Everything went pretty well with 870 miles to go when disaster struck. A couple of days ago we were attacked by a huge shark and we thought to be lucky but late in the afternoon of day 38 we found out that we were not. Suddenly the autopilot kept on going out of course. When I removed the autopilot and turned the helm manually, I immediately felt that there was something seriously wrong and that probably the rudder was broken. I unbolted the rudder and Darragh jumped in the water to get the rudder from underneath the boat and bring it on deck. We were amazed. The attack happened with so much force. Next to the teeth marks the whole carbon fiber shaft was torn to pieces and a very strong thick metal ring of 3 millimeters thick and 5-centimeter-high that holds the rudder in place was torn apart and completely disappeared. How the hell are we going to fix this problem with still almost one thousand miles to go! If I look at the bite marks on the rudder is shows that the teeth marks are about 5 centimeters from each other apart that means it was a massive shark and it had to be otherwise you cannot tear such a solid rudder apart.
Meanwhile we are stuck here with a problem even bigger than the shark. How can we repair the main carbon fiber shaft with limited materials as epoxy and glass fiber mats. Next to that one of the tubes in the aft of the boat where the shaft of the rudder is normally fitted has been bend also by the immense force so the question is even if I can somehow fix the shaft will it fit in the boat again and if it does will it still turn so that we can steer the boat. As for now my opinion is that the rudder situation is not looking promising but the coming days, I will try to work on it. Right now, we quickly have to look at a way to keep the boat going on an acceptable course with hopefully at least some speed.
When we were sitting pretty devastated on deck with suddenly the speed world record definitely out of reach I mentioned as I have noticed before with a Rannoch 45 ocean rowing boat while leaving it to the elements the bow of the boat turns straight into the wind and waves. Making not much speed but the course is ok and as the trade winds look this year very stable and let’s hope it will be keep on doing that for another couple of weeks although slow it will push us in the direction of Cayenne. However slow progress means we don’t have enough food. The only vessels that we sometimes see in this area are fishing vessels. If we see one we will try with our vhf to get in contact with them for food supplies.
That’s it! We are going to row backwards! At least for now till we find a better solution. If we don’t find that we’ll keep on rowing backwards till Cayenne for almost one thousand miles and to be honest it looks like this model boat is designed for it. Just turn your rowing seats 180 degrees in the sliding rails and take your food plate turn it around and fit it now in the position where ones a rower was sitting behind you following you. Done in a few minutes. Too easy and to our surprise it’s not rowing that bad although it’s hard rowing backwards and steering with the oars at the same time. Especially while the rudder is gone in the opposite direction or better to say backwards the centerboard in the front becomes now a fixed rudder in the back. Leave the rowing position above the centerboard empty. I mean empty for rowing but now this position becomes the steering position of the helmsman that keeps the bow (now aft) of the boat in the waves steering with the oars now. The person that followed always suddenly is the one in stroke position now and I have to follow the strokes for the first time in years. I got the idea that’s Predragh’s intention is to go backwards still for the speed world record according to his stroke rate that’s absolutely the fastest so far during this crossing and if I remember well that’s about the stroke rate on the olympic 2000 meters. Close to a rate of 40 strokes a minute but our distance is about 3000 times as far of what almost 1000 times is backwards in not really the perfect position at a MTF killing olympic rate. Within a minute I hit Predragh’s oars round 10 times, so I shout to him that he has to slow down. Slowly he adjusts and finally we end up in a more comfortable rate of 25 but it’s so hard to keep the boat under control on an acceptable course and its now more important than ever to have an effective course towards Cayenne. French-Guyana is at the moment probably the only country in the world that’s likely to take us in. When we end up in surrounding countries we’ll get in severe serious problems on top of the very serious problems that we already have. For a couple of days, we tried to look for every possible solution to row the boat on an acceptable stable course but all attempts fail. All attempts with the rowing boat’s bow facing Cayenne so in the direction the boat is designed to row to are a total disaster. How hard we try with all the power in our body combined with inventive tactics we don’t even come close to get the aft of the boat in the wind and the waves for a single moment. We discuss and try everything on board to create somehow something that could be somehow function as a sort of rudder but all brainstorm versions with the limited materials on board fail.
And off course we know that the best solutions come from the people on land that read our story. They probably solved the problem here on board already 10 times for us but it’s a shame that they are not here at the moment so we ran out of options with a boat that gets more out of our desirable course and the longer it takes to find a reasonable solution the harder will be to get it back on track towards Cayenne.
The best solution would be to repair the rudder but as well as the rudder as the shaft in the hull that fits the rudder both are so severely damaged that it’s absolutely impossible to create a sort of rudder from old or new materials that would have the slightest steering function so that option is completely impossible. I still try to make the best possible solution of the broken rudder with epoxy and glass fiber mats so hopefully we just have something that holds for a few hours just at the end to row us into Cayenne.
Slow progress and a uncertain course will also bring us in a situation that we run out of food supplies. Commercial vessels that we don’t see often around are not allowed to stop to provide us with food supplies they are only allowed to respond on emergency, mayday, distress calls and activated epirbs in life threatening events. In our case we are still far from that but in case we have to be rescued and Livar and I have that experience in the past that is a very serious event that will bring both crews of us and the crew of the rescuing vessel in danger. I was rescued in the Indian ocean from my upturned hull by a 300 meter long tanker. I had to jump for a ladder hanging down the 30 meter high vertical wall of the tanker. One moment hanging next to me. The next second 10 meter higher meanwhile smashed with my upturned wooden boat hull into a massive metal wall. You can’t believe how happy I was when I had made it safe up the 30 meters and ended up safely on deck in the arms of the crew.
Can you imagine how that will work with a crew of 5 of which one rower is visually impaired with just 6% eyesight left what means he is almost totally blind! Out of the question!
So where does it leave us now? Our distance to the finish is about the same distance of the Netherlands to the South of Spain aiming for a channel of 30 meters wide with an uncontrollable steer less boat going backwards that looks pretty much like a mission impossible. Most important is the safety of the crew and second to that to safe the boat what brings us in a situation that we want to avoid as ocean rowers but as we ran out of options becomes our last possible option to bring in the crew and boat by ourselves and that’s to add some wind assistance to help to keep us on course to Cayenne. With pain in our hearts we raised a sleeping bag at the aft cabin of the boat to add to our current situation so we hope that steering becomes a bit better towards Cayenne so that we can hopefully bring ourselves safely in to Cayenne without being rescued. Time will tell if it will work for us!
Meanwhile we still enjoy our adventure and live on board goes on. The spirit is still high and our adventure only became a bigger adventure!
I was imagining by myself that a cruise ship would pass us by closely. Hundreds of people staring down from their balcony wondering what’s happening below them in the middle of the ocean. Half of them not even knowing that there are weird people in the world that row across oceans. The other half with maybe some maritime knowledge wondering by themselves: “Hmmm, aren’t they rowing the wrong way!” One of them rushes himself to the captain telling him that they just spotted a team of rowers rowing backwards on the ocean. The captain plays the game with his drunken customer and gets his binoculars and sees to his surprise a rowing boat that’s rowing backwards immediately taking his vhf and calling us on channel 16: “Guys you are rowing the wrong way!”. No way! Thanks for telling us. Felt weird already since Portugal. We’ll change around. See if that works better”.
As for cruise ships. I remembered my first row across an ocean. In 2006 I was rowing together with my brother Mike across the Atlantic. We rowed between the Caribbean islands of Martinique and St. Lucia into the Caribbean Sea towards the Island of Curaçao of the Netherlands. Yes, that island thousands of kilometers out of our route where the Dutch in Paramaribo wanted to direct us to! While rowing in the Caribbean Sea it was pretty busy with vessels on our route. A lot of cargo ships and tankers going up and down to the Panama Canal and lots of cruise ship’s cruising between the islands. Sometimes at night we could see the lights of almost 10 vessels in a row. Halfway the Caribbean Sea we had a great speed cause of nice waves and strong currents coming from the right direction.
Just as we speak it’s late in the evening in the dark and another of so many flying fishes lands on deck. I jump up to see if it’s a decent size cause as we ran out of food we safe them now to prepare them in the morning for breakfast. This one was just not big enough to eat but it was maybe my torch that saved his life. While flapping around with his “wings” between water bottles and jerrycans he managed to slowly find his way to a scupper hole and disappeared is the ocean again. Well he has a damn good story to tell his friends! Later at night flying fishes of welcome sizes even flew straight in the open hatches into our cabins leaving us in the morning with more than a kilogram of flying fish filleted by Livar and shortly fried in soy sauce it became the best breakfast so far!
So, we were drifting and blown in a good speed towards Curaçao. It was a very hot day and like most of this crossing due to all the painful and irritating saltwater sores were rowing mostly of the time naked like now. We were making good speed without rowing and where lying across deck with arms and legs spread out to catch up some sleep when suddenly a loud horn of a ship was blow. We opened our eyes and saw just in front of us a wall of a cruise ship passing by with tourists hanging over their balcony probably as surprised as an ocean rowing boat going backwards. Mike and I waved up against them, closed our eyes again and went further with our sleeping sessions.
Life is going on on board in the same rhythm as in the beginning. Day and night. Two hours on, two hours off. In comparison with last week we see a bit more wind and waves and often for a short time some confused sees and splashing of some waves over deck ones in a while. Better situations when we could still row normally but for now we prefer the calm seas.
We are still going fairly in the right direction although our zigzagging will take some extra miles. Together with the eddies and probably new barnacle growth under the boat it will reduce the daily distances. Yesterday still 61 miles. Today 51. Today is day 42 so we are 6 weeks rowing on the Atlantic and still 654 miles to go. This evening round midnight we will reach the 4/5th part of the crossing so still 1/5th to go. Normally that feels pretty close. In our situation it feels pretty far away.
Looking at our food rations that are cut down already it looks like we’ll have to ration it even more to make it to Cayenne. Good thing is that the flying fish are booming. Incredible how many there are and mainly of large sizes and very welcome now with the shortage of food. The predators are the most active and so are the running for their lives or better said flying for their lives flying fish. In a night of about 10 hours half of the flying fish land on deck in the first 2 hours. Three nights ago, we just saved some bigger ones and fried some nice fillets with soy sauce on top of it. Two nights ago, we started with adding the fish to our food. That night we caught or better said landed on deck 24 flying fish of a size between 15 and 30 centimeter. With the average size equal to the size of a large haring. Let’s say 200 grams that are pretty some kilos. Last night we caught 42. What a feast and so welcome to have nice fresh food. This will become a daily routine from now on. It is so much the preparation takes ours and that goes of our sleeping time but we’re not complaining about that. Looking already forward to coming night.
Coming days, we gave to change the course some more to the west. To the south of us is a huge area with a lot of severe heavy rain and thunderstorms from Wednesday evening on till Saturday morning. Hope we will stay mostly dry on our new course but more important safe! As it is Wednesday evening, we will find out soon!
To follow our current Atlantic crossing go to oceanrower.eu @ follow next expedition
Interested to take part in our next Atlantic crossings in 2021 go to oceanrower.eu or send me a PM. While currently on the Atlantic messages will be answered asap after arrival in South America.