Rowing: Mad dash across the Atlantic

Andrew Longmore meets the ocean rovers taking on a 70-day rowing race
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The Independent Online
"We rowed for 12 hours during the day. We just plodded and plodded in the hot sun. We were making progress, but at what a cost. We were both shattered, and when the night came we continued rowing together...I switched on our radio. They were playing Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night".

John Ridgway, who rowed the Atlantic with Chay Blyth in 1966.

The man with the silver hair and the knowing smile surveyed the expanse of sunlit water and watched the boat as fragile as a toy in the bathtub. "Today, they will begin to find out how brave they are," Robin Culpan mused as the two oarsmen eased the 24-foot craft out through the entrance of the marina and into open water for the first time. It was the day of the launch, all hope and champagne; the reality was six months distant. But Culpan already had an idea. He built the boat in which Tim Welford and Wayne Callaghan will start the inaugural Atlantic Rowing Challenge this morning.

The original kit consisted of 28 sheets of thumbnail-thick plywood and a set of instructions familiar to all schoolboy model-makers. Glue outer edge D to inner panel F. Even Callaghan, the best coastal rower in the country, had expected something a little more solid for his 2,900-mile journey into the unknown. Some 70 days and nights bobbing up and down on the Atlantic with a cold grave inches away and two sets of oars for propulsion. "Bravery," he says slowly as if hearing the word for the first time. "A lot of people have said: 'You're a braver man than I am'. But I don't look at it like that. It's a challenge and I'm always looking to do something different."

This is different, another daredevil adventure brought to you by Sir Chay Blyth, whose personal crusade it is to persuade us to do things as daft as he once did. At a cost, of course. Each of the 30 crews on the start line in Tenerife has paid pounds 30,000 for the privilege of heaving a million strokes and looking at a slowly receding horizon for two and a half months. It is an expensive way to earn a line in seafaring history. Only 23 crews have rowed the Atlantic since Georg Harboe and Gabriel Samuelson first did so in 1896.

Callaghan and Welford. The names fit well, like a New York cop series. The more pertinent question is whether they will still be partners when their Ryvita-sponsored bright red boat, appropriately named Crackers, crosses the finishing line in Barbados at Christmas. It is not just the boat which suffers stress along the way. Blyth and Ridgway spent 96 days in their rolling prison and, on landing, never spoke to each other again.

An offbeat sense of humour and a shared sense of restlessness will be enough common ground for survival, the pair hope. Welford, small and blond, is a serial pinball. His party trick is to catch a spider and put it in his mouth. When the audience thinks he is kidding, he opens his mouth and allows the spider to scuttle out. The criminal psychologist summoned to analyse him gave up in despair. "Absolutely barking, he is," admits Callaghan. "I mean, he's on his best behaviour today because there are sponsors about. Usually, he's totally out of order."

Even the Marines have realised that Corporal Welford's eccentricity is uncontainable. Two years ago, he was a member of the Icelandic 500 expedition, the first supported winter ski crossing of Iceland. A few days after his return he was kicking his heels and wondering what to do for an encore. A chance meeting with Callaghan, an engineer and a fellow member of the Poole Rowing Club, answered the question. "As soon as he spoke to me about a rowing race across the Atlantic I was up for it," he recalls. "If I hadn't been doing this, I'd be heading off for Antarctica." The only problem was that Welford's experience of life on the ocean wave extended no further than three seasons in the Poole RC third IV.

"He's an appalling rower," Callaghan says, his wicked impersonation emphasising the point. "He's a half decent sculler now because I've taught him. But he's determined, very experienced and a very good organiser." In a long summer of preparation around their boyhood haunts in Poole and out in the Channel, the duties have been naturally divided. Rowing is the province of Callaghan, the national coastal champion. Nutrition (6,000 calories a day) and navigation are down to Welford. Jokes are shared. Their humour is pitiless, but a vital source of strength when times are rough. Their boat number is 16. Cue the well-worn line: "Number 91, are you in trouble?" The pair will row together in shifts, then singly while the other rests. But only when the horizon is bare, the silence overwhelming and the future promises more of the same will resolve and routine be tested beyond the limit.

From the 450 initial enquiries in April 1995, a merry assortment of adventurers will leave the waterfront at Los Gigantes this morning, 30 pairs in all, including Peter Haining, the former world lightweight sculling champion, paired with the rowing master of Westminster School, two firemen also from Poole and a mother-and-son team from Chipping Norton. There are Americans, Germans, New Zealanders and French, but the majority of the competitors are British. Just how many will reach Barbados is another matter. Behind the fleet, two 67-feet yachts will sweep for stragglers; each team has an inventory of safety equipment, from flares to an Argos Tracking Beacon, and conditions - a south westerly current and favourable winds - should be perfect. A further item on the list "buckets (three)" hints of less high-tec toilet facilities.

The Poole pair are well prepared and characteristically bullish about their chances. "We are not just going there to compete," Callaghan said. "After all, we are living the dream for other people." Like the fellow members of Poole RC, whose enthusiasm sustained the challenge before Ryvita, a Poole-based company, stepped in to help. "I think we have a good idea of what we're letting ourselves in for."

Perhaps. "The hunger pains got worse and we tried a kind of self-hypnosis to retard our mental state..." On reflection, best not to read too much of Ridgway's log.