When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.”
That question, and those three words in response represent both awe and arrogance – the awe Man has in the face of nature’s immensity and fathomlessness, and the arrogance to conquer it.
And perhaps there was a bit of awe and arrogance in the Row2Rio team, who left dry land in Portugal on January 9 and stepped into a rowboat that could barely fit the four of them uncomfortably, and embarked on a nearly 2-month journey, rowing southwest across the Atlantic Ocean to get to Brazil.
On April 23rd, after 56 days alone in the vastness of the ocean, Jake Heath, Mel Parker, Luke Richmond and Susannah Cass, completed the second leg of their epic human-powered Odyssey from London to Rio de Janeiro. The first leg was by bicycle nearly 1,500 miles, from London to the Portuguese port city of Lagos. The third leg, which will commence next week, will also require them to cycle for about a month south to Rio de Janeiro, and their final destination.
Rowing and cycling their way across continents and oceans is clearly not a walk in the park. So why are these four doing it?
Olympic Pride: “The Atlantic was in the way but we thought that crossing it might be a way of linking the two host cities,” Jake Heath told BT News. Adding that he had also been inspired by the “fantastic feelings and sense of pride” felt when London hosted the Olympics and Paralympics four years ago.
Fight Cancer: The Row2Rio team is raising funds for the non-profit organization, Macmillan Cancer Support. In this Daily Mail article, Ms Parker said: “For me, the best day on the boat was finding out that a very close relative of mine had been given the 12-month all clear from cancer. “There were definitely tears on the boat. It has been a tough year, not made any easier by me rowing the Atlantic. The support we have received from Macmillan has been incredible. We all realized in our own ways that we need to give something back – it’s time to payback the kindness we received, with this challenge of a lifetime.”
Inspire: Heath again explained in the same Daily Mail article why this journey has been important to him. Mr Heath, who has four nephews under the age of four, added: “I wanted to do something that would inspire my nephews. I would quite like to be the cool uncle Jake. I think it is better to have youngsters who are interested in exploring and seeing the world, rather than just looking at it on the internet.”
Here is a news clip from Brazilian TV, showcasing the team’s arrival in Brazil:
Two men and two women are currently rowing their way from Portugal to Brazil. Susannah Cass, Jake Heath, Mel Parker and Luke Richmond have been rowing over six-weeks to shine the spotlight on the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, as well as raise funds to fight cancer.
This Row2Rio team is close to becoming the first four-man crew to row from Europe to South America, mainland to mainland. Think about it – four people in the middle of the Atlantic, rowing essentially 24/7, living off of food and water stored inside their 8.6 meter long boat.
While they are the first to make this particular journey across the Atlantic by rowing, the first to actually make this trip was famed explorer, Christopher Columbus. The Italian discoverer, sponsored by Spanish resources, had already found fame and glory in two prior voyages. While Columbus was looking for a westward path to Asia, he famously “discovered” America in his first voyage, naming the locals “Indians” thinking initially that he had made it to India.
It was in Columbus’ third voyage that he sailed from Europe to mainland South America in 1498, the first to do so. Columbus had three ships and a large crew, and it took him about two-and-a-half months to sail from Spain to Paria Peninsula, which is in present-day Venezuela.
The Row2Rio crew is trying to do it in less time, and they are close to completing the 3,600 mile ocean journey. Here is an excerpt from a Row2Rio blog post from Luke Richmond, explaining the travails as they approach their port of call, Refice, Brazil.
Mother Nature giveth and Mother Nature taketh away. Just as we had a shining light of hope for a fast easier finish to this adventure it all changed within the hour to a grinding slog throughout the night. I’ve adjusted my mindset to just accept whatever the next 8 days will throw at us, the greater the struggle the greater the glory.
The battle line has been drawn. We are currently 600 Nautical Miles from our final destination of Recife in Brazil. If you can imagine a line drawn from our current position to Recife, this is now a line we cannot cross. We must stay south of this line while moving south south west. If we go above it for too long we might not be able to land in Recife and will have to change our final harbour to one of the northern towns. The waves [are]trying to push us north, the wind is trying to push us north west and the current is pulling us west. It’s up to ourselves to fight to stay below our cut off line and get as far south as we can in case we get very bad weather. It’s going to be a fine line all the way to the end. It’s tough rowing but our bodies have been conditioned for it over the past weeks and now this is our final test.
Once they make it to Recife, they complete their journey to Rio by cycling down the Eastern coast of Brazil over 4 weeks, to bookend their journey, which started when the biked from London to Lagos, Portugal. What awaits them are family, friends and the festive atmosphere of Rio on the verge of its biggest party ever.
Columbus was not so lucky. After staying at Paria Peninsula for only a week, he set sail
What does it take to go from London to Rio on human power? Physically fit, mentally strong, well organized fanatics on a mission.
On January 9 of this year, 2 men and 2 women got on their bikes and cycled over 2,400 miles from Olympic Park in London to Lagos, a port town in southern Portugal. On January 31, they left Lagos and started rowing a 8.6 meter long boat called a Rannoch R45, which can house four or five people uncomfortably, allowing three people to row at the same time. They are currently close to the halfway mark rowing a total of 3,600 miles with the intent of hitting land at Recife, Brazil. From there, they will cycle down the Brazilian coast to Rio de Janeiro, which should take another four weeks.
The mission is raise awareness of the upcoming Rio Olympics, making the literal connection between the past 2012 Olympic venue with the future 2016 venue. But on the way, they are raising funds for cancer research, as well as their journey’s operations.
The four team members are:
Susannah Cass: a 27-year old PhD student of botany from Dublin
Jake Heath: a 29-year old podiatrist from Twickenham
Mel Parker: a 27-year old fundraiser for a children’s charity from Gloucestershire
Luke Richmond: a 31-year-old cross-fit and Olympic lifting coach from Australia
And their posts on the journey rowing south 24 hours a day are fascinating:
Luke Richmond, Day 1-3: It was a brutal first day and night, sea sickness had three of us spewing all at once, only Jake seemed un effected. I was sure I was about to die.
Jake Heath, Day 1-6: The trip so has been life changing already, because I have realized how much you can push your body, if you can keep breaking things down on the small tasks, like the two hour stretch in front of you. I am currently switching inwith Luke every two hours for 24 hours a day, as we row our way across to Brazil. The girls are also switching with each other, every two hours, but staggered by one hour with us, so everyone gets to spend some time together.
Jake Heath, Day 7&8: We have been on what seems like a giant conveyor belt of water and big waves. It’s all good and going in the right directions for us to reach the canaries in two days and then push on to Cape Verde straight after. The sea swells are pretty big and at night they can catch you off guard and just crash over your head. Last night Captain Susannah caught a high wave, which went all over her, but I luckily was out of the rowing seat having a stretch and remained bone dry. Carbon copy thing happens to Mel the next I shift, this time I was getting a drink and avoided it once again. I know what you are thinking? I promise I am actually doing some of the rowing!
Mel Parker, Day 18: Imagine your bed is 1m by 1m, around your little square of bed you have everything tied to the walls – your wardrobe, toiletries and a few days food. Above you you’ve got all the comms and electronics you could need to get you safely across an ocean. Behind your head you have the worlds noisiest neighbour, which sounds like a robotic Jurassic park, but is working hard to make sure you’re steering in the right direction.
If you’re interested in making a donation to help the MacMillan Cancer Support organization fight cancer, go to this link.
I often thought, world-class athletes – they aren’t like you and me. Defying pain, building up super-human endurance, reaching world-class levels – is that trainable?
I posed that question to Roger Jackson, three-time Olympian, and gold medal rower in the coxless pairs at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Jackson was the CEO of Own the Podium, an NPO tasked with enabling Canada’s athletes to develop into Olympic champions. The only two times Canada had ever hosted the Olympics – 1976 in Montreal and 1988 in Calgary – no one from Canada won a gold medal. Own the Podium had a mission – help Canada achieve the highest medal haul in the 2010 Winter Games, to be held on home turf in Vancouver, Canada. While Team Canada did not come out on top in the medal count, Canada did win the highest number of gold medals, 14, which also happened to be the most total gold medals ever won by a country in a Winter Games.
“We had always been fifth in the world,” Jackson told me. “I was asked by the Canadian government and the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee to build a program to win the most medals in Vancouver. I had five years. I hired strong leadership. And I insisted on 100% commitment from our athletes. If you were willing to be disciplined and committed to the world-class training regimen we created, we would fund you. We worked with the athletes on plans, assessed the performance of the plan three times a year, identifying issues and upgrading the plans as we needed.”
Jackson emphasized that Olympians who want to be champions have to have this attitude – no compromise. “Family, school, wife – they cannot compromise your training. You need to sleep, rest and work your ass off. That’s the tone of the very best.”
Jackson said that’s why the Canadian rowing teams were traditionally strong, and why all Canadian teams had a chance, even the unknown Roger Jackson / George Hungerford coxless pair team. Canadian rowers trained hard and did not compromise.
“In the University of British Columbia Rowing program, we were told to do something, and we had to do it,” said Jackson. “Maybe we couldn’t believe we could do it, but we’d have to try. We would row three or four miles every morning and again every evening. And because there were so few teams to compete with us as other competitive teams were so far away from us, the coach had all the different teams compete against each other. At the end of each morning workout, we would row a 2000 m race against our other crews. The slowest boats would start, being the pairs and seconds later the fours would start and later the eights would start, all converging on the finish line at about the same time. And to win, you would never give up.”
“We would get to the finish line totally exhausted, dry retching, heaving. And, on occasion, the coach would say, ‘not good enough. Do it again.’ And so we raced 2000 m again. And if it wasn’t good enough, he’d tell us to do it again. I was eating 8,000 calories a day and still losing weight, but I knew that no one else had this incredible work ethic. That was the attitude that made us do things we didn’t think we could do. So when we got to the starting line in Tokyo, I knew we had done everything we could do to prepare ourselves to win.”
Do it again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Sound familiar?
Here is a famous scene from the film, Miracle, about the 1980 USA Ice Hockey Team that won gold at the Lake Placid Olympics. Coach Herb Brooks has taken his team to play the Norwegian national team and the game ends in a tie. Brooks isn’t happy with the team’s dedication and commitment, and makes them skate sprints over and over and over….until finally, the team’s captain, exhausted beyond reason, has an epiphany.
Canada’s rowing eight was coached by Glen Mervyn, a protégé of the famous Frank Read, who coached the eight crew that got Canada’s only medal at the Rome Olympics – silver. George Hungerford and Roger Jackson were thrown together in the coxless pair, without a coach, in a “clunker of a boat”, only weeks before flying to Tokyo for the XVIII Olympiad.
Hungerford was supposed to row in the vaunted eight, but fell ill, and then, got kicked off the premier crew. That decision led to other decisions. A rower named Wayne Pretty assumed Hungerford’s spot on the eight. And since Pretty had been in the coxless pair boat, Jackson was left without a teammate. With the rowing roster set at 15, and the coxless pair considered a lesser priority to Team Canada, Hungerford and Jackson were asked to pair up to provide representation in this event at the Olympics, assuming Hungerford could get in good enough condition in time to compete.
“When I was selected to the eights, it was a dream come true,” Hungerford told me. But when he was diagnosed with mononucleosis in July, 1964, he was told to rest for four weeks. “It was a depressing time for me. And four weeks later my doctor told me the symptoms were gone, but my chance to join the eights was gone.”
But if they wanted to go to Tokyo, Hungerford and Jackson had to make it work. Team Canada’s expectations for coxless pairs was low. And when Hungerford and Jackson got into a shell to train, they didn’t immediately click on the water. “No, there wasn’t an instant connection,” said Hungerford. “We had to come to terms with our issues. We yelled and screamed at each other after the first few rows. But we realized that if we we’re going to Tokyo we had to put these differences aside and work together.”
Despite the bad luck that brought the two together, Hungerford observed one good bit of fortune – “As it turned out, physically we were a perfect match. We were the same height, same weight, same mental toughness and determination.” Their determination drove them to train hard, harder than anyone else in the remaining weeks to Tokyo.
And their hard work paid off in another bit of fortune. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Canada was able to borrow a boat from the Americans. And it turned out to be a George Pocock shell, a hand-crafted boat from the most reputable craftsman of his time in the US. As Hungerford explained, while everyone else was already in top condition and thus focusing on their mental preparation, Jackson and Hungerford worked hard on their rowing. “We had a full endurance training program in the last week. We were doing interval training, only 500 meter sprints. We hadn’t done a full 2000 meters and we wanted to do a time trial so we asked the eights coach to time us. We knew we had the ‘swing’. We had a sense the boat was moving, the boat was working for us. But after the 2000 meter time trial, the coach told us his watch wasn’t working properly so we didn’t know how fast we were.”
They didn’t know, until they entered the first heat, which they won. After the heat “The coach told me his watch wasn’t really broken, but he hadn’t believed it the first time he timed us,” said Hungerford. “We had the fastest time of all the heats. That put us directly in the finals – no repechages. That gave us confidence. With four or five days between the trials and finals, we kept training and we rowed our hearts out. Rowing and sleeping. Rowing and sleeping. Endurance over 2000 meters was critical.”
The Germans and the Dutch were favorites in the coxless pair competition. But once you get to the finals, you have a one in six chance, was how Hungerford and Jackson were thinking. Unfortunately, they started the race by catching a “crab” – one of the oars didn’t hit the water the right way getting the boat off to a slow and awkward start. But another boat had false started so Jackson and Hungerford got a second chance and had a good start.
At 900 meters into the 2000-meter course, they decided to go for it with a power 30 – 30 extraordinarily hard strokes up. “The boat just flew,” said Hungerford. “We were neck and neck up to 900, but then we took a length and a half on the other boats. It was a fantastic feeling. The boat was just moving, an incredible feeling, an adrenaline rush knowing we had the lead. Now we had to not let the other boats catch us. The Dutch boat was challenging. The last 200 meters was hell. Our tanks were drained at 1500 meters – I don’t know where we found that inner strength in the last 500.”
“They might have caught us if the race was longer. I was starting to fade so Roger had to adjust. We’re rowing as a pair in a sensitive boat, sensitive to one rower overpowering the other. You have to perfectly synchronize. If one loses strength the other has to match, match each other in all respects. It was challenging. As Roger told me, he had heard this burst come from the stands. They were calling out in German for the German crew, which was also coming on strong. But as Roger said, ‘there was no bloody way we were going to lose’.”
In fact, they won. Canadian’s only gold medal of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics came thanks to a pair of rowers who through sickness and circumstance were thrust together in a shotgun marriage. And there they were, jelly legged, nothing left in the tank, standing at the winner’s podium with gold suspended from their necks, listening to the Canadian anthem, the only medal ceremony it was played in Tokyo.
“It was an incredible moment for us,” said Hungerford.
When it was time to leave Tokyo, to pack everything up and say goodbye to a life-changing experience, the Pocock shell, a championship shell, was returned to the American team. The boat had no name. But when they gave the boat back, it had a new decoration on the bow – a decal with the Canadian flag.
On this, the last day of 2015, I’d like to thank everyone for their support of my blog – The Olympians. I have posted at least once every day since I started the blog on May 1. Out of about 300 posts, I’ve selected 25 that I personally like, in good part because I’ve had the great fortune to talk with the people mentioned in these stories.
The coxless fours from Denmark were champions. While they won their heat quite handily, finishing more than five seconds ahead of their closest competition, the championship race was decided by slightly more than a second.
And yet when Bjørn Borgen Hasløv recalls that time in Tokyo in 1964, he doesn’t remember the pain or the tension. The stroke on the Danish team that pipped the Great Britain team for gold remembers that they were a young group of men who came together as a team.
“We were young,” recalled Hasløv to me. “I was 23, still not having completed my studies because I spent my free time rowing and had no time for other things. The youngest was 20, Kurt Helmudt, who was in shipbuilding. Erik Petersen, 25, was a plumber, and John Ørsted Hansen, 26, was a fitter, charged with steering the boat. It was important that we could tell if we were rowing together, not as separate people. You have to feel your team around you. If you don’t work together, 100%, you will never be fast.”
Hasløv said that his coach, Poul Danning, taught him (among many other things) that the sport of rowing requires individuals to find their role and rhythm within a boat so that all are in synch – for example if the strongest person in the boat pulls as hard and as fast as he can, the differences in power and speed with the others will actually slow the boat down as water resistance increases due to the differential. Legendary boat maker George Yeoman Pocock expressed this insight in this way – “It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend.”
Hasløv believes that his team worked so well together that the water was indeed their friend that day. “Everything was going to plan. We were concentrating hard on rowing together, supporting each other, finding rhythm in the boat. I didn’t feel the pain. I could feel the water under the boat, and it sounded like music as our boat was going perfectly. It’s a strong feeling. It’s a feeling that you control your body and you are a part of a team.”
My guess is that Hasløv was feeling what Pocock and other rowers call “swing”. Daniel Brown, in his wonderful book, The Boys in the Boat, about the American Eights Rowing Team that competed in the 1936 Olympics, described “swing” for an eight-man crew this way:
There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. it’s called “swing.” it only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten at once. Each minute action – each subtle
The German rowing teams had already won five of the previous six rowing events in the Olympic Games hosted in Nazi Berlin. At the beginning of the main event – the eight oars – the American crew didn’t hear the man say “start”, so lost precious seconds from the beginning. They were in the last lane, which had the hardest crosswinds to overcome. Their stroke, the pace-keeper of the eight-oared crew was so ill, he looked as if he would pass out any moment. And for the first half of the race, the men’s team from Seattle, Washington was in last place with another 1,000 meters to go.
The description of the race, as were descriptions of all the key races, were thrilling. And as I tapped from page to page, I noticed my pace picking up on the machine. The stroke, Don Hume, was a ghost, and the coxswain Bobby Moch, was hesitant, but shouted that he wanted the 7, Joe Rantz, to take over the stroke role. That woke up Hume, who resumed his role and picked up the pace.