Why four blokes rowed a boat across the Atlantic ocean
THERE are far easier ways to cross the Atlantic than to row across it in an eight metre boat, especially when confronted by 12m waves.
Gold Coast man Ryan Grace and his mates Martin Fletcher, Cameron Mostyn and Nicholas Sargent formed an Australia team to compete in the 2019 Tasker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge.
The Aussie foursome, competing as Rowed Less Travelled, were among 103 rowers in a 35 vessel fleet which set out from La Gomera in the Canary Islands on December 12, 2019 to row nearly more than 4800km to Antigua in the Caribbean.
Ryan and the team set themselves three goals ahead of the Challenge - one to complete the race, two to remain friends no matter what happened and three to raise as much money and public awareness as they could for the Black Dog Institute and its work helping with mental health issues.
Not only did the team finish the race but set a record for an Australian crew, coming in second in a time of 34 days, 10 hours and 36 minutes, less than 48 hours behind the winners, the British team Fortitude IV.
At the end of the race, the men still remained as close as ever, brought together through their trials and test the Atlantic Ocean threw at them and along the way, they raised almost $300,00 for Black Dog, easily surpassing their target of $250,000.
Now back in Australia, Ryan said the enormity of the challenge was just starting to sink in.
"This Challenge has been a focus of ours for the past two years and while we are all very proud of what we have done, it's only now when we start talking to people about the adventure, do you realise just how big this was," he said.
However rowing the Atlantic wasn't something Ryan had been thinking about though he was looking for a endurance challenge of some sort.
"It all started out with Fletch (Martin Fletcher) and myself chatting over a few drinks about what goals we would set to test ourselves," he said.
"I was thinking about a marathon when he mentioned he had heard about the Atlantic Challenge.
"I'd had a few drinks and said 'I used to row' - he rang me the next day wanting to know if I was serious.
"I thought to myself, 'would I regret later in life not giving this a go?' so I committed myself. Fletch was wrapped and set about convincing Nic (Sargent) and Cam (Mostyn) into joining us.
"It wasn't the guys but their wives which we had to convince but they let us go ahead."
Forming the crew, the next challenge was to buy a source a boat and buy it.
"These craft aren't cheap - around $100,000 fitted out - there is a very niche market for them," Ryan said.
"We found one in the UK and set about getting sponsorship to buy it. We also wanted to use the opportunity to help a charity and we chose the Black Dog Institute which was close to our hearts, having known people who have had problems and issues with mental health and the toll it can take."
With the boat secured, the crew realised they needed to know how to operate it - in all manner of conditions.
All based in Sydney at the time, the Rowed Less Travelled team would spend the bulk of their free time taking to the water, rowing the boat out through Sydney Heads into the open ocean and spending a few days just rowing up and down the coast.
"While our friends were having a comfortable time onshore, we would be getting pummelled by big seas off Sydney, learning about what to do, how to adjust to life in cramped quarters and functioning as a team," he said.
After six months training, the Rowed Less Travelled team joined the competitors in the Canary islands for the race of their lives.
"There were solo rowers, pairs, triples and quads from all walks of life and all with their own reasons for doing the Challenge," Ryan said.
"You were suddenly aware you were part of something fairly significant."
It didn't take the Aussie team long to realise just how demanding the race would be.
On their first day, the crew's charging unit broke meaning they had no way of charging their mobile phones.
Add to that, on the same day, the bilge pump motor also broke down which meant for rest of the entire journey, the team had to manually pump water out of the boat in between rowing shifts.
Each shift was two hours on, two hours off with two crew members alternating.
"There were little cabins at either end of the boat, they were very cramped and you had to try to get as much rest as you could," he said.
"One of the problems during the entire race was that you could never get dry, your skin would get raw, especially your bum because of the hard seats. What made matters worse was when conditions got rough, the inside of the cabins would get wet so your bed was damp as well."
The vessel's small but vital desalination plant also broke down so that required some hasty repairs.
"We only carried 50 litres of reserve water so the desal unit is a vital piece of equipment," Ryan said.
"No water, no race."
While the crew had a gas burner for cooking, they resolved to dine out on cold meals the entire journey.
"We quickly realised that to heat up food would take about 20 minutes during your rest break, we really didn't want to be fussing around preparing food but would rather rest as much as possible," he said.
"Our meals were all pretty much pre-prepared and semi freeze dried but lacked texture. At first we really didn't want to eat them but by the time we were nearing the end, we couldn't wait to tuck into them each day.
"On sunny days, we would put the food out to try and warm it but that didn't help much.
"During the course of the race, I lost 15kgs, most of the guys lost 12kgs."
Their sole contact with their outside world was through an older model satellite phone using the MyIridium network which would allow the crew to send and receive emails - very slowly.
"We would also get a race update from one of the guy's families every 12 hours letting us know our position and where we were in the race," Grace said.
Ryan was surprised that they didn't encounter any other commercial vessels during the voyage.
"We saw plenty of whales and dolphins and at one stage we thought we were being attacked by a shark but it turned out to be a marlin," he said.
"Apparently our rudder was orange and the marlin must have thought it was another fish and began ramming it.
"We knew we couldn't afford to have it broken so we had to fashion a spear out of a pocket knife tied to an oar and use it to try and ward off the marlin.
"We were very wary after that, especially when we had to jump overboard to clean the barnacles off the boat."
During the race the crew remained tethered to the boat at all times which proved to be a life saving precaution.
"We were about 1000km from the Caribbean when we were caught in a storm and very heavy seas for five days," he said.
"The waves were about 12-13m and we were just getting thrown about in our cabins and the boat was being tossed like a cork.
"At one stage we capsized at 2am, stuff went everywhere and it was pretty scary.
"It's times like that you know who your mates are and what friendships really mean."
Finally Antigua came into view after 34 days, 10 hours and 36 minutes and as relief set in for the crew, Ryan was sin for a huge surprise.
His father Ian Grace had travelled form palm Beach to Antigua to welcome him across the finish line.
"I didn't know dad was going to be there - I heard him calling out 'Gracey' and looked across and there he was a with a big smile on his face, it was a special moment to have him there," he said.
Reflecting on their success has been made even sweeter with the Rowed Less Travelled team being able to donate nearly $300,000 to the Black Dog Institute, a feat which will be recognised at Parliament House in Sydney this week.
"We set a target of $250,000 and with the sale of the boat, we have well and truly exceeded that," Ryan said.
"Hopefully we have also drawn attention to the work of the Black Dog Institute in supporting people facing personal mental health issues."
As for the future - what does it hold for Ryan and the team?
"We intend to share our experiences through some speaking engagements, hopefully to inspire people to push themselves like we did," he said.
"And after that, I'm not sure what my next challenge will be but I do know that it won't have anything to do with the ocean - it will be strictly land-based."