And 856,000 Choruses of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" Later ...

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1997

And 856,000 Choruses of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" Later ...

An armada of fearless oarsmen sets out on a 3,000-mile transatlantic free-for-all
By Bill Donahue

November is shaping up to be an unpleasant month for Mary Louise Graff. "We're going to get Maytagged," concedes the former South Carolina chef, of her brash attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean. "We'll be tossed around like clothes in a washer and, yeah, we'll get seasick. And then there'll be the dehydration factor."

Of her own volition, the 34-year-old Graff — until recently a staunch landlubber — has just begun what may be the most grueling sporting event ever invented, a 3,000-mile affair called the Atlantic Rowing Race. A dubious decision, perhaps, given that Graff freely admits that her previous nautical experience consists of "deep-sea fishing and swimming at the beach in Charleston." Along with duos from everywhere from New Zealand to Norway, including more than 20 pairs of Britons, Graff — paired with elite Kentucky rower Victoria Murden, a high-school pal — left Spain's Canary Islands on October 12 en route to Barbados. Trailed by a single emergency-support vessel in identical 24-foot boats supplied by race organizer Sir Chay Blyth — and loaded down with provisions for three months — the teams will have to overcome 30-foot swells, tropical humidity, and forceful currents that will inevitably sweep them far off course. Hurricanes are possible, and there's also the likelihood that teammates will quarrel, endangering themselves by, as Blyth puts it, "getting all uppity and throwing Teddy in the corner."

Rowers first conquered the Atlantic in 1896, but only five of the 16 parties that have attempted the passage since have made it; five people have died trying. "I can't think of anything more difficult than this race," pronounces Kenneth Crutchlow, executive director of the England-based Ocean Rowing Society. "It should be hell."

Not that it can be dismissed as a mere sadists' holiday. After all, several world-class oarsmen have willingly joined the fray. Consider 1996 Olympian Rob Hamill of New Zealand, or prerace favorites Ian Blandin and Robert Cassin of England, who've perennially dominated offshore rowing's most celebrated event, the 16-mile Sark-to-Jersey. Blandin and Cassin underwent couples counseling all summer to prevent midrace squabbling. Another highly regarded pair, British army captains Martin Bellamy and Mark Mortimer, took a year's leave to train. Many competitors are predicting that they'll complete the crossing in 60 days. While this may be a bit optimistic, Blyth — who in 1971 became the first person to sail around the world "backward," or east-to-west against the prevailing winds, and has himself rowed across the Atlantic — says he's certain that the current pairs record of 73 days will fall. "That is a foregone conclusion," he crisply asserts.

Crutchlow begs to differ, pointing out that Blyth's boat design is wider and bulkier than the crafts used in recent crossings. "And none of the people I've talked to seem to be factoring in weather. Sometimes you simply can't move. [The late] Peter Byrd, crossing the Pacific last year, endured a month in which he could only make three miles' progress." Crutchlow insists that, to row an average of 40 miles a day, a team will need to keep its boat in constant motion. That has never been done.

News which shocks Louise Graff. "It hasn't?" she asks. "Well, we're going to change that." She and Murden, who competed in single sculls at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials, are trying to row 24 hours a day, alternating in four-hour shifts, and hope to finish in 63 days. "Our lack of ocean experience won't be a major factor," she reasons blithely. "A lot of it is just gutting it out, and we'll do that." And what awaits her should she indeed reach Barbados on schedule? "Well, I'm sure there there'll be a lot of drinking to get out of the way first," she says. "But I'll be looking forward to a long shower and Rip van Winkle-type sleep."

Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti

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