New Article189 Days, A, New Pacific Record
Crossing the North Pacific the Slow Way
Erik S Simonson
On August 22, 2004, then 40 year old British adventurer, Mick Dawson was forced abandoned his oar powered vessel, The Mrs. D, 1,500 miles short on his 2nd attempt to become the 1st person to row unassisted from Choshi Japan to San Francisco. His singlehanded endeavor ended after a mysterious wave capsized the tiny vessel, trapping him in the cocoon size cabin, flooded and listing 90 degrees to starboard. Lucky to escape with his life after such an incident, but distraught by the loss of the footage and stills captured along the way, he regrouped and in May 2009 Left Choshi Japan for the 3rd time, this time with company.
The North Pacific has been crossed for centurys, it’s foreboding size and adverse conditions however keep all but the bravest and boldest at bay. While sailing the 4,500 rhumbline route from Japan to San Francisco or visa-versa is common for ocean cargo and container ships, the number of non-mechanical powered crossings drops off dramatically. It’s modern sail powered record is 11 days 12 minutes by the gigantic Catamaran Gitana13 in 2008. In the burgeoning sport of ocean rowing, it’s been hailed as the holy grail or the Everest.
“Open ocean rowing isn’t about the rowing” laments Chris Martin, the 29 year old partner in this venture dubbed the Golden Gate Endeavour. Chris began completive rowing in high school, and has represent Great Britain in 6 consecutive world championships. Ocean rowing is more of a battle of fatigue, utter boredom, intense terror, cramped quarters and wondrous vast wilderness, the rowing only plays a part.
Opposed to conventional sailing, where the craft use some form of wind catching propulsion, Ocean Rowers use the currents foremost, and attempt to row into or with favorable currents and swell. A favorite route of competition these days, begins in the Canary Islands and finishes in Antigua, riding the east to west currents, trade wind and swell along the way. The North Pacific route, utilizes the Kuroshiro current up and over the North Pacific Gyre via North Pacific Current until it meets with the California Current. And while it looks like a sleigh ride on paper, micro currents, contrary winds and disobliging waves wreak havoc on a smooth transit.
The 23’ Carbon-Kevlar rowing machine dubbed “Bojangles” was specifically designed for the challenge, lightweight and nimble unladened, but when nearly 2,000 lbs with gear and supplies, inauspicious and cumbersome better describes her handling in adverse conditions. In flat water and calm seas a full stroke on the carbon fiber oars and rolling rowing seat could yield a boats length of progress. Various elements could reduce that to 1.5 meter or less. A modern sailing vessel can achieve high teens and low 20 knots average, And though shes capable of 4-5 knot bursts rowing down waves Bojangles averaged 1 knot the entire voyage.
Moving at such a sluggish pace can provide its own rewards. Chris and Mick literally became part of the sea and had time to witness its ever changing moods, weather, flora and fauna in ways average sailors might just skip over. Watching storms develop, grow, and intensify then subside. Spring led to summer and summer to winter, somehow autumn apparently taking a powder. Close encounters with a massive sperm whale charging the boat, and then submerging inches from impact. A school of yellow fin, 200 plus strong seeking refuge from marauding and hungry swordfish, the surface erupting in an intensive feeding frenzy, to a mako shark attempting to make a meal out of the carbon fiber oar blade. A vessel moving so gradually also tends to develop its own eco system on the bottom sides and on the hydraulic rudder, so monthly trimming of the forest, so to speak, provided a chance to exercise unused muscles, increase hydrodynamics and meet the “ downstairs neighbors” as they referred to them.
While the rumbline from Japan to San Francisco equates to roughly 4,500, it is also the line traveled by cargo and container vessels. Hoping to avoid excessive encounters, the crew of Bojangles opted for the scenic routes, which minimize some exposures, but not all. Tracked for several days by the SBX-1, a top secret US anti ballistic floating launch detector ( and assumed more) Mick and Chris were at first confused by the gigantic golf ball traversing the horizon…Closer inspection and radio contact provided some relief, and also grief as they were instructed to remain 3 miles away as the vessel closed in on them. Fishing boats in zero visibility fog and containers, coasting to save power provided additional close quarter’s excitement. Bojangles s” “Sea-Me” radar detection provided some relief, however if encroaching vessels 10,000 times heavier do not respond, that’s reason for concern.
The cramped quarters of the modern day rowing vessels make the v-berth in a J-24’ feel downright luxurious. With two grown men packed sardine like, add 100% humidity, some 30’ to 40’ waves and pouring rain and you have a downright pleasure palace. Holed up and tethered to the drogue for days on end, “Hatch duty” was a game of cat and mouse, high seas style. While lying on ones belly, the player would hold the hatch open a couple inches to allow fresh air into the cabin, as the impending swell approached, the roar would increase and the player would quickly close the hatch as the swell slammed the crew about in full agitation cycle. Penalty for poor/slow performance equated to a bucket full of cold ocean spray right in the kisser.
On most sailing vessels, power sources usually involve some of internal combustion engine to run electronics, navigation lights and communications. A several month voyage on a human powered vessel lacks that option. Solar panels mounted on the cabin provide Bojangles with energy to burn initially, feeding the gel-acid batteries, stereo, laptop, lights, sat phone, vhf, desalination pump and navigation equipment. A short on the cabin roof nearly caught the boat on fire, and eliminated an entire solar panel, making matters worse, a storm broke the white nav light from above the cockpit and the only fix, an incandescent bulb fixed with a juice bottle shield helped to rapidly reduce the batteries storage. This combined with reduced daylight hours as summer waned, and food wasn’t the only thing being rationed.
The trip, scheduled for 150 days ran over. Well over. Body weight and calorie consumption dropped faster than Toyota stock prices after accelerator problems. By mid October concerns of the trips success lay in the balance, fatigue along with reduced body fat began to take their toll, morale sank to an all time low, worse than the news of Mick’s father passing earlier in July.
An attempt to hail a passing freighter off the California coast for emergency rations yielded more frustrations as a deployed package dropped was lost in the inky blackness of a moonless late autumn night. “The final few weeks were the toughest”, Chris Martin recalls “The inspiration and well wishes and jokes sent via text to the sat phone kept us going”
On Day 185, 100 miles off of Bodega Bay, the unmistakable sound of a helicopter brought hope food and beverage to the beleaguered rowers as Good Samaritan had heard their plea’s and flew out for a much need re-provison. Re-pleated in mind as well a body, the crew of Bojangles passed under the Golden Gate and completed their odyssey 189 days after shoving off of Choshi Japan, concouring the Everest of Ocean Rowing, and reducing man kinds list of undone challenges by one. Very long one.