When the explorer undertook the challenge of rowing the Atlantic alongside three other men in 2012, he experienced the life altering power of the ocean in its ability to make one realise both what is and isn’t important
Words Alastair Humphreys
Illustration Tim McDonagh
That this story takes place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, three weeks out to sea, thousands of miles still to row, is irrelevant. It could be a silent, scorching desert – a desert, or the howling emptiness of the vast frozen Greenland ice cap. The allure is the same. The horror is the same. The wonder is the same.
The minutiae of the daily worries and discomfort differ, certainly. What is worse – hot or cold? Soaking wet or parched with thirst? Sand in your underwear or vomiting in the gunwales? Answer: the ‘worst’ is the one you are experiencing right now. Right now when you feel certain that life can never be worse than this.
Part of the appeal of rowing an ocean is the extraordinary cumulative power of what happens when you dip an oar into the sea several times a minute, every single minute, day and night, for a month and a half. But with such tiny deeds oceans are crossed. Even looking back I find the concept of setting out in an eight-metre rowing boat, to attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean, to be both preposterous and audacious in equal measure.
Before you row an ocean you can accurately predict the difficulties. Seasickness. Debilitating sleep deprivation. The grinding pain of open sores on your buttocks and having to sit on those sores whilst you row for 12 hours every day. Storms. The feeling of helplessness as huge waves smash the boat. Boredom. Brief panics at the prospect of being run down by huge ships that cannot see you. Jumping overboard to scrub the hull and contemplating sharks. Dehydrated food. Knowing that you are never more than one stumble away from falling overboard and – especially at night – probable death.
But toughest of all is the inability to step away from your situation. In a desert or in the Arctic you can walk away from your camp and put some physical distance between you and your tent. It’s an escape of sorts, a chance to let off steam. But rowing an ocean not only gnaws at you because of the vast emptiness of which you are helplessly in the middle. It also chews you up because of the tiny cell you are incarcerated in. All around you is death and water – water you cannot drink nor survive in without the boat for very long. Neither Claustrophobics nor Agoraphobics need apply.
The seasickness passes, you adapt to lack of sleep; magic pink pills ease the pain. And all that remains is perspective. To be isolated for so long on a flat blue disc, thousands of miles from land, with a view unchanged since the day the planet began is extraordinary. Experiencing that vastness, and the sense it gives of life’s fragility and glory, is one of the greatest privileges of my life. Sometimes you need to take a step further away to take something in completely, to focus properly. The ocean helped me to evaluate what were the important things in my life. The simplicity of the days also helped me remember what was not important in my life. Modern life has a tendency to be busy and cluttered and full, without always being fulfilling. The empty ocean clarified what I should reduce, cut out, or leave behind. Sometimes less is more.
Alastair is an adventurer and writer