This is it! The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2017 is about to get started. These words were the culmination of a three-and-a-half year long period of juggling my studies at ETH Zurich with fundraising, physical preparation, and technical training.
As part of a four-man team, I was about to row across the Atlantic ocean. Along the 5’000km journey, our small team would ride the waves with dolphins, whales, and Russian freighters. We would battle sleep deprivation, dehydration, 10m waves and winds of up to 80km/h.
Of course, we didn’t have any idea this would be the case when we set off, so let me start this story from the beginning.
In April 2014, Laurenz, Luca, Yves and I started to seriously pursue the idea of rowing across the Atlantic. Except for Yves, not one of us had ever rowed a boat. We had no idea how we might raise the 150’000 CHF needed for the project, nor how to navigate open seas, and our collective ocean experience essentially amounted to a couple of casual days at the beach. The fact that we didn’t know exactly what we were getting ourselves into was a large part of why we wanted to do it: The goal was to step beyond our comfort zone and this rowing adventure seemed like a pretty safe bet to do so.
Now, we weren’t suicidal. On the contrary, I would argue that our appreciation of life is what ultimately made us do it.
If you limit yourself to what you already know, then can you honestly claim to be living your life to the fullest?
Well, we couldn’t. So we learned how to row, we went to the United Kingdom for technical training, and we bought a second-hand ocean rowing boat called, “Mrs. Nelson.” Raising funds was remarkably difficult. So much so that three months before the start of the race we weren’t even sure whether we’d get enough money together to realize our dream. Somehow, we managed (well not quite, but that’s a story for another time). Two weeks before launching across the Altantic, we found ourselves on the beautiful island of La Gomera, Spain, carrying out the final preparations for our crossing. Preparing alongside of us were 25 like-minded teams, many of whom we now consider our dear friends.
The 2017 edition of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge launched on December 14th. We wanted to start strong, so for the first 30 hours we rowed as hard as we could for shifts of two-and-a-half hours with 90-minute breaks in between.
Seasickness kicked in almost immediately. Blisters and salt rashes followed soon after, and by the second day, we were already sleep deprived.
Surprise, this was going to hurt a little. Three days into the race, having transitioned to two hours of rowing followed by two hours of rest, we finally got out of the wind shadow of the Canary Islands and our ride became a lot wilder. Strong winds meant tall waves and it turns out that waves do actually break in the middle of an ocean. Consequently, we regularly found ourselves surfing five to eight meter waves, which propelled us forward at 14 to 22km/h (Incidentally, our record for the whole crossing was just over 31km/h, surfing a wave that must have been close to ten meters tall.)
On the one hand, these were fantastic conditions as we were making great progress towards the finish line in Antigua. On the other hand, we were sitting about 30cm above water level in a boat that was less than 1.8m wide and just over 8m long in the middle of storm-like weather. Waves were breaking all around us and while we could surf some of them, others crashed right onto us, knocking us off our rowing seats. The murky night didn’t improve matters as it was often too dark to see the blades of our own oars, let alone the oncoming waves. Talk about stepping out of our comfort zones. Goal accomplished.
That being said, there was so much more to our crossing than pain and fear. Never have I seen sunsets that came close to what we saw nearly every evening we were out there. Then, as dusk turned into night, innumerable stars appeared and we found ourselves rowing in the middle of the Atlantic under a clearly visible Milky Way. No appointments, no deadlines, no social obligations. Though seldom easy, life was very simple and we sincerely enjoyed it. We talked about becoming fathers, discussed our professional careers, and literally pondered the meaning of life.
Interestingly enough, no matter how profound the initial topic of our conversations, we always ended up daydreaming about fresh food.
We laughed ourselves to tears when one of us (the name here is not important) was so sleep deprived that he not only reported for his shift 15 minutes early, he did so “butt naked” without realizing it. We found it hilarious when a flying fish slapped one of us in the face so hard that he let go of his oars. There are countless stories like these. We listened to heavy metal, rowed through thunderstorms and felt like Vikings on the quest to conquer a new world. After around 10 days at sea, we ate our last orange and learned what it really means to appreciate the simple things in life. I felt genuinely inspired by all three of my teammates. Each taught me invaluable life-lessons along our journey. If I had to single out the one thing in the whole experience for which I’m most grateful, it would be that I got to undertake this journey with three absolute legends.
Anyway, when we finally reached Antigua after 30 days, 4 hours and 59 minutes at sea, we experienced the craziest welcome.
The super yachts blew their horns and flares burned left, right, and center. Our families and friends greeted us with open arms and led us to a white tablecloth, made ready with fresh burgers and cold beer. We simply could not have dreamed of a better arrival. It was the conclusion to an epic adventure. This project demanded everything we had and though we gave it our all, we would not have made it without the numerous unsung heroes that supported us throughout our journey. So let me dedicate our story to them, may they lead a wonderful life full of excitement.
In the spirit of passing on their acts of kindness, we’re raising money for abandoned children. We are extremely lucky to be born in a place where we can chase our dreams and want to give these kids the same opportunity. You can support us in this endeavor by donating here or by sharing our story. Thank you .
By Marlin Strub