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Row, row, row your boat

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Last September, Colin Angus and fiancée Julie Wafaei set off from Lisbon on a quest to row across the Atlantic. After 121 days, they made their first landfall on St. Lucia, where they replenished supplies and rested for 12 days before resuming their journey to Costa Rica. Now, after more than five months, their final destination is within reach.

Our course from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia to Costa Rica ran through a section of the Caribbean Sea notorious for high winds and extremely large, powerful waves. A sailor we met warned us that this region, 300 kilometres northwest of the Colombian coast, is listed as one of the world's 10 most dangerous expanses of water.

As we entered this blow belt, I was not surprised as conditions began to deteriorate in the face of rising winds. As an added precaution, while we were in St. Lucia, Julie and I increased our boat's freshwater ballast to reduce our chances of capsizing. We also secured a large buoyant fender to our roll bar to assist in self-righting if we did flip.

The wind increased to 55 knots and our tiny vessel was assaulted by 10-metre breaking waves. Despite our previous encounters with two hurricanes and two tropical storms, it was soon apparent that these were the worst conditions we had encountered during our five months on the Atlantic.

All our loose gear was secured, and Julie and I would take turns outside steering the boat with the rudder. It was far too rough to row and our efforts were simply to keep the boat pointed down the waves to reduce the chances of capsizing. Often, breaking waves would hit us with what seemed like the force of an explosion and send us surfing down the face of the wall of water at terrifying speeds. Our GPS clocked our fastest surfing speeds at 20 kilometres per hour.

Nighttime was even more terrifying as the diffused light gave way to inky blackness. Too tired to steer, Julie and I huddled in our double-coffin-sized cabin, among soggy blankets, and stifling heat listening to the shrieking winds and thundering waves. We were slammed around relentlessly as our quarter-inch plywood vessel was repeatedly engulfed in whitewater.

Miraculously, the boat did not capsize, and four days after we entered the region, the winds began to abate. Our spirits were buoyed as we were able to resume normal rowing toward Costa Rica.

We were less than 100 nautical miles from our destination and the weather forecast was looking good. If all goes well, by the time you read this, we will have arrived at Limon, Costa Rica's eastern port.

With 10,000 kilometres of treacherous ocean behind us, and our final landfall so close, a quiet feeling of accomplishment accompanied each oar stroke this week.

Completing the first row in history from Europe to continental North America is not the end of our journey. Julie and I will trade our boat for bicycles and pedal 7,500 kilometres back to Vancouver, where our adventure began.

This final leg will take us through a smorgasbord of visual delights, as we huff and puff through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and finally up the West Coast of the United States.
Colin Angus: Back at the oars
Saturday, February 11, 2006
Last September, Colin Angus and fiancée Julie Wafaei set off from Lisbon on a quest to row across the Atlantic. After 121 days, they made their first landfall on St. Lucia, where they replenished supplies and rested for 12 days before resuming their journey to Costa Rica.

Beneath a cloud-scudded sky, terns circle our boat, as though curious about such a strange vessel on the Caribbean Sea. St. Lucia and all her comforts lie seven days behind us, and our brief visit to this Caribbean island now seems like a fading dream.

The Caribbean is living up to its reputation for producing steep, choppy waves, but we have been lucky with the weather and, so far, have encountered no storms.

The equatorial currents are funnelled through this body of water, as they move toward the Gulf of Mexico, and at times we rode three-knot currents in our favour.

It was hard returning to the sea with the toil, monotony and dangers of our 121-day passage from Lisbon still fresh in our minds. But the proximity of Costa Rica, the end of our 10,000-kilometre row, buoys our spirits and keeps us pulling hard on the oars. Our fresh supplies also help to keep us motivated and strong.

The wildlife in the lee waters of the Caribbean islands is turning out to be almost as plentiful as that in the open Atlantic. Schools of flying fish, chased aloft by predators below, skim above the wave tops for hundreds of metres. And yesterday a four-metre-long shark paralleled the boat for several hundred metres, its unusually thin, sickle-shaped fin slicing through the water's surface like a knife. St.

Lucians informed us that February is when pilot whales come to the Caribbean to breed, and we have already seen two of the graceful creatures surfacing for air.

Julie and I are beginning to feel like marine mammals ourselves, having spent so many months living our primitive lives in this watery world. We drink the water, eat the fish, and our lives revolve around the rhythms of the Atlantic Ocean.

Although the end of our voyage is drawing near, it is far too soon to relax. Our pilot charts indicate that we will be encountering rough seas as we pass near the top of Colombia. In the midst of this windy region, it will be crucial for us to angle more to the south against the northwest currents in order to reach Limon, Costa Rica.

If the winds and currents overpower our relatively weak rowing efforts, we will be swept toward a mass of reefs off the coast of Honduras.

Early placement of our vessel is essential in making a good line to Limon. But we will also be relying on good luck without a diesel engine or set of sails, a sudden change of winds or current could quickly spell disaster.

January 28, 2006
Last September, Colin Angus and fiancée Julie Wafaei set off from Lisbon on a quest to row across the Atlantic. Late last week, after 121 days, they made their first landfall on St. Lucia, on their way to Costa Rica.

Basalt cliffs towered along the eastern side of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. The thunder of five-metre waves blasting plumes of foaming water 30 metres into the air at their base sent shivers down our spines as we rowed our boat near this lee shore.

After spending 121 days on the open ocean in our small plywood vessel, nearing the Caribbean was both terrifying and exhilarating. In the open ocean, our rowboat is as seaworthy as a corked bottle. Near land, however, bad seamanship or bad luck could quickly reduce it to splinters. Unlike most offshore boats, ours is underpowered, having neither sails nor a motor.

We had hoped for calmer conditions on our arrival. Instead, the wind had picked up to 38 knots, creating very turbulent seas. The strength of the wind and currents meant we could only direct our vessel 20 degrees off either side of the wind's direction. In order to round the northern tip of the island to its sheltered western shores, we had to line-up our angle hundreds of kilometres in advance, relative to the wind. Despite our meticulous planning, a sudden wind shift could mean disaster.

Initially, Julie and I planned on skirting the Caribbean islands. But after reading tantalizing descriptions in our guide book, we opted to stop in St. Lucia for six days before carrying on for the 1,300-nautical-mile leg to Costa Rica. Jerk chicken, fresh fruits and solid ground were just too much to resist after months at sea. Not to mention golden beaches that slip into turquoise waters.

Thirty kilometres from St. Lucia, the winds tended toward the north, putting us on a collision course with the cliffs. We turned the vessel sideways to the five-metre waves and struggled to stay on our rum line. While in this vulnerable position, a rogue wave picked up our boat and slammed it sideways, nearly capsizing us. At the same time, the port oar wrapped around the boat and splintered. It was not a good day to be making landfall.

We needed to pass within several hundred metres of the island's northern cape. If we were too far out, we would be blown past the island; too close and we would be wrecked. Fortunately, we made a flawless pass of the cape and hours later rowed into the tranquil lagoon of Rodney Bay. Locals came up to greet us in brightly coloured boats. Yachters blew their horns as we were escorted toward the customs dock.

Our first steps ashore were almost impossible as we swayed on aching, wobbly legs. Soon, however, we were seated and dining on fresh local foods and ice cream. For us, St. Lucia lived up to its reputation as an island paradise.

It was dangerous coming in, but it turned out to be a prudent decision. The bad weather intensified and two vessels sank off the island after we arrived. As the coconut trees bent in the heavy winds and the rain fell in sheets, we enjoyed the stability of the ground beneath our feet.

Row, row your boat
Saturday, November 5, 2005


Seventeen months ago, Colin Angus and Tim Harvey left Vancouver in a quest to complete the first human-powered circumnavigation of the planet. They cycled and canoed across B.C. and Alaska, rowed across the Bering Sea and began a trek across Russia before a falling-out ended their partnership. Angus reached Moscow first, was joined there by his fiancée, Julie Wafaei, and, four months ago, the couple continued the expedition with a bicycle journey through Europe to Lisbon. In mid-September, they began the next stretch of their journey rowing across the Atlantic to Miami.

Harvey, meanwhile, has had to cancel his own plans to row from Lisbon to Central America, and is now considering launching his bid from Agadir, Morocco.

In this, the first in a series of regular updates, Angus reports from their position at sea, about 16 kilometres from Las Palmas, Canary Islands.

Julie and I are currently undertaking the ultimate litmus test of our relationship. We are rowing across the Atlantic Ocean and the two of us will be alone for four to five months as we attempt the first oar-powered journey from Europe to North America. The route of our zero-emissions journey seems to have taken us from one meteorological disaster to another. And recently while bobbing on the Atlantic, feeling lonely and small, we received the biggest shock of all. Julie's father informed her on the Iridium satellite telephone that Hurricane Vince was bearing straight down on us.

We had chosen our weather window carefully, and were in a region where hurricanes historically don't exist. Fortunately, the eye of Vince passed about 150 kilometres to the northwest of us and our small boat handled the peripheral winds and rough seas like a duck.

Apart from Hurricane Vince, the seas have been relatively kind to us since leaving Lisbon in mid-September. Our 24-foot plywood rowboat is packed to the gunwales with enough food and provisions to last the four to five months it will take to cross to Miami still almost 7,000 kilometres away.

Now, as we head home in our slow boat, Julie and I are experiencing, with great intimacy, one of the world's great oceans. A school of black and white fish as tame as aquarium pets lives beneath our boat, surfacing to dine on scraps when we rinse our dishes. Yesterday, a whale surfaced 10 metres from our tiny vessel, its gargantuan size dwarfing our boat, before returning to the depths with a blast from its spout. Within the same hour, we were greeted by a pod of about 50 dolphins, one of which was doing flips in the air.

It's been a year and a half since I departed from Vancouver and four months since Julie and I left from Moscow. We've been working 16-hour days, seven days a week, doing both the work of propelling ourselves forward, organizing our ocean row, writing a book and producing a film. The good news is that things are looking good for our future marriage. After 120 days of stress, struggle, confinements and constant teamwork, Julie and I have yet to have our first argument.

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