The fastest woman in the underwater world lives in the Florida Keys. In fact, the fastest woman in the underwater world, Kelly Friend, is an exuberant blonde who’s proud to be a seventh-generation Keys resident.
Kelly’s roots run so deep in the island chain that her family dates back to 1820, just after Key West’s settlement.
“The romance of the ocean is genetically imprinted within me,” she says. “I remember swimming and boating all the time as a kid — my parents used to take me to Higgs Beach when I was barely even two years old. Snorkeling and exploring the reef was simply what we did back then.”
Kelly didn’t earn her speed title for swimming, boating or snorkeling. Instead, in early October at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, she set the world’s first underwater speed record for driving a DPV — also known as a diver propulsion vehicle or underwater scooter — propelling it at a remarkable 2.58 mph.
But that’s not all. The day after setting the record, Kelly was forced to defend it against a challenger who temporarily bested her — and trounced the challenger by reclaiming the record with an amazing top speed of 4.55 mph.
Her first racing triumphs, however, were achieved on land. After high school in Key West and college in Texas, Kelly took up motorcycle road racing in the early 1990s. She finished the 1995 season with a regional championship and a twelfth-place ranking in the national finals.
In 2000 Kelly began working for Key West’s Audio Video In Paradise and eventually bought the business. She quickly rediscovered free diving and spearfishing as both competitive and contemplative sports.
Then, in May 2009, the 523-foot-long General Hoyt S. Vandenberg was sunk as an artificial reef about seven miles south of Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Affectionately nicknamed the Vandy, the former Air Force missile tracking ship was the second-largest vessel in the world ever scuttled to become an artificial reef.
The Vandy is so huge that its hull rests on sand in about 150 feet of water, but its superstructure begins about 45 feet below the surface. And that’s where Kelly’s need for speed and love of the underwater world combined into a whole new adventure.
“I caught a segment on CNN about underwater scooter racing around the Vandenberg and immediately called the co-founder of the sanctioning body, the Wreck Racing League, who was my friend Joe Weatherby,” she explains. “I had finally found my true love — back on the race course and underwater!”
In May, Kelly participated in the Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix, where divers using DPVs sped around the ship’s superstructure. Demonstrating both speed and style, she took top honors in the Wreck Racing League’s recreational class with two first-place victories and a third-place podium finish.
Founded to inspire greater awareness about artificial reefs, the Wreck Racing League is the organization that recognized and recorded Kelly’s recent speed record in Weeki Wachee.
Despite earning the title of the fastest woman in the underwater world, she’s not planning to rest on her laurels any time soon. Instead, she’ll continue to compete in her chosen sport.
“The spirit of competition and camaraderie of racers is a great mix,” she says, “both above and below the water line.”
Chances are, as DPV racing gains fame among divers drawn to exhilarating adventures, you’ll be hearing plenty more about speedy Key Wester Kelly Friend.