Row, row, row your boat madly round the world
Oliver Hicks, the British adventurer, sets off this week in an attempt to become the first rower to circle the globe. He tells of the perils of icebergs and roaring seas that lie ahead.
Alone at sea, Oliver Hicks will have plenty of time to contemplate an old mariner’s saying as he attempts to become the first person ever to row around the world. “Below 40 degrees latitude there is no law; below 50 degrees there is no God.”
That means, whatever misfortune might befall the solo rower and his 24ft-long boat, there is no one to come to his aid. Not even prayer will help. On his journey across the Pacific and the Southern Ocean, the 27-year-old adventurer can expect, as a minimum, piercing cold, hurricane-force winds, 30ft-high swells and plenty of growlers – icebergs too small to show up on his tiny radar set.
When it comes to ocean-going feats, there are few records left unbroken. Circumnavigating the globe solo and unaided in a rowing boat is one of them. Hicks aims to paddle for nine hours each day, covering 30 miles, for 500 days (with one stop-off in the middle), a total of 15,000 miles. This is a shorter route than circumnavigating via the equator (a distance of roughly 25,000 miles) and his record will reflect that. Following roughly a line of 55 degrees latitude, his route will take him from New Zealand, across the Pacific, through the perilous Drake Passage past Cape Horn, then down into the Southern Ocean, all the time hoping the inevitable calluses on his hands don’t become infected and that he doesn’t succumb to long, debilitating bouts of seasickness.
After several false starts, due to poor weather and technical problems with his specially built carbon fibre vessel, Hicks is due to set off later this week. He will take advantage of favourable currents and winds to travel eastwards, nonstop, until he reaches the island of South Georgia, a British island in the southern Atlantic Ocean, hopefully by June or July. He then plans to overwinter there for four or five months to take on more supplies and avoid a build-up of ice on his craft. Once the ice has thawed sufficiently, Hicks, who has had his appendix removed as a precaution, will set off again, aiming to arrive back in New Zealand by the autumn of 2010. He will have nothing to entertain him but a CD player and his own thoughts, and will survive on a diet of dehydrated food and multivitamin pills.
If it were anyone else, you could probably safely bet on the mission ending in failure. But Hicks, a softly spoken, intensely wilful, former public-school boy from Suffolk, has a reputation for succeeding where others have given up or been defeated by overwhelming odds.
At age 17 he cycled from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, and at 21 he ran the 150-mile Marathon des Sables. In 2004 he finished fifth in the Yukon River Quest, the world’s longest canoe race, but a 460-mile paddle clearly wasn’t long enough. In 2005 he became the youngest person ever to row the Atlantic, taking 124 days in a secondhand boat. It was this form that persuaded Virgin Atlantic and Google to stump up the £200,000 for this latest wheeze.
According to the Ocean Rowing Society (ORS), Hicks is the first person to ever attempt a solo circumnavigation by rowing boat. Jim Shekhdar, another long-distance British rower, is also preparing to take on the challenge, but has yet to set a date for departure.
If Hicks gets back to New Zealand in one piece, he will have achieved the ultimate in ocean rowing without any help – no supply ship, no back-up team, no rescue helicopter on standby. His progress will be monitored from an office in London, using GPS locators on the boat and a satellite phone. The ORS, which is the official adjudicator of ocean rowing records for Guinness World Records, will also be keeping a close watch on his progress.
Most of the £200,000 sponsorship was spent building the Flying Carrot, which is to rowing boats what a Lam-borghini Murciélago is to a hairdresser’s drop-top. Made from a Kevlar glass fibre composite with an epoxy foam core, its monocoque hull is self-right-ing, which means it should automatically return to an upright position if Hicks capsizes. Its surface is covered with solar panels and a wind generator to power Hicks’s communications equipment, an emergency position-in-dicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and, crucially, a radar reflector, designed to make her look a lot bigger than she is on those container ship radar screens.
Secured to the boat with a lifeline, Hicks is the Flying Carrot’s powerplant. A computer-controlled autopilot manages the steering – Hicks simply enters the coordinates – and, in theory, all he has to do is row. His year’s supply of dehydrated food is stored in a front compartment, together with 50 litres of drinking water, a sail (only for use in emergencies, such as if he loses all of his 10 pairs of oars), a life raft and a survival suit – basically a dry suit.
To get an idea of the size of Hicks’s watertight living quarters in the aft compartment, read the rest of this beneath your kitchen table. Here, strapped into a bunk the size of a bookshelf, is where he plans to spend the next 500 nights. Beneath the bed is the watermaker to convert sea water into drinking water, and opposite is the communications rig. Via a Panasonic Toughbook laptop – its carry handle replaced by an offcut of wood that is screwed to the table top – Hicks hopes to maintain daily contact with the expedition office in London. Cameras built into the bulkheads will send video via the Inmarsat Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) terminal for posting on YouTube.
There’s an Iridium satellite phone for when the Inmarsat doesn’t work, a pair of GPS systems to keep him on course, and a CD player for those lonely Saturday nights. Storage compartments are crammed with replacement plugs and leads and a scratched Beach Boys CD.
Hicks will cook in a galley smaller than the average cupboard under the stairs, supplementing his reconstituted diet with a daily vitamin pill and the odd fish.
Watching Hicks during sea trials off Falmouth in November, George Olver, the expedition co-ordinator, said the human component was the weakest link in the chain. “The Flying Carrot is virtually indestructible,” he says. “She rights herself and she’s naturally buoyant, so she can’t sink. It’s Olly who is the problem. He’ll be spending a long time alone in an unfalteringly hostile environment and a momentary lapse of concentration at any time could be fatal.”
Kenneth Crutchlow, the executive director of the ORS, who has known Hicks since he was 14, admits concerns for the adventurer’s safety. “While we admire Oliver’s tenacity in attempting the ultimate challenge in open rowing and are stunned at his sheer endurance, we do worry about the levels of risk on this expedition,” he says. “His communications and navigation equipment are dependent on wind and solar power, and if anything goes wrong, the nearest ship could be 12 hours away.”
Crutchlow knows what he’s talking about, having lost a close friend who was attempting to row the Pacific. On June 1, 1996, he spoke with his friend Peter Bird, co-founder of the Ocean Rowing Society, for the last time. Bird was making his fifth attempt to row the Pacific from east to west, and was complaining of huge waves and vicious headwinds. Two days later, the Russian rescue service reported that an emergency beacon had been activated on Bird’s boat, but by the time the nearest ship arrived, just four hours later, Bird was gone. His body was never recovered.
Despite failing to attract as much corporate funding as he would have liked, Hicks is confident of success. He hopes to raise a large sum of money for Hope and Homes for Children, a charity, and to release a film of the adventure upon his successful circumnavigation.
Will he miss his family and friends? “I haven’t really considered it,” he says. “There’ll be plenty of time to think about who I’m missing when I’m out there.”
As we return to Falmouth harbour after the final set of sea trials I ask Hicks what he plans to do next. “Next?” he repeats. “I think we should get this trip out of the way before we start talking about the next one.” He glances distractedly at a passing navy helicopter, and for a moment I can read his mind. There won’t be any of those where he’s going.
Follow Oliver Hicks’s progress at www.virginglobalrow.com
Life on the ocean
1 Hicks will take 10 pairs of oars, made of carbon fibre, with cedar handles cut to fit his grip
2 The boat is steered by autopilot connected to the automated rudder. All Hicks has to do is punch in the coordinates
3 A 4ft-long lifeline attaches Hicks to the boat, in case he is thrown overboard
4 The compartment behind his back contains a year’s supply of dehydrated food, 50 litres of water, a life raft and a dry suit. There is also a sail in case of emergencies