2016: 25 Years Since Gerard d’Aboville’s Trans-Pacific Row

How Astoria Made the National News–in France!

It was 25 years ago at the end of November 1991 that a French adventurer arrived off the Columbia River after an incredible voyage from Japan. He was 46-year old Gerard d’Aboville and he had achieved 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, and he had fought the weather the whole 6,000 miles encountering numerous gales, using only oars, and the prevailing winds and currents. He had capsized nearly 40 times and encountered the worse conditions imaginable in the towering waves that pound the NW coast after the yachting season has ended.

His progress reports had been followed closely in France, passed on by ham radio operator Fred Boehme in Hawaii. But it appeared as if Boehme was the only American who was aware of this voyage and it took the US press and the Coast Guard completely by surprise. In France, one broadcaster was reputed to have paid a large sum for the exclusive rights to first film the boat’s approach to land, and had insisted on an embargo on the progress reports until they had their footage.

However, practically every major French network and news publication sent a reporter to witness the end of this historic journey, and within 48 hours, the lower Columbia was swarming with a small army of French journalists. Many of them attempted to charter local fishing boats to search the approach to the Columbia for the tiny rowboat, but the weather was bad, the crews stayed on shore, and the suspense mounted. (This was all to the advantage of his sponsor Sector, an Italian manufacturer of sport watches!) By coincidence I happened to be visiting Astoria while this was going on, looking into plans for the bicentennial of the river’s discovery in 1992.

But I drove home still completely unaware of the drama. I only found out from Oregon public radio when I was almost back in Portland, so I woke up early the next day and drove straight back! At the time, there was nothing to do but wait until the official press conference in the afternoon at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. But the 10-minute film of the search and rescue of d’Aboville was later given to the Ilwaco Heritage Museum and I watched it many times in the next 20 years.

It shows the Frenchman’s cousin, Olivier de Kersauson, a famous ocean racing captain, who had flown in and took charge of the search. He chartered a 45′ shrimp boat in Ilwaco and they finally found the Sector, upside down for the 39th time, 20 miles offshore. A huge sea was running and the waves were beginning to break as the depth dropped. There was a serious concern for his safety: over the radio and then by loud hailer, Olivier demanded that Gerard end the voyage there and then. He agreed and they lifted him on board and towed the Sector to safety on November 21.

He was lowered back into the river once they were across the bar, and Gerard took up the oars for the final time to row past Cape Disappointment and into Ilwaco. (Note: in my opinion article, I discuss the total lack of standard sporting agreement on where an ocean crossing should properly finish.) There he was greeted by his wife and children, all the cameramen crowding the dock, and local residents on shore. He stepped onto land after 134 days on shakey legs, looking very frail, and had to be supported as he made his way up the ramp. (He had lost 37 lbs in weight.)

By evening, he had managed to pick himself up for the crowd waiting for him. “There are no good moments in such a trip–I thought more than once that I would die,” he told about 200 journalists and a handful of Astorians. “There are nice times when the weather is a little warmer and the clouds are pretty and the light is fine, but then you realize you are not on a beach but in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and must keep rowing to get home.”

I have to admit, I can’t really remember much about that day, but I do have the close-up photo I took of d’Aboville on the podium, so I know was sitting close to the front. I believe I asked him a question, but was it in English or French? After, I walked over to the lightship where his tiny boat was moored. It was a streamlined 26′ skiff-like hull with a tiny sleeping cabin that had often become his lifeboat.

Because it was narrow for less resistance, it required a pumping system that used seawater as ballast. Assuming the rower and could transfer the weight to one side when the boat was in a capsized position. His watertight living compartment, a scant 31 inches high, contained a bunk, a one-burner stove, a ham radio, and a telex (both powered by solar panels). Fresh water came from two desalination pumps hooked to the sliding seat.

His watertight living compartment, a scant 31 inches high, contained a bunk, a one-burner stove, a ham radio, and a telex (both powered by solar panels). Fresh water came from two desalination pumps. One thing he could not engineer out was moisture. Everywhere, always, it was wet–and, he admitted, miserable. “First there were injuries, second I had to row 10, 12, 14 hours–up to 24 hours a day at the end. And last, dry clothes never lasted more than five minutes.”

He had previously rowed (and drifted) the North Atlantic from the USA to Europe in 1980, the first-ever solo passage covering over 3,000 miles in 72 days. After a decade of more modest nautical achievements, he decided to attempt the North Pacific—a far more dangerous journey that had defeated the handful of men who had ever dared it. His conclusion? “I did not conquer the Pacific, it let me go across.”

France hailed d’Aboville as a national hero, a worthy successor to the great Eric Tabarly, as the first man to row across two oceans solo. But he never undertook a rowboat marathon again. He had averaged a remarkable speed of almost two knots—one knot is more typical for solo rowers. What I was thinking was that the North Pacific is not a pleasant place at any time of the year at any speed, regardless of the size of your boat. Every sailing account I have read records the large number of depressions or storms they have encountered.

I went outside and examined the streamlined carbon-fiber shell supplied by the Sector watch company that had carried him through this hellish experience. It was narrow and low to the water to reduce windage, so had little inherent stability. At least once a year I returned to the Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco, Washington and watched the film of his rescue and arrival.

Postscript: In 2016, I emailed Gerard to update his museum display in Ilwaco and to remind him 25 years had passed since his arrival. I found his life has not been lacking in the intervening years. He has been a member of the European Parliament, and in 2013 captained the 105′ solar-cell powered catamaran PlanetSolar on its two-year circumnavigation. That was also a very slow journey, averaging 4-5 knots, compared to the biggest sailing catamarans that can average 24-25 knots and can also claim to be powered by “renewable energy.”

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