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100 Days of Solitude: Graham Walters and Puffin

A journey that began back in December 2006 with an almighty row with the Spanish Coast Guard ended in a record-breaking row (the paddling kind), and a hero’s welcome from the French Mayor of St Barths on May 13th, 2007. The next edition of the Guinness Book of Records will record that Graham Walters, 59, from Great Britain rowed across the Atlantic in 100 days on Puffin – both the shortest (15’) and oldest (40 yrs) boat in history.

The feat began on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands when Walters, who had previously sculled across the ocean in 1997 and 2001, set off on the 3,100 nautical mile journey to Antigua. Eight hours later, his home for the next three months was being towed at high speed back towards the port by the authorities, to be impounded. Not only had Walters left harbor without notifying the harbormaster, but his equipment also did not comply with regulations. Slapped with a fine and with damage to his rudder from the high-speed tow, Walters could have been forgiven for giving up there and then. But as the following months would show, this was not a man who knew how to throw in the towel.  

Walters finally left port on February 3rd, with the already diminutive Puffin loaded down with a water-maker, solar panels, freeze-dried food, and a regulation four-man life raft. Rowing into a headwind, he reported on his website log that it was like, “dragging a pile of bricks through wet concrete.” Gradually, supporters around the world picked up on the story of this lonesome oarsman and began following his progress on www.atlanticpuffin.co.uk, where they could read about his trench foot, sore posterior, leaking hull, days of frustration under sea anchor, right down to the heartbreak of cooking up breakfast only for a rogue wave to sweep it into the bilge. For the first month, Walters was forced to sleep sitting up, until he had eaten his way through enough supplies to reach the bunk. Gripping stuff never came at such a plodding pace.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a British singlehander called William Garnier had completed a crossing on a 25’ yacht to Barbados, and was following the progress of Walters, whom he had met in the Canaries. As Walters neared the Caribbean, Garnier saw what Walters also knew: that the equatorial current and southerly wind were pushing Puffin way off course. While in St Maarten, Garnier had become friendly with local liveaboard Bruce Hancocks, who runs the day charter boat Garfield (www.garfieldfuncat.com). As Puffin missed first Antigua, then Barbuda, then St Kitts, Hancocks was asked to go and find Walters as he approached St Barths.

“We threw some beer and sandwiches into Garfield and set off,” says Hancocks. “We knew he had to finish unassisted and that we mustn’t touch the boat.” Like any cat in chase of a bird, Garfield soon tracked down Puffin, and Hancocks, who has been running trips to St Barths for ten years, decided to direct the Englishman into the Baie de St Jean.

“I got hold of the Mayor and the media on the phone and guided him onto the beach,” says Hancocks. “He set foot on shore and fell straight down. The guys gave him some sushi [it was St Barths after all] and a beer, which he glugged straight down.”

Did the ancient mariner start regaling assembled hotel guests with tales of dice-playing phantoms and an albatross? Not at all. “It shocked me how together he was,” remembers Hancocks. “He was a very humble guy. He was struggling to walk, but there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him.” In fact, Walters kept local dignitaries and onlookers entertained with a fresh account of his trip and answered volleys of questions with enthusiasm.

The trip had taken just 100 days, but in another way, Walters was completing a 40-year-old journey. Puffin was the very boat that two journalists, David Johnstone and John Hoare, had used in their 1966 attempt to row the Atlantic west to east. Tragically, the two had disappeared in Hurricane Faith and Puffin had been wrecked. Three months later, the Canadian Coast Guard had found her along with the ship’s log. Walters later found Puffin in a museum, restored her, and rowed her back into the record books. While she is now headed for a museum in Antigua, Walters is planning his next challenge: a skiing trip to the North Pole.

Nick Marshall is an English journalist living on St. Maarten who was consultant editor of All At Sea from 2003 to 2005.

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