Ocean Rowing–an Exercise in Futility……

Note–this essay contains facts and personal opinions; it may cause offense!

Crossing an ocean in a small boat with only oars for propulsion is probably the hardest voluntary sporting task anyone can undertake. It demands endless hours of unremitting, monotonous toil on an unforgiving ocean at a painfully slow pace–-especially for singlehanders. They are lucky to average one knot (1.15 mph / 1.85 kph), which means it will take them about 100 days to cross from the Canary Islands to the Antilles, or California to Hawaii, even though both routes benefit from strong tradewinds that push the boats on their way night and day.

Row or Blow?

In fact, all the popular rowing routes in the tropics are aided by tradewinds, and this is not coincidental. Ever since Columbus, sailing ships have followed these routes where the wind is blowing from astern most of the time, hence their name. So even without sails, the rowboats still catch the wind. Depending on the wind speed and direction, a fair breeze will push the rowboat along easily at 1-2 knots.

Yes, so-called ocean rowers are very likely to DRIFT further than they ROW. This inconvenient truth challenges the essential nature of the sport, but is never mentioned by the rowers, the race promoters or the media. Also, it is actually very hard to row in a heavily-laden boat, especially in large waves because the boat rolls and the oars often pop out of the water.

Nonetheless, so-called “ocean rowing” is now so popular that it seems there is always at least one attempt under way somewhere, and the races attract many teams. Publicized by a dreadnought of Public Relations on every kind of modern media, and a complete lack of transparency, this new extreme sport has succeeded in persuading novices to pay large sums of money for the privilege of becoming a sporting “galley slave” in an organized ocean rowing race. Once clear of the land, these crews literallyCast their fate to the winds,” since they have very little control over the direction of the boat.

The first adventurers who attempted “human-powered” ocean crossings in the 1960’s and 70’s could not possibly have imagined how this this bizarre, painful and occasionally deadly stunt would be turned into a “sport” with whole fleets of boats. This is justified as a form of character training, a sporting challenge, or a charitable fund raiser. Despite the isolation, risk and disregard for the facts (or perhaps because of it) over 700 rowboats have attempted to cross an ocean since the 1980’s–and over one third of them have quit far from land and expected to be rescued.

Any sailor, fisherman or seaman can see all kinds of problems with this Quixotic activity, but the most important is the one I have already alluded to: the painfully slow speed of solo rowers and the appalling lack of stability of the boats, which can easily result in a capsize once, twice or up to 12 times a day. (That record is held by first US woman ……

Law of the Sea

Over 250 rowing crews have switched on their distress beacons for reasons ranging from trivial to life-threatening, effectively demanding to be rescued by the closest vessel. The long-standing tradition of navigation demands that the nearest vessel must change course to rescue these hapless adventure seekers. This could be a giant container ship, naval vessel, fishing boat, yacht etc.

Apart from Coast Guard vessels, which are rarely seen on the open sea, large ships with high sides have great difficulty picking people up from the water. They have to improvise gear like nets, rope ladders and thrown lines to get shipwrecked mariners up on deck. The rowers all appear to be blissfully unaware that the same tradition that rescues them also expects anyone attempting to cross an ocean will depart in a seaworthy craft that can navigate in bad weather, and is as self-sufficient as possible.

(It is virtually impossible for a rowboat to have those qualities.)

Yet no boating, shipping or rescue organization has ever publicly challenged this bizarre and dangerous sport that has managed to capture the public imagination in the UK and France without a single dissenting voice being heard. The myth of the “gallant ocean rower defying overwhelming odds” certainly appeals to the public, but depends on the unquestioning support of the media as rowers seek ever longer and more difficult routes to “conquer.” 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.” They totally fail to make any attempt to explain the downside to this rowing mania,

A Second Opinion

They could easily ask any competent seaman or seawoman 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.” Some “salty” characters with negative comments about ocean rowing/drifting 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.

As you have already guessed, I would be more than happy to offer my humble opinion to the media and say something like: “This is a futile, meaningless, and desperately sad way to cross an ocean.” I would gladly point out that most or all of the rowers who swear never to use the wind or fossil fuel to aid their pathetic rowing effort are happy to have a small propeller charging their many electrical devices, and would agree that wind power turning giant wind turbines is the best way to combat global warming. To be consistent, their very limited and temporary rejection of wind power when afloat should also apply to life on shore. For a start, they could power their homes electrical needs with a treadmill!

A Giant Step Back

Why be so damned critical, you ask? Why not let them have an adventure using only human power? How can I accuse well over a thousand so-called ocean rowers of pursuing a goal that is utterly futile? (Definition: “Totally pointless, achieves no useful end or goal.”) Surely rowing an ocean is an admirable sporting goal and we should respect these adventurers for their determination and achievements.

I agree it all sounds wonderful, but may I ask one very obvious question: WHAT’S THE POINT? I’ve interviewed five successful rowers in person, spent too much time reading their stories about the “Joy of Rowing” and listening to their interviews and TED talks online–all in a vain attempt to find out why. (Don’t take my word for this! Look again at the videos, news articles, TED Talks etc.)

Here are the best reasons I’ve found:

  • 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

The problem I have with this list is that they are all cliches that can equally be applied to literally any long journey by foot, ski, bicycle, horse, kayak etc. Indeed, the list applies equally well to any number of less newsworthy everyday challenges like raising children, surviving cancer, or joining the Marines. Nowhere is there even a mention of pleasure or satisfaction of travel or motion—probably because they are going slower than a long-distance swimmer! Or in feeling a connection with the boat or the elements–just the constant effort and hardship.

In fact, the recent “record breakers” on the 2018 Atlantic tradewind race described their daily routine very succinctly as: “Eat-Sleep-Row” and then repeat, and had very little to add to that. Hey, that sounds like fun, don’t you want to have go too? And as for the new record, a full week faster than the previous time, the media should have pointed out this was the equivalent of running a three-minute mile! In a more traditional athletic endeavor we would be asking what kind of drugs they were taking?

Of course it wasn’t their diet or their training, the answer is much simpler: it was all down to the weather. But this simple fact has been concealed from the public since the very first crossings–and now it is considered irrelevant and far too skeptical. This is in contrast to other high-risk sponsored outdoor sports like the “Everest Industry” where negative reports on the number of deaths, the employment of poor Sherpa porters, and the crowds on the summit have caused a steady stream of criticism.

Here’s one reason why media people can overlook these issues: successful rowers may be rewarded with honors, fame, lectures and book contracts. There are at least 25 books on the subject in print, all giving glowing accounts of the joys of rowing for up to 360 days non-stop without the annoying distraction of touching land. They don’t spend much space talking about the seasickness, monotony, cramped cabins, sleep deprivation, dehydrated food, blistered hands, sunburn, or sore bottoms either. No mention of the satisfaction of feeling your craft rolling along in the tradewinds and ticking off the miles.

On the trans-Pacific routes, why not stop and explore the tropical islands, meet people from different cultures—all the wonderful reasons why people sail across oceans. Is it because that would spoil the image of desperate rowers slogging away under the hot sun day after day after day? It certainly seems that these self-imposed rules are intended just to make the experience harder. Stopping at tropic islands for food, water or just a stroll on the beach shows a lack of commitment and is viewed as very poor form. The rowers seem to have no more freedom of action than a seaman who  been press-ganged.

Here are four more outdoor sports where one can also apply the rower’s ethic of — “the harder the better:”

  • polar trekking–ban kites and skis, walking only
  • bike tours–ban gears, single-speed only
  • horse packing—no riding, walking only
  • hunting—no bows, spears only

Of course they all sound ridiculous and contrived, but is banning sails any different?

Yes–Sailing, is fairly simple and incredibly rewarding. Put a mast and simple rig 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. This is how all the famous lifeboat voyages were completed–by sail not oar.

 Mutiny on the Bounty 1789

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the mutiny on HMS Bounty, it was the infamous Captain Bligh who saved his 18 loyal crew when they were cast adrift in the South Pacific. Bligh took command of their 23′ lifeboat and navigated 4,400 miles to safety in the Dutch East Indies in 40 days. If you think they rowed any of that distance, you are sadly mistaken. Lifeboats were always equipped with sails, and the crew sailed in the trade winds all the way.

Loss of Shackleton’s Ship Endurance 1916

Shackleton’s celebrated voyage to save the shipwrecked crew of the Endurance was undertaken in a lifeboat with an improvised canvas deck cover. The crew of six voyaged from Elephant Island to South Georgia–a distance of 800 nautical miles through icy and stormy waters. They are still admired for their incredible skill and grit–in sailing, of course. Without the stout canvas sails, the trip would never have been undertaken.

(Note that the 1983 SOLAS rule banned the traditional open lifeboat propelled by oars as being close to useless and required all lifeboats on passenger ships to be modern totally enclosed, self-righting, and equipped with an engine.)

So now I have outlined the problem as I see it. There is an alternative to rowing that’s ecological, silent, incredibly efficient, historically appropriate, and proven to develop character. Sail training on traditionally-rigged ships is 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. On a rowboat you learn one skill: how to row day after day after day. So why abandon the historical craft and tradition of sailing that will convey you across the oceans with moderate effort–bar occasional and sometimes demanding handling of the sails? Presumably because it is too easy, so must never be mentioned in connection with ocean rowing.

Yes, the wind 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 not paddle. It seems self evident to me that there is a huge dis-connect here- thousands of years of history and exploration v. ultra endurance sports invented in the 1980’s.

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

  • Wind and current are far stronger than any solo rower
  • Rowboats capsize easily and may never recover
  • Rowers often demand rescue by passing ships
  • Averaging 1 mph is pathetic and intolerably slow
  • Sailing is challenging, satisfying, sporting and fun!

(So I have decided to put my own thoughts online to provide a small counter current to the sea of hype and propaganda surrounding this deceptive, self-absorbed, and masochistic activity.)

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NB What follows still needs a little more editing.

  • Harbo & Samuelson–a closer look…

  • Flotsam from Japanese Tsunami of 2011

  • Rules or lack of them for rowing oceans

  • Comparison with yacht racing ethics

  • Lack of stability/safety of un-ballasted rowboats

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

  • 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.

  • It’s an indisputable fact that solo rowers are lucky to average 1 mph—half as fast as a marathon swimmer. Rowboats, especially with one crew, drift under the influence of wind and current much faster than they are actually rowed. (Many accidental drift voyages and the movement of lightweight flotsam conclusively demonstrates this.) 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.

  • In fact, wind direction and strength are more important to ocean rowers than to sailors, and current is also a major factor.

  •  “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 boat down. Rowboats could also be built to be self-righting with a raised buoyant chamber, but this is considered too cautious and “unsporting.”

  •  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. There were at least six fatalities up to 2000 all caused by capsize. That was a death rate of about one in nine–according to the Ocean Rowing Society (ORS)–an organization that has never taken an iota of responsibility for the disasters it has encouraged.

  •  By 2018, there had been over 250 abandoned attempts that necessitated rescue by ship, rescue boat or helicopter. This is an appalling statistic also 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.

  • 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 a 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 found 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.

  • 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 brute force. This arbitrary rule encourages gullible participants to accept and advocate for the sporting superiority of human-powered rowing over leg-power and 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.

  • 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!)

  • I now believe that voluntarily taking on the role of galley slave or  shipwreck survivor in order to perform 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 marathon rowing is somehow good for one’s character, which also demands an attitude of total self-deception and denial.

  • Vive La France!

  • Personally, I was vaguely aware that a few daredevils had tried 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. He was a 1,000 miles off course and a month or more late,  and abandoned the journey long before he arrived at any meaningful finish line like the No. 1 Columbia River Buoy or the jetties.  In 2005, another Frenchman, Emmanuel Coindre, left Japan also aiming for San Francisco. He was given more food supplies in mid-ocean, then 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 was 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?

  • 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 come to accept that tows of 10-50 miles to the finishing line are just “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” etc.

  • 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…..

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

  •  Flotsam Drift After the 2011 Tsunami

  • It wasn’t until well after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 that I discovered that 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. These floaters often drifted in circles as 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. Ironically, there have been reports in the last few years of native fishermen in the South Pacific whose engines have failed, forcing them into accidental drift voyages as far and fast as some rowers.

  • 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–I call it the “3D sport“– for  drifting, denial, and disaster…..

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One Response to Ocean Rowing–an Exercise in Futility……

  1. Steve-O says:

    I agree with this article. As a long-time ocean racer, I’m keeping my mouth zipped as my neighbor’s son partakes in the Talisker Whisky Ocean Challenge, rowing WSW-ward to to Antiqua. I try to keep saying nice things, but come on — the kid is magically rowing 90-100 miles a day. A quick look tells you that the trade winds are blowing from the ENE at about 20-40 knots, day in/day out. The simple fact is that the course has been set up so that the rowers simply get blown straight to the finish. No one could truly row across an ocean without this kind of tailwind. It would take the better part of a year to cross the narrowest part of the Atlantic that way. It really is more than a little ridiculous.

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