Is Ocean Rowing an Exercise in Futility?

 A Short History and Opinion on Ocean Rowing by P.Marsh (Work in Progress)

In 1910, Bess Evinrude invited the boating public to “Throw Away the Oars” and buy an outboard motor. The future of boating changed–not for the better some traditionalists might say! But a century later, the march of progress has been reversed by the curious sport of ocean rowing that demands its followers take back the oars and throw away not the motors…. but the sails as well!

I was vaguely aware that since the 1960’s, a few misfits had undertaken to cross an ocean under this harsh and unyielding dictate, but they generally failed to make any impact as either boating or expedition news. That all changed for me twenty four years ago, when the news leaked out that a lone Frenchman named Gerard d’Aboville was about to enter the Columbia River and complete the first row across the North Pacific.

The next day he triumphantly rowed into Ilwaco, Washington and I managed to gate-crash the  press conference in Astoria where dozens of French reporters had belatedly gathered to cover his arrival. (It turned out that his sponsors had deliberately kept his progress a secret until the last moment.) So the first ocean rower I encountered was a Frenchman who had beaten his English rivals to achieve one of the rapidly diminishing number of “firsts” left to claim in the late 20th century.

The first row across the stormy North Pacific had taken 134 days, he explained in  French and English. He had fought the weather the whole 6,000 miles encountering numerous gales between Japan and the NW coast and averaging a remarkably high speed of almost two knots. I remember I nervously asked a question, in English, but I can’t remember what I said.

What I was thinking was that the North Pacific is not a pleasant place at any time of the year, regardless of the size of your boat. How many sailors do you know who have cruised this route? The streamlined carbon-fiber shell supplied by the Sector watch company was narrow and low to the water for low drag, so had little stability and capsized 35 times. Gerard’s strength was clearly fading and he was in great danger when a fishing boat  found him about 30 miles offshore.

The boat had been chartered by his relative, the well-known trimaran sailor and circumnavigator Olivier de Kersauson who pioneered solo sailing in multihulls up to 80 feet long, The conditions were horrendous, but the crew managed to hoisted rower and boat on board before he reached the infamous Columbia Bar during an October storm.

(There is no record of what the French rower and the sailor said to each other after that rendez-vous, but one may assume the there was a difference of opinion in what each considered a seaworthy boat!)  France hailed d’Aboville as a national hero, like Eric Tabarly, as the first man to row across two oceans solo. But he never undertook a rowboat marathon again. 

 I was stunned by his achievement, and wrote up the whole story for NW Yachting’s boat show issue. At least once a year I return to the Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco, Washington and watch the film of his arrival–the seas were truly terrifying for a large steel trawler, let alone a man in a row boat! I finally emailed Gerard last winter to update that display and found his life has not been lacking in the intervening years.

He has been a member of the European Parliament, and captained the 105′ solar-cell powered catamaran PlanetSolar on its recent two-year circumnavigation. You may notice that this vessel can also claim to be propelled without fossil fuel,” though it also had a very low cruising  speed of around 4 knots.

Row, row, row your boat–to Hawaii

The exclusive club of ocean solo rowers kept mainly to the Atlantic for the next decade, but one north-westerner, Mick Bird, was won over by their daring and decided to try his hand at rowing to Hawaii. At the third attempt, he escaped from the California coast off Fort Bragg and arrived safely in Hilo in 1997 in 64 days. I just happened to see his boat in a storage area when I visited the island that winter. Then I was lucky enough to meet him later in Port Townsend  and found him to be very cautious in predicting how much further he might row.

I also remember it seemed rather odd to be at the Wooden Boat festival, surrounded by beautiful sailing boats, some of which had sailed to the idyllic  South Pacific islands, while taking to someone who had rowed the whole way. Perhaps I was disappointed to realize an American had caught the rowing bug from the British and the French. After all, the America’s cup had proved Americans were the best sailors in 1850, and those same fast sailing schooners were seaworthy enough to trade all over the South Pacific, where the natives had perfected sailing multihulls thousands of years ago!

Bird went on to spend 65 days crossing the equator to reach Majuro, 36 days to the Solomons, and 21 days to Cairns in Queensland, Australia. However, his achievement received very little recognition, though I learned his Hawaii crossing is apparently still the fastest on record. I should be impressed, but during the same web search, I found a report of a crew of sailors whose yacht sank close to the northern California coast. They drifted to Hawaii in a liferaft in 56 days….

Well, it looks like I am starting to drift away from hard facts and towards the murky waters of opinion, but in reality it was another decade before I began to peak behind the curtain at the reality of ocean rowing. So let me make it clear that I have nothing but admiration for anyone who crosses and ocean in a small boat. It’s the rowers’ endless hope that they will have a fair wind to blow them along, but their total rejection of sails that perplexes me.

Back to the Future, the Euro Way

Because over in Europe, ocean rowing was about to hit the big time, when the sailing world’s Macho Man, Sir Chay Blyth invented the Atlantic Rowing Race from the Canary Islands to the Antilles,, run by his company, the aptly named Challenge Business Ltd. It began in 1997 with  an amazing 30 teams entered, which was more than the TOTAL number of ocean rows to that point! Four years later 36 teams crossed the line.

Blyth went broke with his sailing race, but the rowing event changed hands and has been held bi-annually ever since.  So great is the interest that it promises to become an annual contest next year, appropriately sponsored by Talisker Whiskey! With one, two and four-person teams, that is one heck of a lot of people convinced that ocean rowing is the best way to venture beyond the city limits and test your endurance. (This all began with the Outward Bound program that has held Britain in its sway since the dark days of WW II.)

This is how the PR begins, by clicking on the button marked CHALLENGE of course: “Crossing the Atlantic is never an easy undertaking, but people have been making the journey for hundreds of years…….It’s no surprise then that more people have been into space, or climbed Everest than have rowed the Atlantic. It takes a certain kind of person to keep going when faced with blisters, salt rash, sharks and sleep deprivation.” (Feel free to fill in the blanks in this masterpiece of marketing.)

Those themes are echoed in this newspaper report from one of the competitors in the  two-man team in the Atlantic race in 2010. Adam Rackley said: the actual activity of ocean rowing is 99 per cent unbelievable, mind-numbing boredom…… everything began to crack up: my back became very painful and my tendons tensed up so my hands become claws. On top of this, salt water dried onto the boat and became very abrasive, constantly rubbing at everything that touched the seat – butt, crotch and feet. The sores and chafing made it painful even to sit down. Inevitably there was some tension between Jimmy and me, but I’d always bite my tongue because there was nowhere to escape to. Of course as soon as we stepped off the boat everything was forgotten.

His book is called “Salt, Sweat and Tears.” Other evocative titles are “Just Keep Rowing” by Katie Spotz, the young American who rowed the North Atlantic alone in 70 days. Then there is the ironic “Don’t Drift, Row” by Roz Savage who has a full TED talk on the web. She begins with “My name is Roz Savage and I row oceans,” then continues along the very same course as Adam Rackley: the boredom, the effort, the sores, and of course the joy in arriving.

After all that appealingly masochistic effort, I wondered why no mention of the goal of this whole journey: the unique satisfaction of physically moving your craft through the waves and towards your goal– something that no other seafarer would even contemplate! Why no joy at ticking off the miles day by day as you merrily row, row, row your boat across the vast ocean?

Basically, everyone sounded like the Manchurian Candidate, repeating the mantra:  This is the hardest thing I have ever done,……it feels so good to finally stop!” The media dutifully report the successes–but rarely the failures, and it’s all recorded and endorsed by the self-appointed custodians at the Ocean Rowing Society in London.

So despite these warnings, ocean rowing has been actively promoted into a 21st century “extreme” activity that encourages people to form teams in offices, pubs, sports clubs etc and set out on this Quixotic attempt to turn back the clock, to take on a task so arbitrary, in conditions so capricious, that you could quit before you are out of sight of land, or be blown by the tradewinds straight to your destination.

And now that thousands of people have signed on and committed their lives to this unspoken ethic and survived, will they ever want to set foot on a boat again? If you spend 100 days suffering at the oars in a dinghy believing that “sailing is cheating,” will you carry this human-powered obsession into  life onshore? Surely, that would mean you have to walk because a bicycle, like a sailboat, is way too complicated with all those wires and gears?

Well, I refuse to let those values go unchallenged or let more people be lost to the lifetime sport of sailing  because anything but rowing is “cheating.”

The Long Hard Row of Erden Eruc

It was at the 2006 Seattle Boat show that I watched Seattle resident Erden Eruc give a presentation on his trans-Atlantic row.  I could tell he was pretty determined guy, but I could not recognize how far he would push himself to achieve his ultimate goal, which is now listed as the first equatorial human-powered circumnavigation (by bike and oar).

Since he wanted to travel a route commonly covered by sailing boats, I decided I should apply my normal journalistic methods to his story. When I did the simple arithmetic, I found he was averaging I knot (or 1 mph)–a fact that I had never seen mentioned by any of the journalists dutifully praising a rower’s tenacity, guts, or patience. The reason was obvious: it was so appallingly slow that it detracted from the sporting image of the rower “racing” across the mighty ocean.

That was when I started to question the whole idea of “ocean rowing” and whether the rowing was as important as we are led to believe—or just an accessory to the real forces acting on the boat: the wind and current.  Eruc went on to spent a mind-numbing 330 days in his boat attempting to row from San Diego to Australia. Like many sailors, he got stuck in the doldrums, but could not row his way out. He was rescued by a fishboat 300 miles from land.

When the  Going Gets Tough…..

Crossing an ocean alone in a small boat with only oars for propulsion is probably the hardest voluntary physical challenge in the world. It demands endless hours, days and months of unremitting, monotonous toil against an unforgiving ocean.

But asking someone why row an ocean is like asking why climb a mountain. “Because it’s there” is still the best anyone has come up with. And yet, I believe there is a difference, but it was a few more years before I was ready to put that that thought on the page.

In Britain, describing almost any stunt as a “challenge” is guaranteed to attract the media, ocean rowing has become a rite of passage for young professionals, or anyone  seeking an escape from everyday  urban life. The promoters provide a package deal with training courses, then the boats and all the gear are delivered to the start line. So why not form a team with your mates at your local pub and have a go?

Sailing is for Sissies!

You see, as a small-boat sailor for over 50 years, I continue to delight in, and be amazed by the ability of an un-ballasted sailing boat to respond to even the lightest of breezes, even those too light to be felt. To deliberately deny myself the greatest satisfaction I feel on a boat by removing the rig and replacing it with oars would be to end all my interest in boating for pleasure.

The wind is free, and for thousands of years, mankind from the Arctic to Polynesia has harnessed it to move passengers, animals, cargo across rivers, bays and oceans. Indeed, without sailing ships, exploration of the world would have been delayed until the 19th century. To me, voluntarily exchanging sails for oars for long-distance travel is a huge evolutionary step backwards—and that appears to be its main attraction!

Almost all participants in ocean rowing have no sailing experience, so are blissfully unaware how incredibly easy it is to move a boat by sails. The potential rower is told you won’t need to learn about all those complicated ropes and knots, you are going back to basics, Man v. Nature, etc and all you need is a pair of oars (preferably carbon fiber) and two arms (plus a sliding seat) and off you go. (I estimate that a sleeping bag spread by two oars will move a boat faster than a tired rower, but don’t even consider it, because sailing is cheating.) So here is my first question to an ocean rower:

1) Row an ocean in 3 months or sail it in 3 weeks?

 The Invisible Hand of Wind and Current

It wasn’t difficult to find some accidental ocean crossings for comparison. Steven Callahan wrote a best-selling book about his drift voyage across the Atlantic after his 21′ Mini racer sank west of the Canary Islands. He drifted 1,800 nautical miles in an inflatable raft in 76 very long days. That’s an average of one knot……

Two more drift voyages happened in the Pacific more recently:              In 2006, three Mexican fishermen drifted west for 270 days to the Marshall Islands, covering 5,500 miles at an average speed of 2.5 mph. Their high speed explained by the blanket they used as a sail.

In 2010, three teenage boys from Tokelau drifted SW to Fiji in a metal dinghy across 1000 miles for 50 days. Average speed 20 miles per day.

It wasn’t until well after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 that I discovered the next piece of evidence. Lightweight flotsam like buoys and empty barrels, started arriving near Neah Bay in NW Washington the next winter after about 250 days, according to well-known Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. The average speed was, you guessed it, one knot.

This explains why most rowing attempts take place on tradewind routes! The Pacific rowing race guide states: “It doesn’t take much wind, many big waves or a particularly strong current before rowing boats fail to make progress and get pushed in the wrong direction.” That lesson was soon learned in 2014, when by half the fleet of twelve teams failed to clear Catalina Island. A British student entered quit after 37 days when she had only managed 60 miles towards Hawaii, but had been blown 500 miles along the coast of Baja Mexico.

2) A buoy can drift across an ocean at one knot, night and day. What does this mean for a solo ocean rower?

The crews will tell you an ocean rowboat has those large bulbous cabin tops to be self-righting, but they certainly act to catch plenty of wind. Of course, that can also have a negative effect: as soon as the following wind goes abeam, the boat lose speed and is harder to steer. If the wind goes ahead, then all progress will stop, and the sea anchor should be dropped to counter drift backwards. When the prevailing winds fail to behave, solo rowers may wander in circles for days or weeks……..

That’s because a solo rower, especially a woman, does not have the strength to move a heavily loaded boat at a discernible speed for long, and will have to settle for about a one knot average. If they are lucky, when they are not rowing, the wind and current will keep moving them. The more rowers in a boat, the more effect they will have on its speed and heading. This has led to some weird designs including a galley-like monohull, catamaran with rowers in each hull, and a lightweight extra-wide trimaran.

This was just the first of many contradictions I have encountered in so-called ocean rowing, which are continually overlooked or denied by everyone involved……

To be continued


About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
This entry was posted in NW boats and boaters, Ocean Racing & Records, Opinion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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