MOST OF US don’t give much thought to what’s going on in the middle of the oceans, but I was surprised to learn how many hardy souls are rowing boats out there, unassisted by sails or motors. And not only rowing, but racing each other across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.
In his recent book, Little Ship of Fools (Greystone Books), Canadian author Charles Wilkins describes his role in an attempt to beat the record Atlantic crossing for rowing boats. His boat, Big Blue was a 40-foot catamaran with a crew of 16. Eight people rowed at a time, all the way from Africa to the West Indies.
But the first people to row the Atlantic in 1896 were two Norwegian-born fishermen named George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, who crossed from New York to England in 55 days in an 18-foot open dory named Fox.
Since then, hardy extremists have made a kind of game of racing one another, or the clock, across the oceans of the world. Not all of them survive. In 1966 two young Brits named David Johnstone and John Hoare left Virginia in a craft called Puffin, rowed for 105 days in the direction of home, and simply disappeared off the face of the earth.
Two weeks later, a second British team consisting of John Ridgway and Chay Blyth set out from Cape Cod and arrived in Ireland safely to become the first of the “new age” rowers to cross the Atlantic.
In 1972, yet another pair of Brits, John Fairfax and Sylvia Cook, aboard Britannia II, become the first to cross the Pacific from San Francisco to Hayman Island, Australia. They took 361 days. Cook was the first woman to row across any ocean, incidentally, and saved Fairfax’s life after he was bitten by a shark. She has an extraordinary story to tell, as you’ll discover if you Google her name.
Meanwhile, in his book Wilkins says 30 rowing crews attempted ocean crossings between 1966 and 1982, attempts now referred to as “historic” ocean rows. Only 15 completed the whole crossing. Three were lost entirely.
From 1997 onward the number of successful Atlantic crossings rose to something over 400, largely as the result of the introduction of a transatlantic rowing race, the Atlantic Challenge. In October of 1997, 30 boats, each with one pair of rowers, left the Canary Islands. Twenty-four of them reached Barbados. In 2003 the race become the Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race, as many as 40 boats setting out every second year from Tenerife in the Canaries.
The sport is now regulated and archived by an English organization called the Ocean Rowing Society, which stipulates among other things that boats must be self-sustaining, must touch neither land nor vessels en route, and must run entirely without motors or sails.
All I can say is that if you thought crossing an ocean in a small sailboat was the height of madness, you need to reconsider that opinion. The prize must surely go to these crazy rowers.
I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.
— H. L. Mencken
An Italian lady always had trouble with English verbs.
“I can’ta weara my wool skirt any more,” she said. “I have send it to the cleaners and they shrinked ... shrank ... shrunk ... Oh!” she broke off in desperation, “I putted on weight.”
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