, he ran the perimeter of the United States to raise money for the Children’s Hospital of Denver, and in 2009, ran from Los Angeles to New York City.
In the summer of 2010, Baluchi ran 135 miles from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in California.
“I believe my heart is love and I simply follow my heart where it takes me, in peace around the world,” he wrote on his website.
His journey started in his homeland of Iran, where he says he was tortured as a young man for anti-Islamic beliefs. With little more than his bike, Baluchi left. He went on to cross 55 countries before arriving in the United States through the Mexican border in 2002.
He says he was found by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the desert, famished. Eventually, he was granted political asylum.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Baluchi ran from the West Coast to Ground Zero, carrying an American flag, hoping to dispel some of the negative perceptions of Middle Easterners after the attacks.
The bubble trip to Bermuda, he said, was to raise money for children in need through his charity, Plant Unity, and “to inspire those that have lost hope for a better future.”
Around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, the waters were calm, just as Baluchi hoped.
Thomas Hermann, a physics teacher at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale, helped Baluchi roll the bubble into the waters off Pompano Beach, near Northeast 12th Street, and sent him floating on his way.
Baluchi had been in South Florida roughly 40 days and nights after trekking here from California in his Ford F-150 — the bubble in tow.
Herman says Baluchi had been sleeping in a warehouse, looking for anyone who would help jump-start his journey.
At one point, he enlisted the help of the Sea Side Restaurant and Grill on Northeast 14th Street in Pompano Beach. Baluchi put together the Hydro Pod in a parking lot near the restaurant, and was supposed to have a send-off party Sunday, Sept. 21.
“We were going to put something together for him, but then the owner of the restaurant decided not to because he didn’t think he would be successful in his journey,” said Josh Garber, 30, a valet at the restaurant who helped Baluchi with the bubble in the parking lot.
Disheartened but hopeful, Baluchi continued to roam the beach trying to rally supporters, and eventually met Hermann.
“He came up to me begging for help, and asked me if I had shampoo,” he said. “I welcomed him into my home and told him he could take a shower.”
The physics teacher and adjunct professor at St. Thomas University in Northwest Miami-Dade bonded with Baluchi over their shared Catholic faith.
Baluchi tried to bubble off last weekend. Hermann invited his students and their parents, and tried to create a buzz on social media.
But the tide wasn’t in their favor, and combined with another mishap, the send-off went bust.
“There were kids on the beach. And they were jumping inside it,” Baluchi said, who took his eyes off the bubble to talk to potential supporters.
He said the children were a bit fat, and the bubble’s weight limit is about 200 pounds. By the time he got back to it, the kids had burst his bubble.
But that didn’t burst Baluchi’s dream.
“I patched up the hole, and it was ready,” said Baluchi, who would finally set off three days later.
Now, his mission is in limbo.
“I go around running, telling people, if you have a dream, you can do anything,” Baluchi said. “Now I’m here, no money, no bubble, no anything.”
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