Opinion: Ocean Rowing — an Exercise in Futility!

In 1910, Bess Evinrude invited the boating public to “Throw Away the Oars” and buy one of the new outboard motors built by her husband Ole. The future of boating changed dramatically–not for the better most traditional sailors would say! Rowing continued to be popular as a competitive sport on sheltered waters, and a simple, quiet, low-cost way to propel an open boat. But a century later, the boating world has seen the low-profile sport of rowing suddenly transformed in the most unlikely way possible, by headline-grabbing attempts to row across oceans. This new ethic demands its followers throw away not just the motor but the sails as well, and turn back the clock by reverting to the oldest and most laborious way to propel a boat.

Crossing an ocean in a small boat with only oars for propulsion is probably the hardest voluntary physical task in the world. It demands endless hour of unremitting, monotonous toil on an unforgiving ocean at a desperately slow pace–especially for single-handers. Solo rowers actually DRIFT further than they ROW–a fact that is easily demonstrated by the time it takes flotsam to cross an ocean. It is a dangerous  and very expensive adventure with a failure rate of over 30% and a time-tested, efficient and historic alternative–sailing.

Somehow this extreme “sport” has managed to capture the public imagination in the UK, France and around the US coast without a single dissenting voice being heard. This is thanks to a well-oiled P.R. machine and the unquestioning support of the media. Journalists absolutely love this activity, and it shows in the glowing accounts they write about “everyday people taking on super-human challenges for worthy causes.”

Apparently they see no downside to this mania, though they could easily ask any competent sailor, seaman or fishermen for an opinion. They would quickly learn that professional seafarers have no time or patience for these offshore stunts that are literally “accidents waiting to happen.” When it does, the long-standing tradition of seafarers demands that the nearest ship must change course to rescue these hapless adventure seekers. The rowers appear unaware that the same tradition of the sea also expects anyone attempting to cross an ocean will depart in a seaworthy craft that can navigate in bad weather, and be as self-sufficient as possible.

This Quixotic activity is now so popular that it seems there is always at least one attempt under way somewhere. Despite the isolation, risk and contradictions (or perhaps because of them) over 700 rowboats have attempted to cross an ocean since the 1980’s. About 250 have demanded to be rescued by passing ships, coast guards, navies, fishing vessels, yachts etc.

A Giant Step Back for Mankind?

No boating authority has ever publicly challenged the basic idea of ocean rowing/drifting. On the contrary, successful rowers are rewarded with honors, fame and book contracts. There are at least 25 books on the subject in print, all giving glowing accounts of the joys of non-stop rowing for up to 300 days. (Stopping at tropic islands for food, water or a break is considered to show a lack of commitment and is viewed as very poor form.)

I now believe that voluntarily taking on the role of a galley slave or a shipwreck survivor in order to gain more publicity for a nautical stunt is contrary to all logic,  nautical and sporting tradition. I don’t care if it is for recreation, self-discovery, fame or charity. It is still under-pinned by a masochistic cult-like belief that rowing is somehow good for one’s character, and requires an attitude of total self-deception from start to finish.

Some “salty” and very negative comments like these would soon stir up a compelling debate that would surely sell papers or attract viewers. To the best of my knowledge, this has never happened. This is unlike other high-risk sponsored outdoor sports like the “Everest Industry” where the number of deaths, the employment of Sherpa porters, the long lines of climbers waiting their turn etc. have caused a steady stream of criticism.

On the ocean, when there is a storm that damages racing yachts, there are always complaints about the cost of search and rescue, but “poor helpless rowers” get a free pass. So I have decided to put my own thoughts online to provide a small counter to the proponents of this bizarre, dangerous and  bloody-minded activity.

But how can I honestly accuse ocean rowing of being futile? (Defined as: “Totally pointless, achieves no useful end or goal.”) Surely we should respect these people for their determination and achievements? Well, exactly what is achieved by the 1, 2, 4 or even 8 otherwise well-adjusted people on an open boat slowly drifting/rowing across an ocean? I’ve wasted plenty of time reading their accounts and listening to their interviews to find out WHY? Here are the best reasons I’ve come across:

  • For the challenge or the adventure
  • It feels so good when you stop
  • To publicize a worthy cause or raise money
  • To push myself harder than I ever have
  • To achieve something that sounds impossible

Surely these are all admirable goals, you say. Yes, I agree. But they can be applied to literally any long journey by foot, bicycle, horse, kayak etc. Most of us also recognize that less newsworthy pursuits like raising children, surviving cancer, or joining the Marines are real-life severe tests of character.

They certainly don’t answer the glaring question WHY ROW AN OCEAN? Nowhere is there any mention of anything connected with boats or water. What about the pleasure of boating? the satisfaction of feeling your boat rolling off the miles, exploring tropical islands, meeting people from different cultures—all the wonderful reasons why people SAIL oceans.

This is the “elephant in the boat” of ocean rowing, so to speak. These “voluntary galley slaves” rarely mention any pleasure or satisfaction during the journey–just the constant effort and hardship. Presumably that is the reason they do it–because it is so hard.

Sailing, however, is pretty simple and incredibly efficient. Put a mast on a typical rowboat, hoist a sail, and the trade wind will easily move your boat faster than four strong men, and 5-10 times faster than a solo rower, day after day.

Here are five reasons NOT to row for more than a day:

  • Wind and Current are stronger than any solo rower
  • Rowboats capsize easily and may not recover
  • Rowers often demand rescue by passing ships
  • Averaging 1 mph is pathetic and intolerably slow
  • Sailing is challenging, satisfying, sporting and fun!

“Cast your Fate to the Wind!”

It’s an undisputable fact that solo rowers are lucky to average 1 mph—half as fast as a marathon swimmer. When they do pick up speed to 2 mph or better, it is because a fair wind is blowing them along and allowing them to surf occasionally. In fact, wind direction and strength are more important to ocean rowers than to sailors, and current is also a major factor.

Rowboats, especially with one crew, drift under the influence of wind and current much faster than they are actually rowed. (The movement of lightweight flotsam from the 2011 Japanese tsunami demonstrated this on the North Pacific route.) This is an annoying fact that requires the rower to maintain a constant state of denial. Worse than that, they can’t make any progress into a light headwind and rapidly go backwards in a strong headwind.

The Wind is Free

So now I have outlined the problem as I see it. Why abandon the historical method of sailing that will convey you across the oceans with minimal effort bar occasional and sometimes demanding handling of the sails? Presumably because it is too easy! By the same logic, why not ban the use of kites during polar treks, push a loaded bike instead of riding it, or walk beside your pack horse? These are equivalent ways of making other sports harder, but of course they sound ridiculous and contrived. Why do we give ocean rowing a free pass?

Ironically, sail training on traditionally-rigged ships is also a popular and rigorous way to introduce young people to the culture of the sea and ships, and is considered to be a good platform for outdoor education, character development etc. On a “tall ship” you learn to climb the rigging and furl sail, tie knots, plot the ship’s route on a chart, and get along as a group.

Yes, the wind is free, and it has been carrying sailors across the oceans for thousands of years! Centuries before freeze-dried food, watermakers and GPS distress beacons, Stone Age natives were crossing the Pacific Ocean under sail. Today, wind power has even become the leading solution to global warming!

On a rowboat you learn to row–that’s all! It seems self evident to me that there is a huge dis-connect here. They can’t both be right!

“Capsizing 10 Times in a Day”

While a fair wind wind is a welcome friend to the sailor–at least up 30-40 mph–any wind above a light breeze builds up waves and raises the risk of capsizing a rowboat.But rowing culture refuses to fit a ballasted keel that would stop the boat from rolling over because the added weight would slow the boats down. Rowboats could also be built to be self-righting with a raised buoyant chamber, but this is considered too negative and unsporting.

There were at least six fatalities up to 2000 all probably caused by capsize. That was a death rate of about one in nine–according to the Ocean Rowing Society (ORS.) Some solo boats have movable water ballast to self-right and roll over as many as a dozen times in a gale. Larger boats are almost impossible to right, even by a crew of four strong men, and they must rely on the satellite radio to call for help.

By 2017, there had been over 250 abandoned attempts that necessitated rescue by ship, rescue boat or helicopter. This is an appalling statistic compiled by the ORS, who find nothing negative about this failure rate, and continue to show a complete disregard for the risks and costs borne by the rescuers. Fortunately, deaths have become rare since 2000, thanks to the latest GPS distress beacons and satellite radios, which also permit teams to quit when the going gets too tough.

 First Atlantic Row: Harbo and Samuelson in 1896

All this has its origin in 1896 when two Norwegian fishermen departed Manhattan in a wooden 18-foot dory heavily-loaded with canned food and water. They landed on the Scilly Isles in SW Britain in 55½ days. It was 70 years before anyone tried to repeat this feat. In 1966, two British soldiers, Chay Blyth and John Ridgway made this voyage in a 20-foot open dory. It took them 92 days–a surprisingly long time!…..Learn More Here

Ocean rowing went mainstream in 1997 after Sir Chay Blyth launched the first Atlantic Rowing Race from the Canary Islands to the Antilles. He signed up 36 boats in classes for one, two and four crew and the British media absolutely loved it. “The interesting thing about rowing the Atlantic is that people have only two opinions of it. Either they think it’s fantastic and would love to do it, or they think it’s bloody brainless and stupid and what’s the point,” he said at the start. “If you survive, it was great sport. If you don’t, then of course you made a mistake.”

Chay’s rower’s manifesto might read like this:

  • Sailing is for wimps–Rowing is for heroes
  • Rowing requires no nautical skills, just willpower
  • Ocean rowers rule the waves (at 1 mph?)
  • The longer the voyage–the tougher you become
  • Don’t worry about capsizes, they build character

To the media and the public, ocean rowing is now seen as an established outdoor activity that has evolved into an “extreme sport” with the necessary elements of danger and hardship to be overcome with determination, grit or the right stuff! The press cheerfully covers the teams’ hopes, applauds their success or failure, and publicizes their claims to be the first or fastest in various categories.

The philosophical basis of this and other British “character-building” experiences was established by the Outward Bound program, based on training merchant seamen to survive shipwreck during the dark days of WW II. Blyth built a sporting industry based on this ethic, which he developed into various nautical courses, all marketed as “the ultimate challenge.”

“Step Outside Your Comfort Zone”

So why would any sailor dare to criticize or demean the efforts of the hundreds of ocean rowers who have fought their way across the seven seas using only oars? Surely this must be the most challenging and ultimately most satisfying way to cross the great oceans? I beg to differ.

I spent many years writing about their exploits with a contradictory mixture of awe and confusion. The effort is so unbelievably huge and the danger so great, yet I find the so-called reasoning behind it is so vague and subjective as to be downright offensive to reasonable standards of self-preservation, and long-standing nautical and sporting traditions. Ironically, some shipwrecked sailors in liferafts and native fishermen whose engines have failed have made accidental drift voyages almost as fast as some rowers.

Going Overboard with the Work Ethic

Unlike other modern “eco” sports that use the best-available technology like whitewater kayaking, hang gliding, or kite skiing, ocean rowing steps backwards in time by insisting that the only true, sporting way to cross an ocean is by muscle power. This arbitrary rule encourages gullible participants to accept and advocate for the sporting superiority of human-powered navigation over wind power and has led to rowers spending as long as 10 months in a small boat in often futile attempts to overcome adverse winds and currents.

Today, the wind is still free, the fastest single-handed sailor has circled the world in 49 days, and giant wind turbines are producing clean electric power all over the world. To be politically consistent, the rowers’ Neo-Luddite rejection of wind power should also include opposition to all forms of wind-generated electricity–and the use of treadmills to power the workshops where the boats are built.

Let’s imagine a lone rower somewhere between the Canary Islands and the Antilles. He or she has been alone for 40-60 days when the monotony is broken by sails on the horizon. They rapidly approach and prove to sailors engaged in the bi-annual Mini Transat race on the same course. As many as 80 6.5m/21’9″ boats will pass the rower–most out of sight–but all racing along at an average speed of 8-10 knots. The leaders will reach their goal in a week or so, while the rower will be out for another 6-8 weeks!

This sounds pretty damn depressing to me. But somehow, the rower must maintain the mental wall they have built around their chosen type of travel to accept this disparity. I imagine the rowers must be so self-absorbed and sanctimonious they can ignore the thought of sail power and get straight back to work on the oars. (At least we will never see a reality series called “The Deadliest Row” about a “race” that proceeds at 1-2 mph!)

Vive La France!

Personally, I was vaguely aware that a few daredevils had undertaken to cross the Atlantic Ocean In the 1980’s under this harsh and unyielding dictate, but only the first to succeed in different categories made any notable impact in either the boating or general news. Living on the Columbia River, this bizarre sport finally arrived at my back door in 1992, 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 the small fishing port of Ilwaco, Washington……… Learn More Here

The Rules Don’t Apply

Eventually, I began to realize this was less than a triumph than a disaster averted. As for the fact that he quit before he arrived at any meaningful finish line like the No. 1 Columbia River Buoy. ( I reckon this is the first time that has ever been mentioned.) In 2005, another Frenchman, Emmanuel Coindre, left Japan also aiming for San Francisco. He was given more food supplies in mid-ocean but found himself off Coos Bay after 129 days, unable to cross the coastal current.

A whale-watching boat found him about 20 miles offshore and 40 miles northwest of the entrance to Coos Bay and towed him in. Unlike d’Aboville he roundly criticized by the armchair experts at the Ocean Rowing Society. Coindre claimed success after passing 140 degrees 40 minutes west longitude—where d’Aboville was picked up. That is an interesting and rather ingenious piece of logic. If it’s acceptable to take a tow at the finish, then why not the start–just to get you clear of the land of course?

(By 2017, a total of nine soloists had failed to make much of an impression on the 5,000-mile solo course, including two solo women. The latest was American Sonja Baumstein in 2015, who quit after a week.)

In fact, there is a total lack of rules and oversight governing so-called “world records” for row/drift voyages. The “guidelines” are manipulated to suit the immediate needs of the rower/drifters, so apparently all rowers are free to decide where they start and finish their crossings. This is necessary to the sport because 1-2 person crews have almost no ability to follow a course or reach a destination without the aid of a towboat. And the rowing world has to accept tows of 10-50 miles as “safety measures.”

This is equivalent to running the marathon and stopping at the 26-mile mark because it looks far enough. Yes, you’ve run a long way, but according to everyone else who has ever run this course, you still have 385 yards to go. That’s just the nature of the “challenge.” Is it arbitrary and unfair to expect an ocean crossing to end at an internationally recognized point like a lightship, buoy or headland? Or can you quit when the going gets too tough and claim to be “inside the 12-mile limit” or “within sight of the coastal mountains.”

At least “without assistance” has a clear meaning: not receiving physical help offshore….. except when the rowers blatantly ignore it! After the first rowers from Japan Properly reached land at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco in 2009, Chris Martin, 28, Mick Dawson’s rowing partner, said “It hasn’t been done before.” The voyage apparently is the first unaided and un-escorted trans-Pacific voyage in a rowing boat, the journalist concluded without checking.

It took 189 days—60 days more than Emmanuel Coindre—of unremitting toil and hardship to keep the boat south of the natural drift track towards Oregon. On the last weekend they ran low on food and were down to their last tea, a serious situation for two Englishmen. They sent out a message and a helicopter flown by a Napa Valley winemaker, met them 90 miles west of California and dropped two Big Macs, a couple of Bud Light beers and 150 pounds of other food…..

Flotsam Drift After the 2011 Tsunami

It wasn’t until well after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 that I discovered the next issue. Lightweight flotsam like buoys and empty barrels, started arriving near Neah Bay in NW Washington the next winter after about 250-280 days, according to well-known Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. They traveled about 5,000 miles so their average speed was, you guessed it, one knot! By then, I had begun seriously re-examining the whole concept of ocean rowing, which I began calling “row/drift” to indicate the nautical reality of the achievement.

NEWS BULLETIN–Here is the biggest recent news of an ocean rowing attempt. It made the international headlines in 2016-17.

On 13 February 2016, a 21-year-old Zimbabwean rower was washed overboard as his crew attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in record time. A wave swept Michael Johnson off his seat in the eight-man boat in the early hours. The force of the wave caused his safety line to break,” said Oceanus Rowing, the organizers of the annual event. Due to the wind and the waves, the crew was unable to row back to try to find him. The crew were more than halfway through their challenge, to row from the Canary Islands to Barbados.

The rest of the crew, who had paid to join the trip, abandoned the boat and were taken to Brazil by the ships Sea Pearl. The incident was the second occasion in two days in which rowers in a boat operated by Oceanus had been rescued in the Atlantic by a passing merchant vessel. Earlier on 14 February 2016, the four crew of the ocean rowing boat, Fire Ant, were rescued by the Liberia registered bulk carrier Rio Grita after the boat was damaged in rough seas.

The official report highlighted that commercially operated ocean rowing boats are not regulated and no minimum safety standards have been set. It found that this boat’s gunwhales were only 300mm/12” above the deck and provided “virtually no protection to the crew from the risk of falling overboard.” The boat’s design also increased the difficulty of recovering a man overboard, as the boat couldn’t be turned into strong wind.

Read this again and you will find it reveals a great deal about the culture of ocean rowing and why it demands a rigorous intellectual examination. Remarkably no official government agency appears to have complained or tried to stop these contests with their inherent and unwarranted reliance on outside help. If rowers were forced to carry insurance to pay rescue costs, the sport would soon disappear!

(Author’s Note: This is still a work-in-progress! It has proved to be by far the hardest writing assignment of my 30-year career, and has taken far too long to turn my thoughts into a readable form. But I too enjoy “the challenge” just like all the rowers! So I will continue to re-write the story as I find new ways to de-construct the wall of ignorance and denial that surrounds ocean rowing–the sport of “denial, drifting and disaster.”)

To be continued:

“Cast Adrift”–every naval officer’s nightmare becomes an extreme sport!

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