OCEAN CITY — As the roaring engines of tens of thousands of motorcycles slept early last Saturday morning during Delmarva Bike Week, a lone row boat quietly crept through the channel that separates Ocean City from Assateague Island.
Its sole occupant was a tired and hungry 49-year-old African-American Brooklyn man named Victor Mooney, who docked his 24-foot Brazilian made vessel called the “Spirit of Malabo” next to towering charter boats at the White Marlin Marina in downtown Ocean City.
Mooney began paddling 15 months ago when he shoved off from the island of Masapalamo in the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa.
He has survived a vicious shark attack, 10 days without food while marooned at sea in a lifeboat and he’s even lived to tell the story of how he was taken hostage by Haitian pirates at knifepoint.
Yet, when you hear Mooney’s soft-spoken and humble telling of his epic death-defying journey, you realize that his mission has nothing to do with him, and that he has been on this journey much longer than the 15 months he’s been paddling. It actually goes back to 2003, when he started building the first version of this boat in a garage in New York City. His plan was to row across the ocean to help raise awareness for HIV/AIDS research in memory of his older brother, who died of the disease in 1983, and in honor of his other brother, who is currently fighting the disease. But Mooney’s first boat, which took him three years to build, sunk almost instantly off the coast of Africa in 2006. His next two attempts to traverse the ocean also failed in 2009 and 2011. But now, Mooney sits in Ocean City, quietly watching the radar for the next window of good weather and dealing with a new emotion — the excitement of being less than 150 miles from the finish line.
The Path Of Columbus
After his first few failed attempts, Mooney says he got smart and tried to begin his several thousand mile paddle this time around a bit more to the north.
“I took the path of Christopher Columbus (in 1492) and studied his route, and I thought that it would be more probable to end up closer to the British Virgin Islands and then head up the east coast to New York where I could finish at the Brooklyn Bridge,” said Mooney “but I ran into some pretty big complications.”
For starters, Mooney’s boat was taking on quite a substantial barnacle growth on the hull, which attracted many small fish which he could scoop up and eat along the way. But unfortunately, those small fish also attracted larger predators, and that led to his rowboat being attacked by a
white-tipped Atlantic shark, which put a hole in his boat and put the journey in serious jeopardy.
“I was able to slow down the leak until I hit St. Martin,” said Mooney, “but they put me in the hospital as I had lost over 80 pounds. But, they repaired the boat, and I was on my way after my hospital release. The ironic thing was I landed in St. Martin on national HIV testing day, so that couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Gnarly weather patterns forced Mooney to detour toward Haiti after he passed the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and that detour almost cost him his life.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday, first one pirate boat came, then another, then another, and when they put a line on my cleat, I knew what time it was,” said Mooney. “I was ready to meet my maker, but thankfully, my AIS (Automatic Identification System) and my GPS receiver alerted officials to where I was, and I was quickly rescued.”
The Haitian pirates didn’t harm Mooney, but they destroyed his boat, so he sat in Miami for a few months while the boat was being repaired.
In May, he shoved off once again, heading north up the coast, but a submerged Cyprus stump in North Carolina put another hole in his boat, postponing his paddle for another significant chunk of time.
“If it isn’t the weather slowing me down, it’s been these challenges,” said Mooney, “but I keep asking the Heavenly Father for permission to continue with this paddle, and he’s given me the strength and the opportunity to keep going. You have to respect all waters. Whether it’s the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean or local waterways, when you are alone on a small boat, anything can happen.”
But while Mooney spends most of his time alone in the middle of a massive body of water, his story and his mission have gained supporters from all over the world, including big name corporate sponsors and average “Joe’s” who have become engrossed with his tenacity to accomplish the unimaginable and to inspire the ill and ill-informed about the realities of the fight against HIV/AIDS in our world.
A Family Awaits
Mooney is a deeply spiritual man, and he now looks fit and trim, but the journey has certainly taken its toll physically and mentally, not just on him, but also on his wife and son who are eagerly awaiting his arrival sometime next month at the Brooklyn Bridge.
“When the shark attacked my boat, I complained to the Father ‘why is this happening?’” said Mooney, “but honestly, I was more afraid of my wife than the shark because she drew a line in the sand and said, ‘this is it, I don’t think I can support you anymore if this doesn’t work on the fourth attempt.’”
Mooney has been helped along the way by good Samaritans who also happen to be experts on the very waterways that he is travelling. He’s found a great confidante in Russell Baiocco, owner of the White Marlin Marina.
“I can get expert advice on local conditions, because that is imperative to me being successful. It takes local knowledge to keep you alive and get you where you need to be,” said Mooney.
Baiocco says he’s amazed by Mooney’s knowledge of the sea, his preparedness, and his mission. Over their first meal together on Saturday, Baiocco pledged his support in helping Mooney make it to the finish line.
“He’s almost there,” said Baiocco, “and I will take a lifetime of knowledge of these waterways and help him get there by his goal of Columbus Day. We just need Mother Nature to cooperate.”
In the interim, Mooney says he spends his time on land thinking about his brothers who have inspired the mission, the failed attempts and the humbling moments at sea where he felt that it was merely him and a small boat, against the mighty ocean.
“In the back of my mind, I think of people living with the virus, people who can’t get out of bed,” said Mooney. “I think about their struggle and how it is far greater than my own. This is a horrible but preventable disease, and I want people to see what I am doing, and feel inspired to never give up.”
When Mooney finishes his journey, the boat will be donated to the United Nations as a symbol of the global fight against HIV/AIDS.
Now, as Mooney finds himself closer than ever before to the finish line, he is forced to wait once again for a weather system that is delaying the last leg of a 10-year journey that will put him back in the loving arms of his family in a place (Ocean City) where he once vacationed with his family.
“I’ve been here before several years ago, I still remember the sandwiches from the Crabcake Factory,” said Mooney.
But throughout it all, the soft-spoken, God-fearing man on a mission knows he’s close to the end of a journey that is about advocacy as much as it is about finding closure for his lost brother.
“This is something that I volunteered for,” said Mooney. “There is no great reward at the end, but yeah, sometimes, I can almost hear my brother’s voice saying to me, ‘man, you are crazy to be doing this, but I love you so much for doing it. Keep going.’”
Victor Mooney is almost home, and he admits the volume of that realization is sometimes tough to fit in a 24-foot rowboat, but after this long of a journey, he wouldn’t have it any other way.