The ORS Int. is the official adjudicator of ocean rowing records for Guinness World Records


Times Online.


Man's oldest foe
The sea can defeat the bravest challengers


August 9 2004

The cruel sea is a harsh opponent of human endeavour. Those who pit themselves against its power know they are risking their lives. Only with this humility is it possible for sailors, oarsmen and those who cast themselves adrift on the oceans to accept the challenges and frequent failures.
So it was all the more galling that the four transatlantic oarsmen, in a meticulously and sensible planned expedition, had to abandon their vessel after it was destroyed by a freak wave. They came so close to beating the 88-year-old record for rowing the Atlantic from West to East. But as Jonathan Gornall, the Times writer who was one of the crew, remarked stoically: “You take on nature and you take what she delivers, and on this occasion she dealt us a killer blow.”

The break-up of their carbon-fibre boat, Pink Lady, only some 300 miles from the Scilly Isles, was terrifying. The four were within sight of the record, having already surmounted earlier challenges: the number of icebergs off the Canadian coast, the exhaustion caused by constant sleep deprivation, blisters, sores and nonstop exertion and, only a week ago, the first of two freak waves which reared up some 45ft above their 30ft boat. They knew that this weekend they were approaching the worst storm of the 2,100-mile crossing. But as Gornall said, the mayhem of being woken from sleep to find yourself underwater and in darkness “was not a pleasant experience”.

In his case it was the second time that the ocean had defeated him. In 2001 he attempted to continue solo across the Atlantic after his partner on the two-man boat quit after a week; but after 45 days and 1,200 miles alone he too was obliged to give up. What makes him and others take on challenges so excruciating and so hazardous? Partly, it is to prove a point about willpower and motivation, exploring the mental as well as the physical limitations of the body and, in this case, raising money for the British Heart Foundation. Partly, it is the competitive instinct. In 1896 two Norwegians set a record rowing across the Atlantic in 55 days, and although there have been 29 subsequent attempts to better it, no one has succeeded. Only ten times was the crossing completed; and six men have died in the attempt.

Technology has made all such challenges more possible, more daring and more frequent. Better equipment, better training and better rescue arrangements have encouraged ever more men and women to take to hot-air balloons, trudge solo to the poles or race ever faster through mountainous seas. Their feats are still dangerous, still thrilling. The ocean is man’s oldest foe; in confronting it for charity, Gornall and his companions deserve our respect and admiration.


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