156. The Dorney Dash 10 km – and how to row the North Atlantic

eton-college-rowing-centre-dorney-england.jpgVous n’êtes pas loin.

‘Not far to go now,’ cried the marshall in the Dorney Dash 10 km last month, a pleasant, friendly run beside the rowing lake – the sparkling new facility where oarsmen, kayakers and canoeists will race for their London Olympic golds, five years from now.

It was just before the halfway mark, beside the lavish Eton College boathouse with its sleek new carbon shells, that we spotted the strangely lumbering-looking rowing boat, parked up incongruously in an empty field. A boat built for a racecourse far longer than this one.

Two kilometres were left to run as we rounded the final turn towards that voice. Kindly thoughts, warmly offered, despite the lashing rain – the sentiments of so many spectators at a running race, yet so often the words you don’t want to hear.

Twentytwo miles down in a marathon, and ‘only’ four more to go ? Just forget the idea – because the physical and mental effort required for that short distance will be far greater than for all the miles which went before.

So much, and so little, I know of the balance between motivation and suffering. I think back to the tiny boat laid up beside the course, and try to imagine hearing the same encouragement, somewhere just east of the Azores, with nearly 2 000 miles behind, and ‘only’ 600 miles of the North Atlantic still in front.

Not far to go now.

John Ridgway and Chay Blyth were more than pleased to hear those words from the skipper of the French tuna boat Paul et Virginie, way out in the open ocean during the summer of 1966. Leaving Orleans in Massachusetts over two months before, they were battered by Hurricane Alma off Cape Cod, and lost many of their rations during a tropical storm which followed it. Rising and potentially fatal hunger was only lifted by a chance meeting with a friendly oil tanker, which supplied a cooked breakfast, as well as food and fruit.

A few days later, those few words in French provided their first real belief that they might make it, after all. Not because there really was ‘not far to go’ – six hundred miles is a terribly long way to row an open boat, in anybody’s language – but because they had come so far already. Three weeks of terror and torture left – yet three-quarters of an ocean now behind them, successfully if perilously navigated through the worst summer weather the Atlantic had seen for years.

a-fighting-chance-1967.jpgVous n’êtes pas loin.

That’s the line I most remember from A Fighting Chance, the marvellous book which Ridgway and Blyth wrote about the adventure. And awe at the courage and heroism of their endeavour has stayed with me, ever since.

It’s difficult to imagine now, in these days of satellite communications, GPS navigation and high-tech water desalinators, just how hard that voyage really was.

Theirs was a journey carved out of the tumultuous seas and westerlies of the North Atlantic, a far cry from the tradewind-blown route of the modern Atlantic Rowing Race which runs every two years or so, from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the West Indies.

Before they left America, the US Coastguard had helpfully announced that Ridgway and Blyth faced a 95% chance of failure (and almost certain death).

ocean-rowers-lost-at-sea-cliffs-kilkee-ireland-oceanrowingcom.jpgMaybe that wasn’t far wrong. Two other rowers, David Johnstone and John Hoare, attempted the crossing that year, unseen beside them across vast swathes of ocean.

Hoare and Johnstone struggled through fourteen storms and a hurricane for over a hundred days, but their tiny boat Puffin was overwhelmed by Hurricane Faith on 3rd September, their travails recorded by the journal found inside the empty, upturned boat recovered off the Canadian coast a month later.

Ridgway and Blyth were luckier against tremendous odds. But only just.

Sighting land on the ninetysecond day out of Cape Cod, the crew of English Rose III succeeded on the very day that Hoare and Johnstone perished. And even in their final hour of glory, they faced death on a hostile and unknown shore.

“The winds built up up till it was gale force … We can’t be far away now … I was rowing about 0900 hours; John was making breakfast. He stood up. ‘Land’ he said. I wouldn’t look. ‘I’ll wait till we get closer’, I said. The weather closed in then. We worked out it could only be the Aran Islands. The rain started to pour down. Both oars came out. We had approximately nine hours of daylight left. The seas were getting bigger all the time. About 1400 hours we could make out the cliffs. I started preparing the packs for an emergency landing. We were both singing now. I believe we hadn’t come 3,000 miles to find death on a cliff.”

“Perhaps this was the single most dramatic day of my life … After months of glare off the sea, the memory of the vivid green grass will stay with me forever. With only the slightest difference in our landfall, wind and tide would have dashed us onto the rocks. I remember watching the spray flying upward in the storm, hundreds of feet up and over the tops of the cliffs.”

“How can I express how plain lucky we were? There was no way we could stop the wind driving us at the islands; straining at all four oars we simply had to keep the bows pointing into the wind, trying to guide the boat into the narrow channel which led to safety.”

“At dusk we landed at the little Irish village of Inishmore after rowing across the Atlantic in a tiny boat only twenty feet long and five feet wide. We couldn’t have made it by night: what a difference a few hours made in a 92-day voyage.”

ridgway-blyth-aboard-english-rose-iii-summer-1966.jpgWhat a difference indeed – the lifeline to an Irish welcome on the quayside, followed by long lives packed with more adventures ever since.

I devoured that story as a boy, reading it in one weekend. Much later, six hours were enough for The Crossing, the diary of James Cracknell and Ben Fogle’s attempt on the Atlantic in 2005.

the-crossing-cracknell-fogle-2006.jpgTheirs was a completely different tale, from an era with different equipment and perspectives. In forty years, the days of military discipline and a handwritten journal recounting amateur pluck and desperate religious bargains had gone, replaced by shambolic preparations and tearful video diaries for TV replay in the documentary to follow.

Yet whilst the background to those journeys may have been completely different, the fundamental ingredients remained the same – one small boat, four oars and two desperately driven men, risking their lives in a race against good sense and the wrath of an ocean. Even the advantage of having an Olympic gold medallist aboard in Cracknell was offset – against the inexperience of his partner, who had scarcely rowed before.

And whilst Ridgway and Blyth famously fell out after the great adventure was over, so Cracknell and Fogle fought their own mental battles far out to sea, struggling to match unequal visions of uncompromising performance and sheer for-the-hell-of-it adventure. Unlikely as it seemed, all this time since Ridgway and Blyth, Fogle and Cracknell’s adventure was still a hugely inspirational read.

* * * * *

Before we know it, our race is almost run. Sweder and I splash along with Andy, who is entering another decade today. We take him on a crossing, of sorts, through an hour of exertion and pelting rain beside this modern, manufactured Field of Dreams where rowing history will soon be made. It’s a memorable outing, with champagne and Guinness to mark the day.

And there’s another moment which I’ll remember from this run. The fleeting glimpse of a tiny white boat, temporarily forgotten and abandoned in a field.

That boat ? The Spirit of EDF Energy – Cracknell and Fogle’s craft, resting up quietly beside the lake.

ridgway-blyth-plaque-orleans-mass-usa-oceanrowingcom.jpgShe’s taken on a race much harder than any which this place will see – across that much wilder pond, where a thousand kilometres is ‘not that far’.

It may be just another soggy summer’s day in Berkshire, and yet this morning reminds me again – I’ll thank those crazy rowers for inspiration today, and for many years to come.

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64. Olympic laurels – Athens 2004
98. Off the shoulder of Orion – Costa de la Luz
81. Helicopter Half Marathon – offshore survival


2 responses to “156. The Dorney Dash 10 km – and how to row the North Atlantic

  1. Yes, well – you see, this is why I’m an armchair adventurer, Roads. I mean, the thought of being alone on the open sea fills me with terror…it’s bad enough getting out of my depth when I’m at the seaside…why do people do such things? Is it genetic, this desire to put one’s life at risk like that? Perhaps not – my 16 year old daughter has just been on a parachute jumping course and she certainly didn’t get that irrational urge to throw herself out of a plane from ME!

    I suppose it stems from a desire to conquer – or perhaps it’s an addiction to the adrenelin that fear produces. Either way, I’m quite happy to let others do it and then read about it…while I cultivate my own addiction to – er – cheese…:-)

  2. Many thanks as ever, Gigi. Fortunately, France is the best possible place to become addicted to cheese.

    I tend to agree with you on the risks of wild adventure, in that I don’t intend to row across the Atlantic myself, any time soon.

    And yet, I find Ridgway and Blyth’s story immensely inspirational, in a way which is hard to explain. I am in awe of their courage, their immense effort, and their humility in achieving their goal and sharing their tale with others.

    Fundamentally, I think, it’s about endeavour. In taking on a big challenge, we have to recognise that there is always risk. Perhaps that’s exactly what makes it worth succeeding.

    Now I’m not suggesting that we go and risk our lives tomorrow like those Atlantic rowers did. But I think that it is worth setting out some goals which we want to achieve, and then trying to achieve them, even if it is only one step (or oar-stroke) at a time.

    We may not succeed, but we gain so much simply by striving to achieve.

    I worked in a huge iron mine in the outback of Australia one summer. That’s another story, but I do remember there was a government public health campaign in the country then, which struck a chord and has stayed with me, ever since.

    It said simply: ‘Life. Be in it.’

    I’m not sure that adrenaline (or even just risk) is always a pre-requisite for achievement. But a certain degree of commitment most definitely is.

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