represented the United States and a boat
3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
in an international Race.
First off, thank you to all who supported “American Star” and Tom Mailhot and myself in the Ward Evans Atlantic Rowing Challenge…www.wearc.com. ( especially to Buddy Miller and Donna Causey who offered tons of moral support when I was down)
We did reasonably well coming in 11th of 36 starters and considering the fact that much of the equipment was purchased and installed as late as the day before the race, such as our water desalinator! There were no sea trials, no long practice sessions, no tweaking and adjusting or creation of routines. The use of virtually all the equipment was “learn as you go”. This made for a difficult and slow start. Our hopes to be in the top five were quickly replaced with frustration, exhaustion, disillusionment accompanied by a plethora of physical ailments including but not limited to salt sores, bruises, open sores, blisters, pulled muscles, swollen joints and the rash from hell. Our boat was overbuilt and heavy adding to the difficulty. Most importantly, our rudder controls were crude and primitive compared to some of the sophisticated foot operated systems on other boats. Looking back, I would say 10-15% of our effort was wasted “correcting” course with our inefficient system. (well, there’s another race in 2 yrs…NOT!)
But Tom and I put our shoulders to the task and pulled from 19th place to 11th. In fact, at one point in the race we were actually in 9th for a few days.
We left Tenerife, Canary Islands Oct 7 at 10:30am. We had little time to consider the enormity of our undertaking. Tom and I as well as family and friends worked 12 hr days for over two weeks preparing and installing things on the boat. There was little time left for sightseeing. We did however manage to get in a few beers at Harbor Lights, the unofficial pub that honors the rowers who leave from that island. It is in the harbor of Los Gigantes with the breathtaking cliffs of Los Gigantes as a backdrop. It is absolutely spectacular.
Our first night on the water was rather uneventful but the second and subsequent days saw us in the “acceleration zone” which is the area where wind and current increase as it is squeezed between the islands; some as high as 14k ft. Winds Force 6 (40knots) and waves as high as 20ft in a confused sea were a wake up call. They persisted for days and gradually lessened as we moved down range of the last island, Hierro. We knew at this point that this was the real thing and the realization that we were very much on our own and although part of a monitored race, that there is real risk in what we were doing. The sharks following the boat made that doubly clear.
You can’t say, “OK that’s enough, I quit” like in an eco challenge or marathon. There are no checkpoints. The consequences of quitting or getting into serious trouble or injury were perhaps a week’s wait for the fleet safety vessel to sail to you. The rowboats could not be towed. So as not to leave a hazard to navigation, abandoned boats were burned. And so, 3 ½ yrs and almost $200k worth of project would be sacrificed. This was not an option we dared think about. At this writing, 3 boats have already been abandoned and burned. (www.wearc.com for race information)
Tom and I rowed tandem most of the days and into evening logging 2 hr shifts at night with 4-5hrs sleep. 2 ½ weeks into the race and we were moving up, but far behind the lead boats who managed not to waste 4-5 days with us at the start. We were passing boats and feeling confident. Quick calculations would put our arrival at about 45 days give or take a couple. My girlfriend called and made arrangements to come to Barbados for Thanksgiving weekend. That did it, we were jinxed. The next day the wind and waves we had enjoyed for a few weeks, pushing us southwest all but died. Wind less than 5 mph, and waves less than one meter. We were too far northwest of the Canary Currents to benefit by that too. It was the beginning of almost 3 weeks of doldrums. Tom said it was like that Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day: nothing changed except the mileage and that, incredibly slowly. Pulling oars of a boat weighing in at close to a ton made for slow progress. We knew we had an overbuilt and heavy boat. We also knew just prior to the start that we carried more than twice the weight in food of other teams. Our nutritionist convinced us that freeze dried foods were not the way to go. Rowing 16-18 hrs daily, 20 strokes (and leg thrusts with each pull on the oars) equates to about 19,600 strokes a day. A lot of calories burned there. Add another 50lbs in spare parts (most unnecessary) and you can see we carried several hundred lbs of excess weight compared to other teams.
In the weeks that followed we encountered 3 types of sea birds (one pair of small sparrow like birds followed us almost ¾ of the way) a huge sea turtle that thought we looked like a large female turtle, several sharks that followed the boat, whales, dolphin, porpoise, dorado, sunfish, flying fish (including one that flew into my chest and flopped about in my lap on a starless and completely black night-not good for the heart) and unfortunately a lot of garbage.
Weather was affected by two hurricanes in the Caribbean, a massive low-pressure system north of Bermuda about mid race and finally by Hurricane Olga which was a few hundred miles north of us. These systems contributed to the disruption of the formation of the trade winds, something all the teams expected to help them across. Olga was close and many electrical/thunder storms surrounded us for over a week. Without assistance from the trades most teams were up to two weeks behind projected finish times. We rowed every slow plodding mile. Incidentally, the 2900 nautical miles equates to about 3300 statute miles. That’s like rowing from NY to LA!
Tom and I rowed together as much as possible. It was easier, once the boat was moving, to maintain speed. One could move the boat but at a much higher level of effort which, later in the race, became very difficult.
About 4 days prior to the finish we experienced the trades, as they should be. Winds to 15knots, waves 8-10, 10-12ft. The last 250 miles went much faster that the previous 250. About 40 miles off Barbados, maybe 8pm Dec 3, we saw the lights of Barbados. With wind and waves behind us, and now with a NW current passing the east side of the island, we really covered some ground. We rounded the north end of Barbados just before dawn at an average speed close to 4 knots. Mother nature never made it easy though. We thought the last 6 miles would be “cake”. But the wind hugged the low hills of Barbados and threatened to blow us offshore and into the Caribbean Sea. We were forced to stay off shore about ½ mile because of the shallow reefs and cliffs on the treacherous north shore but as soon as we were able we pulled into the lee of the island and hugged the shore, sometimes as close as 50 ft.
58 days, 2hrs and 7 minutes later we pulled up to the customs dock at Port St Charles, Barbados. The adventure (ordeal) was over. If you have never sailed, you cannot grasp the notion that our legs and minds would need 36-48 hrs to acclimate to solid, unmoving land. We walked like we were under the influence. I looked like Tom Hanks in Castaway. We were tired, sore, 25lbs lighter but happy that it was over.
Rowing an ocean is something that few people have accomplished and only a handful of Americans can lay claim to that feat. My hat is off to Tori Murden, first woman and first American woman to row an ocean solo. To Richard Jones who not only is the first American male to solo the Atlantic, but also went 700 miles farther than we did. To Mick Bird who has so far rowed the Pacific in three legs and who plans to continue rowing until he’s gone around the world. “Steady on” Mick! Credit too to Harbo and Samuelson. In 1896 these hardy fishermen from Highlands NJ took on a challenge to row the Atlantic. Their wooden boat was a mere 16 ft and had no GPS, water desalinator, freeze dried foods, EPIRB (emergency beacon) or satellite phones. They crossed in 60 days. You have to have done this to truly appreciate what these people have done. I am in awe of those who preceded us.
Again, my thanks to supporters, and I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t necessary.
We are still in debt. The credit cards runneth over.