Just Me and the Sea
Words Fredrik Ölmqvist, pics Ben Duffy and Greg Maud/TWAC
Despite the imminent hazards and hardships, more than ever adventure seekers want to join the exclusive group of ocean rowers. It’s truly an epic adventure of a lifetime, but it’s for good reason that more people have climbed Everest than have rowed the Atlantic. But your darkest hour can also be your finest, says Connacher, who completed the crossing in 53 days
Among adventure sports, ocean rowing has unique characteristics. The ocean is vast, relentless and unforgiving. There’s nowhere to escape, so you’d better come prepared, not in the least mentally. You can expect that your mind will play tricks on you. Life is quite different out on the ocean. When things start to break down, you’re the one who has to fix it, no matter how tired you are, whether you’re seasick, or when it’s pitch black and the freak waves come tumbling down from all directions. “It’s like A Nightmare on Elm Street, waiting for Freddy Krueger,” one rower described it.
Greg Maud, one of the two South African soloists.
During the 2015/2016 edition of the 3 000-nautical-mile Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge—billed as “The World’s Toughest Row”—there were two South African participants in the solo category: Stuart Connacher and Greg Maud. And in the four-man category, Cayle Royce from the UK did his second crossing with Row2Recovery, a team of amputee ex-servicemen.
Participants inevitably face a series of hardships. You’re stuck in a tiny rowing boat and you know that the dark clouds on the horizon mean you’re in for a proper roller-coaster ride. “You have absolutely nowhere to go. This is something you realise pretty much soon after you leave the starting point, particularly when you’re on your own. You realise there’s no turning back: You can’t return to the start; and if anything were to happen, you simply have to keep moving forward.”
For most people, just the notion of rowing across an ocean, let alone solo, would invariably generate fear. Right up until the start in La Gomera in the Canary Islands, many of the rowers couldn’t hide their anxious anticipation of the unknown horrors that awaited them. Freak waves in the night; shark attacks; storms that would toss the tiny rowing vessel around; days of seasickness, endless pain, constant sleep deprivation; and an utterly sluggish progression that would challenge even the strongest mind. Connacher’s own outlook on fear is simple: “Fear has no place on a boat like that. You really are in a situation that’s extremely dangerous, whether you like it or not. You placed yourself in that situation and you just don’t have time for fear, because fear will screw up your day-to-day decision making and have an enormous effect. When things like storms were coming in, I took them as relaxed as I possibly could. In fact, I took the opportunity to sleep more than anything else.”
Stuart Connacher, one of the two South African soloists.
Connacher considers himself very fortunate that the row didn’t affect him in the way he’d anticipated, being insecure or reacting with fear when Mother Nature threw everything at him. “I thought I’d be terrified of the storms, but it was quite the opposite. For me, it was just time to get into the cabin and reflect, to think a little bit more, and appreciate that [Mother Nature] was in charge. I could do absolutely nothing to avoid whatever she threw at me. It was almost a relief to come to that realisation, rather than try and fight nature and fight my emotions.”
Time was the most emotional thing, he says, “knowing, or extrapolating, how much further you would have to go, and how much more effort you would have to put in to get across that ocean. At any one time, it just seems incredibly daunting. If you’ve been going 200 miles, or even if you’ve been going 1 500 miles, it just seems such a long way to go, never mind what you’ve already accomplished. That was the difficult part.”
Every day Connacher set himself targets. “You get the feeling of accomplishment if you achieve the goals you set for yourself for the day; to continuously have the ‘up’ of celebrating an achievement, whether it’s surviving a day or surviving a storm, or whatever it might’ve been
“There are also days when you don’t understand what you’re doing out there, like the 24 hours prior to the storm hitting you, and the 72 hours after the storm when it’s very difficult going anywhere. In my case, I just stayed at the oars until the storm hit, until I was literarily going backward. You’d stay in one place for 24 hours and row. In one of the instances, when the first storm hit, I spent 18 hours solid on the oars, without moving one centimetre. That, to me, was the most mind-bending thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s a time when you really dig deep mentally, because it’s so difficult to understand and appreciate,” he notes.
Stuart Connacher just beyond the start line of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
Knowledge about how the mind works helped Connacher enormously. One of the courses he attended taught him to accept and understand things in context, as well as control the emotions at any particular time. “If I could see that I was getting nervous, I could gather my thoughts very quickly and control the situation from that perspective. It was important to me all the time. And I think there were rowers out there who didn’t have those tools, who would’ve given up at some point. Take my friend Matteo [Perucchini, from Italy], who won the solo class. I think it was only four days to go, when he got onto the oars at 5 o’clock in the morning and he just sat there until 5 o’clock at night without rowing. He didn’t do anything. That’s how your mind works in a nutshell.”
Considering the daunting challenges of an ocean crossing in a rowing boat, one had better be plenty motivated. In most cases, there’s much more behind an attempt than just personal fulfilment. Most teams use their rowing projects as vehicles for charity.
Besides the two years of preparation and the actual row that took him 53 days, Connacher’s crossing was aimed at raising awareness and funds for the Smile Foundation, working for disadvantaged South African children suffering from treatable facial deformities such as cleft palate—hence the team name, Facing It. So far, the 2015/2016 crossing has enabled 180 facial surgeries. “One-hundred-and-eighty lives were changed. Forever. That’s one of the things that attracted me to the Smile Foundation,” he says.
But there’s another meaning to the name. “What we’re facing is an extreme situation and our own fears. But when I look at the charity aspect—and this is what taught me the greatest lesson prior to the race—the children themselves are facing so much more in their lives, and how much they can overcome. It makes what we do so much easier.”
Billed as “The World’s Toughest Row".
To gain experience in ocean rowing, Connacher did an Atlantic crossing the year before, as part of an eight-person crew. “To be on board together with seven complete strangers is very, very difficult; hence my decision to do a solo race rather than in pairs.”
Connacher’s team lost their Autohelm (autopilot) right at the beginning of the race, which meant he had to navigate himself the entire way across, which was the best possible training he could’ve received for his solo endeavour. Practising in calm conditions won’t prepare one properly for the ocean, where things are quite different. “Apart from being at sea and understanding how it works, the navigation is probably the most important. Everything can be going quite swimmingly before the start; the navigation is usually working beautifully, the Autohelm is working. But once you get out on the ocean, everything changes in an instant,” he says.
Compared to normal life on land, life at sea means a lot of time to oneself—a rarity in city living. There are no cellphones or contact, other than the occasional email. There’s time to think and reflect, to enjoy the sights and sounds of the ocean. “But I must admit, this was disappointing, apart from the stars,” says Connacher wryly. “The wildlife was non-existent, on both trips.”
Stuart Connacher finishes the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
Even though you need to be highly aware in every moment, since a sudden slip or bad judgement could get you in serious trouble, Connacher believes you should be relaxed rather than tense. “If you’re in survival mode all the time, you’re probably going to make mistakes. You’re going to anticipate a problem before it even is a problem, and probably go into panic mode instead of survival mode—bearing in mind that your thinking is very clear at times, but at other times very dull. So what you think is going wrong may not be going wrong at all. It may just be your state of mind. You’re very fatigued all the time at sea. You need to be very aware of that and, in fact, sit back and let decisions come to you rather than forcing them. Unless you’re in a very critical situation, like in a storm, like when I lost my ParaAnchor [sea anchor], then you have to start thinking—and think quickly,” he stresses.
Most ocean rowers express gratitude over the privilege to have rowed across the Atlantic, although “there’s a part of your soul that never reaches land”, says Connacher. The faces of the rowers when they arrive in Antigua express elation and overwhelming joy; the great effort is finally behind them. For many participants, the epic journey is life-changing, having brought new perspective on what’s important in life, and a reminder to live life to the fullest and appreciate the simple things like a cooked meal, a cold beer and the presence of loved ones.
“Immediately after the row, I was unbelievably relaxed,” Connacher admits. “I think that was the most significant change for me as an individual. I really enjoyed my time at sea. I really enjoyed my own company and overcoming what I did. But soon the bad habits from the past start coming back and you realise how hard you have to work to keep yourself in the state of, I wouldn’t call it happiness, but being content: being content with yourself, content with the world, content with all the things around you. You realise how little you need in life, that simplicity is everything. It really came through to me how much of a consumer society we’ve become and just how much waste and neglect there is in this world. Because of that, people have become exceedingly self-centred—including myself as a businessman—and it really became very clear to me just how simply we need to lead our lives, to at least give something back to the world we live in.”
Greg Maud crosses the finish line of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
About the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge
The 2015/2016 race started on 20 December.
A total of 26 teams of one to four persons rowed unsupported from La Gomera in the Canary Islands near Spain, to Antigua in the eastern Caribbean: a journey of 3 000 nautical miles that took the fastest team 37 days, a new record time for the event.
During the 2015/2016 edition, three participants were evacuated, but all 26 boats made it across the ocean.
The majority of the participants were from Great Britain. Other countries represented were the US, South Africa, Australia, Italy and Mexico.
This year, Stuart Connacher plans to make his third crossing—this time as part of a three-man team.
For more information, visit www.taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com.
Source: The Intrepid Explorer