Not that it’s going to be a pleasure cruise, what with four guys cramped in an 8.8-metre-long rowboat in the middle of the Atlantic, dodging waves, avoiding tanker ships, using a bucket for a toilet. But for those moments of kick-back relaxation, Adam Kreek is bringing his mandolin.
He figures he’ll have a little time here and there to practise and get his mind off all those endless hours of rowing, from Senegal to the United States, close to 3,700 nautical miles – some 6,000 kilometres. Just four guys taking two-man shifts. Nothing but oars without shores for as many as 100 days, depending on the conditions.
Why do something so daunting? That was the question Rebecca Kreek posed when her 2008 Olympic gold medalist of a husband was asked at a dinner party, “So Adam, what’s new with you?” To which he blurted: “I thinking I’m going to row across the ocean.” With his mandolin.
And just like that Kreek became part of the Canadian Wildlife Federation-backed Africa to the Americas Expedition and a crewman aboard the mighty James Robert Hanssen, an ocean-going rowboat named after the late father of the expedition’s captain, Jordan Hanssen. Together, Kreek, Markus Pukonen of Tofino, B.C., and Pat Fleming and Hanssen of Seattle’s OAR Northwest plan to embark Jan. 10 on an extreme test of human endurance, with some scientific experiments tossed in for good measure.
“I have no idea what I’ll learn from it,” Kreek said of his awfully big adventure, “and that’s enticing.”
To say the Africa to the Americas row is an ambitious project is to say the Great Wall of China does go on. The four oarsmen of the JRH are out to set a record for the longest ocean crossing in a rowboat outfitted with the latest gadgetry – solar-powered satellite-tracking equipment, an Automatic Identification System so they’ll be radar-spotted by bigger ships, a desalination unit to convert salt water into fresh water. Plus, there’s the whole research aspect to the trip.
Along the way, conductivity and density probes will be placed in the Atlantic to record data from the upper layers of the ocean. The rowers will be completing surveys and communicating with different schools to promote outdoor activity. They’ll also be wearing Readibands, a wristwatch that logs their rest, sleep and wake cycles and “includes software that analyzes the levels of fatigue and cognitive performance.” The information will be collected and studied by the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary led by its medical director, Charles Samuels.
“We have a very specific goal: can we improve on the current standards of practice of an ocean-rowing team? How much can we push the human body when you can’t push it anymore?” Samuels said. “This is an opportunity to add to the research we’re doing for the whole athletic experience.”
The crew of the JRH is as athletic as it is eclectic.
Kreek won Olympic gold in 2008 with the Canadian men’s eight rowing team and now works as a motivational speaker.
Pukonen has climbed Bolivia’s Huayna Potosi mountain – 6,080 metres in elevation – and two years ago became the first person to stand-up paddleboard from Vancouver to Nanaimo, a distance of 55 kilometres, which Pukonen covered in 10 hours. He’s a documentary filmmaker.
Fleming is a river guide in the summer and a winter ski patroller who tosses explosives on snow-draped slopes to control avalanches.
As for the skipper, Hanssen has cycled across Australia and canoed down the Rio Grande River. He knew Fleming, drew Pukonen and recruited Kreek for a follow-up to his first trans-Atlantic row, from England to New York in 2006. The good and bad of that journey, with a different crew, has been a guiding light.
“Our goal this time is science and education, to share this experience as much as we can,” said Hanssen, who did his first ocean crossing to learn about himself and whether he was up to a monumental challenge. “The boat we’re using now is a lot more complex. We probably have three times as many bits of equipment to test air and water quality, turbidity, density. We have a separate satellite for the scientific data [which will be monitored from afar].”
The crew will also have a lot more food than was packed away for the first voyage. In 2006, each of the four rowers lost at least 25 pounds and one was hampered by a severe case of constipation. Kreek was given the ‘feed us more’ assignment and went about figuring how to stuff the JRH’s limited quarters with the proper kinds of nourishment.
“They had half the calories of food they should have had in 2006,” Kreek said. “We have [Victoria’s] Lifestyle Markets sponsoring us with close to $10,000 worth of food, more than 350 kilograms of it – oats, polenta, canned tuna, cheese that’s vacuum sealed.”
And for constipation?
“For that we’re bringing flax seed and having more fibre in our diet. And there’s a full medical kit on board with opiates, morphine, antibiotics,” Kreek added. “We’re covered.”
The meal plan has the rowers consuming 6,000 calories a day for the first 60 days, with 3,000 calories per day per man on hand for the final 40 days. The rowers will expend at least 6,000 calories a day and upward of 10,000 calories. (The average male adult requires about 2,500 calories a day.) Grains are the heart of the recipes: Instant oatmeal or flaked quinoa at breakfast, and for dinner, a rotation of rice, potatoes, polenta, beans and couscous.
Spending more than two months on the water in close quarters with little sleep and blistered hands is going to chafe the human psyche, and Kreek has made a point of getting advice on that, too. He’s spoken with noted sports psychologist Terry Orlick about strategies to avoid and resolve conflict. Hanssen will cast the deciding vote on matters while all four men will row in different shifts with different partners to avoid forming factions.
The space is cramped. While the 1,000-kilogram boat – billed as the most technically advanced rowboat in the world – is 8.8 metres, the aft cabin for sleeping, science and communication is just 2.4-metres, where two men will sleep while the other two rowers take one-, two– and four-hour shifts.
The crew has been through enough training sessions and even did a practice row around Vancouver Island in April – taking three weeks to row 1,200 kilometres – to gain a sense of camaraderie and confidence. “All our skills fit together,” said Pukonen, who will be filming the Atlantic crossing with a series of cameras. “I don’t have any fear going into this. I’m just excited to get started.”
So is the outdoorsy Fleming, who is bringing aboard “a trashy romance novel so I can get some good laughs when we need them.” So is Hanssen, who is also bringing a book to read, Moby Dick. He calls it his “inoculation against obsession.” And so, too, is Kreek, who is coming aboard with his mandolin and a thrill for an adventure he cannot yet fathom.
“Going to the Olympics I felt I had a lot of epiphanies. The second Olympics, I learned a lot less and that’s why I stopped,” he explained. “This epic adventure is about, ‘What will I discover about myself and the planet? Will it give me a new insight into how we live?’ To say much more than that, I don’t know. I’ve never rowed across the ocean before.”