Thursday, 4 February 2016

The hardest rowing challenge he could think of

When it comes to challenges of any kind, the enormity of the challenge is depends on the individual as well as what it actually involves. If you're rowing an ocean, the challenge is pretty much built in: there's no such thing as "taster" ocean. That said, the Pacific Ocean is a heck of a lot bigger than the others: I mean, you can position a globe so that it's all you can see. But when my friend John Beeden, who already had an extremely fast (53 days) solo crossing of the Atlantic under his belt, was planning his Pacific crossing, he deliberately sought a route that was proper hard.

How to make a hard thing harder
First of all, he decided to row mainland to mainland, rather than make use of any offshore islands that still technically constitute an ocean crossing (my own Atlantic row, for instance, was from the Canary Islands to Barbados – not a mainland in sight). This may sound like just a couple of hundred miles more, but the extra distance isn't just any couple of hundred miles. Continents sit on shelves (please bear in mind I don't even have an O-level in geography), or something like that. This makes the edge of the ocean that's on top of the shelf relatively shallow. The wavelength of waves coming in from deep water gets shorter when it gets shallower (I DO have an O-level in physics). And short waves are a pain to row in. It's bad enough near islands and their small shelves, Proper mainlands are way worse. And then there are the onshore currents and winds, which can be either permanently unhelpful or swirly and unpredictable. Not sure which is better. Or worse.

Then, he decided to do it across the Equator. Again, this might sound a bit arbitrary, but it meant that he would have to get through the "Inter Tropical Convergence Zone" (ITCZ – remember that, it will come up later), commonly known as the doldrums, that spans the Equator, and features crazy currents and wild winds as well as really extreme heat.

And that's why John set off from San Francisco on the West Coast of the United States on 2 June 2015, around my bedtime, bound for Cairns, on the West Coast of Australia, 7,020 statute miles away as the crow flies, with not a chance of taking that direct route.

What happened?
In the fine tradition of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy which reduced all of the detailed reports, graphs, and data that Ford Prefect submitted about the planet Earth to "mostly harmless", I'll summarise: he made it. 208 days later, after travelling 8,829 statute miles, landing on 27 December, exactly where he intended, albeit somewhat later.

Seven months. In a 6m-long, 159cm-wide (at the widest point) boat. That's a metre longer than my Volvo V70. And slightly narrower. And whilst I can pack a good deal of grocery shopping into the car, I don't think I could get 28 weekly shops into it. And that's just the toilet roll...

You can read about each of John's incredibly arduous journey, including the 22 soul-destroying (well, it would be for most of us) days when he was blown backwards away from cairns including one ghastly stretch of eight solid days during which he lost 217 nautical miles (396 km), in his blog.

So when I caught up with John once he'd started the process of "re-entry" to normal life (actually, he was on a business trip already), I made sure I didn't ask him to repeat any of the things he'd taken so much care to write about, or ask the obvious ocean rowing questions like "What did you eat?", "Did you anchor when it was stormy?" and, of course, "How did you go to the toilet?", the answers to which will be familiar to the well-informed readers of this blog.

Instead, here are some insights into the mindset of a man who not only thought up this incredible challenge, but also achieved it.

Q. What were the standout memories?
A. Crossing the equator was a big day, being only the second person to reach the equator from north America was a big deal. It also made me think I could get all the way. The other big memory is making it through the ITCZ  which was such a difficult process, rowing 28 hour stints to break free of swirling currents, dealing with the heat and equatorial convections.

Q. How did you get through the sheer difficulty of it all?
A. I think it was a day by day process, writing the blog actually was a good release, it cleared away the days negativity. There is a point in the blog at which I stopped looking at the trip as a whole and it became a daily challenge to get the best out of the individual day. I was a true example of living in the moment, the day, the hour, the mile, the stroke.

[I didn't ask John whether he had studied the recently-popular concept of mindfulness or whether he just worked this out for himself. I suspect the latter.]

Q. You’re a lean runner at the best of times, but by the end of the trip you had very serious muscle wastage, pretty much all over and especially on your bum. Do you think you will suffer any long-term physical side-effects from the trip?
A. I lost 17lb, ending up about 10/11lb under my normal weight. I actually gained upper body weight but my legs (surprisingly) and behind changed substantially. Running has been difficult since I returned [Note: he went for his first run on 30 December. I'm not sure if this is actually more incredible than his 209 days at sea] he and until I rebuild the muscle will remain so. I also managed to damage my Achilles tendon after 10 days or so, this is now healing well but holding me back. Long term I don’t expect any real issues.

"Plump" is not a word that the judges of the "Rear of the Year" award would use about John's backside when he landed.
Q. How many pairs of shorts did you get through? [a question prompted by the saggy look of his shorts in the above picture]
A. I only wore clothing for about three weeks, I then packed all my clothing away and just pulled out a shirt and shorts for the big finish. [Serves me right for asking.] I did wear through five sheep skin seat covers though. [Stop press: Man's bare bottom proved tougher than small flock of sheep.]

Q. Ginger Nuts were mentioned frequently in your blogs with enthusiasm and later wistfulness (when they were running out). How many packets did you eat?
A. 82.
A true fan.
Q. I know your family and friends kept you informed about important stuff from the outside world by satellite phone message during the row [including F1 race reports from one of his daughters]. Have you had any instances of things being referred to since you’re back where you’ve gone “hey, WHAT?”?
A. Not so much news but a lot has changed. Nearly everything I do on my laptop now has updated software layouts, and my online banking sites are totally different. It’s been a nightmare trying to do anything, updating and finding my way around new layouts and navigation.

And finally.. Wit amidst weariness
The video below was shot as John was approaching Cairns harbour: a local journalist is interviewing him as he rowed. The bit I particularly love is where the journalist asks "How are your emotions?", a fairly reasonable question as someone approaches the completion of such an utterly epic and unprecedented challenge. In similar situation, interviewees might, with justification, use words like "overwhelming", "incredible", "fantastic". And what does John, a native of Sheffield, say? "I'm from Yorkshire so I'm not very emotional." Not only is it quite clearly true, but don't you just love his quick thinking to come up with that when he'd only had seven hours sleep in the previous 90. Cracking, lad.

Photos © John Beeden's Blog on, with permission.

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