Ocean Rowing: a short introduction

Ocean rowing is an increasingly popular extreme sport where oceans are crossed or islands are circumnavigated with purepose-built expedition rowing boats.

John Fairfax and Sylvia Cook rowing Britannia II across the Pacific
John Fairfax and Sylvia Cook rowing it across the Pacific

Ocean Rowing Today

Since 1997 a biennial rowing race on the Atlantic is taking place. This competition with starting point on the Canary Islands crosses the mighty Atlantic Ocean and end on one of the Caribbean islands. There is no prize to win and it takes a tremenddous amount of effort, stamina and funds. It was initiated by Sir Chay Blyth who became first known in 1966, when he, together with John Ridgeway, repeated the legendary first Transatlantic crossing in a rowboat by two poor fishermen, Norwegian immigrants to the US George Harbo and Frank Samuelson (more on them later) in 92 days.

Since 2009 there is also a biennial race across the Indian Ocean and a race across the Pacific from the USA to Hawaii is in preparation. The sport is practiced mainly by the British and French and is officially represented by the London-based Ocean Rowing Society .

Since 2006 another race across the Atlantic is taking place under French leadership, the Rames Guyane from Dakar, Senegal to French Guiana.

While there can be significantly bigger teams, the most popular is the pairs team (exception: the Bouvet Rames-Guyane is singlehanded-only). All participants of the race are accompanied by a sail boat in case support is required.

In spite of the regular events held these days, far fewer people have rowed across an ocean than have climbed Mount Everest. Apart from races exist a handful of seasoned adventurers, who row across oceans solo and unsupported, all by themselves.

The by far most popular route is the “Tradewinds-Route” from the Canary Islands/the North African coast due west to the Caribbean. Today almost all oceans have been rowed across: the North- and South Atlantic, North- and South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the North Sea, the North East Passage and even a circumnavigation of Antarctica has been attempted and will perhaps tried again soon.

Boat Design and Equipment

The early Ocean Rowing Boats

The Fox, the boat used by the two Norwegians George Harbo & Frank Samuelson, a Skiff, was a simple, 18-foot ship-lap (clinker-built) oak rowboat, built with water-resistant cedar sheathing with a couple of watertight flotation compartments and two rowing benches.

In contrast, many of the other rowing boats used during the first generation of ocean rows (“historic rows”) belonged to the family of Dory Boats. Dories are compact, stackable, row- and sailable boats which where used as support boats in offshore fishing. 3.5 -5 m long, flat bottom, lightweight, simple construction and cheap, these boats had been chosen by some of the ocean rowing veterans and customized to their needs.

With the advent of the era of modern ocean rows, highly specialized boats, optimized for this very purpose, had been designed and constructed. From Uffa Fox’ legendary design of Britannia I + II, to Kathleen and Curtis Saville’s Excalibur, Peter Birds Sector 2 and many more.

The Challenge-Class Boat

With the event of the first Atlantic Rowing Race (AORR) in 1997 a standardized design was needed to guarantee equality of opportunity and a comparably cheap build. This boat type, better known as the “Challenge Class Design” was developed by Phil Morrison & Peter ‘Spud’ Rowsell and is still available as kit of Lloyd’s certified marine-grade plywood. These days, this design is the quasi-standard and also the most popular for expedition use.

Olly Hicks rows Miss Olive
Length: 7.1 m or 23.4 ft
Width: 1.9 m or 6.3 ft
Weight empty: 250 kg or 550 lbs
Ballast: 150 kg or 330 lbs of water
Weight (laden): 750 kg or 1.650 lbs
Made from: Lloyds certified marine-grade plywood

Since 2002 exists a new generation of Challenge Class Boats, which are made completely from glass-fiber laminate or from carbon fiber laminate in the “luxury version” (lighter, more durable, more expensive). The classic is the pairs boat, which also can easily be rowed by a single person, with special purpose built boats are being constructed including teams of up 14 rowers.

Modern ocean rowing boats are somewhat “hightech-toys”: they are equipped with GPS-navigation, radio, a desalination unit for making drinking water, a radar reflector/amplifier to make the boat appear bigger on a ship’s radar, a tracking device which sends signals to track the route and locate the boat in case of emergency, and an emergency signal emitter (EPIRB), similar purpose but which can be carried along.

Additionally, most people take satellite-phones, laptops, cameras and entertainment such as Mp3 Players with them. Power is generated from solar panels plus an optional wind generator and stored in special marine batteries.

How to row across an ocean


The first challenge when rowing across an ocean is to get away from land and the relatively dangerous coast. Relatively dangerous because, as an ocean rowing boat weighing a ton or more and being handled by a single person can be difficult to maneuver in rough conditions and coastlines often hold cliffs, strong currents, shipping traffic and other hazards.

Image of the remains of Alex Bellini's ROSE DE ATACAMA on Formentera Island
Remains of Alex Bellini’s ROSE DE ATACAMA on Formentera

Once the boat is on the open ocean, it is relatively safe, provided it a suitable season had been chosen. Despite of the latter, this is no guarantee for an easy passage, and, due to changing weather patterns caused by global warming, it may as well happen to be caught by a stom off-hurricane season.

Contact with Ships

Apart from storms and collisions with ships, floating debris and large animals are threats, though more or less just floating debris poses a real threat. There are hardly any reports of a whale damaging a ship on purpose other than being bullied or threatened, but, although chances are low, it’s possible. Colliding with a big ship is a terrifying thought though a small craft like an ocean rowing boat behaves somewhat like a cork – it is therefore likely that in case of close proximity to a ship it will be pushed away from the ship’s hull by it’s bow wave.

On the other hand, when the sea-anchor is deployed it could be run over by a ship and in the process being caught up in it’s propeller causing the ocean rowing boat to be dragged underneath (should the line not snap…). What’s even worse, it’s very likely that the crew won’t even witness it, as many ships are running on autopilot these days with nobody on lookout…

Sharks, Whales, Jellyfish

Another threat are creatures of the sea, predators and nasty lifeforms such as jelly-fish. On every longer ocean rowing endeavor one sooner or later has to take a dip in the water. If not for cooling off, then to scrape barnacles off the hull. Despite the anti-fouling paint, the hull gets covered with barnacles quickly and has to be clean once in a while , as this carpet of vegetation significantly slows the boat down. Cleaning the hull is less a problem when rowing as a team as one can do the job and the other is on watch, whereas a solo rower is left to take care of business all by himself.

A shark could attack, but the greater threat in my opinion is the Portuguese Man o’ War, or bluebottle jellyfish, a thing with poisonous tentacles up to 1.5 m long. Contact is very painful if not life-threatening, and something one doesn’t want to get in contact with. But the greatest danger of all is human failure – therefore being concentrated and sticking to the routines at all times is vital.

Picture of a Portuguese Man o' War, Wikipedia
Portuguese Man o’ War, Wikipedia

Body and Mind

According to experienced oceanrowers rowing an ocean is 80% mental. Being fit and strong prior to departure is important, but focusing on training is overrated. After all, this is a marathon – it will take 3 to 4 months to get from Portugal to Brazil – so there’s plenty of time to get fit. Much more important than being in good shape is to have enough energy reserves (“body fat”) as rowing for 10 to 12 hours a day will take its toll in the consumption of up to 8000 kcal/day.

Supplement the diet with fish could along the way is possible, but not suitable as a replacement for high-caloric nutrition. Fish is rich in protein, which doesn’t make it a good source of energy in the first place. I am not an expert on this but made my fair share of experiences with on other expeditions where I had to intensely rely on my powers for an extended amount of time. Having resources makes you go stronger for a longer time, because even with a well adjusted diet the calorie intake is limited. Simply put, in the long run the body would “eat itself up” and even doing it faster on a low fat, low carb protein-rich diet.

Go with the Flow

In the same way as it is important to consider physiological aspects, it is also vital to make use of nature in an intelligent way. To successfully set sail and leave the coast behind waiting for a window with several days of fair weather and favorable winds is eminent, as no man has the power to succeed in battling against strong winds and currents in the long run. In the same way it doesn’t make sense to keep on rowing when the wind is blowing head on – better to conserve power and deploy the sea anchor and wait it out.

In general, it only makes sense to go with the forces of nature, that is, ideally, having the winds in the back and currents moving in the way of travel. Theoretically, one wouldn’t even need any means of additional propulsion: a floating object, thrown in the sea on the Canary Islands will travel automatically to the Caribbean in about 9 months time. By rowing, this time can be greatly reduced to approx. 3 to 4 months. Generally spoken, rowing oceans is best done in between latitudes 40° south and 40° north, where the prevailing winds blow west in the southern- and east in the northern hemisphere.

Nutrition and Provisioning

On a multi-month ocean rowing expedition one is required to carry all food and a fair amount of water. For the production of drinking water, special water desalination units fueled on solar power have proved themselves to be the way to go. In theory, rain could be collected, but practically it’s a menial business as it gets spoiled easily (usually when it rains the sea is also rough) and it is also not advisable to occupy oneself with this vital task when in a storm. Food usually comes in freeze-dried rations and transforms in a more or less delicious meal when hot water is added.

Most important is that there is variation in taste, and that it can be easily prepared as one doesn’t want to spend more time than necessary with daily chores. A disadvantage of freeze-dried products is that they are fairly expensive and sometimes difficult to import to certain countries. It is possible though to go with conventional supermarket food (fresh, canned, freeze-dried), but it will make the boat heavier, some of it won’t last long enough or gets spoiled easier, it has to be payed more attention to the nutritional value and it needs to be suitable to be eaten without preparation.

History and remarkable People

Ocean rowing can be divided in two eras: the first twelve rows are considered to be historical rows as they have been done with none to very limited modern equipment. In the same way all ocean rows which have taken place thereafter are considered modern rows. The central organ for the Ocean Rowing Sport is the London-based Ocean Rowing Society.

The first Ocean Crossing

in the history of mankind was achieved by to Norwegian fishermen, George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, which had emigrated to the US. They set sail from New York on 6. June 1896 at 5 p.m. local time and reached St. Mary’s on the Scilly Isles (UK) on 11. August at 11 a.m. (GMT). Their rowing boat, the Fox, named after the Publisher who supported the endeavor, was a simple open rowing boat with a watertight compartment for provisions and two rowing seats.

Sleeping and rowing was done alternately. To right the boat in case of capsizing, the boat had two handles on each side underneath the waterline. The two Norwegians managed to cross the treacherous North Atlantic in a record-breaking time of 55 days, which nobody succeeded in breaking until the present day. Read about it in: Daring the Sea: The True Story

The second Ocean Crossing

Until an ocean was crossed again by oars almost 70 years should pass. On 4. June 1966 John Ridgeway und Sir Chay Blyth set sail from Cap Cod (USA) with their boat “English Rose III” to reach the Aran Isles (Ireland) on 3. September after 91 days at sea. Not long ago two other Brits, David Johnstone und John Hoare, had tried it with their boat “Puffin”. They had set sail from Virginia Beach (USA) to be never seen again.

The HMCS Chaudière discovered the upside-down floating, but otherwise intact “Puffin” on 14. October 1966 with no sight of the two men. According to the log rowing was impossible due to strong winds. It is believed that they have been washed over board on the 106. day in a brutal storm without managing to get back on board.

The first Single-handed Crossing: John Fairfax

Shortly after, one of the most enigmatic characters of the ocean rowing scene stepped on stage: John Fairfax. Professional adventurer, smuggler, pirate und much more. Son to an english father and a Bulgarian mother, who, after World War II first went with him to Italy and then to Argentina. At the age of 14 he decided to live in the jungle like Tarzan. He almost starved to death but was taught by indians how to survive.

Hunting animals for their furs he made a small fortune, which he then spend in a short amount of time on a roadtrip through the US and especially with a Chinese callgirl in San Francisco. He then decided to return back to Argentina, but didn’t want to ask his mother for money. He bought a bike, cycled to Guatemala where he got fed up of it and continued hitchhiking. He met a group of artists, Beatniks, and stayed with them for 3 months. Then he signed on as crew on a columbian ship which he had to flee head over heels when there was a mutiny.

After this he got engaged with a smuggler and pirate before he eventually came to London in the summer of 1966 to fulfill his childhood dream: to become the first one to row across the Atlantic single handedly. As the shock about the deaths of John Hoare and David Johnstone was still fresh in people’s minds this was not the best time and nobody showed much interest in the project. It was not until he met the brilliant boat designer Uffa Fox, who designed him a special boat that there was some progress.

The design of Uffa Fox’ boat was similar to how a life boat was designed: it was divided in several watertight sections, unsinkable, self-bailing and aggressively self-righting. Furthermore it had plastazote blisters on bow and stern as flotation aids and to provide some shelter from the elements. Based on experiences made after his crossing, John Fairfax started too late in the season (20. January), therefore he couldn’t take full advantage of the trade winds as he could have, would he have already set out in late November/early December.

In addition to this he had bad luck with the weather preventing his progress due west for the first two months. But then, on 19. July 1969, exactly 180 days after he took off from Tenerife he beached his boat Britannia in Fort Lauderdale/Florida. To value his achievements respectively, it has to be said that even the Apollo 11 Lunar Mission Team consisting of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin A. Aldrin Jr. paid him respect from outer space. Read about it in the book: Britannia, rowing alone across the Atlantic

The first woman: Sylvia Cook

Although John Fairfax had sworn to never touch oars again, he did it shortly after and rowed across the Pacific from San Fransisco to Australia. This time Sylvia Cook, his girlfriend from London who he had met through a newspaper advert, trying to find supportive people for his Atlantic rowing project. But Sylvia, an avid rower herself, first had to take some swimming lessons before she could think of embarking on the open ocean. Who now thinks that she just might have been decoration is wrong: when John was bitten and badly wounded fooling around with a shark, it was her who rowed the remaining leg to Australian shores single-handedly. Read about it in the book: Oars across the Pacific

The first female Single-handed Crossing: Tori Murden McClure

a US-American from Brooksville, Florida. Tori managed to become the first woman to single-handedly row across the Atlantic on 3. December 1999. She started from the Canary Islands and finished the trip on the Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe. It was her second attempt after she had failed the year before due to the hurricane season. To be read about in: A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean

Another remarkable Rower: Peter Bird

Already as a little kid Peter Bird was fascinated by boats. After he had read stories about John Fairfax, Blyth and Ridgeway, his heart was beating faster every time he heard one of those names. During his mid-twenties, he was selling silk paintings door to door at that time, he met Derek King, who just had rowed around Ireland in a small boat. He asked him whether he was planning another project, which he answered with “yes” and that he was actually looking for a partner. The project: Rowing around the world.

Portait of Peter Bird
Peter Bird

On 24. March 1974 they set sail from Gibraltar in John Fairfax’ and Sylvia Cooks Britannia II, reaching the Island of St. Lucia after 103 days. Broke they returned to London and it seemed as if that would be the end to his ocean rowing career. Then he heard of Patrick Saterlee who attempted to row across the Pacific solo. Shortly after when he got notice that Saterlee abandoned his attempt after 1 day, he traveled to San Fransisco to find Britannia II. He succeeded and rowed her to Hawaii in 1980 where she got shipwrecked when approaching the Island of Maui.

A Hawaiian boat builder offered to build a new boat for free, the “Hele-on-Britannia” (Hawaiian for “Carry on, Britannia”), asking him only to help with the build. As in the meantime quite some time has gone by, he decided to take her to San Fransisco and start all over again. This time he made it and 294 days later he was rescued from the Great Barrier Reef by an Australian vessel.

1990 he decided to raise funds for a new project: die first crossing of the North Pacific from Vladivostok to North-America, after French-man Gerard d’Aboville succeeded in doing the first Pacific Crossing starting from Japan. On 3. June 1996 the 69. day of his fifth attempt, the Russian Rescue Centercaught an Emergency Distress Signal. The damaged boat was found soon, safety equipment on board completely untouched with no trace of Peter Bird. The way it looked, he must have been caught by surprise by floating logs, which damaged his boat and ultimately separated him from it.

And another remarkable rower: Eugene Smurgis

Eugene Smurgis was born son to a miltiary pilot in 1938 in Orenburg, Ural. It was then when he had finished school, during which he started rowing, studying and started working as a anthropology teacher in Tulpan, one of the furthest-most places along one of the Volga-tributaries, when he first saw the boat of his dreams, and which should influence his path in life so significantly.

The looks of this type of boat resembled a bit a dutch wooden shoe and had been used by the Pomori tribes along the upper Volga for centuries. He charged a local craftsman to build him such a boat. when it was finished he took it for a spin from which he returned 43 days and 4,500 km later. During the next twenty years he almost rowed 37,000 km on waterways in Russia and Siberia.

Image of Eugene Smurgis
Eugene Smurgis

In 1976 he rowed 26 days without seeing other human beings, 2 years later due north towards the Kara Sea without meeting humans for 40 consecutive days. But his ultimate dream was to row together with his son. In 1986, not even 15 years old he shanghaied him into a rowing adventure. Motivated by the idea to make his sissy son a man more rowing trips followed.

In 1992 they reached Murmansk, an ice-free port along the Arctic Sea, from which they rowed to London across the North Sea a year later, hoping to find Sponsors for their planned row around the world. The route, most of it north of the Arctic Circle proved their ability to suffer on the 88 day long trip. On 29. September 1993, four weeks after their arrival in London Eugene rowed down the Thames towards the open ocean.

He didn’t succeed in finding sponsorship and he was without his son. He had been detained as an illegal immigrant and was on his way back to Russia. Eugene fought desperately until he reached the Bay of Biscay, where he drowned under mysterious circumstances not far away from La Rochelle. His boat, fully intact, was washed ashore and a day later his dead body followed.

Ocean Rowing and the Germans

The idea to row across an ocean is widely unheard of in Germany and mentioning it people will probably think of it as a joke. Until this very year (2012) when German rower Janice Jakait succeeded to row from the European mainland (Portimao, Portugal) to Barbados in a record breaking 90 days, only six other Germans ever attempted to row across an ocean, two in 1997, two in 2004 but not as a team and both not living in Germany, and the remaining two again as a team in 2010.

The first Germans who ever have tried to row across an ocean were Boris Renzelmann and Nikolai Wedemeyer, participating in the first ever ocean rowing race from Tenerife Island to the Caribbean. Unfortunately they had to give up after ten days due to food poisoning.

In 2004, two germans tried it again, but this time not in the same boat and on different routes. Andreas Rommel attempted to row the North Atlantic but had to be taken on board of the MS Elbe on 14. September 2004.

Image of Andreas Rommel on Lady Georgia
Andreas Rommel on Lady Georgia

The other one, Peter Raab, an Expat-German living on Tenerife Island, row across the Atlantic with his Partner Tim Wilks in their boat “Marta Dos” during the annual Atlantic Rowing Race, making him the first German to have ever succeded in rowing across the Atlantic as well as any ocean.

Peter Raab & Tim Wilks, Arrival in Antigua
Peter Raab & Tim Wilks, Arrival in Antigua

The other team are Barbara Schwarzmann and Anton Weikmann. At first Barbara, inspired by her friend Alex Bellini had planned to row across the Atlantic solo, but when Anton, another friend who had heard of her plans declared to join in, she accepted the company. Unfortunately their adventure didn’t last long and they had to be rescued after a couple of days at sea with losing the boat in the process, but fortunately without human casualties. Read about it here (German only).

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