If you are young, able bodied and looking for a physical challenge you might consider running a marathon or a triathlon. If someone suggested rowing across the Atlantic you’d probably think they were going mad. When I heard about the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a race where rowers can spend months rowing the close to 5,000 km from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean, I decided I needed to go and find out more.
The first surprise was finding that some rowers were neither young nor in possession of all their limbs. Rowing as part of the four man Antiguan Team Wadadli, is 74 year-old Peter Smith. Then there is the British team Yorkshire Rows, four working mums in their 40s and 50s, two of whom get sea sick. The four man team Row2recovery pushes the boundaries of possibility even further. This crew are all injured soldiers and joke that they only have three legs between them. One of them, Cayle Royce, lost both legs and the fingers on his left hand in a blast in Afghanistan in 2012. And he’s making the journey a second time. This year there are 26 teams each with its own interesting story.
Not everyone makes it
Not all teams will make it. Last time five teams were rescued. One team was picked up at sea after 96 days. They were running out of food and caught in a current taking them in the wrong direction and decided they wouldn’t make it. Some run into trouble when crew members have a falling out. The four members of the Yorkshire Rows have a list of on board values to help avoid this, and a contract (one of them is a lawyer) to deal with any deserters: anyone who leaves pays for the CHF 100,000 boat. The Row2recovery team have their way of coping: suck up any conflict and charge on military style.
A good sense of humour is a common thread that runs among the rowers. Some purposely put on 12kgs ahead of the race to give themselves reserves. When the Yorkshire Rows were asked if they had done this, three nodded while the forth, Janette, chirped “What?! I’m doing it to to lose 12kgs.”
What are the challenges?
Staying attached to the boat at all times is paramount. If its dark and stormy and you get separated from your boat mid-Atlantic you’re almost certainly dead. Staying sane is not easy either. Solo rowers have to cope with solitude. The trip typically takes six weeks, a long time to be alone. Sleep deprivation is also tough. Most row two hours on, two hours off, with no rest days.
Why do such a thing?
One very good reason is to raise money for charity. Event organiser Carsten Olsen announced on 12 December 2015 that 1.6 million euros had already been raised.
Another common reason is to prove that seemingly impossible things can be done. Row2recovery want to inspire injured servicemen by showing them that losing limbs is not the end. Niki from the Yorkshire Rows said “Every single person is capable of so much more than they realise, with hard work, dedication and the support of those around them, amazing feats can be achieved”. For some it’s a voyage of personal discovery and finding out just how far they can push themselves. There are likely to be crews that don’t quite know what they are in for. Shane Chadwick, originally from Perth, Australia, and one of the two man crew of Team Hesco admitted that he won’t really know what it’s like until he gets out there. He is a ship’s engineer though so he’s confident he can fix anything that breaks.
So who will win?
Everyone has their favourites. I spoke to Charlie Pitcher the founder of Rannoch adventure, one of the main boat makers, about his predictions. For him it’s a toss up between the American four, Latitude35, and the British four-man team Ocean Reunion. “If the sea is rough then Ocean Reunion will have an advantage. If it’s smoother this will favour the Americans.” Charlie should know what he’s talking about. In 2013 he broke the world record for the fastest unassisted solo row across the Atlantic by nearly six days in one of his own boats. Some others I spoke to favour the Antiguan team who have spent their lives on the sea as sailors, boat captains and fishermen. Knowing the sea as well as they do is a huge advantage. Plus they are rowing home.
This year there are rowers from six nations. 2016 should see more, and 2017 a team of four from Switzerland.
Ready, set, go…
The race starts in San Sebastian in La Gomera where Columbus departed from on 6 September 1492 on his first voyage to the Americas. The rowers start their journey on 20 December 2015. Columbus had sails, they only have oars.
You can follow their progress on the live feed below.
And the latest news from Twitter:
Update: The winning team was Ocean Reunion, arriving in 37 days, 9 hours and 12 minutes. After nearly 43 days at sea, the first solo rower, Italian Matteo Sogno arrived. Team Wadadli arrived shortly after, on the same day, at 14:09. Row2recovery arrived on 4 February after nearly 46 days at sea. Prince Harry Tweeted to congratulate them. Team Hesco arrived after 46 days, 9 hours and 32 minutes. Latitude35 arrived in Antigua on 9 February, after 50 days at sea, and he Yorkshire Rows made it in 67 days, 5 hours and 2 minutes.