Sitting atop the TV in dwight and Corinne Collins's tiny two-room converted barn in Noroton, Conn., is a black-and-white photo of one of Dwight's heroes. It's a picture of Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith, the corn-pone patriot who confounds the Washington politicos in the movie classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It figures that Dwight Collins, 35, identifies with Frank Capra's inspiring story of a man who stands up for what he believes in.
On July 24, at 3:30 p.m. in Plymouth, England, Collins completed the first pedal-powered crossing of the Atlantic. His 40-day adventure smashed the record for a human-powered transatlantic trip (by a British oarsman in 1987) by nearly two weeks.
The Atlantic first lured Collins the way the Mississippi lured Huck. By the age of 10, Collins, dreaming of an ocean crossing, had built and sailed half a dozen rafts on the Goodwives River, a stone's throw from his backdoor in Noroton.
In high school he assembled files of clippings on transatlantic voyages and sailing craft. While he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1978, his perusal of an issue of Human Power caused a light bulb to flash on over his head. Another subject file was born, pedal boats, and a new mission took hold of his imagination. "In life everything is gray," he says, "but the idea of pedaling the Atlantic was clear, simple, straightforward, and it had never been done."
For the next 12 years the files went with Collins wherever he went—to college, to a stint with the elite Navy SEALs and finally to a job in real estate in Princeton, N.J. However, it wasn't until January 1990, when Corinne Ham stumbled upon her fianc�'s pedal-boat file while helping him pack for the move back to Noroton, that the project finally took off. As Collins says, "I knew I was engaged to the right person when Corinne said, 'Dwight, this is a great idea. You've got to do it!' "
Two-and-a-half years later, after logging nearly 4,000 hours on a recumbent stationary bike in his living room and after cleaning out their savings of $30,000 and raising another $30,000 from sponsors, Collins was ready to launch his pedal boat, an enclosed 24-by 4�-foot, 850-pound orange-and-white beauty named Tango. Made of carbon fiber and cedar strips, the watertight, self-righting boat was designed by marine architect Bruce Kirby, and her fittings were the work of a dozen other people. The belt-drive pedal system was assembled from bicycle parts, and the hull was constructed by Goetz Marine Technology (renowned for building America's Cup boats) in Bristol, R.I. Even Children's Hospital in Newington," Conn., got into the act. Using technology that had been developed for the disabled, hospital workers built and donated a form-fitting recumbent seat in which Collins could pedal comfortably for hours at a stretch. After fine-tuning, and with half her cost picked up by Collins's three main sponsors—Mo�t, Virgin Atlantic and Breitling, a Swiss watch manufacturer—Tango (named for the Collinses' wedding dance) was the kind of state-of-the-art craft that Captain Nemo would have admired.
On June 10, Dwight and Corinne arrived in St. John's, Newfoundland, the starting point for the voyage. They didn't cause much of a stir among the townsfolk. In fact, a local billboard's greeting seemed downright inauspicious: WELCOME TO NEWFOUNDLAND. ONLY SIX MOTORISTS KILLED BY MOOSE THIS YEAR. Four days later, however, a small crowd—many of them family members—had gathered to bid farewell to Dwight. Dressed in a T-shirt, bicycle shorts and shoes, and with a four-leaf clover given to him by an anonymous well-wisher tucked into his pocket, he set off at 2:30 p.m. in a craft that was equipped with everything from a reverse-osmosis water-maker to two dozen packages of Fig Newtons.
A stronger-than-anticipated Labrador Current off the coast of Newfoundland pushed Tango to the south, making for some leg-fatiguing early going. Even pedaling an inhuman 17 to 20 hours a day, Collins could only slog along. During one particularly depressing 17-hour stretch he covered a measly 10 miles.
Two weeks into the trip, though, a little luck—and a lot of danger—in the form of foul weather, with winds from the southwest, gave Collins a huge push toward England. Skidding down 30-foot waves during four days of gale-force winds, Tango was virtually catapulted eastward. More storms continued to speed him across the Atlantic. "By the end of the trip, I had gone through so many gales I could hardly keep track," he says. "Corinne kept telling me over the radio that there were no more storms, then I'd pedal into yet another one. I just ended up laughing." Thirty-foot waves and 50-mph winds are hardly laughing matters. But then Collins is at his pragmatic best in trying times. "When the weather was bad, it was important to take advantage of the following sea," he says. "So I pedaled as hard as I could and coasted down these huge waves. It was exhilarating." And efficient. During one 24-hour period of pedaling, Collins covered 90 miles.
There were the inevitable lulls, of course, but no respite from danger. Halfway across, Collins paused for a few hours in the middle of a foggy night to repair his pedal-drive system. At 2 a.m., when a light flashed across one of his portholes, he suddenly realized he was not alone. Four hundred feet away a trawler was bearing down on him. Scrambling for his flares and radio, Collins was not entirely comforted by earlier assurances from Kirby, the boat's designer, that even if Tango were cut in half, she would still float. Two hundred feet away, the trawler finally caught the tiny boat in its spotlight and veered off. A relieved Collins noted in his journal, "Talk about ships passing in the night!"