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Coast Guard arrests a man trying to run a giant hamster wheel across the Atlantic

Reza Baluchi was taken in by the U.S. Coast Guard last week while trying to cross the Atlantic in a "hydro pod" made of buoys. Authorities in Flagler County, Fla., responded to Baluchi and his vessel in 2021 and posted photos of his vessel on Facebook.
Flagler County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office on Facebook
Reza Baluchi was taken in by the U.S. Coast Guard last week while trying to cross the Atlantic in a "hydro pod" made of buoys. Authorities in Flagler County, Fla., responded to Baluchi and his vessel in 2021 and posted photos of his vessel on Facebook.

Try as he might, Reza Baluchi can't reach his destination without running afoul of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The key problem is his vessel: a giant floating hamster wheel made of buoys and wire, self-propelled by Baluchi running inside.

Baluchi, who lives in Florida after being granted asylum from Iran, was taken in by the Coast Guard last week aboard his vessel, following several days of back and forth with the authorities.

According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. district court in South Florida, the Coast Guard cutter Valiant came across Baluchi and his homemade vessel about 70 nautical miles east of Tybee Island, Ga., on Aug. 26 as the Coast Guard was preparing for Hurricane Franklin.

He told officers his destination: London, England — more than 4,000 miles away.

Baluchi was asked for the vehicle's registration; he said it was registered in Florida but that he couldn't find the registration, according to the complaint.

The Coast Guard assessed Baluchi's vessel — known as a hydro-pod — and determined he was "conducting a manifestly unsafe voyage," according to Coast Guard Special Agent Michael Perez in the complaint, which does not identify Baluchi's starting point.

The officers then approached Baluchi in a small boat, and instructed him to join them — they were ending his voyage due to it being unsafe. Baluchi replied that he had a 12-inch knife and would attempt to kill himself if the officers attempted to remove him from his vessel, according to the complaint. The officers returned to the cutter and stayed nearby.

When the officers tried again over the next day or so to get Baluchi to join them on the small boat, Baluchi displayed two knives and threatened to hurt himself if officers boarded his vessel. Baluchi also "threatened to blow himself up," along with his vessel. The officers saw him holding wires in his hand and believed him, the complaint says.

The following day, a second Coast Guard cutter, named Campbell, arrived and sent a small boat to Baluchi to deliver food, water and word that the hurricane was expected. Baluchi refused again to leave his vessel, and told the officers that the bomb wasn't real.

On August 29, the Campbell once more sent a small boat, and this time was able to safely remove Baluchi from his floating hamster wheel. Baluchi was brought ashore in Miami Beach last Friday, where he was released on $250,000 bond.

While his case is underway, he's barred from travel outside the Southern District of Florida, and "may not go to the ocean or board a vessel on the ocean" — a special condition added to his bond agreement.

It was not his first try

This was far from Baluchi's first encounter with the Coast Guard. He "has attempted voyages in a similar homemade vessel in 2014, 2016, and 2021, all of which resulted in USCG intervention," Perez notes.

Baluchi is a man of big dreams and unorthodox methods. Not long after arriving in the U.S., he was profiled in The New York Times as he began a quest to run across the country, Forrest Gump-style. He reportedly finished the coast-to-coast journey not once but twice.

He was also the focus of a short documentary from VICE about Baluchi's 2014 and 2016 attempts to travel from Boca Raton, Fla., to Bermuda — a distance of more than 1,000 miles — by running inside his homemade floating bubble.

In the video, Baluchi explains his motivation in using unusual means of travel: "If you drive a boat, nobody cares. Bubble, nobody did before."

Todd Coggeshall, formerly of the U.S. Coast Guard, recalled what happened during the 2014 attempt, which he called "by far the most bizarre case that I was involved with."

"One of our sectors, Sector Miami, got a call from a concerned boater that there was a man in a bubble that was lost and was asking for directions to Bermuda," Coggeshall told VICE. "It became really obvious really fast that he wasn't a sailor, didn't know the ocean, and was unequipped to do what he was attempting to do."

"We referred to it as the hamster wheel of doom," Coggeshall remembered, adding that temperatures could get up to 120 degrees inside the bubble, and that Baluchi was more likely to get pushed to England or swept into a swirling eddy in the middle of the Atlantic than make it from Florida to Bermuda.

The Coast Guard tried to take him in but he didn't want to go, Coggeshall said, and stayed with him for a day or so before leaving him be. "A day or two later, a cold front knocked the bubble on his side, so [Baluchi] set off what's called a spot device," and the Coast Guard went and rescued him. (Baluchi saidhe turned on the beacon accidentally.) The Captain of the Port of Miami ordered Baluchi not to attempt to travel to Bermuda in his bubble.

Baluchi tried again in 2016. This time, the Coast Guard came upon Baluchi, told him they were terminating his voyage for being manifestly unsafe, and that he should embark their boat.

"Make me crazy," Baluchi is seen telling the Coast Guard officers. "I've been five years, like, do this thing. They stop me every time, they save my life. I don't no need it, save my life. I don't no need it."

He told the officers that he had five or six lights and two life jackets. "I have a GPS. I have a laptop [to] watch movie," Baluchi protested. But the officers said his voyage was unsafe and based on the Captain of the Port order and his physical condition, the officers hauled him in.

And they sank his bubble as a hazard to navigation. "They shot, they sink my bubble," Baluchi told VICE. "No more bubble I have." With it sank all off his supplies. Coggeshall said the cost to taxpayers for the Coast Guard response was about $144,000.

He has also tried for New York

In 2021, Baluchi's redesigned hamster wheel made headlines when it came onshore in Flagler County, Fla. Bodycam footage shows his interaction with the responding officers from the Flagler County Sheriff's Office. "Where are you supposed to land?" the officer asks.

"I'm going to New York," Baluchi says, his giant hamster wheel on the beach behind him.

"Did you start on a bigger vessel?" the officer asks. Baluchi looks at him blankly and says, "Huh?"

"Were you on a bigger vessel or is this all you have?" the officer asks.

"This is all I have," says Baluchi.

Baluchi now faces charges of Obstruction of Boarding, and Violation of a Captain of the Port Order.

Whether it will be enough to keep Baluchi on land remains to be seen.

"Dream no coming after you," Baluchi told VICE. "You must follow your dream."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.