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


July 14 • 15 • 16 • 18 • 20 • 22 • 24 • 27

Extracts from the book


Good Luck
Ahead of Me...
Rowboat Calling...
With My Head...
And If All This ...
Indelibly Inscribed
Do You See...
The "Heavenly Bum"
One Second Longer

To discuss on


"Rowboat Calling Okera"

So it had happened!
Only two days out and already I had to face the first crucial test of the trip: could I manage to get Sector turned right-side up? In total darkness, I steadied myself as best I could, pushed the most irritating floating objects out of my way behind me, and, with my eyes closed, almost automatically began to operate the levers that controlled the ballast. Fifth lever, the one on deck, to the "exhaust" position; third lever, which controlled the starboard reservoir, to the ''fill'' position; the air exhaust to ''open" position - and then I began to pump. A hundred strokes, a hundred-fifty, until the starboard reservoir should have been full...
And now for the moment of truth. I could feel my heart pounding. I felt a wave breaking, shifted all my weight to starboard, and, yes, my little world rotated back into an upright position. Sector had passed its first major test with flying colors.
I emptied the ballast, dried the interior of the cabin, and tried to tidy up the precarious microcosm. I had to confess that, though I was fully prepared to cope with the boat's capsizing, I had never expected it would happen so soon. The Pacific had just presented me with its first slap, and I had taken it in stride. So far so good.

* * *

This said, the boat was a complete mess, and it would take me hours to make it shipshape. One of the radar housings had taken on water, and I knew I would have to strip the whole thing down, take it apart, and clean it with fresh water. I also had to gather up the various objects and pieces of equipment that had been strewn about and put them back where they belonged. The clothes, too: I stuffed them into a bag, which I stored under the bunk. The ultra-narrow confines of the boat demanded that I keep trying to find better and better means of stowage, so that I would know, immediately and automatically, where everything was at all times, without stopping to think. If nothing else, the previous night's experience had taught me a good lesson.


July 14
It was exactly eleven years ago today that I'd set out to row across the Atlantic. The sea had been calm, the sky clear, and the French tricolor, together with the Stars and Stripes, was smartly displayed on my antenna. That time, too, I had departed later than planned, but the distance to be covered was only half what it was this time. I remembered that on that July 14 - a French national holiday - I celebrated by opening a bottle of Mouton-Rothschild 1978 to toast the day. I also recalled that I had, on that same oc-casion, experimented with a new technique of novel read-ing: my book rested on toe clips, and when I got to the end of a page I would turn it with my toes - without missing a stroke of the oars!
Today, in contrast to that earlier holiday, everything was gray. No dolphins sporting, no birds overhead to liven the cheerless seascape. Surrounded by the dark, blue-green waters, I found myself nostalgically hearkening back to the Gulf Stream, to the deep, sparkling, glossy, almost Mediter-ranean waters of that other ocean. The beauty of the At-lantic is deeply and inexorably engraved in my mind. Here I was entering a world that was dull, gloomy, and sullen.


July 15
The sky finally cleared, but the wind, still blowing against the current, had kept the sea choppy, so that it was im-possible to make any forward progress by rowing alone. The good news was, I was still in the midst of the Kuroshio, which, like Old Man River, just kept rolling along. I was slightly ashamed at making such speed without in any way contributing to it. I only hoped it would keep up.
During the afternoon the sky became overcast, turning a milky white. High clouds. I could tell that a low pressure system was moving in, which buoyed my spirits. That could mean a nice little southwesterly or, even better, a southerly wind, which was exactly what I needed.

Together with strong ocean currents, low pressure systems are a rower s second-best friend when he's looking to pick up a little speed. In contrast to a sailing craft, which can deftly use almost any wind or even waves to its advantage, a rowboat's propulsion is so minimal that it renders one extremely vulnerable. On the other hand, if the wind and water currents are favorable, they not only add to your own efforts but multiply them.

Low pressure systems rotate in a counterclockwise direc-tion. Like water draining from a basin, winds turn and are swallowed up in the center of the low pressure system in order to fill the void. In the Northern Hemisphere, this vortex moves from west to east and inevitably confronted me with the same dilemma: if I caught the top of the spiral I would run into easterly winds that would propel me back-ward, whereas if I could pick up the bottom of the spiral, I would catch the helpful west winds. Often the two edges of the spiral were no more than a few miles apart, so the whole trick was to avoid the former and find the latter. In fact, the intelligence and finesse of an undertaking such as mine was to make maximum use of both the water currents and the winds.
I was counting on the weather reports out of Japan -which in this early part of my trip I was picking up quite easily - to help me figure where to head to profit from the currents and winds. The problem was, the weather was proving so fickle that it was changing more quickly than I could alter my position. I found myself forever rowing be-hind the weather reports, which instead of being predic-tions became postmorterns. I had to rely instead on my sense and knowledge of the sea: sniff out the wind , scan the sky and the clouds, and try as best I could - usually by an extra bit of patience or by rowing more hours than usual - to use every atmospheric disturbance to my ad-vantage.


July 16
I let the Kuroshio do most of the work. To row against the strong easterly wind would have obliged me to pull in the sea anchor, and that, no doubt, would have made me move backward even faster. I rowed whenever I felt up to it. The rest of the time I endured.

That night, locked up tight in my cubbyhole, I was swim-ming in heat and humidity. The sea was getting rougher by the minute. This time I had closed up everything, except for the baffle-plate porthole, an opening so small it didn't even let me see what was going on outside. The only air intake was through one of the sea chests in the cockpit. Curled up in a fetal position on my bunk, I was soaked with sweat. The humidity was such that both the walls and cabin ceiling were streaming with condensed moisture, a real junglelike atmosphere. When I couldn't stand it any longer and decided to open the porthole for a second, I took an unwanted shower.
Sector was being battered unmercifully. Waves were hammering the hull, bouncing the boat about like the. pro-verbial cork, making the whole craft shudder from stem to stern. Each time a wave hit, it shook fat drops of water from the ceiling. But the worst was trying not to listen for the impending crash of a giant wave as it approached the boat. Coming at roughly five-minute intervals, each wave approached with the deafening roar of an express train pounding through a tiny country station. My nerves were stretched to the breaking point, I could see absolutely noth-ing, and every time I heard a wave coming I steeled myself for the impact. Then, the instant after the wave hit, I felt a staggering blow as it struck the stern, followed by a gigantic left hook to the deck, no more than four inches above my head, which loosed a flood of condensation in the cabin itself. I hardly had time to collect my wits before I heard the next breaker approaching. Instinctively, I pulled my head down into my shoulders and, in utter obscurity, braced myself for the next blow, for the next express train to roar over me in the night.

In the morning, a series of vicious waves swamped the cockpit so quickly that it had no time to empty itself. The cabin itself was inundated, via the baffle-plate porthole, with fifty liters of water.
In the course of the night's battle, I had lost the only stow-away I discovered on board: a mosquito, which had already bitten me several times, but which I had not found the heart to kill.

That cursed machine - the telex - was irritating me more every day. Every evening since my departure I had been trying to hook it up with one of the satellites circling the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Every night I would give up and turn it off. A total fiasco! I thought of all the people who were waiting to hear from me, of all the endless hard work Georges had put in to make sure that this troublesome but absolutely necessary, supposedly sophisticated system of communication worked properly.
As a fallback I resorted to the radio transmitter, which allowed me to use the airwaves reserved for ham operators. These dedicated and ardent "amateurs" are completely re-spectful of the strict rules and regulations that are intended to protect telephone communications and avoid overload-ing the airwaves. A number of ham radio operators have banded together in specialized networks whose role it is to cover a large part of the world's oceans, keeping in daily touch with all oceangoing vessels to exchange weather data with them and to be ready, at a moment's notice, to contact the authorities in case a ship runs into serious trouble.
During the evening of July 18 I finally made contact with Okera Net, a network operating out of Japan that covered the western Pacific.

Taking advantage of a lull between two calls, I let out:
"Rowboat, calling Okera. Rowboat Sector, calling Okera Net."
I could imagine the surprise of the operator on the other end receiving a call from a rowboat! But for a Japanese operator, protocol and procedures are all-important. He asked me to wait my turn: that is, wait until he had finished communicating with the "regulars." I was fit to be tied: six solar panels, set up on the cabin roof and in Sector's bow, were my sole source of electricity - a far too precious commodity to be wasted waiting for my turn! Finally I did hook up with him, gave my position, and asked him to transmit it to Christopher, who was still in Japan.
I went to bed delighted by this little exploit. But then I was assailed by a nagging doubt: my English accent is bad, and that of my Japanese contact was, I could tell, even worse. How could I be sure that the information I had given would really get through? I could imagine the consternation of my friends when, the following day, they were informed that I was somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean!


July 18
0600: Awake to a sea and sky the color of lead. I pull in the sea anchor to find that it is completely shattered!
Just time to wash up and brush my teeth, then to work sewing the sea anchor back together. To make matters worse, the southwesterly wind had pushed me out beyond the boundaries of the Kuroshio. Damn it all, I had counted on sticking to it for another several days. Sector was drifting gently but aimlessly. I decided to climb down into the cock-pit and take up the oars, with the goal of rejoining the current on its next leg, which I calculated to be about 120 miles to the east. Besides, I was weary of living this rat's life, lurking in my tiny lair; it was time to shake off the lethargy and get moving.
My progress was uncertain at best, as I had to fight a combination of crosswinds and heavy seas. The dismal sky grew even darker, then it began to rain, and, miracle of miracles, the wind suddenly shifted more than 100 degrees and began to blow in a northwesterly direction. As is so often the case in such a situation, the sea, after a moment's reflection, decided to do whatever it damn well pleased, which was a dozen things at once: waves striking each other at ninety-degree angles, water spouts, steep crests followed by enormous troughs - in short, a sea impossible to judge much less cope with. Yet, thanks to the favorable winds, my little craft had taken wing and was speeding along. The rains had become torrential, but I was absolutely delighted to have rejoined the battle. The rain whipped my face and blinded me; without my sunglasses I couldn't have seen a thing, but with them on I could not only see but they filtered reality and rendered it a shade less gray.
Mechanically, I glanced at the compass. Then over at the speed log. The latter is not an indispensable instrument as far as I am concerned, but it did have the virtue of egging me on, of making me pull harder on the oars. Two and a half knots….. I turned to and began stroking at a good, steady pace, determined not to stop until I had recorded a good ten knots.
At the stroke of noon (no pun intended) I had reached my goal. I checked my position and saw that the current had added another eight nautical miles to my own efforts. Not bad. My morale inched upward.
During lunchbreak I felt a burning sensation on the fleshy part of my anatomy, that part which, even more than your hands, suffers when you row. To have rowed long and hard under a driving rain, without lubrication, had not helped matters either. With the help of an improvised rearview mirror, I managed to examine the area in question, only to discover a disconcerting row of incipient boils - there must have been twenty in all. Small, yellow boils, just wait-ing to grow up into full-fledged adults, were already forming, one already suppurating. I spread a generous layer of an-tibiotic jelly over the area. I figured that the movement between buttocks and the rowing seat would take care of massaging it in.
During the afternoon, the sky was still as low as ever, with bolts of lightning at regular intervals and winds that were gusting up to twenty-five miles per hour. But I was moving right along, and by the end of the "working day," I had covered another forty nautical miles. I felt I had a good chance at reaching my goal, that is, catching the top of the next leg of the Kuroshio.
That evening, for the first time, it turned cold. I lighted a candle, whose flame added a bit of warmth to my cabin. But it also generated a condensation of the dampness that permeated the place. My sleeping bag and all my clothes were soaking wet, with a sticky dampness that I couldn't seem to get rid of.


July 20
At dawn, I caught sight of two ships, one a trawler, the other a huge cargo ship, heading toward Japan. Before I had finished my coffee, the freighter had disappeared be-yond the horizon. I realized that by tomorrow morning it would be tied up at some Japanese port. Today marked my tenth day at sea. Clearly we belonged to different worlds!

I was constantly trying to move farther to the south. Weather reports I received indicated a low pressure system there, which, who knows, could help my progress. I also knew there was a danger in choosing that southerly course. In these latitudes, a mistake in my position could prove costly, for if I guessed wrong I could be sentenced to wander aimlessly to and fro in the middle of the Pacific, caught in some windless high pressure area or slowed down by op-posing wind currents.
The sea was less rough, the weather ideal, with a brisk northwest wind of about fifteen to twenty-five knots. I felt there was a good chance for a record-setting day.
Twelve hours of rowing.
Those who have ever rowed crew might well ask how I manage to maintain such a pace day after day. To which I respond that although I keep a steady pace, I never overexert myself; I never row to the point of exhaustion. By racing standards, mine is a heavy boat, with good mo-mentum, and once I get it moving I help the momentum along, I maintain it, but without straining. To make a simple analogy, I am not a runner; I am a walker. But, a walker who has made up his mind to walk, say, from Paris to Beijing at a pace of fifty kilometers (or roughly thirty miles) a day, no matter how much his feet hurt, no matter what the weather is, through sun and rain, sleet and snow, car-rying on his back a knapsack that's a trifle too heavy.
My motor is not so much my muscles, but my stubborn-ness, my tenacity, my loathing of discouragement, which I have to fight day after day, hour after hour, stroke after stroke, as each arc of the oars grows more difficult than the last. I am a resistance fighter in a war I invented for myself. The enemy is me, with all my physical shortcom-ings, my temptation to give up. That temptation, by the way, does not consist of sending up my distress signal and throwing in the towel, as one might think. It is the thousand and one little daily temptations that lie in wait for us all:
to get out of bed five minutes later than usual; to stop one minute before the bell rings signaling the end of the working day; to pull a trifle less vigorously on the oar next time; even to stop shaving. These are the kinds of minor aban-donments, the easings off just a little here and there, which in and of themselves are insignificant but which, taken together, ineluctably lead to the ultimate surrender. And it is these same minor, ridiculous battles, these repetitive, fastidious, inglorious battles that, if I persist, will eventually lead me to victory.

I took out my "seven league boots," my longest oars, each 3.2 meters long, the shafts made of carbon Kevlar, the blades of laminated ash. I had three pairs of oars on board, all different sizes, much as bicycle racers have different gears for different speeds. My various sets of oars enabled me to control my speed depending on the state of the sea and the wind direction. I would use the smallest pair - 3 meters, with smaller blades - when the wind was against me or the sea rough, which, alas, was the case most of the time. But on this day, with a brisk tail wind, the sea was good, so was life, and Sector was flying.

To keep a steady course would have been exhausting if that meant constantly correcting course by maneuvering one oar or the other as I rowed. Aboard a sailing craft you can shift the sails and the rudder to keep a steady course, but in a rowboat the matter is slightly more complicated. Your speed is minimal, and too large a rudder would have acted like a brake. The solution: vertical stabilizers that can be raised or lowered as the situation requires. Sector had three such stabilizers, two aft - on either side of the rudder blade - and one forward. About ten inches wide, and made of steel, they were set into watertight housings built into the boat between the hull and the deck. I was able to control them by a series of ropes that I could maneuver from the cockpit and could lower them either wholly or partially according to my needs. For example, when there were crosswinds, I would lower the forward stabilizer slightly to compensate for the surface of the rudder and thereby keep a steady course. With the wind behind me, it would be the opposite: I would fully immerse the two aft stabilizers and let the boat run, at the same time bringing the forward stabilizer back into its housing.
Today, that was precisely what was happening.
A real treat! With 100 kilos (more than 200 pounds) of ballast in my after tanks to accentuate the effect of the stabilizers, Sector was racing gaily over the bounding main. Three knots an hour easily, sometimes three and a half. By nightfall my speed log had chalked up a good thirty knots, rounding out one of my most successful days.


July 22
Evening: As I write, I can hear the wind rising again. What will the weather be like tomorrow? How strange it is to have only one thought, one simple, overwhelming concern: where will the wind be coming from tomorrow? I think back to my life over these past few months, to the thousand little problems and worries I encountered every day - all seemingly absolutely essential, every one of pri-mary importance, things that loomed so large they would be forever ingrained in my mind. And now the only thing that matters is: where will the wind be coming from?
July 24
Sympathizing with my efforts, God or the devil - I was no longer sure which of the two I was dependent on at this point - shifted the wind a little farther south. I lowered my forward stabilizer, the starboard ballast filled to the brim to keep the boat from listing, and I managed to keep Sector heading due north. But the weather conditions were growing worse by the minute.

1305: A birth on board! Upon my opening the sea chest that contains the stock of wine and taking out one of the three oversize containers - one filled with Bordeaux, an-other with Burgundy, and the third with wine from the Loire Valley - a tiny fly emerges and "escapes". I wish it bon voyage and long life, but I fear that it will be short. The fly who gave it birth chose the wrong spot for its infant.
July 27
In a moment of optimism, I note in my log:

Slightly foggy, smooth sea, a real holiday. I had forgotten that such weather really exists. I'm moving right along thanks to a stjff westerly wind. According to the weather report, the good weather is supposed to last till Au-gust 15!

As it turned out, it wouldn't last even for twenty-four hours:
the wind was shifting to the south.
I had a long conversation with myself, the pilot charts spread out in front of me. Ideally, my plan had been to profit as long as possible from the beneficial effects of the Kuroshio, but that now seemed questionable. Should I fol-low the direct route, that is, the ellipsis that marks the shortest route between Japan and the United States? If I did, it would mean I would have to separate myself sooner than I liked from the favorable current and take advantage of the wind by heading northeast.
With the trip scheduled to last four to five months, here I was only in my third week. To be already so far behind schedule made me fear the worst. Scanning the charts, I tried to reason coldly, but what I foresaw was anything but reassuring, as my log for the day testifies:

I'm afraid my arrival is going to be tough, very tough; from September 19 on, and especially in October, the sta-tistics indicate that waves up to ten feet and force-five winds will be the rule rather than the exception. What's more, I'm going to have to navigate very carefully or else I risk not being able to put in at San Francisco. Which means I had better get going as fast as I can.


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