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How [not] to Row an Ocean
"The great thing about Once in a Lifetime Experiences is that if you do them twice they’re even better."
“Brazil?! BRAZIL?!” I woke up with another stomach-churning shot of adrenaline, verging on panic. Somewhere near my ear an alarm was going off.
A few inches below me I could hear the rush of water through the hull and, from the deck, the assorted rumbles, clanks and snippets of conversation that accompany two people at the oars. I’d been asleep for perhaps 90 minutes, curled in a ball in a space so closely packed with gear that it was impossible to stretch full length. Ahead of me was a two hour stint of rowing, around 3000km of ocean and an utterly unknown length of time before any of this would stop.
It was 2016, I was just off the southern coast of Portugal and, thanks to a convoluted series of events, found myself Skipper of a four person ocean rowing boat attempting to pioneer a new Atlantic crossing route to Brazil. Some might call it madness - but isn’t that defined as doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result? Oh. Wait a minute…
The first time
In 2013 I read a Facebook post seeking applicants for the final space in a crew of British women who were planning to row across the Pacific Ocean the following year. The ‘try outs’ were due to be held in Henley-on-Thames at the world-renowned Leander Rowing Club. It all sounded very exciting and I immediately assumed that tens, if not hundreds, of more qualified ocean rowing women would be applying. I consoled myself with the idea that it would be a fun weekend away regardless - and what did I have to lose?
As it happened the ‘interview’ was more a gathering in a pub garden, just outside of Henley. And there weren’t that many of us. And I was one of the few who’d actually rowed before. Somewhere between my ability to chuck a throw-line moderately accurately across a picnic table and getting on well with the Team Captain’s pet dog, I found myself selected and signing up to row the Pacific. I didn’t tell anyone for a while.
Fast forward a few months and we’d done some RYA training courses, acquired some sponsored socks and tea pots, lost another team member and had quite a few crisis meetings. We didn’t have a boat, or the sponsorship or money to get one. It was rapidly becoming clear that the dream didn’t quite match the reality. With the start date looming we briefly contemplated rowing as a pair rather than a four, but flying back to Dublin from a safety and first aid training weekend, I realised I had to make a decision. I didn’t feel that we could be ready in time and I knew that – with absolutely no judgment on the person – I simply wasn’t confident that my teammate would be able to keep me safe if something happened out there, a thousand miles from land. It was hard, but I made the call. “We either need to postpone a year to prepare more, or I’m out.” In the end, that expedition didn’t happen at all.
Crossing the Pacific
The thing is, I’d told people I was going to row the Pacific by then and the thought of having to go back and say I wasn’t anymore was mortifyingly embarrassing. While fear of embarrassment may not be the best motivation to row an ocean, I think it is one of the driving factors that gets people to the start of Big Challenges. So I hurriedly looked for a way to save face [row across an ocean with absolutely anyone who would take me].
As we had planned to take part in the newly established Great Pacific Race as the first stage of our Pacific journey, that was the most obvious way to still get out there. I sent a message to the race organiser, Chris Martin. He mentioned that there was another team still looking to find a final member. No trips to Henley or selection tasks this time. I sat on the floor of my rented flat in Dublin with a big glass of wine and had a Skype video call with Duncan, Matt and John – three men, all strangers to me and to each other, from different parts of the world, with a rented boat and the crazy shared dream of rowing an ocean. We were only a few months out from the start of the race, none of them seemed dangerously unhinged, the wine helped and I signed on.
Three Men in a Boat [and me]
Fast forward again. The ‘three men in a boat’ and I are now in a carpark in Monterey California frantically ripping solar panels off the roof of our boat. Not an ideal situation. We’d had a relatively* successful training stint off the coast of Florida. (*We only called the Coast Guard for advice once and only nearly got run-over by one cruise liner.) The boat’s owner had since towed it across the US to the race start line. Somewhere between Florida and California the already-quite-angry blinking LEDs on the solar chargers had become really-quite-unresponsive LEDs - the solar panels had been fried and without them we would have no power, no satellite navigation and rather more importantly no water maker. They needed to be replaced, and fast.
Having already paid-per-seat to get into this crew (the simple option for joining an ocean row if you can scrape together the money but don’t have the time, or mad friends, to put a team together yourself), the constant trips to marine suppliers and daily Amazon orders were a worrying extra toll on bank balances all round. The ‘Limited Intelligence’, as our boat had been christened by her previous owners, was starting to look like she might live up to her name. We did the compulsory capsize test for the race and didn’t pass until more ballast water was added (to what was already the heaviest boat in the race as the only ‘classic design’ four). Even with weather delaying the race start date by several days, half the team were still buried face-first in one of the hatches below deck the night before, attempting to make the water-maker make water.
Nonetheless, against what had started to seem like insurmountable odds, we did make it to the start line. Admittedly we rowed about 500m beyond it and then stopped again to re-pack the chaos on deck, but we’d made it onto the Pacific!
What followed were some of the most astonishing and miserable days I’ve ever encountered. First, we did a tour of the bay, unintentionally, as we’d neatly mounted a magnetic satellite aerial behind our deck compass rendering it useless, AND managed to damage the GPS aerial cable while installing padding inside the cabin. Then, having at last figured out how to go in a straight-ish line out to sea, the weather picked up and we spent almost 48hrs on parachute anchor in the choppy, cargo-ship-infested, coastal waters over the continental shelf. We saw all sorts of amazing wildlife in those first few days - whales everywhere - and yet I don’t have a single photo other than a shaky few seconds of video of an orca that breached behind the boat on my 26th birthday. The weather, the twelve hours a day of rowing in relentless three hour shifts, the emergency-blanket-requiring cold at night and the discovery that I get terribly terribly seasick meant it was just too awful to even contemplate documenting.
I’m a scientist and had been keen to ‘sell’ the expedition to friends, family and potential sponsors on the useful work we’d be doing on our ocean transect. We were supposed to be collecting data for a scientist working with NASA to ground-truth salinity measurements from a satellite – incredibly cool... until that equipment broke a few days in, and all attempts to fix it failed. Worse still, the water maker soon went the same way, and we really couldn’t get the foot steering to function either. A few hundred miles into a more than two thousand mile row, we were steering by rowing one-armed, spending an additional hour and a half a day each on deck making drinking water with a small emergency hand pump (in between bouts of vomiting), and had zero capacity to do anything more than survive. Other boats had turned back, one crew had even experienced a dramatic helicopter rescue in the stormy weather. We could have thrown in the towel, but somehow it never quite seemed an option. That fear of embarrassment at work again.
Our progress remained impressively slow – the all women team Boatylicious nearly caught us up despite starting nine days later – and family back home nervously reported their attempts at re-booking flights to match our ever-changing arrival estimate, exacerbating stress levels onboard. As we inched mile by painful mile closer to Oahu (salt-blistered, skinny and sunburnt) the Pacific threw us one last curve ball… well, two. Two hurricanes due to make landfall in Hawaii in quick succession, exactly as we came into range of the cliffs and shoreline of the notorious Molokai Channel.
Our early troubles with navigation and steering had never quite been put behind us and we were arriving on a course that was too far North to make the safety of Waikiki before the storm(s). The race organisers called us with an ultimatum:
“We’re able to award you a race finish at this point, and send the support boat to tow you into safe waters tomorrow, but you won’t get an official land-to-land crossing record. Or you can risk it and keep going. But if the weather gets bad we won’t be able to come out for you: your only rescue would be the coast guard and that would probably mean abandoning the boat. Your call.”
It wasn’t our boat. We wanted, desperately, to make land under our own steam. We also wanted, desperately, for it all to be over. We debated and voted. The crew was split, but Duncan the Skipper had the final call and the next morning, as we watched the sun come up over the first land we’d seen in 57 days, the support yacht arrived to tow us in. The relief and dismay were evenly matched – that one single moment we’d been dreaming about for nearly two months, finishing the damn race and stepping onto dry land, was suddenly an anti-climax. We’d rowed more than 2,200 nautical miles, but felt like we’d failed in the last 10.
So were there any highlights? Well yes. Plenty. Those are the memories that stick when looking back through rose-tinted retro-spectacles. The weather calmed down as we made it out over the deep ocean. The water was and astonishing sapphire blue, stunningly complemented by the gold and emerald flashes of mahi-mahi fish darting through the waves by day. The full Milky Way stretched out above us at night.
We swam in warm water kilometres deep, knowing that no other human, past or future, would ever swim at that exact point. We even managed to catch one fish (an epically poor success rate, given the number of attempts made). Flash fried in a Jet Boil, washed down with a bottle of red that John’s Uncle had stashed onboard, to the backdrop of a stunning Pacific sunset: it was the best meal of our collective lives.
Those moments are what make ocean rowing archetypal Type 2 Fun, and memories like that – with a healthy side-helping of “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” regret – are dangerous…
I didn’t mean to go to sea [again]
Another fast forward. Over a year this time: I was still in Dublin struggling to finish my PhD when a email arrived from Chris Martin, the Pacific Race organiser.
“I’m advising a team called Row2Rio who are planning an Atlantic crossing,” he said. “They’re three men and one woman again. I think Melanie would appreciate a chat – can you reassure her that it’ll all be ok?”
I wasn’t sure I could tell her that it would all be ok, but I did my best to reassure her that I’d been perfectly happy in an otherwise all male team. No issue there. I sent all the general advice and links and contacts I could think of – everything I wished I’d known two years earlier, and wished them luck.
The idea of travelling from London to Rio by human power had been dreamt up by four guys in a pub watching the 2012 Olympics. As ideas go, it was mad, but also relatively straightforward and, four years out, relatively achievable. However, by 2015 the dream hadn’t progressed as fast as they’d hoped. When one team member had dropped out, they’d made a big effort to advertise for a replacement and picked Mel – a keen kayaker, long distance cyclist and challenge event organiser for a major charity – a great addition to the team. But soon after, as I got to know them, another team member dropped and a hoped-for title sponsorship deal fell through, and they still didn’t have a boat with less than a year to go before the Rio Olympics started. The question came: “Would you like to join the team and help make this happen?”
Rowing to Rio
The great thing about Once in a Lifetime Experiences is that if you do them twice they’re even better. Yes I woke up screaming “BRAZIL?!” for a few days off the coast of Portugal. Yes I was award-winningly seasick all the way to the Canaries. Yes we had some bad weather and snapped an oar, and had to dodge cruise ships at midnight when the auto-tiller decided to pack in. But crucially I had the opportunity to learn from the lessons of the Pacific.
Best of all, Melanie, Jake, Luke and I stepped off our own boat onto the sand of a small Brazilian fishing village, the first women and first team in history to row across the equator from mainland Europe to mainland South America entirely under our own steam. After a total of 111 days at sea on two oceans, I finally felt I’d finished.
If you’re thinking about rowing an ocean yourself, here are a few tips from Susannah.
Look beyond the glossy branding: if you’re thinking of joining a team make sure you ask questions and read between the lines, are the resources and commitment there to carry it through?
Get a decent boat: second hand is fine, but inspect it carefully with your own eyes (and preferably someone else's too) first. Check the full inventory of technical and safety equipment - the extras add up.
Learn to fix your water maker (and all the equipment) before you leave: I went for lessons with Jim from Mactra Marine before the Atlantic crossing and it made a huge difference.
Don’t get obsessed with chasing gear sponsors: Free teapots won’t get you across an ocean, although food does. Row2Rio were supported by Huel, 9bar, Top Herd jerky and Bounce energy balls.
Put together a support team who will manage your communications and PR: your third Aunt will be desperate for news, but you might not have the energy to send it. Isla (@kettlegreenagency) did a great job for Row2Rio.
Be realistic about your expected timings: I didn’t ask anyone to come to Brazil to meet me, and taking away that pressure to arrive by a certain date helped me to stay a calmer and more objective Skipper.
Take your seasickness tablets. (I didn’t learn this one… third time lucky?)
Susannah is a scientist with a taste for adventure. She is currently an Associate Lecturer at the Open University, a rowing coach in Cambridge and a youth expedition leader with the British Exploring Society. Her fondness for Type 2 Fun is an ongoing issue.
You can find more from Susannah at boatanist.com
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