From Cuba to Florida on a SUP

With stand-up paddling’s popularity explosion, we check in with SUP record-holder Ben Friberg after his Cuba-to-Florida journey.

Just a few weeks before 64-year-old swimmer Diana Nyad made her now-famous journey, swimming the 110 miles of open water from Cuba to the Florida Keys in a period of about 53 hours, a 35-year-old man from Chattanooga, Tenn., set a similar record on a stand up paddleboard (SUP). For his remarkable journey, he earned his place in the record books as the first person to paddle a SUP from Cuba to Florida.

For 28 hours, Ben Friberg, a 35-year-old jazz musician who works by the day at his family’s funeral home business near Chattanooga, stood upon a narrow paddleboard, balanced in the choppy open water and paddled with a long paddle that looks like a modified canoe paddle.

On Aug. 1, 2013, he checked out of Cuba at the Marina Hemingway’s Club Nautico, the international yacht club serving Havana, and paddled almost due north to Smathers Beach in Key West. It was a journey that would take him some 118 miles as he arced out to gather the flow of the Gulf Stream to help propel him. WhereTraveler caught up with this adventuresome traveler and record holder to talk about his journey with SUPs and where his love of the sport has taken him.

You’ve been to some amazing places for these records. Let’s start with your previous record in the Yukon.
Friberg: Yes, in 2012 I covered 238 miles on the Yukon River on a SUP [setting the 24-hour, moving-water distance record on a SUP]. The Yukon River is where everyone goes to set that record these days. Andy Corra set the canoe/kayak record there in 2010, then Carter Johnson broke that record in 2011 [paddling 279 miles in 24 hours on moving water]. I planned that trip for eight months. You’re stepping off an airplane in some place you’ve never been.

OK, now let’s fast-forward to Cuba.
I started planning [the Cuba trip] this time last year right after the Yukon. It was 50-50 that I wouldn’t make it, but knew it would be fun either way and even if it didn’t succeed, I would get a great story out of it. But we made it. It was definitely a grind, but things went pretty smooth. The purpose was to be a proud advocate of SUP paddling, and to demonstrate the potential that a SUP has.

Let’s talk about the conditions. This is not your local lake or inlet.
You’ve got open water with chop and swells, and the swells can really help you sometimes if they’re moving in the right direction, or they can fight you. I didn’t have much help on this trip. I was traveling NNE, and the trade winds usually come out of West, but the winds were coming at 2 o’clock, and the swells as well.

You have these things that can influence your day, and it’s rare to get a day when all things are great. Heat was a factor; the Gulf Stream was a factor, the current going across, even eddies that form around the Gulf Stream. Some people who had attempted that crossing in the past sometimes got stuck in those eddies. Marine life is another variable to throw in the equation. And then there’s your stomach and your nutrition. And the biggest variable was just getting permission from both governments for this travel.

What was it like getting permission from the U.S. government to go to Cuba?
I had a lot of hold-ups, and was told I probably wouldn’t be given permission by Washington, but eventually we were just given permission. It was a long process. [The delays] put us in the middle of hurricane season; we had Tropical Storm Dory in there that we needed to avoid. June and July is good, before hurricanes come but after winds die down.

How did you actually get to Cuba with a 14-foot paddleboard. Those don’t exactly fit in the overhead bins.
We actually met in Key West and we sailed to Cuba on a 44-foot catamaran and then I paddled back. Getting a board to the Yukon was even harder. I was paddling an 18-foot carbon fiber board on that trip, and I didn’t trust a shipping company to get it there without a crack, or even in one piece still.

You had to hole up in Cuba to wait for improved conditions. What was it like seeing that nation?
It’s just an amazing place. Someday Cuba will be a destination that everyone will go and see. It’s the complete package—the people, the architecture, the cuisine. (Havana)’s a city with integrity like you’d find in Western Europe, but it’s right there in the Caribbean.

Ben Friberg paddles his SUP from Cuba to Key West, Florida.

It sounds like this journey was physically difficult, but fairly uneventful. What was the scariest point you have ever had on a SUP journey?
A 12-foot tiger shark came up to me once when I was a mile and a half off the Maui coast. It just came up and checked me out. Sharks are like dogs; they are curious and just want to know if you belong there. I just continued to paddle at a nice cadence, moving efficiently like I belonged there. Fortunately there was no food or blood in the water; the tiger shark was within four feet of my board.

What’s next?
I’m researching the Bearing Strait now. The Bearing Strait is tough, because they [the Russian government] don’t want you to land on a beach, they want you to land at a port of call. It is only 53 miles beach to beach, but it is another 150 miles to a port of call.

OK, but what about when you’re not talking about new records? What travel will your love of SUP take you?
I’d like to go back to the Yukon River and do a mellow 1,000 miles up there [the Yukon River runs through British Columbia, the Yukon territory and the entire state of Alaska]. That’s true backcountry, true wilderness. The Yukon is real; it’s vast. It’s all self-support.

Is there any place warmer you’d want to go?
I’d like to do more stand-up paddling in Hawaii; I’d like to do some channel crossings between the islands. Those have been done by the Hawaiians. And someday I’d like to paddle across the state of Tennessee.

After completing a similar journey, what does Nyad's swim mean to you?
It brings to light the true meaning of "Never give up."  What she went through to swim across that channel is something most of us can't imagine.  It will inspire endurance athletes for years to come as well as motivation for us to all keep chasing our dreams no matter how far along life's journey we have already traveled.

You’re not only a SUP paddler; you’re also are hosting your own event [in the popular travel destination and mountain town that is Chattanooga, Tenn.]
Yes, the Chattajack. People are coming from all over the entire U.S. for this Oct. 26th, 31-mile paddling race on the Tennessee River through the Tennessee River gorge. It’s a beautiful place, where 800-foot walls rise up from the river. And it’s spectator-friendly, especially from Coolidge Park right there in downtown Chattanooga.

We’re seeing SUP shops pop up all over the U.S., ready to rent boards for travelers on vacation. What would you tell someone about what to expect on their first SUP outing?
The recreational and rental boards are typically fiberglass and are shaped differently than race boards; the recreation boards are designed for stability.  But even with that extra stability, you will fatigue quickest in your legs and feet, in your lower body. Your upper body actually has it easier.

Travel Tip: Want to SUP in Key West, where Friberg completed his Cuba-U.S. journey? Check with Patricia Miller at Lazy Dog SUP shop in Key West, offering SUP instruction and SUP yoga, as well as tours via SUP and kayaks.

Geoff Kohl
About the author

Geoff Kohl previously served as the chief travel editor for Where and Read Geoff's full bio