Eli Fuller glanced up at the sky as he tilted his head back to gulp down the last of his breakfast granola. Mouth full, Fuller started mumbling frantically to his team mates, John Watt, Nico Psihoyos and Scott Potter, as he pointed upwards. Overhead flew a frigate bird. It was the first the team had seen since departing La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, along with 31 other teams on December 14, for a 3,000-mile row across the Atlantic in the 2017 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, billed as the ‘World’s Toughest Row’. The bird, soaring overhead some 540 miles east of the finish line in Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua, proved a beacon of hope and encouragement for Team Antigua. With that, the four men started to pull even harder on the oars.
“We’ve been watching rowers land in Antigua for over 10 years, it has always sparked a curiosity among us all,” says Watt, whose teammates are childhood friends who grew up together and continue to be avid water sports enthusiasts. “The first Antiguan team to participate was in the 2015 Challenge (Team Wadadli, with Dr. Nick Fuller, Archie Bailey, John Hall and Peter Smith, who finished 14th of 26 teams, yet set the record for oldest team age-wise to ever row across the Atlantic) and it brought the island together. It also raised awareness and much needed funds for the St Johns Hospice. We were all inspired by these brave men. They had one request and it was to have another Antiguan team participate in the future. Eli made a few calls as we had a sponsor of U.S. $100,000 to get a team together and the rest is history. We were all in.”
The toughest part of the race for Team Antigua, says Watt, was maintaining power on the 24-foot long, six-foot wide self-righting Rannoch 45 row boat. To keep batteries charged, they had an emergency back-up system called an EFOY. Unfortunately, the unit didn’t arrive from a manufacturer’s servicing until the day before the race start. An error message in the unit that persisted after long hours of work by Watt and Psihoyos, necessitated the team leave this essential piece of equipment behind, leaving them at a disadvantage should they run into a low battery situation. The first five days the team used only essential electronics such as navigation lights, GPS, AIS, VHF radio, auto helm and water maker. It soon dawned on them that persistent cloud cover meant they would not get sufficient amps from their three solar panels to maintain the battery voltage. Conserving power then became the number one priority, meaning the team could not charge any devices, use navigation lights or run the GPS in the day, and some nights they had to hand steer using a compass and a glowstick to see.
The weather in this year’s Challenge was unprecedented and also challenging. Strong easterly trade winds resulted in very big seas, but an extremely fast paced race. The team experienced quite a few near roll overs where massive 20-foot waves would meet and send the boat sideways and down. Luckily, this didn’t cause any injuries. However, the sleep deprivation that came because of having to hand steer to conserve battery power for making water resulted in the men losing countless hours of sleep. The result was many hallucinations and vivid dreams when asleep during the two-hour row, two-hour sleep schedule the men maintained for most of the trip. In fact, one night Watt found himself having a conversation with a bulkhead hatch before his shift change over.
“Dawn on Day 30 revealed the most beautiful sight, the eastern coast line of our home, Antigua. We could see boats making their way to welcome us. It was a very surreal and moving moment to see the amount of family, friends and fans who came out to see us in,” says Watt.
Team Antigua ended in second place, with a time of 30d 2h 12m, nearly five days faster than the 2016 record for a four-man team. The London, UK-based Four Oarsmen, was first and finished about 11 hours before Team Antigua.
All teams in the Challenge must have a charity in which to donate. Team Antigua chose two: a full-time managed Marine Park in the Nelson’s Dockyard area, and supporting Antigua’s sister island Barbuda, which was severely damaged during Hurricane Irma. The team has raised over US $110,000 to date.
“Presently, we don’t have plans to participate in another Challenge,” says Watt. “However, for future teams from Antigua or the Caribbean, we strongly suggest spending at least 800 to 1000 hours of training time on the water rowing the boat; learning the systems on board in great detail in order to trouble shoot problems out at sea very quickly; taking time in the gym getting your fitness in order; and knowing that the difficult part of organizing the row is the hours of emails, phone calls, meetings and fundraising it takes to manage the overall operations.”
Editor’s note: All At Sea congratulate TEAM ANTIGUA on their magnificent achievement.
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.