The Bold Man and the Sea

Adventurer Dwight Collins pedaled his way across the Atlantic to England in a record 40 days
December 28, 1992

Sitting atop the TV in dwight and Corinne Collins's tiny two-room converted barn in Noroton, Conn., is a black-and-white photo of one of Dwight's heroes. It's a picture of Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith, the corn-pone patriot who confounds the Washington politicos in the movie classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It figures that Dwight Collins, 35, identifies with Frank Capra's inspiring story of a man who stands up for what he believes in.

On July 24, at 3:30 p.m. in Plymouth, England, Collins completed the first pedal-powered crossing of the Atlantic. His 40-day adventure smashed the record for a human-powered transatlantic trip (by a British oarsman in 1987) by nearly two weeks.

The Atlantic first lured Collins the way the Mississippi lured Huck. By the age of 10, Collins, dreaming of an ocean crossing, had built and sailed half a dozen rafts on the Goodwives River, a stone's throw from his backdoor in Noroton.

In high school he assembled files of clippings on transatlantic voyages and sailing craft. While he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1978, his perusal of an issue of Human Power caused a light bulb to flash on over his head. Another subject file was born, pedal boats, and a new mission took hold of his imagination. "In life everything is gray," he says, "but the idea of pedaling the Atlantic was clear, simple, straightforward, and it had never been done."

For the next 12 years the files went with Collins wherever he went—to college, to a stint with the elite Navy SEALs and finally to a job in real estate in Princeton, N.J. However, it wasn't until January 1990, when Corinne Ham stumbled upon her fiancè's pedal-boat file while helping him pack for the move back to Noroton, that the project finally took off. As Collins says, "I knew I was engaged to the right person when Corinne said, 'Dwight, this is a great idea. You've got to do it!' "

Two-and-a-half years later, after logging nearly 4,000 hours on a recumbent stationary bike in his living room and after cleaning out their savings of $30,000 and raising another $30,000 from sponsors, Collins was ready to launch his pedal boat, an enclosed 24-by 4½-foot, 850-pound orange-and-white beauty named Tango. Made of carbon fiber and cedar strips, the watertight, self-righting boat was designed by marine architect Bruce Kirby, and her fittings were the work of a dozen other people. The belt-drive pedal system was assembled from bicycle parts, and the hull was constructed by Goetz Marine Technology (renowned for building America's Cup boats) in Bristol, R.I. Even Children's Hospital in Newington," Conn., got into the act. Using technology that had been developed for the disabled, hospital workers built and donated a form-fitting recumbent seat in which Collins could pedal comfortably for hours at a stretch. After fine-tuning, and with half her cost picked up by Collins's three main sponsors—Mo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•t, Virgin Atlantic and Breitling, a Swiss watch manufacturer—Tango (named for the Collinses' wedding dance) was the kind of state-of-the-art craft that Captain Nemo would have admired.

On June 10, Dwight and Corinne arrived in St. John's, Newfoundland, the starting point for the voyage. They didn't cause much of a stir among the townsfolk. In fact, a local billboard's greeting seemed downright inauspicious: WELCOME TO NEWFOUNDLAND. ONLY SIX MOTORISTS KILLED BY MOOSE THIS YEAR. Four days later, however, a small crowd—many of them family members—had gathered to bid farewell to Dwight. Dressed in a T-shirt, bicycle shorts and shoes, and with a four-leaf clover given to him by an anonymous well-wisher tucked into his pocket, he set off at 2:30 p.m. in a craft that was equipped with everything from a reverse-osmosis water-maker to two dozen packages of Fig Newtons.

A stronger-than-anticipated Labrador Current off the coast of Newfoundland pushed Tango to the south, making for some leg-fatiguing early going. Even pedaling an inhuman 17 to 20 hours a day, Collins could only slog along. During one particularly depressing 17-hour stretch he covered a measly 10 miles.

Two weeks into the trip, though, a little luck—and a lot of danger—in the form of foul weather, with winds from the southwest, gave Collins a huge push toward England. Skidding down 30-foot waves during four days of gale-force winds, Tango was virtually catapulted eastward. More storms continued to speed him across the Atlantic. "By the end of the trip, I had gone through so many gales I could hardly keep track," he says. "Corinne kept telling me over the radio that there were no more storms, then I'd pedal into yet another one. I just ended up laughing." Thirty-foot waves and 50-mph winds are hardly laughing matters. But then Collins is at his pragmatic best in trying times. "When the weather was bad, it was important to take advantage of the following sea," he says. "So I pedaled as hard as I could and coasted down these huge waves. It was exhilarating." And efficient. During one 24-hour period of pedaling, Collins covered 90 miles.

There were the inevitable lulls, of course, but no respite from danger. Halfway across, Collins paused for a few hours in the middle of a foggy night to repair his pedal-drive system. At 2 a.m., when a light flashed across one of his portholes, he suddenly realized he was not alone. Four hundred feet away a trawler was bearing down on him. Scrambling for his flares and radio, Collins was not entirely comforted by earlier assurances from Kirby, the boat's designer, that even if Tango were cut in half, she would still float. Two hundred feet away, the trawler finally caught the tiny boat in its spotlight and veered off. A relieved Collins noted in his journal, "Talk about ships passing in the night!"

The fear of being crushed by a trawler, however, can't be compared with the terror of having your Walkman die just days after putting to sea. To keep boredom at bay, Collins had stocked his craft with dozens of tapes, including favorites by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Kingston Trio, as well as numerous recorded books. Moisture, however, seeped into the tape player and led to its demise. "Listening to a biography of Ulysses S. Grant at 16 rpm can put you to sleep real fast," says Collins with a smile. Corinne, in daily radio contact with her husband, was worried enough about this turn of events to ask Sony if they could airlift a new Walkman to Dwight. Sony was willing but, given Tango's, location at the time, couldn't make the delivery.

Of course, if Tom Petty had been blasting into Collins's ears several days later, the intrepid sailor might never have sensed the trouble that was trailing him in the form of a 12-foot shark. "I got this feeling I was being followed," says Collins, "so I turned around, and there was this dorsal fin sticking three feet above the water. I stopped pedaling and it came toward me, then veered away. A half hour later I turned around again, and he was back. I wasn't scared, but I was relieved when he got bored and disappeared."

Forty days and 30 pounds after leaving Newfoundland—the cookies, high-carbohydrate drinks, energy bars and freeze-dried food apparently couldn't keep up with his calorie-burning pace—Collins coasted into Plymouth harbor. While Collins was being escorted to a dock by a British harbor patrol vessel, an officer was overheard to say, as if just catching on, "A bloody wally on a bicycle is pedaling across the pond!" He was soon dubbed the madcap mariner by the British tabloids and was the subject of a Daily Mirror story that ran under the headline: WHAT MAKES A MAN BATTLE 2,200 MILES ALONE ACROSS THE SEA IN A PEDAL BOAT? After seven paragraphs of serious psychologizing, here was the Mirror's answer: "...because Dwight is obsessed with the call of the wild...he cannot lace life without proving his manhood...and that means staring danger and death in the face."

Collins's own reason for his trip was much simpler. Perhaps someday another would-be adventurer will embark on a similar trip, inspired by a note Collins placed in an empty champagne bottle and dropped into the middle of a stormy .Atlantic: "To whoever finds this bottle—may you have the courage to pursue that which means the most to you."

PHOTOMARK GREENBERG/VISIONSThe watertight and self-righting Tango left Newfoundland on the afternoon of June 14. PHOTOMARK GREENBERG/VISIONSCollins pedaled 17 to 20 hours a day and was helped by winds that pushed him eastward. PHOTOMARK GREENBERG/VISIONSCorinne was in Plymouth to greet the "madcap mariner" upon his arrival.