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First person

I must go down to the seas again . . .

May 20th 2004

BY JONATHAN GORNALL

In 2001, after 48 days at sea this writer gave up his attempt to row across the Atlantic — and has regretted it ever since. Now he's returning for one more try

ON Friday, November 23, 2001, I cocked up really, really badly. After 48 days and 1,500 miles at sea in a 24ft (7.3m)wooden rowing boat I had built myself, I decided I had had enough. Enough of agonising hand cramps, enough of a bottom tortured by the thousand trident-wielding demons of salt-water boils (you have no idea), enough of poorly packaged food (my fault) ruined by seawater and enough of a desalinator that sucked juice from my solar panels like a mad thing but never really seemed that keen on desalinating.
And, most of all, I had had enough of myself.

Now, more than two years later, I must, like Masefield’s feverish sailor, go down to the lonely sea and the sky again, to finish the job — only this time I go with the aid of a merry yarn from the recommended “laughing fellow-rover” or three.
At the beginning of July, I will set out from St John’s, Newfoundland, with Mark Stubbs, Pete Bray and John Wills to row home to England and, weather permitting, break the 55-day record for the west-east Atlantic crossing that has stood for more than 100 years.
The glue that binds this crew is that each of us has unfinished business with this ocean. Around my neck for the duration of the crossing will hang a small yellow disc of wood, all I have left of the boat I built and a symbol of a promise I made to myself more than two years ago.
On October 7, 2001, two days before my 46th birthday, I set out from Tenerife for a two-handed adventure, a race across 2,700 miles (4,350km) of Atlantic ocean to Barbados. After a week of storms, seasickness and clashes with my crew-mate, I found myself unexpectedly and undesirably alone.
There followed a month of some of the highest highs and the lowest lows I have ever known. Night skies of the like one could never see from land, every constellation etched vividly onto the black velvet; heavenly bodies shooting hither and thither in brilliant display, the Milky Way a vast brushstroke. Moonrises so sudden, so vast and dramatic that it seemed certain the world was ending (or another one was beginning).
And then there were the days . . . the long, hot, thirst-inducing slogs, rowing naked to avoid the worst of the chafing, looking forward to each noon and the noting on the chart of that day’s distance run. With the fabled trade winds nowhere to be seen, this all too often revealed a crushingly small figure — and on more than one occasion after headwinds, even a negative total.
At the end of it all, I was barely halfway to my destination and loathing my own company (not half so fascinating as I had always fondly imagined). I had been so focused on slogging my way to the halfway mark that, when I finally reached it, the thought of doing exactly the same all over again proved too much and I called it a day.
My decision to abandon ship wasn’t taken lightly, but I have regretted it every day since.
Thanks to my satellite phone (an instrument whose constant promise of instant connection to the real world of home proved woefully demoralising — I often wondered how the Vikings or Columbus would have fared so umbilically attached to land) I had known that a yacht, on passage to Barbados, was heading my way. It would be the last chance to quit.
Miss that, and I faced perhaps another two months of slogging towards Barbados with doubtful food and water supplies and only a lunatic (me) for company.

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The debate raged inside my head (and often out loud as well) for days. One moment I was determined to press on, to see it through come what may. The next, perhaps after hearing a dispiriting snatch of home life courtesy of the World Service on my failing shortwave radio (another mistake), I was desperate to be back in civilisation, swapping my murderously heavy boat and foul-tasting water for a stroll down the Strand to a café for a coffee and croissant.
Transformed into a superstitious 19th-century deckhand by the presence of strange, hook-beaked, pterodactyl wings that wheeled ominously about me at dawn and dusk, I was, literally, talking to the birds.
I had words, too, with the shark that had appeared and tailed me for 24 hours after I had gone over the side to clean the growth from the hull.
For days I stroked and fed what I think was a tiny Wilson’s storm petrel that sheltered against my hull in rough seas and rubbed its head against my hand with what seemed to me to be affection.
The feeling of loss the morning I found it was gone was, I was still sane enough to recognise, out of all proportion, yet akin to the grief felt by Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway when “Wilson”, the volleyball he has anthropomorphised into his best friend, is swept away from his raft.
On the morning of November 23, before the sun rose, I was still arm-wrestling with my resolve. The VHF radio rasped, I heard a disembodied English voice, and then almost simultaneously saw the white masthead light of a large yacht, dipping and rising in and out of sight behind the swell off my port bow.
Resolve lost.
Within hours I had had a shower, wolfed down almost an entire loaf of freshly baked bread and swallowed cup after cup of coffee. Complete, utter luxury and, at that moment, a prize worth everything.
On one level almost deliriously happy, laughing and chatting unstoppably with the crew, who for some reason were gently trying to keep me below deck, I ventured topside again to see a Viking funeral pyre.
My boat could not be recovered or towed and, as a hazard to shipping, could not be abandoned. The crew stripped off the valuable fixtures and fittings, doused her with fuel and fired her with a couple of signal flares.
Up in smoke went three years of planning, training and hunting for sponsorship. It was also a pyre for the two relationships that had foundered on the immovable rock of the project, to say nothing of the old friendship that had failed to survive even a week at sea.
As I watched, she burnt to the waterline but, heartbreakingly, refused to sink. Finally, anxious to get under way, the skipper of the steel-hulled yacht rammed her several times, eventually cutting her in two. As we raised sail and left the shameful scene, the two halves of her clung still to the world of light and air. Perhaps, somewhere, they still do.
I knew at that moment that I had made a terrible mistake. And almost simultaneously I knew that I would — somehow, and at some time — have to go down to the sea again to see this thing through.
I slunk back to Britain to lick my wounds and make my plans.

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Back home, I discovered I had some serious wounds to lick. I had mashed up my back to the extent that only an operation would do. When I found myself unable to walk more than 100 yards, I forsook my principles and went private.
Days later, lying in agony in the back of a taxi taking me home from the hospital, bouncing over the potholed back streets of East London, I gritted my teeth, lay back and thought of the Atlantic. Worse things, I told myself, happen at sea.
But so do better things. I had no idea how I was going to fund another attempt to get across that ocean, who I could persuade to come with me, how I could get fit enough again to even think about it, but I knew I had to.
I also knew that I had learnt lots of invaluable lessons — some of which might inform a new philosophy of life, but most of which were of practical use only to somebody planning to row an ocean. Not to take those hard-learnt lessons back to sea would be a compounding waste, and so the uncertain plan hovered just out of sight, the loom of a lighthouse over the horizon, calling me back.
Then, towards the end of last year, I got a call from Mark Stubbs, a former Royal Marine who had rowed a two-handed boat like mine across the Atlantic four years before my race. In 2002, with three other men, he had attempted to break the record for rowing the Atlantic from west to east in Skandia Atlantic Challenge, a sleek, 33ft high-tech warrior of a craft. Midway, and 21 days up on the record, the rudder sheared from the transom and, after a day spent vainly trying to fix it (with Mark strapped to the back of the boat, attempting do-or-die DIY for 12 hours with icy waves breaking over him constantly), the crew was forced to abandon the attempt.
Luckily, the ship that picked them up was also able to recover their boat.
Since then, Mark has toughened up the stern and fine-tuned the steering and other systems while trying to assemble another crew to get the job done. Once yellow, his boat is, thanks to the unbelievable generosity and vision of a fairy godmother sponsor, Pink Lady Apples, now extremely pink.
Mark could have chosen Olympic oarsmen, athletes in their twenties, but the crew he has picked reflects the lessons that he, like all of us, has learnt in the maw of the ocean. This battle is nine tenths mental and each of us who will put out from St John’s at the beginning of July has tasted defeat or disaster, of one kind or another, at the hands of the sea, and each of us wants a reckoning.
Now the training is almost done. In and around Poole, Dorset, we have become a familiar sight — four men in a pink boat, grinding up and down the coast by day and by night, fine-tuning the grueling two-hour-on, two-hour-off watch system while learning to move deftly about the light, twitchy boat, getting used to sleeping in the low, coffin-like aft cabin and getting down to a fine art the chores of boiling water to rehydrate our dried food and adapting to unselfconscious use of the time-honoured bucket-and-chuck it lavatory system.

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Three weeks ago, we rowed her the 60 miles across to Cherbourg. With us was Mark’s 12-year-old daughter Brianna, who has rowed since she was nine and became the youngest person to row across the Channel. As tough as her father, she alternated rowing with throwing up and still found the will on the return trip by yacht to study for her exams. The kids of today, eh? Now, all that is behind us. No more well-fed weekends billeted on Mark’s wife Paula, whose house, for so long a HQ, is now a home once again. Pink Lady has gone ahead, traveling to St John’s by container ship, and shortly we will follow her, gazing down on our challenge from a jet plane at 33,000 feet.
The record for the crossing, set more than 100 years ago by two Norwegian fishermen, is 55 days, and that is our first objective. Our official “finishing line” is the line of longitude that runs through the Bishop Rock lighthouse, Britain’s Atlantic outpost, just west of the Isles of Scilly, but our second, and most emotionally charged objective, is to bring our boat home to England — something never achieved before.
With four of us on board we hope to have the strength at the end of the 2,100 mile passage to battle the tides and currents and “thread the needle”, into the Channel. Our final destination is the dockside at the National Maritime Museum, Falmouth (and, in my case, a huge plate of fish and chips).


Of the 29 attempts to row across the Atlantic from west to east, only ten have succeeded, and not one has reached mainland Britain. As we row, our thoughts will, inevitably, be from time to time with the six men who, since 1966, have lost their lives attempting the same crossing. Their names are carved into a six foot, four-ton chunk of limestone which stands on the cliffs at Kilkee, Co Clare, looking out over the Atlantic that took them. None of their bodies was ever found, but all of the boats eventually made their own way to shore.


This is not a trip any of us takes lightly. We know what it will ask of us, and we have trained, planned and prepared accordingly, but carry with us the sense of awe conveyed by the frankly unnerving words attached to Chay Blyth and John Ridgway’s boat by the fishermen of Cape Cod before their 91-day crossing in 1966: “Oh Lord, thy sea is so large and my boat is so small.”
Ridgway, an officer in the Parachute Regiment not normally known for introspection, wrote in his log: “If only I could express the misery of it all. I wondered why we went on and not just sit down and call it a day. Death would be peace, all peace, from this agony.”

So why pay such a high price for such a quixotic prize? I gave up trying to answer the “why?” question years ago, but what each of us knows is that the price of not making this journey, not exorcising our personal ghosts, would be even higher.


T2 will be carrying weekly reports from Pink Lady throughout the crossing, starting at the beginning of July.

This report appeared in The Times newspaper on May 20 2004

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,7-1115891,00.html

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