Kayak Libre: Paddling Across The Straits of Florida


Words by Andy Cochrane. Photos by Andy Cochrane and Johnie Gall.

Somewhere between Cuba and the U.S., roughly an hour before sunset, Monday, May 28th. I puked for the fourth time, mostly water and PB&J sandwich. My body was petitioning to quit and my mind was forced to fight off the urge yet again. Twelve hours into our attempt to kayak across the Straits of Florida and I was struggling to keep anything down. In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising. After a day soaked by sun and tossed by ten foot waves, I was sore and exhausted – and still less than half way to the mainland.








Before I continue with my barfing heroics, let’s rewind to where this all started: Spring 1989, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan.I was fourteen months old and just figuring out the whole walking thing when my parents threw me into a kayak for the first time. Secured with a life jacket and wearing what I assume were my nicest hand-me-downs, I held onto the center of the paddle as my dad did all the actual work. Of course, I have no memory of that sunny afternoon in Rock Harbor, only photographs and stories from my family. Still, it made an impression and I’ve since always felt at home on the water.







My love of paddling grew throughout childhood. I was 10 when I went on my first week-long trip and just 16 when I embarked on my first month-long trip, exploring Canada’s pristine Quetico Provincial Park. I can vividly remember the anticipation build before each summer, organizing gear and dreaming of long days on the water.

Kayaking has always had a way of helping me simplify, exposing truths in my character, and creating connections that might not otherwise happen. When you’re fighting a headwind, you need to work together.









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In the last decade I’ve been fortunate to paddle around the globe, from Norway to New Zealand to Northern Canada. All told, I’ve spent over two years of my life on paddling trips, humbled by weather and strengthened by the people around me. As I have matured, so has my love of water. Today my goal is to use this passion for good – to better understand new people and cultures, and to use paddling to elevate their voices. In short, I see it as a tool for advocacy.


“Our goal was to understand, even just a little, what Cuban refugees have felt all for the hope of a better life.”


With that in mind, Kayak Libre was born. Together with two friends, Luke and Wyatt, we planned to paddle 125 miles from Havana to Key West, completely unsupported. From all we could find, the crossing hadn’t been done before – or at least it hadn’t been documented. In truth, it’s likely that thousands of Cubans have paddled across the Straits in the last 50 years, all undocumented. This wasn’t a “first” that many covet, but instead an opportunity to highlight how dangerous open water crossings are and to advocate for safe and legal immigration in the future.






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On a personal level, our goal was to understand – even just a little – what Cuban refugees have felt after leaving their homes and risking their lives in the middle of the ocean, all for the hope of a better life. It’s a subject that’s hard to talk about in both Cuba and the US, because it’s been politicized as the ultimate “Us vs Them” scenario. By sharing our experience in the Straits we hope to show that refugee crises are well above all politics and partisan beliefs. Everyone deserves a safe home.


“Being on the water forces me to be present.”


Fast forward to mid-crossing. Everything is going to plan. I’m sitting in my 17-foot-long kayak, surrounded by ocean, wondering how much I have left. I feel like shit and am starting to worry about big waves at night. We have at least 12 hours left and my hands are already starting to blister — but I have time to worry about that later. Being on the water forces me to be present. I have an opportunity to test my grit, and all I need to do is keep smiling. Quitting isn’t an option. I manage to eat a half dozen pretzel sticks and give a thumbs up to Luke and Wyatt. Onward.


Andy Cochrane is our newest Teva Explorer. Shop his Favorite Styles at and follow him on Instagram @AndrewFitts.