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OUR MAN AND THE SEA   Lone woman outlasts the men 
by Richard Holledge                        Saturday November 24 2001

Times rower's Atlantic odyssey ends in flames 

Mid-Atlantic, Day 48  Long 19.23N, Lat 34.35W 
Miles rowed: 1,100  Miles to go: 1,494 

HE’S had foot rot, depression, a sore behind, cramps in his hands, sunburn, hallucinations, close brushes with whales and sharks. He’s been hot, cold, wet and hungry. He’s not had a lot of fun. . . 

No wonder that Jonathan Gornall, the 47-year-old Times journalist who has been rowing the Atlantic single-handed for five weeks, has been toying with the idea of giving up. He has suffered a torment of indecision every hour of every day since October 20 when his rowing partner left the boat. 

This week he fell overboard, banging his leg and bruising his fragile morale in the process. That pretty much clinched it andyesterday he gave up his unequal struggle with the Atlantic. 

At 11.45 he was picked up by the support vessel Challenger 47. At 18.00 the boat which he had assembled in the shed of his home in East Anglia was sunk to avoid being a danger to passing ships. 

From the Challenger, Jon, sounding more cheerful than he has in weeks, said: “I was surprised at the amount of work that had to be done. Anything that is combustible has to be taken off in case there are explosions. Then the second mate breaks up the hatches and bilges and prepares the boat for sinking by placing petrol at strategic points. 

“The boat was set free from the yacht, we made one pass and I chucked in the anti-collision flare which sets it on fire. It was quickly burnt to the water line but would not sink. In the end the yacht, which is made of metal, rammed it and broke it up into little pieces. 

“It was sad to see Star Challenger go, agonising. It was just like a Viking pyre. 

“I have taken a note of the coordinates of my final position and they will be carved on my heart.” 

It was the inevitable end to an heroic struggle. Jon had run out of the strength and, more importantly the will, to keep going. His rate of progress, despite the long-awaited favourable winds, meant that he would not have reached the finishing post in Barbados until the end of January. He reckons he was short of food, and that 50 of the 150 barrels of fresh water ballast were contaminated with sea water. 

What also concentrated the mind was that the support vessel would be heading west, away from the race stragglers. 

Now Jon will spend three or four weeks on the vessel as it sails to Barbados, looking forward to getting on with his life in a “grown-up fashion”. 

Until about a week ago he could have been persuaded to battle on. Advice had been plentiful. Rob Hamill, who was half of a team which rowed the Atlantic in 41 days four years ago was determined that he should go on. “Tell him he is looking for excuses to give him a way out. He should persuade the support vessel to help him put up a jury rig, anything that will help him make the trip. He is already out of the race but nothing will substitute for the glow when he arrives in Barbados. In ten years he will be able to look back and say he did the right thing.” 

Matt Goodman, who with Steve Westlake won the Ward Evans Atlantic Rowing Challenge in 42 days, said: “If he is in it for the adventure then he should keep going. If he’s not there’s no point.” 

His former rowing partner, Dominic Biggs, who left the race feeling homesick and angry, said: “Jon will never be able to live with himself if he doesn’t complete the race.” 

Jonathan said: “I tried to ban people using the P word — positive — weeks ago because I got so fed up being told what I should do. Trouble is, they have been right: positive is just what I need to be. I have got to get in the right frame of mind to cope with this disappointment.” 

His friends at The Times are looking forward to his return with interest and a little trepidation. How will all this exposure to a lonely sea and self make him react? Brett Kahr, a psychotherapist, has a phrase for it: psycho geographic pseudo solution. In other words, that all-too-common conviction that if we could be somewhere else our lives would be better. 

“People are always saying if only my life could be different, if only I could be in this job instead of that one,” he said. “They imagine that away from the daily stress of work they will somehow be better and happier. It rarely works like that. 

“So much depends on why he did it in the first place. Was it rationally thought through or was it done on impulse?” Jon said: “Sitting on a rowing machine, I got myself through countless training sessions by visualising the moment I would take the boat alongside in Port St Charles. Instead she will have been scuppered in 5,000 metres of water. 

“Still, there are compensations: no more pappy food, no more brackish water, and no more endless rowing. Not to mention no more days on end with only myself for company. I have learnt that I am not quite as fascinating as I’d always imagined.” 

Jon’s first call when he returns home will be to his bank manager, to discuss his shortfall in liquidity. That’s the way it is with modern adventures: they tend to start and finish with a visit to the bank. 

If only it could have been different.

 
DEBRA VEAL is now the only solo rower left in the challenge. “I find a different source of pleasure every day and I am feeling huge contentment,” she says. 
“It has come as a complete surprise to me that I could be so determined or that I had such inner strength. I don’t dwell on the fact that I might have to keep going for another two months. I try to do one thing every day to keep myself cheerful. After all, if I am not happy, then there is no point carrying on.” 

Her husband, Andrew, was her crewmate, but gave up after two weeks unable to handle the implacable nature of the ocean. Her website is full of jolly messages from friends and strangers and anecdotes about being frightened by turtles who bump along the hull and being hit in the face by flying fish. 

She had her first meeting with people for weeks when the yacht Wild Woman en route from Tenerife to the Cayman Islands hove to. She was telling the skipper her story when she realised that it must have sounded crazy. “Life out here has settled and become normal. One day I expect the enormity of what I am doing will hit me, but I know it won’t be until I reach dry land.” 


The support vessel called by, dropping off a large lump of goat’s cheese and some slices of freshly baked bread. So relaxed is Debra that she stopped rowing, put out the sea anchor for 12 hours and read a John Grisham novel. 

The lads in Keltec Challenge ring up now and then to sing her a song. In return, she tells them jokes culled from the text messages of friends and strangers. 

She was about 350 miles behind Jonathan, and the news that he was giving up has acted as a spur. “I thought he might change his mind. I know it doesn’t seem quite right to feel this, but the news that someone has given up is a real morale-booster. It proves that I have succeeded where others have failed.” 

Her success is attracting a following. “I have received quotes, poems, Bible verses and useful sayings and phrases from the people who are following my voyage and all of them without fail have been a huge source of mental stimulation and encouragement to me.”

© 1983-2001 Ocean Rowing Society 

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