Q: Geoff, would you go back over the history of your first Atlantic
A: I got the idea of rowing the Atlantic from reading Ridgway and Blyth's
book and the "Penance Way" about Johnston and Hoare. I decided to become
the first man to row the Atlantic solo, a few days after deciding this I
saw on television John Fairfax walk up a beach in Florida, he had just
become the first man to row the Atlantic solo. I was sitting with my
cousin Donald, who was the only person who knew of my plans, and he said
to me" What are you going to do now?" I said: "I don't know".
Then I said:
"Why don't we become the first crew to do it both ways? It seemed quite
easy to me at the time". We bought a boat, same as Ridgway and Blyth. It
cost us 264.00GBP and we took it down to Las Palmas in Gran Canaria
Islands. We built some
buoyancy blisters on the end, much the same as Ridgway and Blyth, we
bought some food and carried all our own water, and took all this kit down
to the Canaries. The boat was lowered over the side of the ship, and
Donald rowed it across to the local Yacht club. I carried all the rest of
the kit around in a taxi to the Yacht club.
Q: Why did you pick Las Palmas?
A: I had never been abroad before in my life, I was years 23years old I
didn't know the Canaries or anywhere else for that matter I picked Gran
Canaries simply because John Fairfax did, it seemed to be a good starting
point and also it was the same starting point as Alan Bombard (Frenchman
who rafted across Atlantic to Barbados in 1952 after 113 days at sea) who
I knew about. So it seemed to be good a place. Also the ship, that was
carrying our boat, her first port of call was Las Palmas. It was cheaper
to get the boat to Las Palmas than to pay for the extra bit and have it
taken to Tenerife or anywhere else, so Las Palmas it was.
Donald sorted the boat out, I went and sent a telegram to my mum, saying
"Put the kettle on" and we left 12 hours after we landed - we had landed
at 3 in the afternoon, and we left at 3 in the morning. And we left under
cover of darkness - the local press people had seen the boat down at the
yacht club and they were going to come and film us rowing out of the
harbour. Being as we had never really rowed the boat before, we were
worried we would make fools of ourselves, so we left next morning at 3
00am before anyone could film or see us. We never spoke to anyone in the
Canaries, we never knew anyone in the Canaries. And we rowed down the east
coast of Gran Canaria which seemed very small on the map, but it was a
bloody great place. When we got there and we got down to the bottom, we
turned right. The last sight of land we saw was Gran Canaria, we lost
sight of the islands quickly and didn't see anything for 3 days. The
weather was very good, constant fairly calm seas and we passed a British
BP tanker called British Oak on the 3rd day. He wanted to give us food
which we refused, because we didn't need anything at that stage and he
gave us a position.
Q: How did you communicate with the BP Tanker ?
A: We communicated by shouting up the side of the ship. We did not have
any communications, the only thing we had on board re coms was small short
wave radio receiver, that enabled us to get the world service. So we could
listen to the news, but we had no other form of communications at all. In
fact, the only electrical thing we had on board was a torch. Anyway, we
rowed that night and it started to get a bit choppy, the next day it got
very very rough indeed and we had 3 weeks of extremely high seas and very
windy weather. The flag was like a sheet of tin, it was stiff, it was very
Q: What did that indicate?
A : When the flag flops about the stiffer, it gets the harder, the wind is
blowing. We stared at the flag all the time, we used the flag to steer by,
to keep the boat on course to the waves. Anyway, we rowed a good 3 weeks
and we made good progress. I knew how much progress we were making because
we were navigating with a sextant. In fact, I have been surprised since to
find out we made as fast a progress as the leaders in the 1997 Rowing Race
- up until the half point, and then the water got short, and the heat got
intense, and we suffered very badly from thirst, and so we, although we
did not know it at the time, were slowing down rapidly, and losing weight
rapidly. And from the beginning of the voyage we were drinking 1 and 1/2
pints of water a day, at the end of the voyage for the last 2 weeks we
were on 1/2 a pint a day each. The temperature was over 100 degrees, we
did not think about anything else but food, not sex or anything else
-,just food. We had a lot of dried food and it takes water to reconstitute
the dried food. We decided to give up every other meal, so that instead of
using the water to reconstitute the dried food, we used the water just to
drink. So the consequence of that was: we only had half as much food as we
were having. Of course, we lost loads of weight and loads of strength,
which is where our speed went - from the half way point, and the weather
was better and calmer, we were seeing lots and lots of sharks, lots of
Q: There was an article in today’s paper about the reduced numbers of
hammer-head sharks in the Atlantic
A: Yes, there was. It said that 89 percent of the world's hammer-head
sharks have disappeared since 1986. Well, that explains why none of the
modern rowers are troubled by sharks particularly. We saw them all the
time, day and night, there was always a shark within sight and we never
were without them. Swimming was quite dangerous, luckily there were 2 of
us. I remember we used to swim, one would keep a watch out for the other,
while he was swimming. While you are swimming, your vision is impaired,
because you can only see the next little wave, you can't see beyond it. So
you don't know if there are any sharks there, and you rely on your team
mate to tell you. I remember I was swimming once and there was a shark in
sight. I went swimming anyway and he was 100 yards away. Donald was
rowing, I was swimming. Donald said to me: "No need to worry", he said,
"It is all right"; and a minute later he said "Don't worry, it is still
all right"; another minute later he said "I would come in now, if I were
you". And the shark bumped the side of the boat about 30 seconds after I
got back in.
Q: Where were you headed, when you left the Canaries?
A : We were headed for Miami, but in the end we were grateful for any land
we could hit - the water situation made it necessary to land anywhere we
could, which we did. It happened to be Barbados. We didn’t know it would
be Barbados, the trade winds take almost all vessels direct to Barbados.
And it was a tricky landfall - we hit a coral reef around the northern
point of the Island, and we got a hole in the boat, and went around the
Northern point, and landed at a US Navy Base , and the sailors could not
believe where we had come from. But when you have rowed the Atlantic, you
look like you have rowed the Atlantic: your hair is knotted and bleached,
and you are black with sun tan. They were very good to us, they looked
after us for 2 weeks and that was the end of that.
Q: Why was it 2 weeks ?
A: It took 2 weeks because we landed on Barbados with 7 pounds in our
There was nowhere to spend it on the way, so we left with 7 pounds and we
landed with 7 pounds between us. We figured, that by the time we had rowed
the Atlantic we would either be rich or dead. Of course we were neither
rich nor dead. Anyway, everyone wanted to shake our hands, nobody wanted
to give us any money. I remember we were invited to a cocktail party at a
house up the beach, from where we were staying with some US servicemen,
which was at a house where Princess Margaret had stayed in. There were
these posh American people, loads of diplomats at this party, and of
course it did not occur to anyone, that we had no money and we couldn't
buy any cloths, so we went in these filthy shorts and tee shirts, that we
had rowed the Atlantic in, and everyone looked at us like we were pirates.
Later the Immigration people said: "You have got to leave". We said: "We
would love to leave, but we can't leave - we have no money".
The British government paid our fare home and I had to buy my passport
back for the price of the ticket - that's how you get home, when you are
destitute. I was repatriated and they would not give me my passport. until
I reimbursed them, so it isn't all money and riches, when you row the
Q: Was there any press interest?
A: We were on news at 10.00 and there was lots of small press articles,
nothing dramatic. No one bought our story or there was no big news. But it
wasn't big news really, because Ridgway and Blyth had done it, John
Fairfax and Sydney Gendres had done it, and Tom McClean had done it. In
the end, really, it was getting to be old news rowing the Atlantic, and I
guess we didn’t do anything different, really. We were the first 2 man
crew, who rowed East to West; but I never think that is much of a claim,
when you read what John Fairfax and Sydney Gendres did before us. However,
as it has now become a common two man (or woman) route, it does seem to be
worth something. But it didn't seem to worth anything then.
The slim gets inside the bags and
there are lumps of funny old stuff floating about, and, of coarse, the
water is hot. So this is not thirst quenching water, this is pretty
hideous stuff, we got thirstier and thirstier. We used to have
conversations about water, when you are that thirsty you do not think
about anything else but water, nothing else, you just think about people
in England, washing their cars with the stuff, and you would give anything
for water. The amount of water someone would use to was their car with
would keep us alive for a month. I remember we had a conversation how many
years of our life we would give, if we could drink someone's dirty bath
water, and we decided after a few days of discussing, that 5 years of our
life was the appropriate amount of our life to give up to stick our head
in someone's dirty bath water to drink it - we were that thirsty! Also
what people forget about : thirst, it has all sorts of physical
side-effects, which are not very pleasant: if you eat an Army biscuit, and
you don't chew it properly, a little triangular piece of biscuit, that
goes in, will come out triangular, and it cuts your arse when it comes
out, and there are cracks across you tongue - no moisture in your mouth,
cracked lips, - its a very unpleasant. And of course, when you have got to
row 12 hours a day each, as we did, it makes it very difficult. We would
have given anything for a water maker.
Q: That was going to be my next question - clearly, in those days, when
you rowed in 1971 it was not even on the docket to have what is now called
a water maker?
A: There are a few of the modern rowers who do differentiate, and Charlie
Street is one of them. He made a point publicly at a talk once. He made
the distinction between rowing with and without a water maker, he is one
of the few rowers I have heard, who does seem to understand the
Q: Do you think it is as simple, that as you call them "modern rowers",
the younger ones, would even know that there was a time, when there were
not water makers?
A: Yes, that is probably true. I have read Jim Shekhdar's book and he said
in one chapter. he had trouble with his water maker. which he successfully
and quite heroically fixed. but when he explained the trouble he was
having with his water maker, he said something like "if the water maker
doesn't work, the trip is over". And this does explain what modern rowers
think of water makers. They think if the water makers finished, the trip
is over! It doesn't occur to them, that they might go on and drink half a
pint a day. I don't think many people would drink half a pint a day out of
choice in tropical temperatures.
Q: Was that your rationed amount half a pint a day?
A : Yes and No. We had just enough water to get across, we had 50 gallons
for 100 days - that’s half a gallon a day for 2 men. 2 pints a day each -
that seemed a fair amount and it looked like we would complete in less
than 100 days (which we did in 73 days). We were very lazy about re
ballasting and we used a few bags of water from under the middle
compartment. What you should do is tag them with in which is sea water or
fresh water, then put them back under the floor boards for ballast. We had
some calm weather, and we had not bothered, and there were these empty
bags lying on the deck, and we hit some rough weather - nothing serious, -
but it moved the boat about considerably. The water bags under the floor
were not tightly packed,
because we had not refilled the ballast bags; and the ones, that had fresh
water in under the floor boards, moved about under the floor boards, and
we lost 3 or 4 bags of water, which represented 3 weeks of drinking water.
So we lost about a quarter of our total drinking water supply through
carelessness, really. I did not stop thinking about it from that moment
until we landed. Neither of us did; in fact, it was serious. I think I was
the one, that discovered it, when I lifted the floor boards up and saw
these loose bags, that had been snagged or caught on a nail. I can't
remember which now, they were just limp and empty. It was such a serious
thing, we did not actually say anything, neither of us discussed it... It
was a good few hours before either of us even mentioned it, and we were
very freighted. It was the most frightening part of the whole trip -
discovering those empty bags. Forget the sharks and all that other stuff,
all the rough seas - finding those empty bags of water was the hardest
part of the trip.
Q: So, you were left to dwell it on it?
A: Yes, we were already thirsty and we were looking down the nose of being
even more thirsty before we died, if we had missed those islands. We
landed with about 3 gallons left.
Q: Did you ever think you might die?
A: I didn't think we would die up until that point, I am a bit of
pessimist. Anyway, I thought we were staring down the nose of it then.
Q: How did that work with your interaction with Donald?
A: I think it made us closer, not further apart. There were no
recriminations, we were both guilty of not refilling those ballast bags.
They were on deck, we had not refilled them. In that way we were very
close, although we had little spats before and after the trip. During the
trip we hardly ever had any cross words at all. When you're rowing 3 hours
on and 3 hours off, 12 hours a day each, apart from the odd half an hour,
when we stopped to eat, you don't actually have time to talk much. So
there wasn't much chat. Atlantic ocean rowers don't discuss the meaning of
life or have long meaningful discussions - they just grunt at each other
Q: Derek King has reported how he was driven to distraction by Peter Bird,
when he thought Peter was brushing his teeth for too long time.
A: In Peter's defence, Derek King ate all the mustard!
Q: In other words - small things can be upsetting.
A: The QE3 is a very small boat and it is much smaller than the 1997 race
boats, its a foot narrower. If anyone has been in one of those 97 race
boats, they know that a foot off the beam makes it a very small boat. But
the bigger the boat, the harder it is to row, and the harder it is to
control in rough seas. I still contend that small boats are better than
big boats . Gerard d’Aboville proved that with his first boat Captaine
which he crossed the Atlantic in, and that was only 18 feet. I think he
crossed quickly because that was a very manoeuvrable boat. I think small
Q: Gerard also mentions weight
A: Weight is very important, even we did it 10 years before Gerard - we
were very well aware, that weight was critical. We did not have a high
tech boat like Gerard, we only had one set of wet weather gear between us,
one pair of plimsolls between two of us, one sleeping bag between us; we
shared all the clothing, I cut the razor handles in half. We were
fanatical about weight and that’s why, I believe, we made quite a fast
crossing - for those times, of course. Nowadays people wonder, what we
were doing out there, but it was really a fast crossing at the time.
Q: What effect days weather have one year to the next for ocean rowers?
A: The experts are the US Oceanographic Survey, and what is for sure about
that, it is the trade winds and currents, and I do think there is a lot of
difference between one year to the next. Ocean rowing is always undertaken
for personal reasons for the personal benefit of the person doing the
rowing. If you in any way fiddle it or mess about, the only person you
cheat is yourself. We did the best we could, it never occurred to us for a
second to put up anything, we didn't dry our clothing (because we didn't
have any clothing to dry), so we never cheated at all. I know we didn't
cheat - nothing else matters to me. I don't care who does it faster than
us or whatever. Given that year in that boat, I don’t think many people
could have done it faster than we did - we did the best we could, we rowed
our hearts out.
Q: Do you know anyone who has cheated?
A: No, I don't. I know some people, who have made some wonderful fast
times. I think rowing the Atlantic for most people is a once in a
lifetime experience, it is hard financially. I remember that our trip,
Home, cost about what a second hand Ford Cortina would have cost. People
today can row the Atlantic as expensive or as cheap as you like, if you
take all the clobber that they now seem to think is necessary, it is
expensive. You could still do it without a water maker, without GPS,
without computers and without sat phones - you can do without all that
stuff, but no one seems to want to.
Q: Martin rented your boat, has that saved him money?
A: Lets take figures. I would think that Martin’s voyage is costing him
something like 15.000GBP, which is incredibly cheap, compared to what it
cost to enter these races and have a boat built: you can talk of 50.000GBP
and way beyond. In my mind Martin has done the right thing, he is keeping
Q: Martin has chosen not to pay a race entry fee to a race organizer…
A: I cannot see why you would - the ocean is there for all of us, it is
free, it is one of our last freedoms. There are some people, who would
make it not free. People have still got the right to row across an ocean.