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Don't mind the body odour

No time to wash as four men attempt to row across Atlantic

July 4 2004

By JONATHAN GORNALL  

From The Times of London

ST. JOHN'S - With luck, as you read this, I and my three shipmates are now off the east coast of Newfoundland in an extremely pink rowing boat.

Between us and England lie 3,550 km of Atlantic Ocean. Travelling at three knots, while we won't exactly eat up the miles, we will steadily nibble away at them and, in about a million strokes and something under two months, we should be home in Britain.

I flew out with John Wills and skipper Mark Stubbs on Monday to St John's, Nfld., where we were reunited with Pete Bray, the fourth member of our crew, and our boat, the
Pink Lady.
She seemed none the worse for her three-week imprisonment inside a shipping container.

Whether we will look as good after as many as 55 days spent alternating between two hours' rowing on her open deck and two hours' resting in her tiny aft cabin remains to be seen.
 
Gary Hebbard / St. John's Telegram / CP
Crewmember John Wills casts off the last line connecting the
Pink Lady to the dock in St. John's, Nfld. on June 30. The state-of-the-art carbon fibre boat and its four crew are trying to beat the record for rowing the Atlantic. The other three crew are Peter Bray, Jonathan Gornall and skipper Mark Stubbs
 
Our plan is simple, if not that cunning: to break the 55-day record for rowing the west-east Atlantic passage and to become the first crew successfully to conclude such a crossing on the shores of mainland Britain.

There have been 29 attempts to row the Atlantic in this direction. Only ten have been successful, not one has reached mainland Britain and six men have died trying.

While the plan might be simple, its execution is more complicated.

Years of planning, designing, boat-building, fitting-out, training and fine-tuning have gone into the attempt.

The record crossing has been a dream fostered by Stubbsie, a firefighter and former Royal Marines Falklands veteran, for four years.

A previous attempt two years ago in the same boat (then painted a fetching yellow) foundered halfway across when the rudder was damaged beyond repair.

It was a crushing moment from which Mark has fought back. The boat, a one-off design by the marine architect Adrian Thompson, was recovered and beefed up, while Mark recruited and trained a fresh team.

The destruction of the last attempt serves as a constant reminder that, no matter how well prepared we might be, the project is at the mercy of Mother Nature. She doubtless has many surprises in store. Our course will take us first across the Grand Banks, the shallow fishing area that extends 500 kilometres east of Newfoundland.

Crossing the banks to reach the deeper, warmer waters of the Gulf Stream means not only negotiating the ever-present fishing boats but also watching out for the constant parade of icebergs travelling through the area.

We take safety seriously aboard the Pink Lady. As well as an active radar reflector that tells us when we are being "interrogated" by a ship's radar, and bounces back a signal that makes us look roughly the size of Manhattan, we carry white collision flares to warn shipping on a collision course of our presence.

We row, without pause, in two watches of two men. My seat is in the bow and behind me is stowed the life-raft, although our craft, fitted with buoyancy bags and ballast tanks that can be charged at the approach of ominous weather, is designed to be self-righting if capsized.

We have VHF radios for talking to ships or aircraft and two satellite phones for calls further afield. As well as the more standard emergency beacon we are carrying an Argos tracking beacon. This enables our shore team to monitor our position via a French satellite tracking station and even allows us to send a series of pre-arranged numerical signals (1, say, might indicate boat halted by technical problems, no danger; 2, Problem solved; 3, Have gone mad and eaten skipper. That sort of thing).

Such is the technological gap between us and the Vikings (probably the first people to cross the Atlantic under oarpower alone), that we can even be paged by our shore crew.

The worst thing that can happen to us during the crossing is weather. One member of our shore team is Lee Bruce, an experienced American weather-router. More accustomed to directing round-the-world yachts, he will be briefing us daily on what to expect.

We expect high seas, but we hope the traditional east-running Atlantic swells, upon which our slim 10-metre boat is designed to surf with ease, will help to carry us on our way. Ditto the following winds.

The sea, however, is notoriously bad at reading forecasts and our boat does not take kindly to being assaulted from the beam or, worse, the bow, by wind or waves. There comes a point in a storm when it is first dangerous and then impossible to row: at this point we stream our sea anchor - in effect, an underwater parachute at the end of a long line - which will hold the boat safely into the prevailing weather and slow any backwards travel.

For the crew, this means huddling in the two cabins and battening down the hatches - and life in the emergency fore cabin is even more cramped than the extremely cramped aft compartment (so bad luck, Pete and Mark). Connected by walkie-talkie, there will be little to do except perhaps vomit and play I-Spy. None of us expects to escape sea-sickness, especially in the first week.

It is not just the weather that can scupper us. Unsupported, we are entirely self-reliant and, rather like Apollo XI, each part of our life-support system is dependent on another: remove one part, and the whole machine stops. We have our very own mission control in Bob Barnsley. He is familiar with every piece of wiring and every item of equipment, having fitted most of it. He will be in daily contact and, if anything packs up, he will be our technical lifeline.

Although we will be using gas to heat water to make our essential hot drinks and to rehydrate our dried food (eaten out of the foil bag: no time for washing up), having fresh water at all depends upon having enough electricity to power our desalinator. At first we are unlikely to see much sunshine, which renders our solar panels dead weight on a boat that already weighs more than 1,000 kg. So to charge our single 12 volt battery, we carry an extremely compact (but nevertheless very heavy) Honda generator and, of course, all the petrol we need to power it. We will need roughly 40 litres of water a day, which means the water maker has to be run for more than a hour every 24 hours.

And without power, our navigation, lights and communication systems will all pack up, setting us back to the days of Erik the Red (only without the morale-boosting prospect of pillage when we finally make landfall).

Of course, the more we eat, the lighter the boat gets, which is good as it ties in with us getting progressively weaker. Weak or not, there is plenty to do each day besides row and sleep the sleep of the dead: making water, boiling water, filling flasks, carrying out navigation and communication duties . . .

When one finally does get to sleep, Einstein's theories go out the porthole and two hours whip past like two seconds. Conversely, those two hours on the oars can crawl past like days.

There will be no washing, merely wiping with baby wipes, and our clothes, specially designed and made for us by the Devon company Reed ChillCheater, will probably be wandering around and taking entire rowing shifts by themselves by the end of the trip. Calls of nature will be answered with reference to the standard sailor's method - bucket and chuck it.

We can listen to music on Nike armband radio headphones, from a sealed iPod broadcasting on our very own ship's FM pirate radio station. One of my jobs has been to program the iPod with selections from each of the crew's (often shocking) CD collections. Let's hope I managed to record them all OK, eh?

One of my other jobs will be to send a diary once a week to The Times. Our progress (and we are sincerely hoping that progress there will be) can also be followed on our website, www.gopinklady.co.uk, which will be updated daily.

If, after a month at sea, it begins to look as if we might make it to Falmouth after all (and there is, of course, a fair risk of being driven by wind and currents to Ireland or France), we invite anyone in the neighbourhood to welcome us home. Anyone bearing beer and/or fish and chips will be very welcome, and piped aboard immediately. And please excuse the smell.

The Sunday Herald will follow the progress of the Pink Lady by running Gornall's weekly diary.
 

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