The ORS Int. is the official adjudicator of ocean rowing records for Guinness World Records

 


Oliver Hicks

By Kenneth F.Crutchlow

Chapter for  the 'Almanac  de Avanture'.

October 2007, France

I am sitting in the Corinthian Yacht Club looking across the San Francisco Bay at the magnificent view of San Francisco; the fog hangs over the City. I am here to say goodbye to Erden Eruc who was the first person from Turkey to row the Atlantic Ocean he now plans to be the first ocean rower from Turkey to row the Pacific Ocean.

I have attended a good many departures and arrivals of ocean rowers starting in 1969 when John Fairfax arrived in Hollywood Beach Florida after rowing 180 days across the Atlantic and became the first to row any ocean solo. At the time of his departure, the Times of London carried an article on its editorial page saying that surely Fairfax would be rowing off to a certain death, the author could not imagine that anyone could row the Atlantic solo, even though just 2 years earlier John Ridgway and Chay Blyth did row across the Atlantic from Cape Cod, Massachusetts (USA) to Ireland.

Two years ago in 2005 I was looking at New York City from the New Jersey side. On that occasion I was there to see Oliver Hicks of Great Britain (GB) off on what was to become his record breaking row. He was to become the first solo ocean rower to row land to land from the USA to the UK.

The common denominator about every ocean row departure that I have attended is the shear buzz of excitement; sometimes fear or at least apprehension, that grabs both the ocean rower and his loved ones.

In the case of Oliver, his family was all at the departure spot at the Atlantic Highlands Yacht Club in New Jersey, USA. I usually discourage families at the departure point for the obvious reason that at some point it dawns on family members, especially the mother, that once their son (or loved one) rows out of sight it could be the last time they see them. The record shows that since 1969, seven ocean rowers have been lost at sea. The age range is between twenty-one and sixty-five years old. And it is at the moment of departure that it can be expected that any ocean rower looks seaward and thinks about his or her possible fate.Frenchman Gerard D’Aboville summed up his feelings on the matter when he said "I did not conquer the Pacific. It let me go across."

"When I say that I value my personal freedom above all else, I also accept the other side of that coin, namely that I take full responsibility for my actions and conduct. One hundred percent…
"This voyage across the North Pacific is, to my mind, the supreme responsibility, because in putting on the line I have risked my all…
"True responsibility, the ultimate exercise of one's freedom, is to know that in the event you fail you expose yourself to the supreme penalty, death. That in itself is enough to make me feel the full weight of what I do. All the rest is so much literature."
"I have chosen the ocean as my field of confrontation, my field of battle", writes d'Aboville, "because the ocean is reality at its toughest, its most demanding. As my weapons against this awesome power, I have human values: intelligence, experience, and the stubborn will to win." Gerard d'Aboville

Of course getting to the departure spot for any ocean rower is in itself a major accomplishment. Some ocean rowers have said that getting to the start place is as hard as actually rowing an ocean.
In the case of Oliver Hicks he visited me at our London office some years ago to tell me he wanted to row from New York to the United Kingdom (UK). I immediately suggested he might first consider rowing a warmer route from the Canaries to the Caribbean. Remember the movie “The Perfect Storm?” The cold seas, huge waves and extremely rough conditions portrayed in that film paint a pretty forbidding picture of the North Atlantic. But it wasn’t enough to scare off Oliver.
He said he had his mind made up and he wanted to set the record of being first to solo that route. He was 17 at the time and after chatting for quite a while I politely suggested to Oliver that he go away, grow up, do some boating of some sort and after that he should come back and we would talk again.

Somewhat to my amazement several years later in 2004 Oliver came to visit me again to tell me he had taken the Royal Yacht Association (RYA) course of sailing instruction, had been to sea as a crew member aboard a yacht and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, has competed in the running Marathon des Sables and the world’s longest kayak race - the Yukon River Quest,.and he still had the desire to row the Atlantic from the USA to the UK.

 

Photo by Tatiana Rezva-Crutchlow
Atlantic Highlands, NJ., May 2005

 
I was very impressed with his commitment and recognized immediately that I had before me a very determined young man who was focused and sincere.

Of course it will not surprise you to know that the first sign of a real commitment from anyone who says he or she wants to row an ocean is to buy a boat.

Eventually Oliver bought an ocean rowboat. It was designed in 1997 by Phil Morrison and this model boat is known as a Challenge class ocean rowboat which has been used more than any other rowboat design, therefore it is a well proven design. The requirement once the boat is purchased is to make her sea worthy and to equip her fully for 100 days for the expected duration of the row.

Ocean rower Peter Bird once told potential ocean rowers at a boat show, “Imagine you’re going on a trip for 100 days. Stand in your bathroom and imagine you have to put everything you are going to need for your row in your bathroom…all your food, your water, and your communications. Everything you will need to survive the ocean…put it all in your bathroom, and that will give you an idea of just how much you need to make an ocean crossing. And what you end up with is a boat and supplies that weigh a ton!”

Once Oliver bought a boat he had it moved to Suffolk County where repair works were completed at a local boat yard. And it was a good job done that added to Oliver’s confidence in his boat – without such a confidence any approaching storm would keep the rower in fears for his safety. An ocean rowboat becomes a sort of cocoon for the rower, that behaves herself like a cork on the waves – up and down, - but when a wave breaks on the cabin you are experiencing the full weight and force of the ocean. These are the moments when the confidence in the boat becomes crucial.

That year 2005, NOAA hurricane forecasters predicted an above-normal hurricane season in the Atlantic. They expected 12-15 tropical storms, with 7 to 9 becoming hurricanes.. In one of the interviews prior to departure , when being asked about possibility of being caught by a hurricane, Oliver said: “I should be fine, as long as I don’t get caught in the middle of one. It might even make me go faster. The thing with a hurricane is, if you know it’s coming, you can prepare for it. Just tie everything down. I’m confident in my boat. I’ve been on the ocean in near-hurricane weather before, of course that was on a 70 foot global Challenge boat”.

Oliver worked hard to find a title sponsor. It is generally agreed that sending 2000 or so letters addressed to Marketing Director, inviting them to be any kind of sponsor (let alone a title sponsor) does not work. When we were discussing it with Oliver I told him to save 27p worth of stamp and not to send a letter to Richard Branson, for example, because this name is the first to come to mind to anybody seeking a sponsor for their adventure. The response of Oliver and the modest way he gave it to me were just amazing – he said “the thing is that Richard Branson IS sponsoring me”. What worked for Oliver was a personal introduction to Sir Richard Branson and in his case this paid off. He was sponsored by Sir Richard who is Chairman of Virgin Atlantic and his boat is aptly named, Virgin Atlantic.

Of course it goes without saying that having a title sponsor for an ocean row makes going to sea that much easier.
Safety cannot be compromised, so it is absolutely crucial that financing is not taken for granted. Trying to row an ocean on a shoe string budget could quite possibly end in disaster, and has for a number of those who attempted the crossing in the past; but – vice versa – even a dream budget will not save you from a disaster, if you yourself are not properly prepared and have not done your best to make the crossing as safe as possible. For my knowledge Oliver has gone through mass physical and psychological preparations, including spending two months alone on the ocean coast of the UK in winter 2004-2005.

On May 27, 2005 Oliver rowed out of The Atlantic Highlands Yacht Club facing a 4500 mile ocean row. During his down time out at sea, Oliver shot 17 hours of footage that was edited into a film and in 2006 was awarded the Dijon adventure film festival’s “Peter Bird Trophy for Tenacity and Perseverance”. It also won the Best Director award for extreme adventure film at the Moscow Adventure Film Festival in 2007. The film tells the story of the bad weather, which sometimes for days kept Oliver in his cabin; of the sheer pain of the blisters on his hands and at times, of his frustration of being swept back toward to America. This is to say nothing of the agony and discomfort caused by sitting 10 to 12 hours a day on his rowing slide – day by day, 120 days in a row…
“Still the storm goes on. I’m running very low on water, but I can’t use the watermaker in these conditions. I’ve taken to standing up in the boat facing astern and watching the waves as the boat drops off the back of a big one. It really does feel like being on the top of the world . . . surrounded by waves. They always look as if they are going to break over the boat, but they rarely do. There’s not much to do; I just lie in my cabin daydreaming. The storm gives me good mileage but at the expense of my sanity. It’s not such a good deal as it may seem. The Atlantic has more miles than I have marbles!”
Oliver Hicks’ route was following roughly the same path as the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Current. He was hoping these natural boosters will give him an extra push towards home.
But the progress Oliver expected to make did not change the reality of his situation. In fact, the only word to use that described his progress was SLOW.
The Gulf Stream is not a river peacefully running in the ocean, and an ocean rowboat that seats in water at not more than 20 – 25 cm, is much more influenced by wind than by current. And winds on that route are first trying to push you back West to the American coast, than – North, to Canada, and then can push you any direction but the one you need.

Besides the obvious effect of wear and tear on his body, his supplies were running out. They say boldness favours the brave and this proved true for Oliver of his rowing the Atlantic Ocean. His reward was in the form of Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Cumberland. The ship came upon him at sea and offered supplies that were enough for him to finish his journey to Scilly Isles and claim the record of being the first to row from the USA to the UK solo.

For most young men, with his life in front of him, it could have been expected that he would hang his oars on his front room wall and go about getting to a career. But instead, for Oliver, he has the dream of being the first person to row from New Zealand to New Zealand, around Antarctica.

What is missing in his life? What is missing in modern life that drives so many to pursue such fate-tempting and, to all intents, pointless ambition?
An atavistic urge to keep faith with the past, with people for whom adventure was not a diversion but survival, or a matter of faith? We might grow taller and smarter, live longer and enjoy better health and more comfort, but perhaps we also fear that, in so doing, we are somehow losing touch with the essential self. Could we spend two years or more crusading with the Lionheart? Could we take the mental strain of sailing towards what could quite possibly be the edge of the world?

Now, all the big adventures are gone. A road will shortly run past Scott’s grave in Antarctica. The Inuit drive skidoos where Sir John Franklin’s men fell in their tracks searching for the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. People are queuing to climb Everest. For me, rowing emerges from the clutter of off-the-peg adventures, the chaperoned thrills boxed and on shelves in a WH Smith near you. It also beats sailing; down there in the troughs of waves it is just your wits and your sinews to keep the stern square to the next piledriver. There’s no auto-helm to keep you on course when you feel like a kip or a latte: relax your vigil and you will pay with the heartbreak of miles of backward progress.

When Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was asked to comment on then forthcoming anniversary of the conquest of Everest, he recalled the famous words of the mountain’s most famous victim. “Because it’s there” — George Mallory’s reason for embracing the challenge that would kill him — has become a stock answer for anyone unable, or unwilling, to search for deeper truths about their motivation to pursue strange and dangerous dreams. The Dalai Lama spoke for the rest of the world — that fortunate, content majority — when he said: “For most Tibetans, ‘Because it’s there’ was a very good reason for not making the attempt.”

Somebody would shrug shoulders with Oliver’s (and in general – ocean rowers’) idea of this eccentric splashing around in a small boat in huge seas, risking his life, his slender funds and the happiness of his family — in pursuit of what?

Not money, for sure. Nobody ever got rich rowing an ocean; it’s not sexy, like yachting, with its multimillion-pound vessels and marketable, media-friendly stars. Only for the chance of scoring a first: first rowing circumnavigation around Antarctica? It is worthy to note that while it could be understood that by looking at a globe, one could say that he would be rowing around the world, but in fact, for record keeping purposes, this would not be true. For those who have sailed around the world and claimed a record for such, and are recognized by the World Speed Sailing Records Council (WSSRC), a vessel must cross the equator and go around a fixed point or a land mass in the opposing hemisphere. Of course, Oliver’s planned row means rowing the Southern Ocean.

So what drives this well educated, prospective young man to risk everything at sea?

John Fairfax (the first man to row an ocean singlehanded, Canaries-Florida, 1969; with Sylvia Cook, first to row across the Pacific, San Francisco-Australia, 1971-72) answered this kind of question from his own perspective:
I DON’T think that those of us who have felt the need to climb a mountain or row an ocean have done it, or will do it, “because it’s there” but “because we are here”. Without us mountains and oceans have no meaning by themselves: they “are there” and always will be but, for a very, very few, their presence inspires a dream of pitting our puny strength against their might, and to conquer not them but ourselves. The quest to prove worthy of an almost inconceivable challenge is our greatest reward.
To us it is not the final result that matters but how we measure up to our self-imposed task to confront and do battle with Nature at its rawest. And those who die in the attempt do not die in defeat; quite the opposite, their death is, in many ways, a triumph, the symbol of that indomitable human spirit that will break before it bends. To test what we are made of, that is our pursuit.”

Rather like climbing Everest, or trekking across one or other of the poles, rowing an ocean is no longer a unique achievement. Four men are right now at sea on three separate oceans, and four more plan solo excursions later this year in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Come November - January and the seas between La Gomera and Antigua will be fairly churning as dozens of boats set out in two transatlantic races and independent projects.

And for some once is never enough. “You find out so much about yourself, both the bad and the good, and as you get older you learn to take both. The second voyage is the natural next step, to find out more”.


May be some quotes by different oceanrowers below will give the answer for the eternal question – “Why?”

“You are under stress the whole time; everything you do means something, everything you do is important. It’s great to be in this important, vital environment. At home there is loads of food and comforts. There’s something great about being free of it all.”

“When you smash those thresholds, particularly when you are alone, it makes you realize what you’re capable of, and I thrive on that. Ocean voyages also put things in so much better perspective when you’re on dry land.”

Let me quote a page of the logbook of Tori Murden (USA), the first woman to row any ocean solo, written on September 29, 1999, that reads as follows:

My watch tells me it is nearly midnight. I cannot sleep for the wonder of it all. The stars, I wish I could show you the stars. I put up my oars for the day many hours ago.
I took them out again to row and watch the phosphorescent swirls created by the puddles my strokes leave behind.
The cyclones of sparkling light make me feel like some sorcerer's apprentice who's toying with two very large magic wands.

Awe keeps me awake this evening, not insomnia. It is more than sitting in the midst of one of nature's grand spectacles that keeps me on deck.
There are moments of great tenderness in life. Fleeting periods that must be cherished. Life is a blessing.

It is my own particular flaw that I am best able to find this gentle notion of what it means to be a human being when I'm off alone in some potentially hostile place.
It is the memory of this feeling that draws me to the mountains and to the ocean. I've had the same sense of awe and wonder in civilization too,
but here I find less noise and more clarity. As William Blake would phrase it, it is as if I can hold eternity in the palm of my hand.

If I choose not to live an "every slice wrapped" kind of life, it is because so much of life lies outside the packaging.
Out here, I may cut my tender feet. I may sweat. The sun may burn and the wind may sting, but there is richness here, beyond the wealth of nations.
Open to all of us, it is free for the taking, but one must not blink. Best to savor the moment. Best to drink in the grace and the mystery, before falling back to a life less sublime.
Tomorrow, this will be just a memory. I would not have it any other way. But, I do wish you could see the stars as I see them “.


As you shudder at the thought of your nightmare journey to and from work today, spare a thought for a young man haunted by his sense of self worth, admire and envy his spirit and wish him well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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