POLITICS

British rowers aim to become first male-female team to row deadly Atlantic route

05/13/2012 02:00 EDT | Updated 07/13/2012 05:12 EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Between St. John's, N.L., and Bristol, England lie more than 3,200 kilometres of Atlantic Ocean — including the fearsome Grand Banks, scene of "The Perfect Storm" and other deadly weather bombs.

Travelling those waters in any vessel is serious business, but British adventurers Roz Savage and Andrew Morris are planning to cross in an ocean-going rowboat as part of a bid to inspire environmental awareness.

They'll leave St. John's when weather permits for a gruelling journey that will take at least 60 days to reach Bristol, and then another two weeks through inland waters to London where they hope to catch the Olympic Games.

Savage, a 44-year-old former management consultant turned environmental campaigner, and Morris, a 48-year-old entrepreneur, have crossed oceans before. But they have joined forces in hopes of becoming the first male-female team to complete a west-east Atlantic journey — a treacherous, icy route that has killed five rowers since 1966, according to the Ocean Rowing Society International.

"My mother is not ecstatic about this," Savage said as she sat inside the cramped cabin of the seven-metre boat during final preparations in St. John's.

"I think we're very realistic about the immense challenges that we're going to face out there, but we're doing everything humanly possible to do a dangerous thing in a safe way."

Their progress will be tracked on www.oar2012.com and on Twitter and Facebook.

Savage is one of the most experienced ocean rowers in the world, with 24,150 kilometres logged at sea over 520 days. Her pending journey with Morris is her first attempt at a team effort.

She laughs when asked, as she crouched beside Morris in the cabin that will be their only shelter, what her romantic partner thinks of the trip.

"Yes, there's someone in my life who I think would prefer I wasn't rowing an ocean at all, let alone, uh ... he's okay with it."

Morris talked of his worried parents, especially his dad's frequent checks of coming weather, and how much he'll miss his son, 13, and 10-year-old daughter.

He described his obsessive checks of the boat, Bojangles, that was designed by an ex-marine and named for the song "Mr. Bojangles" about a man in a New Orleans drunk tank still grieving for his long-lost dog.

The vessel weighs 400 kilograms dry and is made of a Kevlar-Carbon material similar to that used for bullet proof vests. It's equipped with survival suits, two satellite phones, a VHF marine radio, a system that makes seawater drinkable, dehydrated food, snack bars, hours of audio books and music, and three solid fruit cakes "that I struggled to lift," Morris joked.

Bojangles proved her seaworthiness over 189 days on the Pacific and has 90 kilograms of stabilizing lead in her hull. The boat is designed to right herself if she capsizes, a harrowing experience that Savage has experienced several times during three solo ocean rows.

"It has always happened when I've been inside the cabin," she recalled. "We've got seatbelts in here so when the boat capsizes, I'm kind of there dangling from the seatbelts and eventually the boat does right itself. But inevitably it does make a bit of a mess of things."

Morris said the two will take turns on a rigorous rowing schedule of two hours on, two hours off that won't allow them to sleep for more than about 90 minutes at a time after eating, blogging and Facebooking. Toilet facilities include a bucket and some bed pans.

Morris said mental strength is more vital than physical training, but what he really fears is the cold.

"To see icebergs floating around the harbour, it doesn't encourage you to just hop in there."

It will be critical to keep the boat upright through the freezing Grand Banks, a stretch of relatively shallow waters where the Labrador Current mixes with the warmer Gulf Stream about 300 kilometres off Newfoundland, Morris said. Underwater plateaus in the region are famous for creating rich fishing grounds but also monster waves in bad weather.

While Morris and Savage have received a typically warm Newfoundland welcome, there are some who question the wisdom of their quest.

"Let's call it what it is — it's a very dangerous activity," said Merv Wiseman, a retired Canadian Coast Guard rescue co-ordinator. Any rescue attempt would risk the lives of responders and cost tens of thousands of dollars, he added.

Yet there's no legal requirement for adventurers to post bonds for the potential costs of such missions, Wiseman said.

"There really is no deterrent to them having second thoughts about doing something, I believe, as foolhardy as crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub."

Savage stressed that she and Morris have planned extensively to ensure they won't need saving.

"We have to be self-reliant, self-sufficient. You don't go out there expecting that you're going to need a call for rescue."

That said, Morris is philosophical about the chance they're taking.

"It's obviously a risk but there's a risk in anything you do in life, isn't there?"