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Tom Butscher photographed by Lake Ontario (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Tom Butscher photographed by Lake Ontario (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

endurance

Toronto Islands resident to row across the Atlantic Add to ...

As Canada's 2009 marathon sculling champion, 67-year-old Tom Butscher would normally be a prized member at any of the city's rowing clubs.

But the clubs won't have him, the Toronto Islands resident explains through the remnants of a Swiss accent.

Safety-conscious clubs prefer members stay near shore while tottering on crafts less than a foot wide. Mr. Butscher likes to put a little surface area between his boat and the land.

"Toronto looks so small from 10 kilometres out on the lake," says Mr. Butscher. "You can hardly see the island. It's just a grey line on the horizon."

That's a view of land that will seem downright intimate to Mr. Butscher starting this weekend when he and 13 other rowers set out from Morocco and point their 12-metre-long catamaran for the Barbados.

If they can pull their way across the Atlantic Ocean in less than 33 days, they will break the world speed record (ocean rowing is an unregulated affair, with no restrictions on number of rowers or route for record attempts). Mr. Butscher himself would become the oldest person to ever row across an ocean, but he isn't expecting much of a celebration even if they do set a new standard for the increasingly frequent trans-oceanic rows.

"We are going to crawl off that boat," he says.

The crew of 16 includes a non-rowing captain and David Davlianidze, an engineer from Georgia who owns a marina on Long Island, N.Y. He's assembled the crew of what he calls "athletic engines" from seven countries for the inaugural voyage of the 6.5-metre wide, two-hulled catamaran, Big Blue.

Mr. Butscher made the cut from more than 60 applicants because he knows what it means to wear out an oarlock - he's crossed Lake Ontario solo five times and rowed from Hamilton to Kingston in six days. When it comes to distance, the longer the better, he says, but he isn't sure what to expect from a schedule that will have him rowing two hours on, two hours off, 24 hours a day for more than a month.

"When these things don't work out, it's usually because of mental abilities. Sleep deprivation can turn you into a different person," says Mr. Butscher.

At least one crew member is hoping Mr. Butscher's personality stays just the way it is. Fifty-five-year-old Steve Roedde grew up on the Toronto Islands before moving to Sault Ste. Marie, where he is an emergency doctor. He's raced against Mr. Butscher at Canadian championships and the two spent 24 hours rowing together during a training weekend last fall.

"Tom makes you smile just by looking at him," says Mr. Roedde. "He comes out with a steady stream of hilarious one-liners, but it also has to do with a certain joyous spirit."

Perhaps remembering the close quarters they'll be sharing, Mr. Roedde adds, "But he snores when tired."

This may become more than an afterthought as the two enter the third week of living in the catamaran's central cabin. The eight bunks, shared by alternating shifts, leave a living area of only about four metres squared, much of which will be given over to stores of fuel, otherwise known as food.

The rowers will need about 7,000 calories daily. A steady stream of snacks will bridge between two "proper" meals, which the rowers will prepare themselves by opening bags and pouring hot, desalinated water onto dehydrated food.

When not bumping into each other in the cabin they'll be exposed to the elements, toiling at the sweep oars. The boat will climb and fall on each swell of the open ocean while they roll back and forth on the sliding seat, their feet locked into the bottom of the narrow pontoons. Though their route is considered safer than the northern summertime route from west-to-east, Mr. Butscher admits there is no telling what the weather systems cruising the Atlantic will whip up.

Still, he doesn't seem worried about the coming deprivation.

"The human body can get used to lots of things. Look at the Chilean miners," he says. "I was in the Swiss army. This should be far more comfortable."

It was in 1968, a few years after his mandatory military service and a near-Olympic speed-skating career, that Mr. Butscher wound up in Toronto as a salesman for a flooring company. Ten years later, he and his wife moved to Ward's Island and he started his own flooring-installation business.

A career spent placing tiles and carpet took its toll and in 2000 Mr. Butscher asked his neighbour if he could borrow his rowing scull to "straighten out his back."

He learned how to row from a book, but found he could apply some of the rhythm and pacing techniques drilled into him as a speed skater. A year later he was crossing the lake to St. Catharines.

He eventually completed a there-and-back crossing in 12 hours. He's since proven to be a force on the longer races of the recreational circuit, placing second among a far younger field in the 21-kilometre 2008 Canadian sculling championships and winning the 42-kilometre race in 2009. In 2010, he was beating his previous pace by nine minutes halfway through when he pulled up with cramps, something he blames on the heat, not a lack of training.

A typical two-hour practice session will take him from the Toronto Islands to the Humber Bay Arch Bridge and back. Getting on the water at 5 a.m., he watches the city wake up from his eight-metre mahogany scull.

"Rowers are early risers. We like it when it's calm, quiet, beautiful."

Whether he is still appreciating early hours as yet another Atlantic sunrise appears over the stern remains to be seen. For now, he maintains the trip could be in part enjoyable.

"I can't wait until the dolphins find us. And a sailor I know has told me the nights out there are amazing."

His main goal, however, is to make sure he isn't demoted to coxswain.

"I may soon be the oldest human to row across an ocean but, most importantly, I'm not going to be the weak link. I plan to pull my weight, walk away under my own power, and have a long shower."



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