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Cuba-to-US paddleboarder conquers Straits of Florida

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

A 35-year-old jazz musician laid claim Friday to being the first person to cross the treacherous Straits of Florida, separating Cuba and the United States, on a stand-up paddleboard.

Benjamin Friberg reached the beach at Key West, Florida some 28 hours after he set off from Cuba's capital Havana with a support team in a catamaran alongside.

"I'm going to get some sleep, eat some food, call some family members," an exhausted Friberg told AFP by telephone as he made his way to the Key West customs office leaning on the shoulder of a team member.

Friberg, a smooth-jazz musician and extreme sports enthusiast from Chattanooga, Tennessee, had hoped to make the 105-mile crossing in about 20 hours when he set off from the Marina Hemingway in Havana.

"This trip is to promote peace and love and friendship between the people of Cuba and the United States, as well as a healthy lifestyle," he said prior to departure.

Relations between Cuba, the only communist state in the Western Hemisphere, and the United States remain frosty despite the passing of the Cold War more than two decades ago.

Sam Silvey, a member of Friberg's team, told AFP the first hours Thursday were rough going, with waves up to three feet high, and "it wasn't until this morning when he got calm seas."

Friberg stood upright, with paddle in hand, for the entire trip, barring some moments when he got down on his knees for a bite to eat, Silvey said.

"He's definitely beat up and worn out, but he made it," he added.

In the past two years three swimmers have tried -- and failed -- to make the perilous Straits of Florida crossing that has often been used by Cuban refugees in flimsy boats fleeing for American shores.

In June 2011 a Miami Beach lifeguard, Cynthia Aguilar, made the crossing by paddleboard in just over 29 hours, but in a prone position and starting a few miles off the Cuban shore.

"Ben's accomplishment brings worldwide recognition to stand-up paddling as one of the most versatile water sports on the planet," said Leslie Kolovich, who blogs and podcasts about paddleboarding at www.supradioshow.com.

"Endurance athletes are finding stand-up paddling to be a legitimate challenge to their abilities," she told AFP in an email.

"Ben's amazing Cuba-to-Florida paddle raises the bar for endurance athletes and ultra-marathoners to have a new avenue to go faster, further and for longer periods of time. I can't wait to see what he does next."

Last year Friberg travelled non-stop 238 miles on the Yukon River in northern Canada to claim the record for the longest distance ever paddled in a 24-hour period.

Asked Friday what he might next attempt, Friberg replied: "I'm not totally sure yet."

On the web: www.cubasup.com

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130804/cuba-us-paddleboarder-conquers-straits-florida