I apologize for the delay in posting this blog. In all honesty, it’s been hard to trying to figure out how to convey the 70 day row. I want to humbly thank everyone for their support. It made all the difference in the world as I was doing the row. Your thoughts, prayers and positive energy were received.
The row was everything I expected and at the same time nothing like I expected. It was everything I wanted and then some. I won’t say that the race this year was harder than previous races. Each race has its own set of challenges – each race is just different. I am going to try and answer some of the questions I have most frequently been asked about the row. This is a bit of a long post – feel free to skim topics of interest or read the whole blog. Hard to keep 70 days to a short blog. 😊
What happened at the beginning of the race?
During the pre-race meetings, the race safety team gave us weather briefings and we were told about a system that was coming in from the USA. As a result, they advised us to head “south” to minimize how much we’d be impacted by the weather system. Only issue is I am a very literal person. So when they told us to head south that to me means 180 degrees - not 190 degrees or 200 degrees. Which is why you may have noticed I was the most eastern boat the first week or so of the race.
What was my daily routine?
When I arrived at the start line my expectation was that I would row 3 hours and take a 1 hour break. I expected to do this during the day and then take an extended 3-4 hour sleep break each night. This routine worked well on my training rows. The first few weeks, I tried to follow this pattern but I struggled in the middle of the night. While I never got seasick, I struggled to stay awake at night. I was like a baby being rocked to sleep each night. I slept through my alarm clock most nights during the first few weeks. Eventually I adapted but I found that the schedule that worked for me was rowing 2 hours followed by a one hour break and then right before dawn I would take a 2-3 hour sleep break. The one hour breaks during the day were dedicated to housekeeping items like doing laundry, packing/unpacking food from storage lockers, downloading emails, scraping the hull of the boat, or simply getting out of the sun for an hour. This routine worked well for me.
How were my meals?
During my training I found many of the meals to be bland and I liked spicy meals (e.g. spicy pasta, Al Pastor & rice, Jambalaya) but for some reason during the race, I found I couldn’t eat any of the spicy dishes. I found the pepper flavors overpowering. And these accounted for around 20-25% of my main meals. Instead, I found I enjoyed the real basic and somewhat bland meals like beef stroganoff, chicken & mashed potatoes, biscuits & gravy. All of these were Mountain House freeze dried meals. Once a day I had a hot meal and it was always breakfast – instant oatmeal with granola and dried fruit and a cup of coffee. This had to be hot and was my one “luxury” during the row. I had one other meal that needed to be hot – it was Backpacker’s Pantry’s Pad Thai – I couldn’t get the rice noodles to hydrate without hot water. But it was a delicious and rewarding meal. Otherwise, all my other meals, I hydrated and ate cold. One of my favorite meals was Peak Refuel’s Chicken Coconut Curry. It was so good that I could eat it even outside of the row (or backpacking).
My main meals accounted for about 60% of my daily calories. The other 40% of my calories came from my daily snack bags. And they were a home run – I never tired of what I packed even though all the snack bags were the same. Payday bars were a homerun, but Snickers bars turned to complete mush in the heat. When I broke a tooth during the last month of the row, I had to stop eating things like beef jerky, dried nuts and Nuts.com’s energy squares. Protein shakes were awesome at night. And they were a godsend during the day if I mismanaged my energy – slam a 400 calorie shake and all was good.
Did I see any wildlife?
I have to say I was a bit disappointed in this regard. I actually saw more wildlife during my training rows in California. I only saw a handful of dolphins and only twice. I did see lot of mahi-mahi as I got closer to Antigua. They were cool as they are colorful and great hunters. They would swim against the swells to catch their meals. And, of course, I dealt with flying fish throughout the row. The things were so annoying – constantly having to do morning clean up of the ones that landed on the boat at night. And getting hit by them in the dark isn’t a lot of fun. Not to mention the one little bugger that flew into my cabin! But I did have an incredible experience with a whale. It swam with me for about 20 minutes. Literally checking me and the boat out, diving under the boat multiple times. I still haven’t figured out what kind of whale it was – it was about 30 feet in length and had a dorsal fin. But the experience was pretty magical.
Did I see any other boats?
The race started at 12:30 p.m. and when the sun set that evening it was the last time, I saw any of the other rowboats. Three weeks into the race there was over 1,300 nautical miles separating the first boat and the last boat. I was visited once by the Atlantic Campaigns support yacht (Suntiki) for about 20 minutes. I did have encounter with folks on a yacht who were heading to Martinque. They sailed by and asked about my row and wished me good luck. Other than two encounters, the only other boats I saw were cargo vessels. I saw these mainly at the beginning of the race and then again as I got closer to the Caribbean islands.
Did I encounter any rough weather?
I literally had every kind of condition imaginable. We had days where the water was glass flat, no wind and not a cloud in the sky. I had days where tropical squall after squall would roll through. There were days where it was close to 90 degrees and high humidity. Nights where I wore a base layer beneath my jacket and wore a beanie. I had days with 20 plus knot winds and 20-foot swells. But the biggest seas I experienced were in the last two weeks, the seas were 20-30 feet for part of this time which meant lots of times where waves would crash over the deck of the boat.
Was I ever scared?
There were two times during the row that I got a bit rattled. First time was when I had the knock down. A knock down is where the boat is hit by a wave and the boat rolls 180 degrees – not a complete rollover. But the whole right side of my body was in the water and I had to wait for the water to drain off the deck of the boat before the boat righted itself. I had to take a 15 min break in my cabin to regain my composure! But the scariest moment was during the last two weeks when I was in the biggest seas of the trip. I had one swell that was around 40 ft. I estimate that as I know the boat is 24 ft long and I had at least a body length above and below the boat as rowed up the face of the swell. I was terrified that I was going to pole pitch end over end down the face of the swell. At the last moment the boat came over the top of the swell as it started to break. I went racing down the back of the swell at 8.1 knots - 4 times faster than my normal rowing speed!!
What was different than I expected?
The one aspect of the race that I didn’t expect was the constant Northeast conditions. I mistakenly thought the trade currents went east to west. None of the books I read about rowing the Atlantic mentioned the Northeast conditions. After we got through the initial system, the Northeaster’s were helpful as these push you southwest. But at a certain point, you need to head due west to get to Antigua and the conditions weren’t helpful in that regard. And these conditions meant my artificial shoulder took a bigger beating than expected as the wind and swells hit the boat on the left side, not to mention the mental stress of being too far south on multiple occasions.
The last two weeks
In some ways the last two weeks were the whole race to me. The race organizers had contacted Marianne and told her it was time to travel to Antigua, I was about 9 days from the finish. And then everything went south – both figuratively and literally. A strong Northerner hit when there were only 5 teams still on the race course. The two teams in front of me were about 150-200 miles ahead and they were not impacted. Myself and the two teams behind me were pushed south and the conditions were so strong we were even pushed south while on para-anchor. Every day I would row about 30 miles west but I would be also going south 5-10 miles. This continued for around a week. I was way south of Antigua and nothing in the forecast indicated that conditions would change. I asked the Safety Officer about having contingency discussions – just in case. I thought it made sense to discuss going to Martinique or Dominica if the conditions didn’t change. He came back and said he discussed it with the Race Director and they would not permit me to land at another island. They cited the immigration, customs, boat shipping and personnel redeployment as issues, not to mention there were two other teams on the course. They said if I couldn’t make it north to Antigua, then they would have me towed into Nelson’s Dockyard. Not something I expected to hear but I respected their position. I entered their race and I would abide by their decision. I continued doing the best I could to try and make progress north with no luck. To make matters even worse, two of my autohelms stopped working, leaving me with just one autohelm. The autohelm essentially steers the boat while I row. I had a call with the Safety Officer and the boat builder, their suggestion was to hand steer the boat and only use the remaining autohelm for course corrections or when I slept. But I tried hand steering and was unsuccessful in the high seas I was in – especially since I needed to row across the swells. So I came up with a schedule that was 3 hours of rowing using the autohelm and 3 hours of break – allowing the autohelm to cool down. During the break I would deploy the para-anchor to avoid being pushed south. This worked for the first day until my bow line broke (how the para-anchor attaches to boat)!!! I was lucky as I quickly realized that the line had broken and managed to retrieve the para-anchor before it separated from the boat. From that point, I had to deploy the para-anchor using the cleat on the side of the boat, which meant instead of the bow pointing into the oncoming swells, the beam of the boat would point to the swells, resulting into very rough ride. And then one week from the finish line my iPad stopped work due to salt water corrosion in the charging port – leaving me with no music.
While I never quit or gave up, I did lose hope that I would be able to reach the finish line. I was convinced I was going to be towed. Meanwhile Marianne and the Safety Officer both maintained a belief that the conditions would change I would make it to the finish line. And they were right, I caught two lucky breaks. First was a window where the conditions weren’t favorable, but were also not going against me. The Safety Officer set a goal of rowing 5 miles north over two days and I managed to make it 15 miles north. The second break was a strong northeaster was forecasted to hit and everyone feared I might be pushed another 10 miles south. Instead at the last minute the conditions weakened and I only lost ½ mile. Had those two breaks not happened, I wouldn’t have made it to the finish line.
As difficult as these two weeks were, this was what I wanted before the row – I wanted to see what I did when things got dark. And up until this point, things hadn’t been truly emotionally dark. I am still processing how I feel about how I handled things during this time.
I said this at the finish line – while I was on a solo row, it was never a solo row. I would have never finished the row without Marianne’s help. Early in the race, I realized I had a navigation issue and drafted Marianne to take the lead on navigation. She learned the Navionics app along with how to extract detailed information from the Dot Watching software. Every day we would talk and she would give me navigation instructions, upcoming weather forecasts and short term plans. This resulted in an immediate doubling of my mileage towards Antigua. When things got dark during the last two weeks, she also learned how to use the Windy Application to not only get windy forecasts but also to anticipate sea conditions. And her emotional support was invaluable. She was every bit a part of the success of the row.
If you have read this far, I want to again thank you for your support – both of me and Okizu. Thanks for joining me on this journey.