Ocean rowing is a gruelling test of endurance – by almost all accounts a mind-bending mixture of terror and back-breaking tedium. But thanks to the abundance of technology developed in the marine industry over the past 30 years, it is now one of the safest and most accessible adventure watersports around. In December, one four-man team called "Ocean Reunion" will set off with around 25 other boats from La Gomera in the Canary Islands bound for Antigua in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge race. The current world record is 34 days, but if the weather plays ball, this team is hoping to go faster. So what exactly does an ocean rowing team need to survive 30 to 60 days (depending on the weather) at sea on an open boat with two tiny cabins?
1. Water maker
The race rules require all entrants to carry a manual water maker as well as 40 litres of emergency supply. This emergency supply is often used as ballast to make the boats self-righting, along with the liferaft, which can also be stowed in a low and central position on the open row deck of the boat.
“The Schenker Smart 30 water maker is tried and tested and the most reliable of its size,” according to Angus Collins, one of the two founding members of team “Ocean Reunion”, who also happens to work at Rannoch Adventure, one of the most respected ocean rowing boat builders in the world. “It’s the model we always install in our ocean rowing boats,” he says confidently. It consists of a motor to draw in the water, (“the only bit that can really ever go wrong”), then two filtration units leading into a chamber where the reverse osmosis process takes place. “After the first 30 seconds’ worth is discarded, the water tastes amazingly good and it produces 30 litres in an hour.”
The water maker made it on to our list of 10 Great Modern Sailing Innovations.
“Food is also a massive consideration – how we plan our nutrition is essential to our success,” says Jack Mayhew, an experienced yachtsman and co-founder of the team. “We are using Mountain House freeze-dried sachets. Every two hours you have a two hour break but it takes about 20 minutes to cook all of your food and do the navigation, so by the time you actually get to rest you probably only have about an hour and a quarter before you’ve got to get going again.”
Experience counts for a lot when provisioning, according to Angus, who spent 71 days rowing across the Indian Ocean in a different race in 2014. “There’s a lot of rumours go around the world of ocean rowing that you need to eat 10,000 calories per day. So that’s what I took on my last row and I found out that you can’t actually physically consume that much.
“Mountain house has the best calorific count to weight ratio on the market and it also has the right ratios of protein, carbohydrates and fat (known as macronutrient ratios or macros). A lot of people think you just need to eat as many calories as possible but you can’t just eat sugary foods to fill up on calories when you’re out there.”
The team will also take powdered dietary supplements: protein for muscle repair, electrolytes to replenish minerals and salts lost in sweat and carbohydrates for quick energy boosters.
“We have a jet boil to heat water and cook food but we only need to take 50g of gas per person per day. A lot of people go over the top with food and gas – desperate not to run out, but if you’re going for a record like we are this is the sort of research that needs to be done in advance. If you can save yourself 10kg in gas and 50kg in food then you’ve saved yourself carrying an extra body across the ocean.”
If all this talk of food has made you hungry, check out: How to cook on board: recipes to feed hungry sailors.
3. Life-saving kit
The team is carrying an extensive armoury of McMurdo and Crewsaver branded safety equipment from sponsors Survitec Group, including a Crewsaver ISO six-man valise liferaft and custom-made Crewsaver 180 Pro lifejackets. The liferaft includes the extended provisions pack, which contains food and water, first aid kit, six red hand flares, two waterproof torches and survival suits. The race rules also require a ‘grab bag’ to be stowed that includes a heliograph (signalling mirror), glucose tablets and flashlights. “Ocean Reunion” also has a spare PLB in the grab bag.
The lifejackets were chosen to be as low-profile and easy to wear as possible. Crewsaver modified its 180 Pro to include hoods and lights.
Each team member is to carry a McMurdo FastFind 220 PLB (personal locator beacon). With 24 hours’ battery life once activated, any man overboard that is separated from the vessel can individually transmit his location via satellite to rescue services.
They will also be carrying a Raymarine Life Tag device on their lifejacket waist bands. This creates an AIS target for the man overboard that can be located using the Raymarine chartplotter on board. Also, any rescue vessel with an AIS system will be able to locate the casualty immediately.
The final line of defence is the McMurdo G5 Smartfind EPIRB – the manually activated non-GPS version. Angus’ previous ocean-rowing boat had an auto-activated EPIRB on board. “It went off after five days due to the soaking we got from the waves, so we completed the rest of the Indian Ocean trip without a working EPIRB. This time I wanted to have something completely manual and basic.”
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4. AIS and navigation
As well as the Life Tags, Raymarine supplied the team with navigation, autopilot and the all-important AIS650 transceiver (see also: What is AIS and is it worth fitting?). “We recently rowed across the North Sea testing all of our equipment fully for the first time,” says Jack. “The danger of getting run down by a larger vessel is worse in the North Sea than in the Atlantic. We transmit our own AIS signal because we’re not very manoeuvrable. We are unable to row into a wind over 10 knots and our maximum speed in optimal conditions is 5 knots and we have no emergency auxiliary power.”
The team approached Raymarine for a completely interconnecting system. “All we really need to know is where we are and which way we’re pointing,” says Angus. “We’ve got the E-series 7-inch plotter in the cabin and a repeater outside on deck. The Linear evo mechanical autopilot has a remote control and the Raymarine wireless solar-powered wind package and smart through-hull transducer will give us all the rest of the numbers we need.”
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The team decided on Yak offshore clothing, which is a kayaking and paddling brand rather than sailing brands as the kit is specially adapted to the movements paddlers and rowers need to make.
“Hopefully we won’t be wearing the Yak stuff too often,” comments Angus. In the trade-wind latitudes the heat and physical exertion should enable the team to row with little or nothing on most of the time. “The fact is that you’re going to get wet and any clothing in such a confined space will get wet inside. Salt crystals form and then start to rub against your skin – obviously there is a lot of movement in rowing – so if it’s warm enough we won’t be wearing anything.”
But there must be some form of padding or protection for your rear end while rowing? “Generally, we will rely on the seat for protection. We plan on using a standard sculling seat that is covered by a layer of foam then a layer of sheepskin – which is nice on the bum.
“But when it’s really rough and you need to stay dry we’ve got the Yak Glacier cag (short for cagule) and the dry trousers with latex seals, plus base layers too.”
6. Solar panels and fuel cell
One of the biggest power requirements in ocean rowing is for the water maker – it is in the rules of the race that competitors must carry one.
“We have 225-Watt solar array and two 90Ah Victron gel batteries. Initially we decided to go without the extra weight of the fuel cell,” says Angus. “But what we’ve realised is that with a single power source – solar power – you have to prioritise the water maker in the morning to make all the water for the day and then you have to carry that water while the solar panels recharge the batteries. With the EFOY Comfort 80 we can just turn on the water maker when we want to use it so we’re not carrying all that dead weight. The solar panels should do most of the work so we are only taking 10 litres of methanol.”
7. Spare oars
“We’ve got three spare sets of oars,” says Jack. “There’s two rowing positions: the stern (or stroke) position and the forward (bow) position. And one spare set of oars for each rowing position plus one extra. It’s not that uncommon for oars to break in the ocean waves. With waves on the beam you’re actually constantly trying to pick your oar strokes.
“We’ve found some rowing positions that work better than others. We have had a couple of sessions with a rowing coach and the technique is fine in flat water but as soon as you get out into the waves which is 90 per cent of the time, it’s pretty hard to have a good technique.
“Actually it’s your nautical experience rather than rowing expertise that counts. If you’re good at sea and know how to do everything necessary – that’s much more of a benefit than how good you are at rowing.”
About Ocean Reunion
The crew are all old school friends with a shared interest in sport and adventure. Two of the crew have nautical experience – Jack Mayhew through sailing with his family, and Angus Collins who rowed from Australia to the Seychelles in 2014 with a four-man team called “Fast Row West” and works with Rannoch Adventure building ocean rowing boats.
Angus Barton “Gus” is a former professional rugby player and now works as a personal trainer. He’s built the physical training routines for the team and, according to Angus Collins has the right mentality to push himself hard. Joe Barnett is another experienced sportsman who is also extremely driven and stubborn.
However, neither Joe nor Gus has much experience at sea and Gus in particular suffers from seasickness and can’t swim.
All money raised goes towards the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and the Teenage Cancer Trust. "Ocean Reunion" is hoping to raise £100,000 in total.