Rachel Quarrell and Bror Muller on the winners of the Chay Blyth's Atlantic Rowing Challenge. Article originally published by Regatta Magazine in the paper edition of December 1997/January 1998. Original photographs accompanying the piece by Jon Nash.
On November 22nd 1997 a small rowing craft called Kiwi Challenge arrived in Port St. Charles, Barbados, accompanied by a fleet of yachts and cruisers welcoming Phil Stubbs and Rob Hamill, winners of the "longest rowing race in history", Sir Chay Blyth's Atlantic Rowing Challenge.
The crew, policeman and lifeguard Phil Stubbs and Olympian rower Rob Hamill, had set out exactly 41 days, 1 hour and 55 minutes earlier from Tenerife one of 28 pairs of rowers intent upon one goal. After the first few days of the race, Kiwi Challenge had started to move ever further ahead in the daily positional updates, and those watching the race unfold realised that not only were these two determined young New Zealanders likely to win, but that they were poised to smash the previous record of over 70 days by four weeks.
What no-one knew was that the two oarsmen themselves were in the dark about this. Several other crews took computers, radios or satellite telephones and could swap information with their land support, but Hamill and Stubbs were out there alone, desperate for news. They glimpsed the support ship 3Com once very early on, and kept scanning the horizon for a sight of any other crew, to no avail. Of course, the support ship had dropped behind with the slower crews, and by day three they were over 100 miles in th elead.
Not realising this, they forged on, unaware of their impending success until a Barbadian media vessel met them, 18 hours out from the finish. It was an emotional moment when they realised the position, the pair jumping around in their boat and punching the air, nearly falling overboard in their excitement. Preparation for this race had been scrupulous, Hamill and Stubbs taking at least as much care over training, planning, navigation and equipment as any other crew. Hamill based his training on his Olympic regime, and Stubbs consulted an Ironman triathlete friend, Steve Farell. However, this cannot have been the only factor helping them along, as several other crews were also very fit, experienced athletes.
A more important consideration is probably the superb finish and extreme lightness of their boat. Said Hamill, "The weight-saving philosophy extended all the way from minimising the weight of the boat shell itself to ensuring we were taking efficient food portions. No extra gear was included in our boat inventory." Theirs was the lightest boat in the race, and they were one of only a few crews who didn't re-glaze the plywood hull with fibreglass.
They also carefully packed their food so that it could be disposed of mid-ocean if their speed increased, without upsetting the trim of the boat. This was Rob's task, and he estimates that they threw 150 kg of food overboard in three separate food re-assessments during the trip. Meanwhile Phil Stubbs, after advice from a very experienced Whitbread sailor, was taking care of navigation. Good planning and a little bit of luck enabled the Kiwis to avoid most of the big head-winds early in the course which stopped the rest of the fleet dead, and they headed south at the earliest opportunity, not only taking the quickest route to Barbados but also picking up the faster trade winds and currents.
What becomes apparent as they describe their routine is the total self-discipline, and commitment to keeping the boat moving at all times. Other crews have been packing up the oars at night - Rob and Phil took shifts of two or three hours at the oars (depending only on the conditions) and alternated around the clock, right across the Atlantic bar one storm. They cooked and ate solo while the other rowed, and naps of no more than one and a half hours were squeezed into this punishing schedule.
Their over-riding goal was winning the race, and their alliance has engendered a deep mutual respect for the strength of character discovered in extremis. Another string to their bow was an innate Antipodean delight in danger. They hugely enjoyed the big waves and stormy weather, "surfing" exhilarated down the biggest rolers. This increased even more in the final weeks, and as their food load and weight dropped their speed picked up again, reaching a peak of 8 to 9 knots. On the whole their equipment survived the race intact, although one of the two GPS systems they took failed, and their shortwave radio was drowned by a wave before the end of the first NZ cricket test, leaving them psychologically isolated. Their well-made Croker oars get much praise, but the biggest nightmare, as for many crews, was the water purifier, which had to be stripped, cleaned and re-assembled three times. In the end their emergency water rations saved them from having to request help in the final stages of the erace. These repairs slowed the New Zealanders significantly, and while they agree "we've set a benchmark", both think that a crossing of 35 days is possible.
While planning the race, they suspected that they could be fast, but were cautious. "I knew 40 days was possible, but this was the Atlantic Ocean, not just a very long lake", said Hamill. But would they do it again? This gets different answers. Phil says that he enjoyed the race, but hated the fund-raising, and Rob would like to be involved with a similar entry again, but only in a managerial/consultative role. However, nothing can be ruled out, and their current sense of achievement and pride is total. Neither forgets the other crews out on the water. While most of the fleet will finish before Christmas, the last crew will probably take until January to arrive at Port St. Charles. "The longer they are on the water, the more they deserve everyone's admiration when they arrive. Anyone who had the courage to enter and finish the race should be held in the greatest respect not just by us but by the world."
STOP PRESS: Rob Hamill and Phil Stubbs, invited to join the round-Barbados annual race, promptly won in a time three hours inside the previous record.