One man in a boat
|BY RICHARD HOLLEDGE||
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 24 2001
When Jonathan Gornall's crew-mate abandoned ship two weeks into an attempt to row across the Atlantic, Gornall decided to carry on alone - for another 2,000 miles. He explains why he won't give up Most offices have them. Grumpy old sods who, if they weren’t really rather good at their jobs, would be banished to work on permanent night shifts. On The Times we have a double act known affectionately after the Muppet Show doomsayers Waldorf and Statler.
Well, Waldorf, or is it Statler, is away from his desk. Curiously, so it seemed to us, one of the duo, aka Jonathan Gornall, decided five years ago to row the Atlantic.
Colleagues were both baffled and admiring, especially as preparation for the adventure involved many trips to the gym with many gruelling hours on the rowing machine, the building of a 24ft boat and the finding of sponsors.
Now we are worried, because what should be a duo of oarsmen ploughing across the Atlantic has become one. Jonathan’s partner was taken off the boat four days ago suffering from sleep deprivation and exhaustion and Jon is alone. And lonely.
He and his rowing partner, Dominic Biggs, set off from Tenerife on October 7 to plough their way 3,000 miles across the ocean in the Ward Evans Atlantic Rowing Challenge. Destination: beguiling Barbados. The record for the adventure is held by two New Zealanders who completed the journey in 41 days. Jon is 25 days into the trip and has completed almost 500 miles.
How does it feel to be in your very own exclusion zone? What is it like to be away from the world of newspapers when the biggest story on which any journalist will ever work is unfolding?
Often Jon and I would be sitting opposite each other on the back bench of this newspaper — the epicentre of the decisionmaking which goes to make up the news pages.
Should this story go there? Is that the right picture? What on earth — this in Waldorf/Statler mode — are you doing that for? It’s the question I asked him about this venture just the once, right at the beginning, and it’s one he never really answered.
Just as mountaineers climb mountains “because they are there” and expect that to explain everything, so too with Jon. It was just something he was going to do; right from the moment he made the decision his determination to make it work and make it happen was unbending.
Maybe there’s a clue in his most recent message: “I will be exercising mind as much as body, and I feel sorry for those who don’t play with the toys God gave them.”
His voice, coming from 468 miles west of Tenerife, sounded clear, but there was something eerie about the sound of water gurgling and splashing against the hull of the boat.
He seemed weary, depressed and completely removed from the office he had left behind, let alone the war.
“I listened to the World Service the other night on a little crackly radio that I dangle from the hatchway. I have to say that I feel completely divorced from it all. There was one of those classic BBC voices talking about bombing somewhere and Alistair Cooke droning on about anthrax.
“To be honest, I am totally focused on what I am doing. I hardly have a moment for that kind of diversion. This was all-consuming before, and with Dominic gone it is even more so. For a start I have to establish a whole new system of sleeping.
“If I stop to think about it I would be in despair. I am making about two knots. I have done 468 miles and have 2,148 to go. But who’s counting?” If you do count, you are struck by the rather alarming thought that the journey might take more than 90 more days. The boat has food for 90 days.
When Dominic was on board they could take it in turns to rest. Now Jonathan, taking advantage of a favourable northeasterly wind which is pushing him in the right direction, can strap himself into a harness and have 40 minutes’ sleep at a time. He rows for two hours, has a breather, and as he rather inelegantly puts it, unsticks himself and his sweaty shorts from the seat, has a wash in salt water and tries to do a few stretching exercises.
When we spoke on Monday evening all he could see from the cabin boat was the occasional glimpse of the horizon behind the flecks of foam as the boat rose and dropped between the choppy waves.
“It gets bad at night when I sometimes can’t see the stars. You know that the blackness out there is not the sky but the waves, above and around you.
“It’s frightening to be sliding away sideways on a wave in freefall because you lose all sense of where you are and what is happening to you. Sometimes you see the stars not above, but whirling around, which adds to the sense of confusion. Then there are the bangs and crashes as the waves pound in.
“The frightening thing is that I have become invisible to passing ships when I am in a trough because I have to keep the lights out to save power. These things look like blocks of flats floating by, terrifying really, and another reason why I can’t sleep for too long at a time. I have to get up on deck to see if anything is near.”
It sounds desolate. He sounds desolate. This is the man — good- looking in a kind of Stanley-Baker-meets-Arnie-Schwarzenegger sort of way — who would come to work, fire off a passionate e-mail to the girl of his dreams and flirt with the women on the picture desk before settling down to the relatively serious business of bringing out a newspaper.
There is nothing relatively serious about this venture. Indeed, this self-imposed challenge is clearly a life-defining moment for him. There is something visceral about his determination to succeed even if his “ordinary” life suffers.
On the day before he rowed out of the harbour in Tenerife he sent another log of the journey which is being published in the sports pages of The Times.
It speaks volumes for a man who is both a realist and a hopeless romantic, permanently in and out of love. It also captures the maverick spirit of someone who, to help concentrate on getting fit, used to rent a room in a sailor’s lodge in East London to be near the gym.
He wrote: “Out there, there be dragons. And I must face them, ready or not.
“I have my own demons and these are they, in no particular order: fear of giving up through pain, discomfort or lack of moral fibre; running out of water; failing to survive to begin work on rebuilding my life.
“Since I decided to take part in the challenge my life has changed. I have grown steadily fitter and physically, materially and emotionally leaner — not always through choice. Three relationships fell by the wayside as the project ground on, the last collapsing this year. It is not that I am being fatalistic or that I fear the worst, it is just that there is, literally, nothing else left. I have no lover to return to, no home to go back to and almost no possessions. One thing I do have, thanks to The Times, is a job to return to, and this accounts for the solitary entry in my diary: January 2 — back to work.”
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the decison by Briggs to pull out has not shifted his determination one jot.
“I felt quite good when Dominic quit. To be honest, he did not enjoy it from day one. He was sick and he missed his wife and one-year-old son. He was very depressed and I was always aware that he was the one with something to lose. In a way it is a weight off my mind.”
Now it is as if his only true relationship is with the boat. He built it and gave loving accounts of its progress to the rest of us and shared pictures of it around the back bench; he raised the sponsorship; he went on courses to learn navigation, first aid, sea survival and how to work a radio. Oh, and he learnt to row. It is not too much to say that the boat, Star Challenger, is the most important thing in his life.
“I could not watch her burning to the waterline from the deck of a rescue boat, so if anything Dominic’s departure has made me even more determined to carry on.”
But the war, Jon, what about the war? I could sense him trying to get a feel for what is not only consuming the working day of journalists, but is affecting everyone in the country. But he doesn’t. As he lurches and sways across the ocean the competition is all that matters to him.
“All the competitors were in Tenerife on September 11. We watched the attack on televison but felt it did not involve us. All of us had been preparing for this voyage for years, this is what our energies had been focused on; we are a like-minded tribe and nothing could have stopped us.
“Now when I listen to the radio it does sound like the war of the worlds, and when the BBC was talking about the ground troops going in I did think about my son Adam, who is a Royal Marine. I did wonder if he would be sent in.
“Sometimes I feel nostalgic about the office, if only to be in the warm and have people to talk to, but this is more important. I’ve got to do this. The only thing I let myself dream of is arriving in Barbados. It would be nice if the woman I love was there, but I don’t suppose she will be.” (The latter is pure Statler/Waldorf.) So now that he has begun to get used to the constant movement and recovered from the seasickness which bedeviled the early days, he finds himself picking out odd noises: the crackling from the radio as it picks up disembodied messages from ships, the occasional snippets about bomb attacks, bioterrorism and MoD briefings, and amid all the cacophony of the boat being bashed around there is a small trickling sound of water along the hull which reminds him of practice rows on the river at home.
“I now have a small bird which appeared out of nowhere; it flies around the boat all day and then disappears at night. At first I quite liked it, but now it spooks me. I’m trying to frighten it off with my Bryan Adams tape.”
With night approaching he sets up the gas cooker to make his tea of sardines, mushrooms and couscous followed by pears and vanilla custard.
“Tastes like crap,” he said, sounding just like Statler. Or is it Waldorf?
Ocean Rowing Society
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