Chic Gites

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On the 1st March 2017 I will finally, weather permitting, set off to row the Atlantic Ocean. Now I know what some of you will be thinking - ...

Monday 1 May 2017

The Crossing in Summary & Key Events Explained.

I'm going to try to break the crossing down into a number of sections. I don't have the exact dates/days to hand so apologies if the dates aren't quite right but I think for the most part the periods will be about right.

1st Section - Departure - Days 1 to 5.
This was by far the hardest section of the row from a physical point of view. It was just brutal. Although I had sailed in a watch system across the Pacific, the physical demands of the 2 hours "on watch" were far harder than I could have ever imagined. The body is remarkably resilient but does take a little time to adapt to significant changes in routine. These 5 days were exactly that. The rowing was more physical than I expected - it's not as intense as sitting down to doing a 2 hour erg but it's no walk in the park either. You are quite physically tired after the on-watch and of course get to repeat the pleasure 2 hours later. Sleeping in a small, hard, rocking environment also takes the body significant time to get used to, and once it does manage to fall asleep, is doesn't like being woken up an hour or so later. Intense fatigue kicks in after just 24 hours or so and the temptation is very strong to simply finish a watch and go straight to bed - the problem being you still need to eat a lot of food as regularly as possible. Initially I think we all ate the minimum required and tried to maximise sleep so the calorie defecit was significant. By 3 or 4 days of this you simply felt numb. The closest analogy I can think of would be the first few days of a hard-labour prison sentence - an alien and intimidating environment combined with a brutual physical regime. You can't yet wish you weren't there because you can't even think that clearly. Shell-shocked is the only way to put it.

Day 4/5 was also notable for the sudden and significant deterioration of my "bum-bones" which left me practically unable to sit nevermind row. Thankfully Ralph produced an old inflatable cushion for me to try sitting on and a beautiful relationship was born. I still have no idea how I would have completed the row without it and despite a puncture (and quick repair) it made it all the way to Cayenne with me!

The incredible calm at dawn the morning of the storm. 

2nd Section - The Storm and Approach to the Canaries - Days 6-10.
After the first few days of fairly gentle weather, we had a remarkable day of extremes. We started the day rowing on the calmest sea I have ever seen - you simply wouldn't believe we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 12 hours later we were battling through 25 knot winds and 5-6m waves. Because both wind and waves were coming very favourably from the North East, progress remained good. Slowly though it became harder and harder to row because the sea state was so big that we eventually downed oars and let the boat drift/surf in the right direction (south west) at speeds of around 4 knots! The time off the oars was appreciated though it soon became apparent that sleeping 4 in the 2 tiny cabins was difficult. After a day of drifting towards the Canaries at high speeds, we realised that we couldn't afford to keep going at the same rate as we risked reaching the Canaries completely out of control. The risk of being shipwrecked on the shores on the islands was far too big so we had to drop the para-anchor to reduce our speed to a little over 1 knot. After 24 hours on para-anchor the weather finally subsided so we could resume rowing and plan our safe passage through the Canaries. By day 10 we were safely through to the east of Gran Canaria which would represent our last sighting of land until French Guiana. The passage through the Canaries represented mixed emotions - it was our first real milestone and seeing land was exciting but we all knew this was the last land we'd see for well over a month and I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider the "what ifs" of just stopping the crossing right there and then.

3rd Section - The Psychological Test - Days 11 to 20.
Thusfar the row had been fairly action packed - the excitement of leaving, the storm, passage through the Canaries. Then we hit both a literal and emotional lull. For some inexplicable reason having cleared Gran Canaria we then rowed directly SW into its wind shadow. I cannot to this day explain why we did this given we knew it was there but we found ourselves with no wind and no current so had to hack our way through still waters for 48 hours which was slow and frustrating. We finally realised what was going on and immediately detoured to the SE - slightly off course but in search of faster conditions. The frustration of the lost time lingered and then we had a few more days of light winds and slow progress. This was the start of by far the hardest psychological leg of the trip. The realisation hit home that although we had done well so far, that there remained well over a month still to go - another month of the same mundane 2 hours on/2 hours off survival routine. And although we were coping much better with the physical side of the routine, the brain continued to struggle to accept what was still ahead of us - no land, no excitement, no significant milestones - just around 4000km more of 2hrs on/2hrs off. I found this period very tough. In hindsight we went through pretty much the 7 steps of grieving - Shock, Pain, Anger, Depression, Upturn, Working through, Acceptance. I know it sounds dramatic but really that was the process - from "what have I done?" to "why did I ever sign up to this" to "I can't believe I have 30 more days of this" to final accepting "it is what it is". By day 20 I'd finally accepted the crossing for what it was - a long, hard, physical and mental struggle which would only end when we reached French Guiana. And once I'd accepted that, the whole crossing slipped into a much smoother phase where the routine finally became tolerable and even enjoyable at times!

4th Section - Autohelms - Days 21 to 28.
Our first autohelm packed up before we'd even left Portugal - it was no drama - we had 2 replacement arms and the first one was old and well used. We simply swapped it out, kept it "just in case" and ploughed on with our new arm. Like many of the key systems on board (autohlem, AIS (like radar), watermaker) you didn't give them much thought day to day but just assumed/hoped/prayed they'd just keep working. Around day 22 disaster struck when our second autohelm arm failed. We swapped it out for the 3rd and quickly realised by the noise that it wasn't actually a new arm at all but simply a refurbished one from somewhere else. We suddenly felt very exposed. Why did the 2nd arm fail so relatively quickly? And why did it fail in the same, inexplicable manner as the first? And how long could the 3rd arm last? We soon learned the answer to the last question - about 2 days. It was a sickening feeling when the 3rd arm failed, leaving us stranded in the mid Atlantic. Yes we could helm by hand but that required one of the 2 on-watch rowers to steer instead of rowing which would slow our progess by about 50%. So instead of around 22 days left we were looking at around 35 days more at sea. We immediately put out all the feelers through sailing forums, ocean rowing pages, friends, family - anyone who would listen really - to seek help as to why the arms kept on failing. And the response was simply overwhelming - the kindness of strangers is something quite amazing when witnessed first hand and the time and effort this small army of people were putting in to try to solve our problems was deeply touching to the 4 of us drifting around the Atlantic Ocean. In the end, with the help of Simon Chalk - an extremely experienced ocean rower - we managed to repair our 3rd arm and more importantly change the settings of the autohelm's computer to hopefully allow us to make it all the way to south america. It was a wonderful moment when the arm kicked back into life and although the threat of further failure contiuned to loom over us for the rest of the trip it was a pivotal moment in our crossing when we finally got up and running again.

5th Section - Slow Boats, Barnacles and World Records - Days 29 to 40.
Morale on board was closely matched to boat-speed and so after a few days of ever slowing boat-speed, morale reached something of a low around day 30. After a couple of dreadful watches of speeds below 2 knots, we decided to check the hull for unwanted passengers. It felt like a move born of desperation rather than anything else, but imagine our surprise when I jumped in with Clement to find a full "beard" of barnacles clinging on to Rose. It took us nearly an hour to scrape all of them off and by the time we returned on board we were pretty cold and tired. But as soon as the guys started to row we'd suddenly gained around 1.5knots of boatspeed! That afternoon we had a quick boat meeting and decided we had lapsed a little in terms of discipline and focus and vowed to do all we could to get the world record back in our sights. In truth the world record wasn't something we'd talked about at all until this point and rather than being the main target for the crossing it was something we used along the way to motivate ourselves and measure our progress. So refocussed and with boatspeed much improved we rowed on through the half way, then three quarter way milestones. Over the next few days and weeks, boat speed did continue to fluctuate in flakey currents which continued to frustrate but before we knew it we were less than 1 week out with Cayenne and the world record firmly in our sights.

6th Section - The Final Week and Arrival - Days 41 to 47.
There was a very notable rise in temperatures around 1 week out from the finish. In truth we expected this to happen a lot earlier given how far south we'd come but finally it did heat up. Days became really tough with water consumption up significantly. Nights, which had been the hardest/most boring watches thusfar suddenly became the most popular offering respite from heat of the sun. But it was still so humid at night that sleeping became difficult. It was hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago we'd been sleeping in our sleeping bags because the nights dropped so cool and now could barely lie on top of them because it was so hot. And with one week to go we also started to focus on the logistics of arriving in Cayenne for the first time. Yes you could say this was a little short-sighted from our part but at the same time, when still over a month out you didn't dare even think about arriving yet. Navigation became a serious factor for the first time - for the previous 6 weeks we could simply row roughly south west and we were in the right direction. Now we had to think about final approaches, local currents, tide tables etc. As the fine tuning began we couldn't understand how we were rowing west/north west yet still going south. Of course we factored in currents, wind which might cause us to drift but then the computer was telling us we were sailing above 270 degrees yet our latitude continued to decrease we finally realised that our compass must have been mis-calibrated. So we basically ignored all our onboard navigation equipement except for the GPS readout (which we independently verified so knew was working). We had to keep the Latitude number stable and watch the longitude continue to go west - as long as we did that we'd get there eventually. Boat speed continued to increase dramatically in the last week as we finally found the currents we'd been looking for and the miles just fell away. Pretty soon we were just a couple of days out and planning arrival times to the nearest hour. Indeed our progress was so fast that we spent the last night drifting without rowing in an attempt to hit the river to Cayenne in time to avoid the outcoming tide (which was too strong to row against). And then it was suddenly the last morning on board and we could finally look forward to our arrival and everything we'd been looking forward to for the last 7 weeks. The job was done, the crossing was complete.

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