Drifitng, empty kayak makes it hundreds of miles to Florida

MIAMI — It began as a mystery. Where was the owner of the expensive, blue-and-white racing kayak that a boat captain found Tuesday drifting 3 ½ miles off Key Largo in the Florida Keys with no one aboard?

The U.S. Coast Guard searched by air and sea, but found no one in distress. Next they turned detectives and searched the Internet, which led to a clue from a man in Africa and ultimately to the owner -- alive and well about 600 miles away in the Cayman Islands.

"This is certainly a crazy, crazy story -- just bananas front to back,'' Sam Dawson, owner of the kayak, said by phone Friday from the Cayman Islands, where he lives. "Even if you understand the Gulf Stream, it's a pretty phenomenal story of how it traveled that far. And it's pretty phenomenal how they found me.''

The story began six weeks ago, when Dawson, a lawyer, was paddling off the Cayman Islands' South Sound, a sand key where waves come around a tiny island.

``I got caught by a wave and flipped off,'' Dawson said. ``The wave took the surf ski away from me -- I assumed never to be seen again.''

Dawson said losing the $2,000 kayak was the least of his worries at the time. He was about 600 yards offshore and caught in a rip current.

``I certainly was nervous,'' he said. ``I was more concerned about getting back into land than losing the surf ski. I ultimately got back, but it was touch and go and took a few hours to swim.''

During the next six weeks, Dawson's surf ski -- a type of kayak known for skimming fast and effortlessly through waves -- apparently followed the currents.

It likely drifted northwest past Cuba, through the Yucatan Channel to the Florida Straits and then flowed with the Gulf Stream north to Key Largo.

``I'm not surprised,'' said Capt. Pat DeQuattro, commander of Coast Guard Sector Key West. ``It always is very interesting to see how the currents can affect different vessels.''

DeQuattro added that the blue-and-white color of the kayak helped camouflage it while drifting through busy shipping channels and in well-used recreational and fishing waters.

The kayak apparently went undetected, or at least unreported, until 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, when Ocean Reef boat captain Michael Brooks found it adrift.

``I was mostly concerned somebody had fell off it,'' Brooks said.

The Coast Guard had little to go on since kayaks don't have registration or serial numbers. But there was one good clue. On the side of the kayak was the brand name: Fenn.

An Internet search turned up the website of the manufacturer, based in South Africa. That led to the only two U.S. distributors for Fenn: Ocean Paddlesports in Costa Mesa, Calif., and Venture Sport in Boca Raton. Dan Slyker, Command Duty Officer for the Coast Guard in Key West, contacted both.

Deanne Hemmens, co-owner of Ocean Paddlesports, said she didn't recognize the pictures of the kayak that Slyker provided, but put out an inquiry on the international surf ski Yahoo group on the Internet.

Within an hour, Hemmens said she got a reply e-mail from Eddie Stafford in Mauritius, an African country off the east coast of Madagascar, who said his friend from the Cayman Islands lost his kayak.

It was soon confirmed to be Dawson's lost 19-foot Fenn Mako XT.

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