It felt like deja vu and Bruce Gipson was having trouble sleeping. That afternoon, he had crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a powerboat leaving from Boca Raton to meet Lee McGregor in Bimini. He reached shore by 4 p.m., tested out a tandem surf-ski kayak with McGregor and checked into a motel—McGregor sleeping on the boat, since he generally lives on the water. In the morning, they would attempt to break a record Gipson set 31 years prior.
Gipson relays what happened next from across a picnic table along the Intracoastal at Silver Palm Park in Boca Raton—the powerboat from his trip anchored and teetering on the current behind him. Gipson’s maple-toned skin knows the sun well. It contrasts with his vibrant green eyes and silver, shaggy hair that was once blond. He celebrated a birthday in January, but on Nov. 1, when he and McGregor left shore in Bimini determined not to stop paddling till they hit U.S. soil, Gipson was 61. McGregor had celebrated his 64th birthday earlier that week.
They met when they were younger—in 1993, or ’94. McGregor had sailed his boat all the way from his home in South Africa to Fort Lauderdale. At that time, no one was selling surf-skis, except Gipson; so McGregor stopped by to check them out. Small talk led to the mention of an upcoming race from Chicago to New York City that took 30 days and averaged 30 miles per day. “I said, ‘If you want, [the prize is] $25,000,’ and he looked at me and goes, ‘No thanks,’” Gipson says. They shook hands and McGregor left. “Ten minutes later, [I hear] knocking on my door,” Gipson says. “I open the door, it’s Lee. He goes, ‘Can you tell me about that race again?’”
Gipson was focusing on his surf-ski business, Venturesport Inc., so he didn’t compete in the race from Chicago to New York, known as the Finlandia Championship. But McGregor did, and he won. He even beat the four-time Olympic medalist Greg Barton.
Gipson and McGregor kept in touch, often competing together. In last year’s ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships in Oklahoma City, they competed in a double and won first place in the age 60 to 65 division.
After that victory, Gipson asked McGregor to join him in breaking the record he’d set when he was 30 years old for the quickest time crossing from Bimini to South Florida in a kayak. McGregor agreed to the challenge. It felt like the right time, since Gipson would soon retire from a 26.5-year career as a lieutenant with the Miami Beach Fire Department.
During the World Championship, McGregor and Gipson had competed on flat water, but since McGregor lives in South Africa, the pair never got the chance to train together on the ocean before the first day of November when they decided to do the crossing.
Gipson says the 57-mile trip has to be done from Bimini to Florida for a simple reason—it’s easy to miss Bimini, while it’s nearly impossible to paddle past Florida. But it does mean it’s difficult to know precisely where you’ll land on the coast.
In June 1984, Gipson left Bimini alone at 10 p.m. After 11 hours and 46 minutes, he paddled up to Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. “When that sun comes up, it just zaps all of your energy,” he says. “My last two hours coming in in 1984 were just, I was getting delirious … I drank less than a gallon [of water]—really. I just pretty much John Wayne-d it.”
This time, Gipson and McGregor left at 5 a.m. An acquaintance of Gipson’s took off first in a powerboat, keeping his distance of 50 to 100 yards so he wouldn’t affect the surf-ski. He would circle back to refill their water tanks—Gipson and McGregor using a bite valve that rested close to their mouths so they could drink at will.
“To myself I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this again,’” Gipson says. He’d stuck headphones in his ears to occupy his mind during the grueling journey ahead, but they went unused.
“I got in the zone,” Gipson says. “I was so concentrated on what I was doing, I didn’t really think about the music, so I never played it.”
Instead, he focused on each stroke—which had to be in perfect harmony with McGregor’s pace. He also had to be able to hear McGregor, who was in front. “Even at the World Championships he’ll be coaching me during the race—‘Take it easy,’ ‘Slow down,’ ‘Speed up,’” Gipson says.
Eight hours, seven minutes and 59 seconds later, McGregor and Gipson’s boat touched land at Hallandale Beach. They’d set a new record for the quickest time crossing from Bimini to Florida in a man-powered boat, trumping Gipson’s solo trip by more than three hours. They both tried and failed to stand—their legs numb from sitting. It took Gipson three tries to get to his feet—in the meantime he floated in the water, relishing in his accomplishment.
Now the question is, three decades from now, will Gipson attempt to break his record again? He says no. “It all worked out to where I was satisfied,” Gipson says. “Got to do it with a good friend and a really good competitor.” But he adds, “You never know. Thirty one years ago I said I’d never do it again.”