Posted on May 17 2016
Long walks are nothing new. People have been taking them ever since Homo sapiens took a stroll north out of Africa. There’s a fellow tracing such a path and writing articles for National Geographic about it right now. But Earth, of course, is the water planet, so it only stands to reason that there are even more opportunities to travel across oceans than across land. The most efficient way to do that (and survive) is by boat, and human-powered means no sails. Of course, there’s always the odd daredevil mad enough to push off of a perfectly good beach to row for a distant continent, but you might be amazed at how many practitioners of this sort of adventure there are.
The Ocean Rowing Society International is a group dedicated to the advancement of such endeavors – not just rowing on oceans, but all the way across them. They feature all sorts of information on their website including lists of people with both completed crossings and plans for more. Around 400 people have made successful ocean crossings, and another 230 or so have tried and been thwarted. Surprisingly, fewer than 10 have died in these attempts.
An impressive inventory of watercraft are listed for sale on the Rowing Society website, and almost every one is marked as “SOLD.” These are purpose-built rowboats which mean business – ultra-sturdy construction designed to provide efficient movement and a safe cabin to retreat to for sleep or when things get entirely out of hand. They are not cheap. Expect to spend well into five figures if you want to so see London or Honolulu without a plane ticket…or any ticket.
The next thing I noticed about the voyages is their definitions. There are many different shades of “crossing the Atlantic” or “crossing the Pacific.” Admittedly, ANY of them are just gargantuan feats, but some row from Great Britain to an island in the Caribbean, some from the Canary Islands to Florida, or from somewhere in California to Hawaii and thence to somewhere in the South Pacific, and then on to Australia. Some have gotten to Tuvalu or New Caledonia. All kinds of different routes exist, and some are “easier” than others, given the weather and amount of tailwind involved. Some do it in two-person teams, others solo. Some trips, as mentioned, go in stages or are done seasonally, over a number of years. These then, involve stopping off for supplies and to get some rest on solid land.
Though it is pretty tough to cover these distances without some kind of re-stocking, the “rules” state that so much as accepting a beer or a tin of beans from a passing vessel means your voyage will be listed as “supported.” Though he was “supported” with supplies provided off of Vanuatu after punishing delays, John Beeden has some serious bragging rights. He took off from San Francisco on June 1, 2015, and docked in Cairns, Queensland, 209 days later. Continent to continent, North America to Australia. At times he was blown hundreds of miles backward, so it took him far longer than he expected, which forced him to accept the support. One other fellow, Peter Bird, made it from San Francisco to the Great Barrier Reef before being rescued after a bad storm, and he holds the record as the first to complete a non-stop pan-Pacific row, but Mr. Beeden made it all the way. This after having rowed across the Atlantic a few years earlier. The fact that the 53-year-old is “a scrawny old Yorkshireman” (his words) only furthers his legend.
But lest we focus too heavily on wiry old white guys, a recognition of one Roz Savage is in order. She gave up a rather “normal” life to row the world’s oceans and by the age of 43 had crossed the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Some of it was done in stages, and her cross-Pacific row ended in New Guinea, but that’s still a staggering amount of water travel, all done solo. These voyages add up to nearly a year’s worth of time on the water, duking it out with the sea (and that’s not even counting all her training hours). No doubt there were idyllic days, but one never knows what tomorrow’s weather will bring. For details, you can look into her books, blogs and motivational speeches.
This only scratches the very surface of a whole cadre of these extreme adventurers and their pursuits. The variety of their routes (planned and unplanned) and the daring nature of their undertaking speaks to the many different ways there are to experience the watery geography of our planet.
(…and indeed, there is another way to human-power yourself across an ocean – swim it. Ben Lecomte, who in 1998 was the first to swim the Atlantic without a kickboard, will be attempting a 6-month Tokyo to San Francisco dip beginning any time now. Yes, he’ll have a support boat, but still….)