Canadians Plan Canoe Trip To Cuba by Don Daniels

Source:  The Key West Citizen, “The Southernmost Newspaper in the U.S.A.”
Key West, Florida
Friday, April 29, 1960
Front-page headline

Key West Canoe Stunt 1960

BON VOYAGE―Three French Canadians who plan to take off tonight for Cuba got in a little practice in their canoe.  From left to right, both inset and in canoe, are Pierre Trudeau, Val Francoeur and Al Gagnon.  They hope to paddle the treacherous 90 miles to Cuba within 24 hours.  Citizen Staff Photo, Tom Hunt.

Very special thanks to Miami-Dade Public Library System, who came up with two stories on the canoe escapade.  Read them below.

Download Key West Canoe Coverage 1960 in a zip file

Canadians Plan Canoe Trip To Cuba

By Don Daniels

Canadians Plan Canoe Trip To Cuba, by Don Daniels, 29 April 2019

Canadians Plan Canoe Trip To Cuba, by Don Daniels, 29 April 2019

Unique Method Is Devised By Trio

By Don Daniels

Nobody told Al Gagnon, Pierre Trudeau and Val Francoeur to go paddle their own canoe, but they’re going to.

Clear to Cuba, they hope.

Al, Pierre and Val are a trio of French-Canadians who will start out at midnight tonight, weather permitting, in a canoe less than 16 feet long and they expect to reach the Cuban shore within 24 hours.

They leave from the south end of Duval Street.

They will be followed by a yacht which will provide food, aid in navigation and pick them up if they are tilted by an errant wave.

Why paddle to Cuba in a canoe?

Why do Englishment climb mountains?

Same thing.  They just want to prove it can be done.

These three―all of whom are ardent boosters of Key West, by the way―have developed a canoeing method they think will get them across the treacherous 90-odd miles to the Cuban coast.

The technique calls for one man paddling in conventional fashion while another lies backward in the boat and rows with oars attached to his feet.  The third man rests.  They plan shifts of two hours on the oars and one hour resting and will switch positions for each shift.

The three, all experienced skin divers, have been in training for the past two months.  They admit that ocean-going canoeing will present some problems.  But they are confident they’ll make the Cuban shore.

They stopped in Miami on the way down to Key West and tested the canoe in the surf.

“Big waves,” says Al, “are not the problem.  A canoe will ride them.  It is the short, treacherous, choppy waves that will bother us.”  Al has been coming to Key West for three years and he likes it.  “Better than Miami,” says he.  “I like the people here better.”

Al has ridden nine foot waves and 60-mile-an-hour winds in the canoe and the three men hold a number of long distance canoeing records on Canadian rivers.

There are reasons for starting out at night.  For one thing the water is usually smoother after dark and for another, it won’t be quite so hot.  They expect to be out of the “critical area” by daybreak.

Oceanographers, the Coast Guard and private canoeing clubs have warned the intrepid trio that the trip is impossible.  Between here and the Cuban shore is some of the most treacherous water for small boats anywhere.

They know it and are prepared for a long, tough haul but they are confident they can make it.

Al is a tall, well-muscled man of 37.  He’s president of the Gagnon Frères Department Stores and lives in Quebec.  Pierre is 36 and publisher of Cité Libre in Montreal.  Francoeur, 35, works for Al.

All three are tanned, lean and hard looking.  And all are friendly and smiling.

The canoe they will use for the epic attempt will carry no special equipment except the foot-rowing device.  The accompanying yacht will provide their food.

The three have crossed on the Havana ferry to get a look at the waters en route.  They have conferred with experts on ocean currents and have diligently studied every problem likely to confront them on the journey.

If they land on the Cuban shore, they will have established an incredible record.  The three are perhaps the only ones who really think they will make it.  If they do, there is one other thing that’s very certain.

They won’t row back.

– 30 –

Ed NSIM:  They didn’t row there, either.  See:  “Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Fidel Castro met in 1960:  The Real Canoe Escapade Revealed in Trudeau’s DVD Memoirs“.

Monday, May 2, 1960 – Still on the front page, but not the headline.

Trio Is Not Discouraged

Canoe Trip Repeat Seen

By Don Daniels

A trio of adventurous French Canadians have proved, to themselves at least, that it’s possible to cross from Key West to Cuba in a canoe less than 16 feet long.

They made the trip halfway across in about 16 hours starting at midnight Friday.  In the process they made some interesting discoveries and learned enough according to the leader, 37-year-old Alphonse Gagnon, to insure success the next try.

Amont the things Gagnon, Pierre Trudeau and Al Francoeur found out is that most winds raise xxx with the gulf stream at Key West; that riding a canoe, even in the semi-tropics, is a very cold business; and that you get more seasick on a shrimp boat than you do in a canoe.

The trio has not yet decided when to make another try bu Gagnon is certain of success when they do.

“In fact,” he said, “it could have been done this time.  We had three men in the canoe.  If we had decided to let one man go it alone… thus relieving the craft of the extra weight, it could have been done.”

For Gagnon and his friends, thi sis not a high adventure stunt.  He and Trudeau hold a number of long distance canoeing records.  They’ve paddled up and down half the rivers in Canada but this was their first serious shot at the ocean.

Gagnon and his friends are the developers of a unique method of propulsion.  While one man paddles in conventional fashion the second lies on his back and paddles with his feet.  The third rests and they switch off after two-hour hitches.

“This is not like Kon-Tiki,” Gagnon tells you seriously.  “This is a test of propulsion.”

Gagnon’s eyes light up when he talks about the trip.  “It was a fantastic experience, exhilarating.  Water like that I never saw.  It rolls and heaps up and suddenly there are big holes in the ocean.

“But we rode well.  Even when breakers hit us sideways, we would not take more than a couple of gallons of water.  The spray swirled over our heads and the captain of the shrimp boat following us thought many times we were done for.”

The east wind here apparently has the same effect as the north wind on th etrip from Miami to Rimini.  The water rushes in a half-dozen directions at once.

Gagnon says he and his crew were not especially tired when they decided to curtail the trip.  But they were intensely cold.  “That,” he said, “ia an important thing we learned.  The constant spray is very cold.”


“We saw one that we know of.  Perhaps others followed.  But we

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were not particularly afraid.  Of course we took precautions and we threw no food or anything over the side.”

The two toughest parts of the journey were getting started and getting stopped.  Especially getting stopped.

To get aboard the shrimp boat at sea, it was so rough it took four of us working very hard for 20 minutes.  And once on board, all of us got seasick.”

There was a conference before the crossing attempt was given up.  A major factor in the deciison to quit was the condition of observers abroad the shrimp boat.  Everyone was seasick.  That, the cold and an unencouraging weather forecast tipped the scales.

“But,” Gagnon says, smiling, “we proved two things.  We wanted to find out if anyone could propel a canoe through the ocean for any considerable length of time over a long distance.  We know now that under ideal conditions the crossing to Cuba could be made.  We were pretty sure of that at the start.  We also know how it could be done in rought seas―as rough as they were Friday, or worse.”

What of the danger involved?  Gagnon shrugs.  “I am not an adventurer, a daredevil.  I recognize danger and I admit I am sometimes afraid, but I do not lose my head.  My companions are braver than I.

“And I’ll tell you what was the most dangerous part of the whole project.  It was the drive down here.”

– 30 –