The trans-Atlantic race has been billed as the world’s toughest endurance race. Which is of course overstating things a bit – no, not the ‘world’s toughest' bit, the ‘trans-Atlantic' bit. The race doesn’t even go the whole way – it starts just off the coast of Africa (at the Canary Islands) and finishes just off the coast of South America (in Barbados). Sure, that still makes it about about 5000 kilometres long.
But that’s only a bit longer than say walking from Sydney to Perth, or from Cape Reinga to Bluff five times. Yes you’re towing a ton of food but you’re not doing it yourself. There are two people in each boat. You only have to row half the way.
The first rowing race across the Atlantic was held in 1997, and won by two kiwis – Rob Hamill and Phil Stubbs. In 2001 Rob was back to defend the title but had to withdraw after breaking his hand trying to stop a fight just a few days before the start. Then there was a crew mutiny and … but I digress. The important thing is that two kiwi guys from Auckland came first.
I was told that 90% of the race was getting to the start line. That isn’t true. It’s more like 99%. The ups and downs, the rivalries, and fisticuffs could fill half a book. Actually they fill exactly half of a book – ‘The Oarsome Adventures of a Fat Boy Rower'. I called it that because I was going through a quarter life crisis at the time. I was broke, jobless, girlfriendless, living at home with my Mum, and quite a bit overweight when I first heard about this race. It's not exactly true that I didn’t have a job. My job was to sit on the couch and stop it floating away, while I ate fast food and watched reality TV shows.
I was watching the news one night when I saw a clip about the boat that had just arrived last in the previous race. It had started out as a husband and wife team. But after two weeks the husband had found that he had a phobia of the sea and couldn’t stand being out in the open ocean out of sight of land. So he hopped off the boat and his wife rowed onto the end. Took her 111 days. Ouch.
I did some more research. It turns out that six boats had been lost at sea trying to row across the Atlantic. So I decided to write a pros and cons list to decide whether I should take part in the race or not, starting with the cons. Here it is.
1. I could die.
2. I’m not into pain (the books about rowing the ocean are pretty united about the pain involved, what all those weeks at sea do to your backside and hands etc).
3. I hate getting out of bed. (A 2 hours on, 2 hours off rowing schedule means getting out of bed 6 times a day. Can’t fool me.)
4. I don’t know how to row.
People sometimes ask me what the hardest thing about the rowing race was. If by that they mean when was the time that I was most likely to quit then this time was pretty much it. It’s when you first have a big idea that it’s easiest to kill it. It just didn’t make any sense to even consider taking part in the race any further. Particularly not when Mega Home Makeover 3 was about to start.
Yet two years later I had won the race and set two new world records along the way. How I transformed myself from couch potato to Atlantic rowing race winner, got my act together, the tips and tricks that I learned about taking on major daunting challenges is what I share in my presentations. Enough from the sponsor, back to the story.
The first part of taking on a project is making sure that all the stakeholders are on-board. First there was Mum to deal with, who I hardly need to mention was violently opposed – strangely even after I pointed out that my plan would at least get me out of the house. To resolve our increasingly fierce arguments we agreed that we needed arbitration. Her idea was that we would write in to a TV show that we were great fans of (How’s Life) and let them decide if taking part in the next trans-Atlantic rowing race was a good idea or not. They thought it was.
I then teamed up with Rob Hamill and we started approaching companies. Turns out that selling is a very difficult career. Particularly if the product that you're selling is an ocean race that takes place not just out of sight of the NZ domestic market, but pretty much out of sight of anyone or anything at all. And it’s a Rugby World Cup year, and there is another kiwi boat in the race, and you have a strange knack of getting offside with your sponsorship targets. For example, when the CEO of Bell Tea asks you if you want tea or coffee, you really should think about the implications before you respond. Fortunately what we lacked in charm we made up for in perseverance. (This is a recurring theme.)
We start building a boat. I enlist the help of some brilliant Auckland University professors to optimise our rowing route. I struggle to find a rowing partner – you might be surprised how few people think rowing across the ocean is a good idea. We finally get the boat into the water.
Soon (actually about a year later) I am at the start line in the Canary Islands on a perfectly hot calm still morning. My blood is fizzing though, as I am about to row the Atlantic Ocean – with someone who I’ve only just met. What's that? The guy who I had trained with the previous year had had to pull out (he had some back problems) just a few weeks before the race, and that left me running around trying to find someone new. Turns out that Mum wasn’t keen. Nor for that matter, was anyone else. So when Rob Hamill told me that he had managed to arm-twist a 22-year-old now at Waikato Uni who had done a bit of rowing, I was relieved. Meet Jamie Fitzgerald.
However, I was nervous because we didn’t seem to have much in common. I was 11 years older, I was from the city, he was from a farm, I had a paper round growing up, he had a home kill business. The only thing that we had in common was that we both held a world record each. I had a world record for rowing a million metres on an indoor rowing machine. This took about three days. Jamie had a record for eating a can of Watties ‘Big Eat’, in 3.2 seconds.
The start gun goes off, and Jamie and I row with the fleet of 16 boats out into a beautiful flat calm ocean. Later that day the sun went down, and it started to cool off. We rowed away from the other teams until they were dots on the horizon. We were quite possibly, as far as we could tell, winning the trans-Atlantic rowing race. The next few weeks stretched out in front of us. ‘So tell me about yourself,’ I suggested to Jamie as we pulled away.
Later that night, as the stars came out and as I dipped my oars in the water, I sighed and thought, ‘So this is what rowing the ocean is like. Well it’s not too bad.’ That was day 1. Want to know the worst day of the trip? Day 2 of course.
Day 2 we were hit by strong winds that built up to the point that we weren’t making any progress at all. The temptation was to put out our sea anchor (imagine a parachute that you lower into the water off the front of the boat). You get to have a rest but while you’re doing so you’re slowly drifting backwards. We knew that there were some pretty tough crews in the race, who almost certainly weren’t going to flinch at this first hurdle, and if they weren’t going to stop then neither could we. So we kept on rowing and had a very lousy and frequently frightening night out at sea right at the limits of our endurance. Watching the GPS closely it was all we could do to stay in the same place.
Lunchtime the next day we called up our shore crew to find out our race position. They said ‘Whatever you’re doing keep it up.’ We said ‘why?’. They said ‘You’ve got a 25 mile lead on the rest of the fleet’. We thought ‘This is great! We’ve stayed in the same spot and now we’re 25 miles in front!’
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be out in the open ocean, miles from any land? It certainly is spooky, your mind can’t quite compute that there isn’t anything solid out there. You keep seeing imaginary islands out of the corner of your eye. Have you ever thought about what it would be like to see a big yellow full moon rise up over a watery horizon? Certainly got plenty of that. And whales. And dolphins doing somersaults and saw some pretty hairy thunderstorms come and go. At these times I did wonder if it was a good idea to be holding onto several meters of graphite rods as lightening bolts jab the water.
Then there are the waves. Big? Hard to judge. But when you are only three feet above the water every wave looks big. Certainly they were bigger than the boat as it was the job of the person at the oars to call out to the person trying to sleep inside the cabin to pull shut the back hatch should it look as if a wave was about to break on top of the boat. Mostly the boat would somehow float over the top of even the most fierce and looming waves. Mostly. The exceptions were pretty entertaining, particularly for the rower. Then there were the heartbreaking days when the sea was like glass. That’s when it becomes really hard to motivate yourself.
As we grew closer to the equator the days were often smouldering hot. I would look up at the fat fluffy clouds and try to guess if one was going to float under the sun and give me a few seconds of shade. Night times were better, it was cooler, and we would row long overlapping shifts where we could tell stories.
By week two we had lost our early lead to those two guys from Auckland, the previous race winners who were back to prove a point against the upstarts. ￼By halfway we still hadn’t caught up. There was only time for one more big push. But so far nothing had been working. We had been ramping up our rowing hours but hadn’t been able to pull back the lead. We could probably cruise to the end and come a solid second. Is that so bad? Coming second on our first attempt? This was the topic of much debate through several nights. Finally Jamie said that he thought we could win. I said ‘why?’, he said ‘I think we can win?’ and I said ‘Sure, but why?’ he said, ‘Because they’ve got two Aucklanders in their boat. We’ve only got one in ours.’
We couldn’t row any harder but we could row longer. Our shifts had always been tough and now quickly moved through ‘horrendous’ on their way to ‘insane’. We would typically row for one and a half hours and then have a break that could be as short as half an hour. That’s not a lot of time to get up from the oars, get something to eat, take off your clothes and get into the back cabin to sleep before getting on your clothes and getting back into your rowing position. We were getting only a few hours of sleep every day and certainly not much more than an hour at a time.
We started to hallucinate. One time I imagined that I was passing a Japanese fishing village. Another time I woke Jamie to a loud cry of ‘If you want to come down take the spiral staircase!’
But we started to catch up. Then with just a week to go we were neck and neck, the same distance from the finish. We couldn’t see them as they were coming in from a different angle, but we imagined that we could see their silver coloured hull in every white cap in the distance. This meant not slowing down even when the rollers began getting bigger and bigger.
So there we were, in big muscular swells 120 miles out from Barbados, just after sunset. The day had been so hot that I was happy to see it go – until it occurred to me that I’ll now be rowing in the same boat eating seas, only now I couldn’t see what was happening. I had just finished a shift and was standing at the back of the boat about to get into the cabin when a wave came that was a bit bigger than the rest. We started to fall down its face. Faster and faster, the boat was carving off to the right and as the wave steepened it dug the port side dug into the wave. The boat suddenly stopped, Jamie and I didn’t. We were flicked head first into the dark churning water.
The fear didn’t really register until a couple of hours later when I was lying shivering back in the boat, trying to get some sleep, now knowing that the ocean (which we had thought we could handle) could pretty much take us out any time it wanted to.
At the time I went into the water my only thought was how to get back to the boat. The worst way to die at sea would be to be separated from your boat and spend your last hours flailing towards a receding dot on the horizon with your strength fading. Because that’s just what happened to those six crews lost at sea right? The boats were always found again afterwards.
I swam to the surface, and luckily the boat was right there. Couldn’t see Jamie though. That’s because, as he pointed out later, I was standing on his shoulders at the time. He climbed on board, and I tried to hold onto the boat with one hand, as waves swept over us, while with the other, I tried to grab some of the things that had been flung out and were still bobbing in the water.
Couldn’t get everything though. Lost a couple of really important things including one of our rowing seats, which meant that we lost about a knot of speed, and Jamie’s only pair of shorts. He had been rowing al fresco. This meant that he would have to finish the race similarly unattired. But necessity being the mother of invention, and desperation being the evil stepfather of necessity, Jamie managed to find a spare top and put his legs through the sleeves.
We survived the night. Then one more day and into one more weird Alice in Wonderland night. Conversations started to go like, ‘Wake up it's your shift.’ ‘But I’ve only just finished my shift – look I’m still dressed!’ ‘You’ve been lying there for half an hour.’ ‘No you’ve been rowing with your eyes closed the last five minutes!’ Etc.
At about 4am I came out for my shift and saw the lights on the horizon, too bright and steady to be stars. This being approximately the twelve thousandth time I had looked at the bow of the boat hoping to see land, it takes a while before you let yourself believe it might be true. Especially since our main GPS had stopped working and we were navigating like Christopher Columbus. But then finally the horizon lightened and we could start to register the outline of the island. Barbados from the sea looks strangely like the Coromandel: green fields, houses. A few hours later we rowed through the entrance of the marina and up to the pier.
Now I have to confess that there had been brief occasions during the race, usually late at night, that it had occurred to me that Barbados enjoys a convivial climate. It was just possible that during the holiday season there just might be one or two, possibly bikini-clad girls on the pier at the end, brimming, even bouncing, with enthusiasm to meet us. As we came in sight of the pier it was certainly crowded, unfortunately not with many ladies in their swimmers. In fact, not any.
I can’t complain though. Forty days and five hours after setting off, we had won the race. We had also set a new world record. Soon after arriving while we were still on the boat the crowd parted and this beautiful creature appeared, in a long clingy dress – apparently a local beauty queen. She got on board the boat, and while the flashbulbs were going off, gave a lovely speech of welcome to Barbados to the both of us.
Subsequently, however, she took a particularly liking to Jamie. Similarly Jamie seemed to be very much taken with her. Jamie himself being a very affectionate guy, and he had been six weeks at sea, it was still hard to overlook the fact that his new friend was six foot six and had a large Adam’s apple. It took us an hour to convince Jamie that the queen was in fact a bloke.
A strange and funny way to end what had been a very strange, exciting and frequently very funny adventure!