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Times Online

First person

Falmouth here we come (we hope)

 

July 1 2004

Four rowers are aiming to set a new world record by crossing the Atlantic in under 55 days. One of the team looks at the challenge

WITH LUCK, as you read this, I and my three shipmates, now just off the east coast of Newfoundland in an extremely pink rowing boat, will be heading your way. Between us and England lie 2,200 miles (3,550km) of Atlantic Ocean. Travelling at 3 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 with you. Meanwhile, enjoy the British summer.

I flew out with John Wills and skipper Mark Stubbs on Monday to St John’s, Newfoundland, 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.

Our plan is simple, if not that cunning: to break the 55-day record for rowing the west-east Atlantic passage and (part B) 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.

Our hearts and minds are set on a landfall in Falmouth, not least because of the excellent fish and chips (although this ambition might be reviewed after 45 days of dehydrated cod and potatoes) but our official finishing line is the line of longitude that runs through the Bishop Rock lighthouse off the Isles of Scilly. If we can cross it in fewer than 55 days after leaving St John’s, we will have broken a record that has stood for more than 100 years. Optimistically, we have taken full rations for only 45 days (and to think I thought maths would never inspire me).

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 entire project is at the mercy of the whims of Mother Nature. She does, doubtless, have many surprises in store.

Our course will take us first across the Grand Banks, the notorious shallow fishing area that extends 300 miles east of Newfoundland and where waves can be whipped to alarming heights by “perfect” storms (sinking fishing boats crewed by the likes of George Clooney).

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 south through the area.

To the south of our route lies the grave of the Titanic, a reminder that an unstoppable berg travelling at 3 knots would make an awfully big impression on a carbon fibre boat that weighs less than half the combined weight of its crew.

We take safety seriously on board 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 (and some pretty red ones in case they ignore the white ones and run us down anyway).

We row, without pause, in two watches of two men. My seat is in the bow and behind me is stowed the liferaft (which I can cut free of its restraining straps and have in the water before you can say Mayday), 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 (which, when triggered, sends an SOS with our position to the UK Coastguard) 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 (amorous whales and vindictive super-squid aside) is weather. One member of our shore team is Lee Bruce, an experienced American weather-router. More accustomed to directing round-the-world yachts to take advantage of passing weather systems, he will be briefing us daily on what to expect.

What we expect in general are high seas, but we hope that the traditional east-running Atlantic swells, upon which our slim 10-metre (33ft) boat is designed to surf with ease, will show up as promised and help to carry us on our way. Ditto the following winds.

The sea, however, is notoriously bad at reading forecasts and a boat like ours 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, a large underwater parachute at the end of a long line — which will hold the boat safely, if not comfortably, into the prevailing weather and slow any morale-sapping 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 (“Something beginning with S . . . Sea? Sky? Sick?”). None of us expects to escape sea-sickness, especially in the first week, when we will be acclimatising to the alien motion of the ocean. It won’t help to know that even Nelson used to lose his lunch during the first few days of a voyage.

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 delicately dependent on another: remove one part, and the whole machine stops. We have our very own mission control in Bob Barnsley, a sailor and technical wizard who over the years has done more for the project than anyone. He is familiar with every piece of wiring and every item of equipment, having fitted most of it. Now back home in Poole, where all our training was done, he will be in daily contact and, if anything packs up, he will be our technical lifeline. He is, in short, our fifth Beatle.

However rough we are feeling, it is vital to drink enough water and to eat enough food (about 6,000 calories each a day), and the success of the entire mission hinges on producing enough electricity to make this possible.

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 1,000kg (2,200lb) all up. So to charge our single 12 volt battery (heavy), we carry an extremely compact (but nevertheless very heavy) Honda generator and, of course, all the petrol we need to power it (yet more weight). We will need roughly 40 litres of water a day, which means that 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, one by one, 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, singing morale-boosting sea shanties . . .

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 entire 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 (downwind, please, chaps).

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, which can be read in T2, starting next Thursday. 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), why not cut along to the quay at the National Maritime Museum and say hello? Anyone bearing beer and/or fish and chips will be very welcome, and piped aboard immediately. And please excuse the smell.
 

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