EPIC Rows

By Alan Oldham

Photo by Roz.

The compulsion to explore the limits of human endeavor is as old as humanity itself. Just as towering mountains call out to climbers to be summitted, the desire to propel oneself across vast oceans is nothing new. Stories of such explorers are epic in the purest sense; each one as heroic and human as Homer’s Odysseus, in whose desperate search for hope and home so many of us find ourselves.

While we are no less at the mercy of nature today than Odysseus some 3,000 years ago, what has changed is our collective ability to plan for and support such endeavors to minimize undue risk. Yet ocean rowing remains largely obscure, something the few who even make the attempt can take pride in.

One fact that ocean rowers seem fond of repeating is that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have rowed across an ocean. It wasn’t until 1997 that a regularly occurring trans-Atlantic rowing event was established. While the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge is billed as “the world’s toughest row,” the most courageous crossing was probably the very first.

The first successful trans-Atlantic row began with great fanfare on a New York pier early on June 6, 1896. This was the so-called “gilded age,” a time when rich newspapermen—they were invariably men—posted prizes for feats of exploration in order to purchase their publication’s way to increased readership.

A pair of Norwegian-American fisherman took up just such a challenge. After two harrowing months at sea in a custom-built wooden rowing boat, Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo reached Britain’s Scilly Islands. Perhaps more surprising than the fact that they accomplished this so long ago is that their time of 55 days, 13 hours is still the fastest east-to-west two-person crossing.

As I read through the records on the Ocean Rowing Society website, I pause at three simple words that appear here and there in the list of incomplete crossings: lost at sea. I shiver as I ponder these words—a mere moment for me, yet these rowers’ loved ones must wake each day to the reality of a missing parent, partner, or child. It is a chilling reminder of the fragility of life and the indiscriminate power of nature.

The Beast Inside

Adam Kreek’s family was among the lucky ones.

Kreek won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as part of the Canadian men’s eight, but he became a household name in Canada for his enthusiastic rendition of the national anthem on the podium. Kreek is a larger-than-life individual, so it likely surprised no one when he announced he would be making an attempt at crossing the Atlantic following his retirement from elite rowing.

After over a year of planning, and two-and-a-half months of experiencing the best and worst the ocean could throw at him, Kreek was making headlines again, but not in the way he’d expected. His crew of four—one of them with an Atlantic crossing under his belt already—had been brought safely to shore by the U.S. Coast Guard in a daring ocean rescue. They had nearly made it from Senegal to Florida. Along with admiration for even making the attempt, I find myself asking why would someone risk their life like this?

“Some are looking for a challenge,” says Kreek, who with his young family in mind, seeks out adventure of a slightly safer variety since his brush with death in the Atlantic. “Some are looking for self-discovery or actualization. Some are looking for glory. Some need to feed an ego. Some are looking for a confidence boost.”

It is often, he says, a combination of these factors and always intensely personal.

“As I’ve aged and moved into [a new] phase of life, I’ve recognized that I have a beast inside of me that I need to feed,” he tells me. “If I don’t feed it through adventure and things, I have found it comes out in unproductive ways. So by going off on these intermittent adventures I have been able to keep it at bay.”

“I have found more peace and humility,” Kreek concludes. “I have a stronger appreciation for the vastness of the ocean and the explorers who came before us. Most of all, the row gave me enough time to dwell, so that I could be more me.”

The impartiality of nature has provided a refuge for Tori Murden McClure, who in 1999 became the first woman (and first American) to row solo across the Atlantic.

“My occasional need to leave civilization has more to do with a sense of social injustice that leaves me so profoundly fed up that I turn my back on civilization from time to time,” she told me over email this summer. Beyond rowing, the current president of Spalding University’s accomplishments include being one of the first two women to ski to the South Pole as well as the first woman to summit Antarctica’s Mount Lewis Nunatak.

“For people who never leave the comfort of civilization, engaging in activities that involve risk without commensurate material reward requires an explanation,” she says. “Many climbers, myself included, tend view the question of why do you climb with hostility and contempt. Our basic [response] seems to be, ‘If you have to ask the question, you will not understand the answer.’ But this is an evasion.”

“Evasions come naturally to those who have felt the sting of having their varied and complex motivations boiled down to the level of cliché. We do what we do for a mixture of motives. However, when the motives of climbers are condensed for print or other media, it is not unusual for the complexity to be boiled away until shallow but recognizable stereotypes emerge. Before long, the climber finds him or herself pigeon-holed under ill-fitting labels: “adrenaline junkie,” “heroic leader,” “glory hound,” “record-breaker,” “lunatic,” “daredevil,” “escapist,” or “seeker after fame.”

“So, why did I row across the Atlantic? Am I an “adrenaline junkie,” “glory hound,” “record-breaker,” “lunatic,” “daredevil,” “escapist,” or “seeker after fame?” If the desire to expose myself to life’s contrasts makes me an adrenaline junkie, I am one. If world firsts count as records, I am a record breaker. If the desire to experience self-oblivion means I am a lunatic, I am a lunatic. If accepting physical challenges makes me a daredevil, I am a daredevil. If stepping away from civilization in search of deeper meaning makes me an escapist, I am guilty as charged.”

Sea Monsters

Similarly to Kreek setting out across the Atlantic as a way of coming to grips with the transition from elite sport and McClure finding in nature a source of strength, Fiann Paul sees the principle of transition as fundamental to epic undertakings. “I believe such a journey or expedition has incredible impact on the ability to complete an important process in one’s psyche and enter the next stage of life.”

“The quest is primarily personal,” he told me of the motivation behind his own quest to cross the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic oceans, accomplishments that have given him more Guinness World Records for ocean rowing than anyone else. He currently holds 30.

A citizen of three nations, Paul finds inspiration in the richness of our shared global heritage. When he rows, however, he does it as an Icelander, which seems fitting for one who has dared to row right up to the Arctic sea ice.

One of the common things I found when talking with ocean rowers was how frequently our conversations turned toward the philosophical. A habit, perhaps, of those used to contemplation and meditation on the open expanses of the ocean. Paul, however, combines his deep thought with a unique blend of the analytical and the literary.

Paul’s descriptions of his experiences glide from quotations of Greek and Japanese thinkers to poetic allusions. The Scandinavian heroic figure Beowulf is of particular interest to Paul.

“Beowulf lost only one duel in his life,” says Paul as he sets the scene. “It was a seven-day ocean rowing duel from Sweden to Finland, against Brecca.”

Paul told me that Beowulf then reported a need to battle sea dragons. “Delirium is the most unexpected type of hallucination a human can experience in extreme exhaustion,” explains Paul. “The cruel nature of delirium is the inability to distinguish it from reality. I hope to never be defeated by a sea dragon—to never lose a battle with myself.”

Solo, With a Message

Roz Savage found her own deeper meaning in extreme rowing by using the international platform to spread an environmental message. “I was trying to get people’s attention,” the British environmentalist told me in a quick call after touching down at Boston Logan International Airport.  “I rowed so I could talk about what we are doing to the Earth and what we need to be doing differently.”

Savage, who raced to victory with Oxford’s crew in the 1988 Women’s Boat Race, came to ocean rowing when she was transitioning out of management consulting in 2000. “I became aware of this obscure sport of ocean rowing. The fact that I knew how to row was enough to give me the delusion that I was qualified. The other part of it was wanting to find out what were my own limitations. These things inspired me to row across three oceans.”

In 2006 she became only the eighth woman to row solo across the Atlantic and immediately set her sights on an even bigger challenge. Breaking the trip into three stages (California-Hawaii; Hawaii-Tuvalu; Tuvalu-Papua New Guinea), Savage became the first woman to row solo across the Pacific via its greatest extent. Next, she crossed the Indian Ocean and remains the only woman to row solo across three oceans.

“I went from having read about it to witnessing the effect of climate change on small islands,” she explains. “I became more educated on those issues as I went along.”

She also felt that something changed in her. “Oh my word,” she said, “it is life-changing. Even just the first crossing. I felt I was a very different person at the end of that voyage. Every day I felt like I was failing and you just keep failing and you eventually find success. I kept asking myself, Can I do this? Do I have what it takes? It took me probably most of that crossing to figure out it is a bogus question. Only time will tell whether you are capable of it.

“That voyage demanded so much more of me than I thought I had. I kept hitting my limits for pain, frustration, boredom. And you find that you are still there and still going. So I guess that wasn’t my limit then. I figured that I was capable of so much more than I ever imagined.”

Opening Up the Ocean

Finding ways to share the experience of rowing an ocean is at the heart of what two ocean rowers are doing on different sides of the globe.

The Great Pacific Race, the brainchild of former British national team rower Chris Martin, sees crews race from California to Hawaii. Martin hopes to grow interest in ocean rowing by running an event that is incredibly demanding, but at the same time more achievable to the average person than crossing the entire Pacific.

“When I got dropped from the British squad, I was initially under the delusion that I was going to race across the Atlantic and break all sorts of records and I was very quickly brought up to speed that that was not viable. And very quickly, thankfully, I accepted that.”

Martin credits this dose of realism for saving him and reigniting his love of the sport. “I had to reassess what I was doing and made sure I enjoyed it.”

“During my row across the North Pacific with Mick Dawson, I was trying to think of how to give other people the type of experiences I had encountered,” he told me. “Talking to others including Roz [Savage], the idea developed and the Great Pacific Race was born.”

Tom Salt found similar inspiration after winning the 2014 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge with doubles partner Mike Burton. Salt founded Shoreseeker, a company that offers the casual adventurer opportunities to experience the transcendent joy of rowing with no land in sight, to fill the gap between short-distance rowing and epic ocean crossings.

With a polished website promoting their series of “weeklong country-to-country rowing adventures”, Shoreseeker appears to be tapping into a thirst for thrill-seeking without the risk of crossing an entire ocean.

“I wanted to do three things”, he told me. “One was to set up an endurance adventure that people could achieve in a week or two-week holiday without taking time away from work or family. The second thing was doing it safely while still having good value for money.” The final thing was to provide all the equipment for participants—a major barrier for competing in larger ocean rowing events.

Incorporating locations such as the English Chanel and Mediterranean Sea, Salt has set up various stage-race style series. “We try to allow people [individuals or groups] to go from one country to another on a leg, or from a country to an island to give them a sense of achievement.”

Words of Advice

For anyone with even the slightest inclination to try and take on an ocean, there are many things to consider. The first step is putting into action whatever dreams of adventure or exploration might be inside you.

“Just start,” advises Martin, who has seen how “if you worry too much about things then you never actually put one foot in front of the other.” He strikes a note of caution as well, stressing the importance of preparation. “If you want to row the Pacific, the earlier you start it the more time you have to succeed. If you are trying to rush it, last-minute things tend to get missed.”

McClure echoes this advice, cautioning would-be ocean rowers to “do your homework. I have advised perhaps a dozen people who have attempted to row across an ocean. One of them died. Going in without serious preparation is irresponsible.”

For those who prepare well and take that first stroke, the rewards are many.

“The last great physical explorations left on the surface of this planet are the boundaries of [human-powered] performance,” says Paul. “Every mountain has been summited by a helicopter, but the person who climbs it first is still a pioneer. Every land has been reached by a motor or wind-powered vessel. But many of the major water basins have never been crossed by [human] power—unsupported, unassisted.”

“Adventure is, at its core, pleasurable,” says Kreek, “Your body is flooding with endorphins and you are seeing new, weird and wonderful things. At times, you are terrified and in extreme awe, but mostly you are in a benign, meditative [state]. This is where the truest value of adventure can be found.”

“I used to think that courage was lack of fear,” concludes Savage, “but I realize that it is feeling the fear and feeling passionately about it enough to cross an ocean.”

We Are All Searching

The handful of experiences in this article amount to only a fraction of the stories from our diverse sport, stories that repeat like oar strokes in an endless ocean: each one a unique and necessary contribution. For the everyday rower there seems to be so much still to learn.

Talking with the women and men who push the boundaries human-powered endeavor, risking their lives to row epic distances, has deepened my insight in two important ways: first, that rowing is far more than what takes place on sheltered waterways, rivers, and lakes; and second, that the heroic women and men who cross oceans are as human as the rest of us.

This is the power of epic, to root the incredible in a reality that the audience understands, to make the inconceivable seem possible. After all, we are all in some way searching. We all have our sea monsters to defeat.