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

 


Fed up, tired, sick and 2,000 miles to go 

BY RICHARD HOLLEDGE

SATURDAY OCTOBER 27 2001

Jonathan Gornall is trying to cross the Atlantic alone in a 24ft boat, after the departure of his rowing partner. We find out how he, and his former crew-mate, now view the challenge 

The Atlantic Ocean. Day 21. Time: 12.14. 
Latitude: 22o 18'. Longitude: 24o 29'. 
Miles travelled: 538. Miles to go: 2,066. 

OF COURSE, we all think he’s crazy. Various adjectives have been applied to Jonathan Gornall, our man from The Times, as he rows across the Atlantic. Brave, of course. Determined, resolute, strong, obviously, even heroic. But, sorry Jon, the one that sticks is crazy. A week ago what was planned as a joint attack on the ocean became a solo attempt because Jon’s rowing partner, Dominic Biggs, decided to stop and was winched on to a rescue yacht. It is the “solo” bit that worries many of his colleagues as we check his slow progress on the Internet in the warmth of the office. Not just because it makes the journey more dangerous but because of the physical effort, stress, weariness, and sheer loneliness of it all. I spoke to Jon for the second time in five days yesterday as the vastness of the ocean surrounded his 24ft boat, Star Challenger. He sounded bad. “I’m exhausted, to be honest. I’m taking things an hour at a time. It’s hard to rise above the feeling of complete weariness. I went below for a quick sleep last night at 11 and woke up at 8, which is terrible because it means I wasn’t moving. “I feel pretty sick as well. It is hot and sunny and although I am wearing long sleeves and sunglasses, it still gets to you. I soak my hat in sea water but still feel like a burnt fridge, as the Aussies would say. I wish I could soak it in a lager. The wind is hot, too. At the moment it feels as if I am pulling the boat across the desert.” He and Dominic and 35 other teams started the Ward Evans Atlantic Rowing Challenge in Tenerife on October 7 and the race ends in Barbados. The distance ahead is weighing heavily upon him. “I sit here doing the sums and checking the chart. The way I am going, I won’t get to Barbados until February. I have to head a little further south to pick up the Trade Winds and the South Equatorial Current to help me along.” Is he missing Dominic? “Yes, not just physically but psychologically. It made such a difference when one of us could row for two hours and the other flop in the cabin. My appetite has gone. All I managed this morning was some duck p?t? and Ryvita. Six of my storage tanks have been flooded with seawater. I reckon I have had to jettison half of my supplies and, though I had enough for two to last 90 days when I set off, I have no idea how much I have now.” The food he has sent bobbing along in his wake has attracted guests. Jon was woken the other night by a thud on the hull, then another. “They were vicious bangs all round the boat so I assume it was a hungry shark or whale or something searching for food.Trouble is, I have become indifferent to what others might find exciting. Dolphins put on a fantastic display for me and all I could think was that they might damage my oars.” Alarmingly, Jon is having problems generating drinking water. When Dominic was taken off, an electrician from the rescue yacht got the system going again but Jon can run it for only two hours a day, to conserve energy for the night lights that let passing ships know that he is in their way. It was the deterioration of conditions on board that so discouraged Dominic. When I spoke to Jon on Monday he scarcely mentioned technical problems. Dominic, safely on the rescue boat, was more expansive: “I believed that by going on we would be taking an unacceptable gamble on safety. “I had three main concerns: the water maker, the failing electrics and, most important, Star Challenger’s susceptibility to capsize given these other factors. For days the boat had been losing power; at night we had to resort to a battery-powered navigation light and did not have sufficient power even to illuminate the compass. “There was insufficient electricity coming through the solar panels by day to fuel the power-hungry water maker, which anyway was down to producing a trickle. This in turn meant we had resorted to drinking our fresh water ballast — a third of it was gone. This ballast is integral to the boat’s stability, providing the weight to bring the boat right-side up in the event of a capsize. It was this that concerned me most of all.” If the water ballast has to be used again, Jon will be in great difficulty. No wonder we think he is crazy, particularly since, with the departure of Dominic, he has ceased to be eligible as a competitor in the race. “You might be right,” Jon admitted. “It’s become a different race, with different pressures. If I’d known it was going to turn out like this I might just have set off by myself and saved the entry fee.” He is clearly driven by the need to succeed. Earlier in the week he told me: “I have got to do this. I feel I am removed from the world, the war. I am utterly focused. Nothing matters but getting to to the end of the journey in Barbados.” Beryl Cook, Dominic’s wife, knows something of the driven Gornall. From Hong Kong, where she works for Star TV, she contacted me to say: “In the week before the race, Dominic phoned to let off steam as Jon became increasingly like a man obsessed, impossible to persuade on the smallest issues, springing out of bed each morning as if a thousand volts of electricity had jolted him awake. “I suggested that Dom start thinking of their differences as complementary — if they worked as a team, Jon could obsess over the detail, and if Jon burnt himself out, Dom could be the steady influence that might calm him down and bring sanity to any decisions about safety.” There was another problem that ultimately was to doom the joint venture. Between Jon first suggesting the trip to Dominic three years ago and the start in Tenerife, Beryl and Dominic married and had a son. “There have been times when I’ve felt so proud that Dom would try to do something like this, whether he finished or not,” she said. “But there have been just a few times when I’ve been angry, wondering why he would want to do it at all.” It took two weeks at sea for Dominic to realise he had made a mistake. Jonathan dismissed his departure rather lightly: Dominic was ill, he was homesick, his leaving the boat was a bit of a relief. Dominic is more graphic: “Relations in the cramped, stressful environment of the boat had deteriorated to the extent that it was difficult for us to coexist. Jon had serious problems with my low morale, caused by a combination of lingering nausea and inability to stomach the rations aboard and chronic homesickness. “There were few moments I enjoyed: the vastness of the ocean, the monotony of battling adverse conditions in a craft that seemed to delight in not co-operating, and the physical demands of rowing around the clock while scarcely eating. I was hoping to pull through these problems and enter a new, more optimistic phase, but Jon, frankly, thought two weeks was long enough. He thought it best for me to leave the boat, and was looking forward to the challenge of going it alone. There was nothing else for it and I let him go on his way.” Before he was winched off he wrote a note above the cabin door: “Take her home, matey. Keep safe.” His bleak account is amplified by Beryl: “After about eight days Dom said he was starting to think about what a self-centred thing it was to do. He started to wonder if it would take more strength to keep going, or call it a day and live with your pride. Later, he started to describe the watermaker packing up and the power growing dimmer and dimmer as they rowed in the darkness. I could see it happening in my mind, and I started to really worry. “It was like their own energy growing dim, yet still I couldn’t show any fear. He said he would come back if I asked him, but I told him that wasn’t fair, and that it had to be his decision. Then, finally, he said during one of his calls that he had found out what he needed to — that his wife and child were enough. The day before he decided to get off the boat he said he felt like a passenger in someone else’s dream.” Jon, who when at The Times works at the heart of the news operation, has blotted out the anxiety most of us feel at the US terrorist attacks. Dominic had not. “September 11 really played on his mind. He kept saying how it made you realise how important the family is in a crazy world. He said it made you think how you had to make every day count, and realise your whole chance at life could disappear any moment.” For Jon, perhaps, this journey is precisely what he sees as his chance to make sense of life, though he was being a little less like the Ancient Mariner or a survivor of the shipwreck in Byron’s Don Juan when he admitted: “I am desperate for a Coke, absolutely desperate. Can’t you fly me in a coffee, for God’s sake, a really good cup of coffee.”


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