In 1896, two Norwegian immigrants to America became the first people in recorded history to row across an ocean. The oyster fishermen set out from Manhattan, N.Y., in an 18-foot oak vessel on June 6th and made landfall 55 days later on the Cornish Peninsula of Great Britain. From there, they continued rowing to Le Havre, France.
Nearly 120 years later, their accomplishment has evolved into the extreme sport of ocean rowing with carbon fiber and fiberglass boats designed for performance. The modern boats have more in common with a spacecraft than the vessel rowed in the 19th century.
Currently, as many of 62 people should be at sea attempting a similar feat in a fleet of 26 vessels participating in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. The race started December 20 from San Sebastian de La Gomera in Spain’s Canary Islands, where Christopher Columbus first set sail for the New World. Rowers will continue to Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua. The previously biennial event becomes an annual race with this year’s row.
The first of nine four-man (including a couple of four-woman) teams should complete the 5,000 km crossing about 40 days after starting. This class includes the only Caribbean-based competitors, Team Wadadli (named for the pre-Columbian Amerindian name for the island of Antigua).
“For several years, we have enviously watched small contingents of brave-hearted and adventurous individuals row into English Harbour here in Antigua, as they complete the Atlantic Campaign’s Rowing Challenge, the so-called ‘World’s Toughest Ocean Rowing Race’,” the team says on their website (antiguaatlanticrowers.com). “We have decided that it is now time that an Antigua team should be put together as a fours entry and give it a go.”
Team members are family doctor Nicholas Fuller, 67; boat builder Peter Smith, 74; commercial fisherman and cargo boat captain Archie Bailey, 50; and small boat skipper John D. Hall, 29. Before the race, the team practiced rowing their boat Wa’Omoni around the island, finding that their individual skills meshed well. The team boasted of their unique motivation: “Unlike all the other entrants, every stroke gets us closer to home!”
In addition to acquiring the pricey boats and gear, all of the race participants have signed lengthy waivers, participated in a three-day orientation class, and paid a hefty entry fee to Atlantic Campaigns SL, the Spanish company organizing the race. Each has also named a charity to benefit from funds raised through donations to the racers. Team Wadadli has chosen St. John Hospice as its beneficiary.
The 11 pairs teams are expected to straggle into port within a few weeks after the fours. They should be followed by the half dozen solo entrants who are expected to take as long as 90 days to complete the course. Those brave souls range from a 19-year-old British aerospace engineering student with ten years of rowing experience, to a 58-year-old who has run the length of Great Britain, as well as marathons across the Sahara Desert and the North Pole.
Participants in the race are a mixed lot, coming from South Africa, Italy, Australia and the United States, although the United Kingdom has by far the greatest representation with 19 boats entered. Some racers have been life-long rowers who compete at a professional level. Others are endurance athletes or enlisted personnel looking for their next big challenge. Some are just seeking that one great adventure of their lifetime.
In past races, a few entrants turned back shortly after the race began, finding they were unprepared for the hardship. Others have called for rescue after being battered by weather or suffering equipment failures.
To successfully complete the challenge, they must reach the distant shore with no assistance. A couple of sailboats will be running along the course to keep tabs on participants and carry a crew to document the race, but with the fleet so spread out, any assistance requested could take days to arrive.
“The race is 100 percent unsupported,” said Houston, Texas rower Greg Wood, a 35-year-old member of U.S. team Latitude 35. “You leave with everything you need until you get to the other side. Racers typically lose 10% of their body weight.”
The boats are carrying solar powered communications gear to check in regularly. They are also equipped with tracking devices so that rowing fans can track the progress of participants via the race website: www.taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com
Rob Lucey cruised through the Caribbean with his wife aboard their 38-foot sloop Sea Spell before they launched a boating magazine in the Carolinas. He currently resides in Texas where he occasionally sings sea shanties aboard the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa.