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Cops to the rescue in close call for capsized kayaker on a noble mission

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Updated: June 13, 2013 6:31PM



Chicago Police Marine Unit officers didn’t know what to make of the exhausted man they found clinging to his capsized kayak in Lake Michigan on Sunday afternoon.

The thin, athletic man refused to be rescued.

“I’ve got this. I can do this,” he said, waving off police, who watched as the man struggled to right his boat.

But the water was cold — 42 degrees — and he had been in it for 20 minutes.

Police ended the negotiation and brought the man, along with his kayak, aboard their vessel.

He began shaking violently, suffering from early stage hypothermia, but wanted nothing more than to drain his kayak and continue paddling.

Police asked him a series of questions as they sped to shore. His answers, given through shivering lips, raised eyebrows.

Where are you headed?

“New York City.”

What’s your name”

“Matt Gavasto.”

Where do you live?

“On my kayak.”

Where do you sleep?

“Wherever I end up.”

Confused officers covered him with wool blankets.

“He was talking nonsense,” Officer Marcus Buenrostro said.

After warming up in the back of an ambulance that met the rescue party near Navy Pier, the man calmed down and his story came into focus.

Gavasto, 36, was a summer adventurer on a charity fund-raising mission to paddle from Chicago to New York City. A rogue wave capsized him just three miles into his 1,700-mile journey offshore from 12th Street Beach.

“For a minute there, I thought ‘They think I’m crazy. They’re going to take me to the hospital and not let me go, possibly to the psych ward,’ ” said Gavasto, who admits his urgency to paddle on must have seemed odd.

“My arrogance has gotten me through things, and it’s gotten me in trouble. But I’m not used to people taking care of me. I get myself out of these situations. I think I had it, but I was lucky they did show up.”

Police finally told Gavasto he was grounded for the night but could set out again in the morning.

“I was stubborn. The police were stubborn, and on top of it all, I didn’t want to go anywhere in an ambulance because I don’t have health insurance,” he said.

Gavasto manages pizza delivery at a restaurant in Oakmont, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. He is raising money for the oncology unit of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where his father, Barry, died of cancer three years ago. “My dad used to keep track of my location on these adventures.”

Gavasto has bicycled across the country, and he kayaked from Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico.

“When we realized what he was doing, we had a lot of respect for his mission,” Buenrostro said.

Gavasto carries his father’s ashes with him, along with the ashes of his mother, who died of a heart attack, and he spreads small portions to mark the beginning of each journey.

He put his kayak in the Chicago River near the banks of an encampment of homeless men on Sunday afternoon.

“That wasn’t a good spot, so I spread the ashes after I went through the locks and got to the lake,” he said. “It was a sunny day, but the water was choppy. I was really enjoying myself and just paddling along like it was a river, but I didn’t realize, you have to watch every single wave.”

A wave capsized his kayak about 75 yards offshore from 12th Street Beach, and Gavasto began to drift away from land. A lakefront high-rise condo owner, most likely with a pair of binoculars, spotted Gavasto and called 911. He had been in the frigid water for about 20 minutes when the police boat arrived.

“I was embarrassed. I was completely embarrassed. I am naive sometimes when I go on these trips, and I get in over my head sometimes. It was getting to the point where I might have had to abandon the kayak and swim for land. To be honest with you, I think God was slapping me on the butt and telling me to stay a bit closer to shore.”

Gavasto crashed at a Red Roof Inn in the Loop — and pondered Lake Michigan.

“I was scared out of my mind to get back in the kayak on Monday, but I told myself, ‘I’m just gonna try this.’ If I had any kind of normal thought process, I probably would have stopped the trip,” Gavasto said during a cellphone interview Wednesday from a beach somewhere near Gary, Ind., where he was resting.

He sleeps along the shoreline where he can, under the stars or in a tent, or sometimes under a roof if he meets a good samaritan. His diet consists of mostly rice and granola bars. He drinks lake water treated with bleach. And he has roughly 1600 more miles to go. He hopes to be paddling past New Buffalo, Mich. by the time this story is published, and to reach New York City by August.

Gavasto’s first visit to Chicago in 1995 was also an adventure.

“I hitchhiked with hippies to see a Grateful Dead show.”

Donations to Children’s Hospital Pittsburgh can be made at www.givetochildrens.org/donate.



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