Published: September 2008
Ted Ciamillo: Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle
How one man intends to pedal across the Atlantic.
Text by Ryan Bradley

A strange creature was recently sighted in a lagoon north of Athens, Georgia, behind a barn and a BBQ shack, some 200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Part merman, part machine, it broke the surface of the black water and swam, dolphin-like, to the far shore. "I’m freezing in here!" it shouted at witnesses. This oddity, it turned out, was adventurer, entrepreneur, and aquatic engineer Ted Ciamillo, 40, demonstrating his latest invention, the Lunocet—a $1,250 fiberglass fish tail he expects to revolutionize diving. By dolphin-kicking with both feet strapped into the device, a user can attain speeds twice as fast as the swiftest Olympic swimmers and sustain a steady pace for hours on end.

The New Jersey–born Ciamillo, who amassed a fortune designing and manufacturing exceptionally light and powerful aluminum bicycle brakes, has spent the past few years building a 15-foot, two-ton personal submarine with a Lunocet-like tail and perfecting it in his man-made lagoon. Come November 2009, he’ll attempt to pilot it 3,000 miles from Florida to the African coast entirely under his own power. Pedaling in a recumbent-bike position, Ciamillo anticipates traveling up to six miles an hour, six feet below the surface, breathing through a special snorkel or, for deeper dives, a scuba system. A support boat will trail him at a distance. He’s dubbed this endeavor the Subhuman Project.

If successful, the stunt will break some 15 records. But he freely admits that it’s designed to promote the commercial line of his super-flipper. He’ll have a Lunocet along for exploratory dives away from the sub, to commune with a whale or a pod of dolphins.

Fresh from his black lagoon, Ciamillo warmed himself by a blazing fire and explained how anyone could expect to pedal, underwater, across the Atlantic and live to tell the tale.

ADVENTURE: How fast were you swimming just now?

Ted Ciamillo: I’d say somewhere around seven, maybe eight miles an hour. It’s hard to sustain that pace, but, OK, here’s an example: I tested the Lunocet in the ocean off Holbox Island, Mexico. I strapped it on and cruised beside a whale shark for nearly three hours. The boat trailing me had to speed ahead of it, drop off divers, pick them up, and speed ahead again. No one had ever been able to silently swim next to a whale shark like I did.

A: What makes this fin superior to all others?

TC: It uses principles of biomimetics—that is, adapting designs from nature to work with our own bodies. I basically took a dolphin tail and made it work with our legs.

A: It’s a pretty pricey piece of equipment. Who’s this fin for?

TC: It’s getting a lot of interest from free divers, but I see it as something much, much bigger. It allows you the freedom of scuba diving without all the expensive gear and hassle.

A: What’s the thing made of?

TC: Originally, titanium. But now we’re mass-producing them out of carbon fiber and fiberglass. The sub, too, uses pretty lightweight materials combined with titanium and high-grade aluminum. Out of the water, it only weighs 800 pounds.

A: Were you trained in biomimetics?

TC: No. I’m a machinist by training. But so were the Wright brothers. This project, and especially the submarine, has really piqued the interest of a range of scientists and engineers. It’s a pretty amazing research opportunity to have a silent submersible in the middle of the Atlantic.

A: You’ll no doubt be demonstrating that potential.

TC: I’ve got an onboard camera designed by Edie Widder at the Ocean Research & Conservation Association. I’m going to shoot video of all the strange microorganisms that rise from the seafloor at night to feed on phosphorescent algae. Mostly we’re trying to make sure every aspect is well documented because it’ll be such a first.

A: A dangerous first, it seems.

TC: I’ve done risky stuff before, just not on this scale. I designed a hydrospeeder [an underwater propulsion system] and went with photographer David Doubilet on a National Geographic expedition to Australia to film great white sharks out in open water. Doubilet had a cage built around the speeder but couldn’t control it that well. So I got in and started to—well, I basically played chicken with a great white.

A: Any worries about encountering them on this trip?

TC: A little. Actually, I built a gun that fires blanks underwater [pictured]. That should deter any overly curious visitors.

A: What about physical training?

TC: I’ve been taking a lot of cold showers.

A: Seriously?

TC: And running a lot, watching what I eat, swimming . . . but the effects of staying in the water for such a long time, day after day, that’s what really worries me.

A: You just turned 40, you’re a family man—could this be your midlife crisis?

TC: Yeah, well, it’s not so much a crisis in the "I feel I haven’t accomplished anything" sense, but rather in the sense that I want to take stock of what I have. I want to be out there, all alone, with time to think. My grandparents had a house in the Berkshires on a lake. I would spend all day at the bottom of that lake, a curious boy in a 15-foot boat channel, holding my breath for as long as I could. In many ways, I’m still that curious boy—but with more toys.