It had been dubbed one of the toughest challenges on the planet - more people have been in space than have rowed the Atlantic - but even so, contestants in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge that began in early December are facing a particularly gruelling time this year. Eleven metre high waves, a sunk boat, survival rations for some and broken oars for others; high winds have tested all seventeen teams. Some have been forced to quit. Race safety officer Simon Chalk says that this year was especially tough because there had been no break in the weather.
The race began early December with teams participating from all over the world. The challenge has been an event since 1997, and involves amateur rowers attempting to race 2,900 miles in tiny boats from La Gomera, Tenerife, to Port St Charles, Barbados. "Rowers have to cope with blisters, salt rashes, sleep deprivation and rowing in two-hour shifts around the clock for weeks on end," the organisers say. Boats are just seven metres long and two metres wide with only a small cabin for protection. To make things worse, no boat can take any assistance during the crossing- not even food or water.
December, as sailors well know, is a particularly bad time for storms in the Atlantic. Rowing 3,000 miles from the Canaries to the Barbados threatened by near gale force winds and high seas is bad enough. This year has seen higher than usual drama, though; with the race still incomplete, a boat has already capsized, a cruise ship has rescued survivors and a bunch of war veterans including amputees are awaiting help after running out of water. Paradoxically, because of fierce following winds, the winners may break the race record- the leader of the race now is a solo rower Andrew Brown, a 26 year old, who is about 500 miles from the finish line. If he makes it on present estimates a week from today, he will break the 2004 solo record set by Frenchman Emmanuel Coindre by almost three days.
Amazingly, all the crew are amateurs, although they had to pass a fitness test and have their boat okayed by the organisers. Six of the teams that started have dropped out, three are awaiting assistance of some kind (that will disqualify them), leaving just eight still in the running. Amongst the unlucky ones are two 23-year-old men whose boat capsized in a huge wave and sank on December 13 and who were later rescued by the cruise vessel 'Crystal Serenity.'
Two other contestants had all six of their carbon fibre oars snap off in eleven metre waves on December 30; they could do nothing except shut themselves up in their cabin, even surviving a 360 degree capsize there before a race-assisting vessel, the Aurora, arrived towing another boat that had to drop out of the race with equipment failure. Aurora will then go to the assistance- 800 miles away- of a boat of war veteran rowers who are running out of water, their desalination equipment having broken down.
Amongst all this mayhem, Simon Chalk remains upbeat. “In the past (races) there have been storms, but they blew through. This time we have had continuous high wind, but everyone will get across safely. And it’s meant to be the world’s toughest rowing race.”
There seems to be little doubt about that.