Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Crossing

The Atlantic Challenge is a race in the narrowest sense of the word. Yes, it has both starting and finish lines, and they time how long it takes to get between the two. However, when the distance is measured in thousands of miles and the time in weeks, you're not dealing with your garden variety dash. But that's the race that Phil Theodore and his partner Daley Ervin signed up for: a contest to cross 3000 miles of ocean on their own, a race subtitled, "The World's Toughest Row." And so on December 20, 2015, they joined 25 other teams of singles, pairs and foursomes as the horn sounded, and they pushed off from the Canary Islands.

Phil said within an hour or two they were basically alone. Their boat, while high-tech with solar panels, navigation gear and transponders, was only 21 feet long. It was just big enough for the two of them, with small enclosed compartments forward and aft to hold food and the like. The race rules said they had to carry enough supplies and equipment to ensure their safety, but no auxiliary propulsion system. It was them and them alone. And so they named their boat "Hope" and gave it the number 38, for the number of days they hoped it would take them to make the crossing.

Their routine was physically wearying and mind numbing: 2 hours on, 2 hours off, all day, every day. Phil said their bodies took a beating, with pressure sores forming on their butts and hands, which were made all the more painful by the constant exposure to salt water. As for his mind, he said he listened to music and books on tape to stay focused. When they weren't rowing they did maintenance, posted updates to their web site, ate to keep up their strength, and tried to get some sleep.

The days of monotony were broken here and there by moments of excitement. "I was taking a 15-minute power nap on day 19 when Daley started yelling at me to get on deck immediately," he wrote in their online blog. "He was screaming we're being attacked by a shark." Turned out a 7-foot long visitor had taken an interest in their bright orange rudder. "There is a gaff on board so I handed it to Daley, and he climbed up on the back solar panel of the boat to lean over and try to shoo it away." Eventually the shark left. Thereafter they noted some dorados chasing the boat, and realized that the fish were probably attracted to barnacles on their hull. But barnacles not only attracted fish, they created friction which slowed them down. The only solution was to jump overboard and scrape them off. Daley had already done it once, so it was Phil's turn. As for the shark, they had some repellant. But would it work? He wrote, "We have this snake oil and are hoping that it does the trick. If not, Daley will let you all know."

If it wasn't sharks, it was weather. When the water was smooth, it was a steady glide. Other times, not so much: "One night the sea changed to a thick rolling giant piece of taffy that we had to slog through. It was like rowing though oatmeal." And then there was Alex. The race is held at that time of year because the weather patterns are usually quiet. But not this time. Alex turned out to be one of earliest hurricanes on record. It meant three days of battening the hatches and hanging on, as they rode out 30 foot seas. "It's hard to visualize," he told me, "but look up at a three story building, and imagine going up and down that day and night for 72 hours."

But they were nothing if not determined. And so 45 days after they left, they rowed into Antigua, as horns blew and Phil's parents and wife waved from the shore. Phil had dropped 30 pounds and had a full beard: the pictures of him then are hardly recognizable from the way he looks today. But they had made it, coming in 7th overall and setting a new US record. They also raised over $1 million for food banks and nutrition awareness with their Team Beyond foundation. And so considering their accomplishment, they can be forgiven if their first meal back on land was cheeseburgers and beer.


Marc Wollin of Bedford gets seasick. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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