On Day 3 of my first row across the Atlantic, on board Gquma Challenger, I had a vivid realisation followed by a terrifying moment of doubt. “Oh my goodness, this is not what I expected at all,” I clearly remember thinking. “What have I got myself into?” The first crossing had been a journey into the unknown, and that in itself is an enormous X factor. But in spending 50 days in a rowing boat and completing one race, I had learnt many lessons. What could I have done differently? How might I do it better? These were the questions going through my mind early one morning in April 2008, about three months after stepping onto the pier in English Harbour and promising Kim I would never put her through something like that again. As I lay in bed reliving the Gquma crossing while tossing and turning and unable to get back to sleep, it dawned on me that the agony of the experience had miraculously faded away and doing the whole thing again was seeming like rather a good idea… The really clever part of my plan was that this time I should do it on my own. If things went well, I figured, I had every chance of winning the solo class. It made perfect sense.
I knew what I’d be up against. I had experienced the storms, the pressure sores, the claw grip, the tendonitis in the fingers, the blisters and raw feet, the insane isolation, the trivial yet overwhelming frustration of not being able to walk around for weeks on end, the boat that would never, not even for one second, be still for the duration of the trip… My greatest advantage in the preparation for a second race would be the simple fact that I had participated in a first race. My experience gave me one further critical advantage: I would have a much better chance of obtaining decent sponsorship to make the whole thing financially feasible. The first crossing had pushed my personal finances to the brink. Despite the wonderful assistance we’d managed to secure, Kim and I had had to remortgage our house and it had been a near-run thing just getting to the start line. That scenario was not an option any more. I approached Kim with the idea. Understandably, she had her doubts. The memories of Gquma had clearly not faded as rapidly for her as they had for me. She reminded me of all the hardships I had specifically asked her to remind me of should this conversation ever arise. We discussed finances, and the difficulty of her juggling a stressful corporate job, her duties as a mother and her own personal ambitions. At the end of the conversation – and I will always honour her for this – she fixed me with a steely look and said, “Peter, you must go and do this row. I will never stop you from achieving the dreams and visions you have for your life. But you know what you are taking on this time. Don’t do it lightly.” I certainly didn’t. We thought long and hard on the decision, we prayed about it, and in the end we made the call that if I was able to secure a significant sponsor a year before the start of the race then it would be a go. And so I went public with my plans and the search was on once again for a sponsor – possibly the hardest part of any serious endurance event.
I was encouraged by an email from Ian Gallacher, personal sponsor of the Garmin navigation equipment that Bill and I had used on Gquma. His message came with a hugely generous donation to my cause: a cash deposit into my bank account, no strings attached. I was blown away. Ian had followed the first race with great enthusiasm and he was excited by the solo plan. His generosity reminded me of the wonders of the human spirit, even when it is simply sharing in someone else’s experience. It certainly was a sign that we were on the right track. When it comes to major sponsorship, however, there is only one way to get it: by securing a face-to-face meeting with the decision- maker of whatever business it is you are approaching and getting him (or her) to grasp the value that could be attained. With that idea in mind, I chatted to Johnny Goldberg, a friend andbusiness advisor who had the clout to orchestrate such meetings. He had the perfect guy in mind: Rex Tomlinson of Liberty Life. He quickly set things up. And yet it so nearly didn’t happen… After making what I thought was a colossal blunder – realising on the morning of the meeting that I had booked my flight into Johannesburg for the following day – Johnny calmly rescued things. Not only did he reschedule the meeting, he also showed Rex the Gquma documentary, 90 Minutes Closer To Antigua, in the meantime. (It helped that he was staying with Rex that night.) By the time I made my nervous arrival at the plush Liberty offices in Braamfontein – my heart pounding, my future on the line – Johnny had, it appears, set things up on a plate for me. When Rex came to meet me in the waiting area, he introduced himself by saying, “Hey Pete, I’m Rex. It’s great to meet you. You are cooked in the head, man! Come, we have lots to talk about.” He ushered me into a small meeting room and introduced me to Momin Hukamdad, the company’s marketing executive. “Momin, this is Pete van Kets,” he said. “He’s totally nuts but I think we’re going to sponsor his next expedition.” My short presentation passed in a blur. As I finished, Rex turned to Momin and said, “This fits perfectly with the ‘Own Your Life’ campaign. Okay, Pete, so we like your plans and want to support you.” By this stage my heart rate had gone through the roof. “Tell us, how much are we in for?” When I told them the full amount neither Rex nor Momin flinched. It was just a matter of working out from which budget it would be drawn. Forty minutes after entering the building, I left drained but entirely elated. I called Kim immediately. “It’s done, Kim, I have my sponsor!” I told her. “Oh my nerves, I don’t believe it!” she replied. I almost didn’t myself. Liberty Life had agreed to sponsor my campaign to the tune of R1.5 million. It was an enormous relief, as it would allow for a far more professional approach to the race and, importantly, I would be drawing a salary, which meant the family wouldn’t suffer in the long build-up.
Now the real preparation could begin. We live in a competitive society; to compete at the highest levels or achieve anything extraordinary, every facet of a campaign is of critical importance. Alexander Graham Bell explained it well: “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” I needed to organise my support team, build a boat, fit it out and get training. Thousands of phone calls and emails, hours and hours of training, days and nights of boat design and building and testing, a mountain of logistics, and the never-ending worry that I’d missed a critical detail – it was all about to begin. In gathering a team around me, I kept things as personal as possible; history and friendship is important to me and I like to go with people I know if possible. One of my best decisions early on was to ask an old mate, Cliffy Coombe, to come on board as my manager. Previously Bill and I had shared the preparations with part-time manager Dave Pattle. Having an extra hand was key and I can’t overstate how invaluable Cliffy would become, especially once we made it to the Canary Islands. He was brilliant, and together with his wife Tracey also ran my website and social-media pages.
From Kim’s blog: Cliffy has been Pete’s friend for 15 years. Although we’ve always been dimly aware of Cliffy’s brilliance, it was only after he and Tracey seconded me on the 100-mile Tuffer Puffer that we began to grasp the full impact of their collective enthusiasm, people skills, technical/practical/medical genius, ability to nurture grumpy athletes, etc. Cliffy cycled next to me for 80km, right through the night, singing my favourite music, telling jokes, handing me tea and sandwiches, medicating my aches and pains. They both behaved as if it was a delight to spend 24 hours at my beck and call! I’m talking about Mother Teresa, Art Garfunkel, Albert Einstein, Florence Nightingale and Marc Lottering all rolled into two pairs of cycling shorts!
Nic “Moose” Good and Tjaart van der Walt also returned to help, as documentary maker and weatherman extraordinaire, and it was great to have their familiar faces back on the scene. It was of critical importance that my physical training should prepare me for the rigours of ocean rowing while not injuring me in the process. If you can row 12 hours a day for anywhere
between 50 days (best-case scenario) and 90 days (nightmare scenario!) without sustaining a serious injury, then half the battle is won. With this thought in mind, Caron Williams, my personal trainer at the High Performance Centre in East London, put together a multi-stage training strategy for me. Caron had helped me prepare for the Gquma crossing, so I had plenty of faith in her.
In addition to the technical work I did with Caron, training became part of my lifestyle. Kim was also preparing for an endurance event, the 250-kilometre multi-day self-supported Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, and we would double up where possible. If we had to take Hannah to a birthday party, I would cycle to the venue and meet Kim and Hannah there. Kim would hand Hannah over like a baton and she would run home. If I had a meeting in town I would make sure I built in a visit to the gym. If the westerly was blowing I would leave my car in town and paddle the 30 kilometres home on my surfski. Just as Gquma had been first time around, my boat would be key. I researched new fast designs and considered my options, consulting with, among others, Niels Andersen and Arno van de Merwe, two world-class engineers living on my doorstep who I also counted as friends. Unfortunately, designing and building something from scratch would be too expensive, but I made the happy discovery that a solo ocean rowing boat mould had recently been brought into the country. This gave me the opportunity to get my boat made locally rather than imported from the UK, which would save me international delivery fees, customs duties, the pound-rand exchange rate and a significant amount in the cost of carbon and Kevlar. I had opted for a carbon-Kevlar hull rather than a traditional wooden one to save weight; conveniently, these materials were considerably less expensive in South Africa at the time than in the UK. I took my plans to Uwe Jaspersen, yet another friend and the owner of Jaz Marine in Cape Town. He is undoubtedly one of the most respected yacht builders in South Africa, especially when it comes to working with composite materials such as carbon and Kevlar, and his skills are much in demand. Despite his busy schedule, I twisted his arm and he spent three months constructing the shell of the boat for me. Uwe and his team did a superb job. The hull was light and totally bulletproof, made up like a sandwich of one layer of Kevlar, two layers of carbon then an 8-millimetre foam filling, and lastly another two layers of carbon. All of it was vacuum moulded to save on weight. The local build also allowed me to customise many of the fittings, a huge bonus. I was hoping to improve the rowing seat and steering, and I was particularly keen on installing an external sound system with waterproof speakers. Steven du Toit from Performance Yachts, another yachting friend of mine, agreed to oversee this tricky part of the operation, and I made numerous trips between East London and Cape Town to ensure that everything was perfectly positioned for my body size. A particularly important element of the fit was the boat’s power supply, a silent lifesaver that would, most importantly, power the desalinator for my drinking water, along with the autohelm, radio, navigation system, lights, satellite phone, notebook and music system. The array of ten solar panels fixed to the stern cabin and one loose flexi-panel were sponsored by Ikhwezi Unplugged, an East London-based solar energy company. The panels were designed to generate 240 watts of power to charge two heavy 85-amp deep cycle batteries. The flexi-panel was a spare that I would lie on the deck to charge when I could. It was a setup that would, in time, prove itself brilliantly – unlike those on a number of other boats – and which could have kept me self-sufficient on the boat for many months if necessary. A new piece of equipment, one we hadn’t had on board Gquma, was the Automatic Identification System or AIS, which the race organisers decided to introduce from 2009 as a mandatory navigational instrument for all competitors. Developed as a means to avoid collisions between larger ships at sea that are not within range of shore-based communication systems, the AIS uses VHF transceivers to emit and receive information to and from other vessels within a certain radius. The information conveyed, some pre-programmed and the rest constantly updating from on-board GPS systems, identifies the vessel in question and provides position, course and speed data, as well as extra information such as crew size and cargo. It had recently become law that AIS be installed on any vessel longer than 100
feet and, recognising the potential of the device, the Woodvale race organisers had decided to follow suit. Good for them. From a seated position in the boat a rower might be able to see out to 2.5 nautical miles in calm conditions with good visibility. Throw in an unfriendly sea swell, a rain squall, some mist or fog, and the regular arrival of darkness once every 24 hours, and that frequently reduces to almost nothing. More critically for a solo rower, when you’re at rest in your cabin your visibility is precisely zero. My AIS equipment would now identify all sea traffic up to about 25 nautical miles away, depending on conditions. Once another vessel was located in the vicinity it would calculate the risk of a collision and, if necessary, alert me to the danger. I was very pleased to have it on board. We set it up so that it displayed on the same screen as my Garmin GPS, which I could see at all times while rowing. I decided to call my boat Nyamezela, a Xhosa word meaning “to push through hard times” or “to see things through to their completion”. With shipping to San Sebastián scheduled for 19 October 2009, we had just three days to have Nyamezela surveyed and trialled at sea in Cape Town before putting her in a container and sending her off. After all the effort that had gone into her construction, I was particularly nervous about the sea trials. What if it wasn’t perfect? What if something was completely wrong and we didn’t have time to fix it? In some ways I would have preferred not to know how she felt in the water until I was in the Canaries and it was too late to worry. After numerous delays, time had simply run out. Happily, things went well – better than Gquma’s disastrous first trial, at least. The boat was surveyed by the South African Maritime Safety Authority to ensure that everything was functioning correctly and that she possessed the required safety equipment; as a result, I could now register her as a ship. We also set up the Raymarine autopilot, also known as an autohelm, the automated steering system that I intended to use when resting to keep Nyamezela on course. I could use it while rowing as well, but I preferred to steer the boat’s rudder with my feet, for two reasons: to conserve battery power and because it’s much more fun that way, especially in decent-sized swells when you get the chance to ride waves. Over the following two days Cliffy, Tjaart and I took Nyamezela out, first at the False Bay Yacht Club in Simonstown and then from the Oceana Powerboat Club near the V&A Waterfront. When we saw that she sat beautifully in the water we all breathed a sigh of relief. After the first few strokes, I knew that I had a winning boat and it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The second day’s testing was particularly pleasing, as the conditions were slightly rougher and I had a memorable encounter with a number of local snoek fishermen that left me in high spirits. While waiting for the NSRI boat to arrive from Bakoven to monitor the trial, the men crowded around Nyamezela as she bobbed in the shallows, and couldn’t help expressing their amazement in the wonderful Cape vernacular. They had never seen a boat like it and couldn’t believe the idiocy of my plan to row across an ocean.
“Jiissslaikit! Wat se skip is die?” (Gee whiz, what kind of boat is this?)
“Ditlyksoos ’n blerrie submarine!” (It looks like a submarine of some kind.)
“Wat gat tjy met die ding doen?” (What are you going to do with this ship?)
“Tjy gat WAT doen?” (You are going to do WHAT?)
“Neeeefok, tjy’s mal! Tjy gat vrek!” (Gee no, you are mad. You are going to die.)
It was great speaking to them because they understood the enormity of the task I was about to embark on better than most and they couldn’t stop asking me questions. I wish I could see them all again and show them footage of the race – and, more than anything, demonstrate to them that I am alive and well.
Once Nyamezela was packed off on her journey north to the Canaries, the frenzy of activity suddenly died down. There were still a couple of publicity interviews to navigate and a few lastminute bits and pieces to organise but the calm before the storm was upon me. I wasn’t to know that it would be an extended and frustrated calm as the race was delayed repeatedly throughout December and into the new year. After the predictably emotional last few weeks in East London – I really do dread farewells – Cliffy and I left on a jet plane and made the long trek to San Sebastián on La Gomera via Johannesburg, London and Tenerife. Our day-late arrival, following weather-related delays in Gatwick, was something of a harbinger of things to come. Back in the familiar heat of San Sebastián, I was raring to go. Straight from the ferry terminal, we set off to inspect Nyamezela, who had survived her trip unscathed, along with the biltong and chocolate supplies I’d stashed inside her. It wasn’t long before Cliffy and I were checked in to our self-catering accommodation and packing and wrapping my DankieTanniepakkies, the treat bags containing energy juice and snack rations to last me 90 days. (Their name was a nod to my army days.) We would have been better off biding our time rather, as the delays were fast approaching, first a huge swathe of red tape that prevented the competitors’ safety flares, without which we were not permitted to start the race, from passing through Canary Islands customs. Later an unseasonal set of enormous storms would power their way from North America across the Atlantic to deliver the worst winter in memory to Western Europe.
At the very least, it gave us time to meet the competition. There were seven solo rowers in the race, the most ever. My first impressions were of a focused and well-prepared collection of men, and I certainly didn’t underestimate any of them, even Leo Rosette, a retired US Marshall who was attempting his first crossing at the age of 59. The other five were an Irishman, Sean McGowan, and four Englishmen, James Ketchell, Roger Haines, Dave Brooks and Charlie Pitcher. Dave was one ambitious man, intending not only to row the Atlantic but then to continue through the Caribbean Sea up the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to Australia – and he was just 24. But it was Charlie Pitcher, a yachtsman of note, who was the undoubted race favourite from the moment we saw his revolutionary boat. It was shorter than the others by at least 1.5 metres, lighter and, most significantly, had a much higher cabin positioned in the bow, not the stern. The upfront cabin was ingeniously designed to act much like a spinnaker downwind, while the aft area had a lower profile to maximise this effect. My first impression of the boat was that, unless there was a design flaw I was missing or Charlie suffered a major disaster en route, it would be impossible to beat. It’s one thing focusing on ambitious personal goals and keeping a positive attitude, but it’s also important to face reality head-on. It didn’t help that Charlie appeared to possess the right head for this kind of race; he had completed various multi-day self-sufficiency events, including the notorious Marathon des Sables in the Sahara. As we came to live and work together every day, often helping and advising each other, a great bond began to develop between the competitors, and particularly between the solo rowers. On a number of occasions we enjoyed meals together and one evening we arranged a special solo rowers’ dinner. In time I became particularly good mates with both Dave and Charlie, trying my best to offer the younger Dave some friendly mentoring advice, and trading competitive, but always friendly, banter with Charlie.
Dave Brooks’s blog: Everyone had heard rumours about the man called PVK, the battle-hardened, ocean-rowing guru who’d won the 2007/8 race and was out for blood this year in the solo class. When Pete and Cliffy arrived, they spent the best parts of their first few days talking to the other rowers, offering advice and generally mixing in. While we were all panicking and rushing about, Pete was keeping cool and getting on with the tasks at hand. After a few conversations with him, it was interesting to see myself rationalising the preparation of the boat more efficiently and taking more time to think of the bigger picture while we were all out there.
The messages of support from home were amazing and a tremendous motivation to me long before the start of the race. One night Cliffy and I received an email from researchers on Marion Island in the South Atlantic. The attached photo showed a group of young scientists clutching hand-painted banners which declared, in untidy capitals, row pete row!! Of the various tasks we had to complete, one was organising my medical kit in preparation for scrutineering. We identified a few crucial items that were missing and experienced a challenging and often comic shopping spree at the local pharmacy, as Cliffy and I had to try to explain in our best Spanish – limited to “Dos cervezas, por favor” (“Two beers, please”) – that we needed Vaseline, an eye bath and tough-cut scissors. To our great relief, all went well with the medical scrutineering. The only necessary item we appeared to be missing was a rectal thermometer. How to ask for one of those in nonexistent Spanish or sign language without being arrested for public indecency? Not easy! As the delays dragged on, Cliffy and I did our best to educate the rowers about the magnificence of South African music and the diversity of our languages; as a result, “cultural hour” was enforced every morning in the race village. The sounds of Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Lucky Dube and many other favourites would blast from Nyamezela’s sound system, with Cliffy and me singing along, much to the delight of our neighbours (I think). At the end of a long, hot day, we would head to the sea for a swim and an ice-cold beer at the local pub, the Blue Marlin, the unofficial race headquarters after sunset, full of race memorabilia. A South African flag hangs on the wall with Bill and my names below it, bearing testimony to our campaign in 2007/8. The original planned start date came and went. Cliffy had to head home to other responsibilities; his loss was made up for by the arrival of Moose and his wife, Jules, and then Kim who had decided to make the trip out to see me off. But a further delay meant she too had to head home before she could.
Kim’s blog: Leaving Peter alone in La Gomera was completely horrendous – we were meant to be waving him off, not the other way around! I seem to be nowhere near as stoical as the other rowing wives whose farewells I witnessed with some surprise. “All right then, goodbye dear, I’ll see you in the summer. Best of luck!” They then either shake hands or peck each other on the cheek. No stiff upper lip for me, I’m afraid. I cried the whole way to Tenerife on the ferry and the whole way to the airport until I couldn’t see La Gomera any more. My heart is so sore. Still, good karma in the cabin has been achieved and that was my primary mission – there is a black bra hanging from Nyamezela’s mast to prove it!
The sitting around was killing me. Once the race start had been pushed out to early January, I made the decision to head back to East London for a low-profile, but spirit-lifting Christmas at home where, with the excess consumption of festive food, I managed to hit my pre-race target weight of 92 kilograms. On my return to San Sebastián, I moved in with Charlie, our original accommodation now taken by Spanish holidaymakers. We swapped ideas and got on well enough that we even started discussing future expeditions we might try together.
Finally the news came: the departure date was set. With even more tourists around now, I had to book into Nyamezela for the last few nights, but I didn’t mind. It was a relief to be going.
With spectators shouting encouragement from the harbour walls, we set off at noon on the 4th of January 2010. It was a beautiful day with a perfect steady northeaster blowing, just what we needed to send us on our way after weeks of terrible weather. Butterflies in my tummy turned to a pounding heart and coursing adrenaline. An ocean’s worth of solitude lay before me. Could I survive it? Could I thrive in it? Could I conquer my Eighth Summit? Looking around me as I made my way out beyond the harbour walls, it seemed that almost every boat was gunning for it like we were contesting a 500-metre sprint. One of the pairs boats, Spirit of Montanaro, somehow managed to row diagonally across my bow – a close call, but perhaps they were just trying to arrange a rendezvous in our future. Once the collective mayhem had drifted off with the breeze, it didn’t take too long before I found a good rhythm. The Atlantic Rowing Race is bookended by two very tricky challenges. Navigating across an ocean, subject to the mercy of its winds and currents, to cross a finish line that measures just a mile across is the second (previously discussed) one. The first is getting clear of the Canaries themselves as quickly as possible, and escaping the swirling, unpredictable currents that surround the islands. In a pairs or fours boat, this is less of a problem because there’s always someone rowing. My plan was to row for six hours and then take a two-hour break before settling into my 90-minutes on/off shifts. The wind was perfect and my boat was moving well. At sunset things started to change. The wind stopped then swung to the northwest, hitting me from the side and stirring up a messy chop. Nyamezela was bouncing around all over the place and I started to feel that dreaded sensation… nausea. The first sign is yawning followed by swallowing and then it’s as if the glands at the back of your jaws start moving around. After Bill’s horrific experience two years before, seasickness was something I dreaded. In preparation, I’d stocked up on cans of sugary stewed fruit, which is good for boosting energy levels, easier to prepare than freeze-dried chilli con carne and, terrible as it sounds, preferable to vomit. It was worth the extra weight of having some cans on board specifically for this eventuality. I cracked open some peaches, which seemed to have the right effect – for a while. Once my marathon six-hour shift was done I couldn’t wait to lie down and get rid of the nausea. I connected the autohelm device and the moment of truth was nigh: would it hold the boat steady heading in the right direction? It was not to be. There was just too much beam swell hitting the boat, so I bore off a few degrees, in a direction I didn’t want to be travelling, to a point where the autohelm could just hold the boat. To add to this frustration it started pouring with rain. The day that had begun in high spirits ended in seasickness, foul weather and an autohelm unable to handle the conditions. It was a sign of things to come. I retired to the cabin, frustrated, and called Kim.
Kim’s blog: Although goodbye number 3 was bad, this is much worse. For the first time I add worrying about Pete’s safety and knowing that he is suffering physically and emotionally to my repertoire of emotions. It feels very final to know that he is now on his way. Bizarrely, I suppose, I decided that our cat would be neutered on Pete’s first day at sea so that he (Peter, not the cat) could focus on the fact that someone is having a worse day than him. The idea was for him to think something along these lines: “Gee, I am having a really bad day and am feeling seasick and sore but at least I still have my gonads, as opposed to my poor kitty cat who is now a eunuch!” Spare a thought for poor Stitches who has been waiting for the axe to fall (so to speak) since 6 December. I am sure that both he and Peter feel some sense of relief that at least the waiting is over!
I thought the procedure would calm him down (the cat, not Peter) but woke up to the sound of smashing glass at 4am. Stitches had knocked over a glass bottle while leaping through the bathroom window. So much for calm!
I laughed out loud when I heard what Kim had done to Stitches. A little humour can go a long way to lifting the spirit (as I discuss again later in the chapter “Well, Shall We?”). I tried sleeping after the call, but it was near impossible. Day 1 was done and dusted. At least I’d escaped La Gomera’s clutches and got myself into good water.
The northwester and beam swells didn’t let up. I struggled to sleep or keep my food down, and three days later I was still being pushed south and east. I was genuinely concerned I might wash up on the coast of Morocco if conditions didn’t change, and eventually conceded by deploying the parachute anchor. Without the second rower, I was always going to need it on Nyamezela more than we had on Gquma, but it was quite a downer this early in the race, with the sands of the Sahara beckoning to the east. To make matters worse, I’d discovered a problem with the water-resistant grease that kept the tracks of my sliding seat running smoothly: it wasn’t properly water resistant and, as a result, was starting to gum up. I’d have to use squirts of olive oil every shift from here on in to keep the tracks in good nick… It’s one thing putting the para-anchor out on your own, but retrieving it is an art all in itself – a very time-consuming performance. The following morning, once the conditions had improved sufficiently, I pulled it in – a routine I would become all too familiar with, having performed it only once with Bill – and continued rowing. Later that morning I woke up to what sounded like a helicopter nearby, only to open the cabin hatch and see a large container ship passing me about a hundred meters away. It was a close call. My AIS alarm had not worked and I wasn’t sure why. I was evidently in a shipping lane, as there was more drama on the high seas later that afternoon. My (now functional) AIS alarm went off while I was back in the cabin, and I darted out to find another ship bearing down on me. This time the crew of the ship, Finesse, en route to the Caribbean, had in fact seen me and, curious to find out what Nyamezela was, brought her closer to investigate. We made contact on the VHF radio and I explained to an incredulous Russian-sounding sailor that, along with a number of co-competitors, I was in fact rowing to Antigua. After a pleasant exchange, Finesse continued on her way. It would be my last ship encounter for quite some time. Conditions had improved and I could finally start making some headway, out of the shipping lane and towards Antigua. Probably one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt in my sailing experience is the importance of having a set routine. It gives structure to the day and eliminates any feeling of “What now?” helplessness. Even in the midst of mayhem, a routine provides a sense of control. Bill and I developed a very clear routine based on our 90-minutes-on, 90-minutes-off shift pattern, which we stuck to religiously. I adopted a similar routine at the start of the solo race before adapting it because of weather conditions. The rigidity of the routine is what kept me sane as I set about my daily chores: preparing food and hydration, navigating, ablutions, cleaning and so on. Eating was a key part of the routine. I ate freeze-dried expedition food as my main meals, three times a day, with each containing approximately 800 calories. Breakfast was usually muesli or oats porridge with strawberries or raisins, while lunch and dinner could be anything from spaghetti bolognese (my least favourite, reminiscent in smell and flavour to wet, smelly socks) to Thai chicken or Mediterranean pasta and vegetables (my favourite). I usually added a big splash of olive oil to every meal for extra calories, and main meals were followed by a dessert such as custard with mixed berries or stewed apple. I supplemented my meals with my DankieTanniepakkies, which contained an assortment of treats sponsored by my local Spar in East London: chocolates, sugar-coated fruit sticks, sweets, raisins, biltong, nuts and energy drinks. Because preparing food is quite a performance, especially at night, I would further supplement my calorie intake with protein shakes during night shifts and between meals. I also had some wet rations as special treats and would occasionally enjoy olives, tinned mussels or a sachet of tuna. The gastronomic highlight of my day was 100 grams of a biltong and a small packet of cheddar biscuits that I saved to eat after the 1am shift. I packed my food into separate compartments and each meal was a “lucky dip”; I would put my hand into the hatch and eat whatever I grabbed. (Please don’t let it be spaghetti bolognese again!) I optimistically packed soy sauce, wasabi and chop sticks for the sushi that I hoped to catch. Despite my plan to consume 8,000 calories every day, I steadily lost weight at a rate of more than a kilogram a week. Due to the amount I had to consume, I spent a lot of time preparing food, not always the easiest thing in the world in a rowing boat. On Day 15 I managed to pour boiling water on my feet while cooking in rough conditions. When cooking I would sit in the cabin with my legs on either side of the cooker, which rested on a gimbal, a swivel-type adaptor that keeps the water level while the boat rocks. In this instance, a large wave smashed into the side of the boat as I was pouring the water, sending it all over my feet. I dived into the cabin for Burn Ease from the medical kit and plastered it on. Scalded feet in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean are not a good thing. The medication worked wonders; although
I immediately got blisters, I managed to stave off deep burns. Every day I earmarked five rewards on my schedule. I had a set time for most of them, from which I would not deviate, as I am a strong believer in the power of delayed gratification and reward going hand in hand – something that tends to be forgotten in this age of instant gratification.
Two of the rewards were food-related: my biltong and cheddar biscuits snack at 1am, and my freeze-dried meals, which kept body and soul together even though they were only very occasionally palatable. The making of these meals became a steady daily ritual. Besides those, my first reward of the day was my sat-phone call to Kim and Hannah straight after the sunrise shift. I would sit in the darkness during my hardest shift, waiting for the sun to come up and thinking about what I would say to them and the news they would share. The next reward – subdivided in two – was my sat-phone call to Tjaart, at 6am, to discuss the weather, and my call to Cliffy, which was a little less predictable, depending on the needs of the day. And the final reward was the most exciting part of each day, something I had planned far in advance of the race. I had put together a list of people who had inspired me in my life or who had helped me get to where I was, generally or for this particular expedition. I would think about the person for the day in question during the course of the morning, and then shortly after midday I would call them to tell them I was dedicating that day to them and that I would row 50 nautical miles in their honour while thinking of them and their families. I would spend hours planning the call and what I would say. It was a process that kept me going for many rowing shifts. Most importantly it shifted my focus away from myself and my own frustrations and suffering, helping me to avoid falling into the fatal trap
of self-absorption. The responses I got from these calls took my breath away. It was fantastic. Most people would be completely amazed to receive a call from the middle of the ocean; some would just weep. When I got back to South Africa and met up with some of those I’d spoken to, I found that the calls had often affected them as much as they did me. Part of the daily struggle was trying to keep positive and this reward, and the others, was instrumental in doing so. My custom sound system was working out well in this regard. Another routine I had instituted was a motivational technique that broke down each shift into half-hour blocks. During the first block I rowed in silence; when I made it to the second block I could lift my spirits with some music; and when I made it to the third block I could reward myself with an audiobook. Any curious dolphins that arrived midways through a shift might find themselves entertained by a little Pink Floyd, Deep Purple or Cold Play, depending on my mood. If they arrived towards the end they could listen to, say, the tales of Robert Falcon Scott, the renowned English explorer who led two expeditions to Antarctica. Scott and his party famously reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that they had been preceded by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition. His entire team perished on the return journey, succumbing under the worst possible conditions imaginable. Stories of hardship like this made me feel as though rowing the Atlantic was a walk in the park by comparison. I listened with awe and amazement to the detail of the hardships they endured and, taking stock of my situation, I realised I was actually in pretty good shape. Though I didn’t know it, this particular book would lay the seed of inspiration for a future trip. At the time, listening to audiobooks of this genre was a way of boosting my morale while passing the time. Those dolphins were another. They had a remarkable knack of appearing whenever I was feeling at my lowest, as if they had intentionally come to lift my spirits with their cheerfulness. They would visit in pods twenty or thirty strong, either spinner or bottlenose dolphins, curious to find out what a human was doing on a rowing boat so far out to sea, and would surround me for half an hour or more. They somehow sensed that I was struggling and seemed to outdo each other in their efforts to make me feel better. For the first part of the race, the best close encounters with marine life occurred at night. One evening I was visited by a large unidentified swimming object that kept bumping the boat, an unnerving and yet exhilarating experience. It may have been a white-tipped oceanic shark or a good-sized turtle but I suspect it was a curious pilot whale, as I spotted many beautiful pilot whales at other times. At up to seven metres long, they are significantly larger than their dolphin cousins, but they are equally inquisitive and would swim around my boat for long periods to investigate. One rare sighting I witnessed was a wahoo hunt around the boat. Wahoo are one of the fastest fish in the sea, and one of the few that can jump clear out of the water to take down flying fish in full flight. It was quite a thing to see in action.
Three-and-a-half weeks in, the 2010 Woodvale race was hit by the worst ocean storm I have ever experienced, the epic six-day affair mentioned in the first pages of this book. While we had been suffering difficult rowing conditions to this point, this was weather – a storm upon a storm – sent to test every drop of human spirit in our bodies. Caught up in the middle of it for six radical days, it was ultimately a profound experience for me, one in which I could plumb the depths of my soul and venture into philosophical territory beyond my previous experiences. I survived. It was thrilling, in a way, to come out on the other side of such an experience, but nothing would come easy for us rowers in 2010. The race was turning into the slowest in history due to the adverse conditions, specifically the lack of trade winds. A storm is maddening and frightening and possibly lifechanging. But rowing into a current that’s running against you is a silent killer. By early February I was battling headwinds and difficult currents that just wouldn’t let up, and had to deploy the para-anchor at the end of every shift. I adapted my strategy to row in three-hour shifts so that I wouldn’t be wasting so much time setting it up and retrieving it. In the worst conditions – a headwind and a current running directly against you – the para-anchor is not even effective, as the current can actually drag you backwards quicker. At times I would manage perhaps 2 nautical miles in a 90-minute shift, after which I would be shot 3 nautical miles in the opposite direction while I rested. Although the progress of the pairs and fours is also affected in these conditions, there is always someone rowing so they just move forward slower – they don’t go backwards!
After struggling with an extended spell of variable winds, mostly south-easterlies, the 14th of February finally delivered a decent northeaster – the next best thing to having my wife by my side on Valentine’s Day. It was Day 41 and the opportunity to head south had at last presented itself. I intended to take full advantage of it. There was, however, a further treat in store, and what an incredible treat it turned out to be. During the day the AIS alerted me to another vessel in the area, a few miles to the north. Tapping on the touchscreen icon to bring up its information, I was gobsmacked to discover that it was another rowing boat, Spirit of Montanaro, with which I’d almost collided at the start. It was rowed by two amazing young British adventurers, James Arnold and Adam Rackley. We were both headed in a southerly direction, so I decided to call them up on the VHF radio and invite them over for a chat. It was fantastic to hear some different voices – and so close! – and even more so when we plotted a course to meet up. What a moment it was when we finally managed our mid-Atlantic rendezvous. Adam recounted it in his book Salt, Sweat, Tears, published in 2014.
As Nyamezela approaches, Jimmy ducks into the cabin and comes back out with the video camera. For modesty’s sake he has also put on some shorts. The camera’s running. “Hey, Adam, do you want to explain what’s going on?” “We’re just popping in to see Peter van Kets. We’re in the middle
of the Atlantic Ocean and he’s just arrived. “We’re slap bang in the middle of the Atlantic…” Jimmy continues. “…after rowing fifteen hundred miles…” “…and there he is.” Jimmy turns the camera to Nyamezela, which is now twenty metres off our port side. A South African flag flies proudly from the stern and Pete is wearing his team T-shirt, with “Own Your Life” written across the chest. Even from this distance, we can see that he has lost a lot of weight, he looks shrunken, hollowed-out. He’s really suffering. I remember meeting him in our first week on La Gomera and finding him friendly but somehow distant, his mind already steeling itself for the ocean. Now I understand. “How you doing, man?” I ask. “How does it feel to see another face?” asks Jimmy. He cracks a familiar smile. “So weird, man! It feels so good. How you doing?” “A few blisters but in good condition,” replies Jimmy. “How have you found this crossing compared to the last one?” “Ha! A lot slower. I think I enjoyed the pairs crossing more.” From the way Nyamezela moves in the swell we can see that it is extremely light and as soon as Pete stops rowing, the wind blows him away from us. I paddle briefly to keep us within talking distance. Jimmy puts down the video camera and explains about his sores, which are getting worse and worse. Perhaps Pete has some advice? “Here, let me give you some stuff… it’s miracle cream.” Pete ducks into his cabin and pulls out a clear plastic tub. “What’s in it?” “It’s eucalyptus and olive oil and some other stuff. Natural oils. I told these guys what I was doing and they made it up for me. It’s miracle cream.” […] Jim and I want to do something for him. We suggest swapping some rations, but he has the same Expedition Foods freeze-dried meals as we do. We offer him some biltong, but he has plenty of that too, so Jim digs around in the treats bag and finds our last fruit bar. The sea is too rough for us to pull alongside, so I dive in and swim over to his boat. While I’m clinging on to Nyamezela’s grab line we shake hands. After half an hour we say farewell to Pete and go our separate ways. The wind catches Nyamezela and we soon lose sight of her in the swell. Jimmy and I and our little boat are alone again on the ocean. But the meeting leaves us in high spirits and over the following days laughter and thoughtful gestures come more easily.”
Like Adam and James I had also been buoyed by our meeting; what a wonderful distraction it had been. I am not sure if this was the very first ever meeting between two rowing boats in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but it was certainly one of the first. In previous years boats could have passed a mile from one another and not been any the wiser. The AIS was proving fabulous for networking. To top it off, I later found out that my miracle cream, referred to as “Pete’s Bum Balm” by its makers, Casa Castile, had helped clear up James’ chaff. That must surely rate as one of the strangest pharmacy deliveries ever made… Amazingly, just two weeks later I had a very similar encounter. During one of my early morning sessions, I noticed another vessel in the vicinity on my AIS, and when I brought up its information I could hardly believe my eyes. It was once again another rowing boat. But not just any other rowing boat; it was No Fear, the exact same boat Bill and I had battled against two years before. This time around, though, there were two different oarsmen on board, Richard Hoyland and Steven Coe. I tried to make contact with No Fear using the VHF radio but they were evidently out of range, and there followed three tantalising days during which I could track its progress 15 nautical miles or so beyond the northeast horizon but could not communicate with it, or could communicate only partially. Though I would obviously welcome a possible rendezvous, there was no way I was going to alter course to get within working
radio range; giving up even a single mile was unthinkable. As the days passed and Richard and Steven slowly gained on me, we exchanged some radio-speak snatches of info that proved almost as frustrating as they were cheering. Human contact after so much solitude would be a huge morale booster, but modern technology was proving fallible as the two boats played cat and mouse in unhelpful weather conditions. I subsequently discovered that the aerial on No Fear was faulty. Then, early one morning, when the gap had closed quite significantly, I managed to make contact. As Richard and Steve put it in a subsequent email to Kim, “This time it was the most amazing call we would never have predicted to have received whilst rowing the Atlantic. It was Pete. We were literally only hundreds of metres apart. He asked if we would like to join him for a cup of tea… I said quite matter-of-factly, ‘How very English! We would love to.’” We did indeed meet up that day, under perfectly still conditions, though we didn’t bother with the tea. Richard swam over to Nyamezela, and the three of us shared a good 45-minute bosberaad – or whatever the mid-Atlantic version might be called. “It made our day and probably the voyage that we met up this way and under the trying and testing weeks we had been enduring,” wrote Richard and Steve. “It lifted our spirits enormously to share a few moments with Pete.” Their thoughts were reciprocated exactly, and particularly because Richard and Steven were both such superb chaps. As it had been with Adam and James, it was disappointing to say goodbye and have to return to the routine and the slog. When we left each other they continued tracking directly west and I headed a bit further south. This would eventually pay huge dividends for me when I found the right wind and managed to finish ahead of them – and it meant I could line up a few cold beers for them in Antigua, as I’d promised. Ultimately No Fear would be the boat that came in just behind me in both my Atlantic crossings, quite a coincidence.
By now I was past the 1,000-miles-to-go mark. As Bill explained in a race update on the blog, “the drop from four digits to three is a massive psychological boost”. He was spot-on. And his words offered great encouragement. “The feeling of ‘this is never going to end’ becomes less. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just that little push for the finish (a chip and a putt, as Pete would put it) and our boy will be sucking down an icy-cold beer and sinking his teeth into a juicy steak once again… For the first time in the race, the accomplishment of rowing across an ocean and getting to the other side is tangible.” I was getting there. I had become used to my new existence and routines in a race that differed from my first crossing in so many ways. At one point it occurred to me that the patterns of my day were more like that of an animal than a person. I would come out of my hole, sniff the air and test the conditions, row, sweat, eat, drink and return to my hole – and so it went hour after hour, day after day. I somehow got my head around the bizarre currents, unfavourable winds and disappointingly slow progress. I consciously tried to be grateful for the experience I was undertaking, I took consolation from interesting encounters with nature (and now occasionally man), and I was buoyed by occasional good days. I kept at it. With 450 nautical miles to go, the news that Kim had booked flights to Antigua for her, Hannah and Moose was a godsend. The end was tangible. Of course it brought with it its own specific concern: making it to the finish line at Shirley Point outside English Harbour in Antigua. The winds on this crossing had been so difficult to predict, I was paranoid we’d get it wrong and I’d end up shooting right past. It would be failure at the last: something I’d worried about the whole way across the Atlantic. At this point I was sitting furthest south out of the entire fleet,
banking on predicted southeasterly winds to take me home in the final stretch. But northeasters are in fact more prevalent in these latitudes in March, and I was incredibly anxious they would revert to the norm. In the final week I drove Tjaart to distraction, obsessively checking in with him for updates and sending
a barrage of questions each time I did. Tjaart remained calm and meticulous and never showed any outward signs of annoyance or stress – the perfect weatherman to the very end.
Cliffy’s blog: Well, it’s nearly over! For the last 70 plus days Pete has had the entire Atlantic as his playground but the next few days and hours are crucial. Pete now has to thread Nyamezela through the eye of a needle by navigating between two markers one mile apart. If the currents are pulling in a particular direction Pete could miss the finish. It’s happened in the past – rowers have missed the finish and have had to be towed back because they can’t row against the strong current.
Luckily, things worked out perfectly, and exactly as planned for the very first time in the race. With 300 nautical miles to go, I pointed Nyamezela straight at the finish line, and things were starting to look great. My boat speed increased, the water felt like silk, I had favourable current for the first time in weeks and I was a happy man. The autohelm was working like a dream and I loved the feeling of earning free miles when I was taking a break. I was averaging 3.5 knots on oars and 1.5 knots when off. If only it had all been this pleasant! I picked up so much speed in the last week that I had to constantly revise my estimated arrival time. By the time Kim and Hannah arrived in Antigua I was flying at 4 knots, far ahead of schedule. The race support yacht, Aurora, was due to pay me a visit that afternoon, with Kim and Moose hoping to follow suit by helicopter afterwards, and the conditions were getting better and better. It was a beautiful day, with birds diving, schools of small tuna leaping and the water sparkling; I was filled with anticipation! About an hour before sunset, having met up with Aurora, I spotted a dot appearing from the direction of Antigua. Slowly it grew into the shape of a helicopter and then there it was above me, with my wife and cameraman as well as Shelly ChadburnBarron, a South African photographer living in Antigua, looking down and waving in delight. They were circling right above me, low enough to make eye contact, and a huge lump came into my throat as the enormity of my adventure washed over me. With two of the doors removed for better filming, I could clearly see everyone in the helicopter – and specifically I could see that Kim was in tears. I was overwhelmed with emotion and soon followed suit. Kim and I made our “I love you” sign to each other and there were thumbs up all round. I waved my South African flag, blew my vuvuzela, punched the air in triumph and cried almost non-stop for the half hour they flew over me. It’s hard to describe that time – it was surreal, like I was in a wonderful dream, and certainly one of the greatest moments of my life. And when they were gone I slowly followed them towards Antigua – alone again, but not for long. This time around I planned to arrive in daylight, and to do so I actually had to slow down in the last few hours. I got off the oars and allowed the boat to drift for a while as I contemplated my journey and made my final navigational calculations. At about midnight I was able to make out the lights of Antigua in the distance. What a sight! After 75 days at sea, and weeks of loneliness, frustration, pain and deprivation – and times when I thought I would never make it in one piece – there it was: Antigua! I offered up a prayer of gratitude. What a beautiful night it was: a light 10-knot southeaster was blowing, the current was still in my favour, and my face was aching from smiling. To top if off, I had set my personal record for the crossing: 67 nautical miles in a day.
Perversely, after going as fast as I could for 75 days, as dawn broke I desperately wanted to slow things down and relish the moment. Antigua was beautiful beyond description in the soft light of the early morning sun. I wanted to take it all in and make the moment last. This was my summit moment, like sitting on top of Mount Everest – the moment I had been dreaming of for months that I now didn’t want to end. The race finish line is one nautical mile due south of Shirley Lighthouse and about 1.5 nautical miles away from the dock at English Harbour. An Antigua and Barbuda Search and Rescue rubber duck, which had been sent out to escort Nyamezela in, sounded the hooter as she crossed the finish line, and I stood up on my boat, looked up at the heavens and thanked God with all my heart for getting me there safely. I then punched the air in joy, let out an almighty bellow of triumph and relief and blew my vuvuzela for all I was worth!
Kim: Having Peter in the middle of the Atlantic for 76 days was characterised more by downs than ups…but day 75 and 76 almost made up for the downs. Nothing can begin to describe the feeling of finding the tiny dot that was Nyamezela – it is really only at that moment, with 360° of ocean hemming us in, that one can begin to understand the massive extent of the loneliness and isolation that he has faced for so long. We circled so low over Peter that we were able to make eye contact – we were all shouting and gesticulating and beaming and weeping into the chaos and noise and it was the most exhilarating and moving moment imaginable. We couldn’t bear to leave him and must have circled him for about 25 minutes before the fading light forced us to head for home. How awesome to know that he was okay – painfully thin and marvellously furry but strong and determined and very close to home. Sleep was impossible on Peter’s last night at sea, and when he called at 3am to say he would be in by 9am we were all awake and raring to go… Then he was stepping off the boat into our arms in a blur of noise and flares and excitement and champagne bubbles and the joy and relief of knowing he was safe is indescribable. And now it feels as if he has never been gone and I have to keep looking at his beard to remind myself of the enormity of what he has achieved. Hannah can’t keep her hands off it and wakes up in the night to stroke it and check that he is still here. Every day he looks a little less haggard and sunken-eyed and slightly less skinny and exhausted – the ability of the human body to restore itself is amazing. And Hannah and I are reluctant to let him out of our sight and are relishing every moment of being a family again.
My arrival on land felt like an extension of my dream – into the arms of my family, with of course a promise to Kim that I would never attempt another ocean crossing like this… And then the dream had me being led to a perfectly set table under an awning with a full English breakfast waiting for me – the first meal I didn’t have to drink out of a bag in 76 days. What bliss. I had lost 15 kilograms in two-and-a-half months, and my programme to regain the lost weight started immediately and in earnest. The English breakfast was followed soon after by a burger and chips for lunch, and steak, egg and chips and rumand-raisin ice cream for dinner… You really cannot understand how sweet it all tasted… I went to sleep on my first night on land clean and dry in crisp white sheets with my belly straining at the seams and my wife and daughter in my arms. I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven.
I spent two weeks in Antigua recovering and attempting to rid the island of piña coladas and pudding. The timing was perfect as we were able to watch many of the other rowers come in to English Harbour. Every time I saw a boat arrive and watched the reunions on the dock I was overwhelmed with emotion. Unsurprisingly, Charlie Pitcher took the solo line honours, in
an incredible 52 days. I was proud of my second place under trying conditions, and the brilliant young Dave Brooks, who I had chatted to regularly during the course of the race, was third, two days behind me. (Unfortunately he wouldn’t go on to complete his Pacific crossing as planned; the Atlantic proved too hectic. I am sure the future has many more expeditions in store for him, though.) Roger Haines followed Dave in 92 days, another impressive feat, given that he completed his race in a pairs boat. Leo Rossette spent 101 days at sea, and unfortunately missed the finish line, being blown on to Les Saintes on the island of Guadeloupe to the south of Antigua. James Ketchell made it to Antigua nine days after that, and last on the water was Sean McGowan, who spent a mind-bending 118 days rowing the Atlantic. Both James and Sean had to be resupplied en route, an indicator of just how unfavourable conditions had been. And then I was boarding a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 for a journey back across the Atlantic that would be 150 times shorter than my previous one. As we took off over the great blue wilderness of the ocean, I looked out of the window and was filled with a mixture of emotions. I was so thankful I had made it, but there was also a sense of loss. One of the greatest expeditions I could partake in was behind me; it was over. It had been epic. Some days it was as if the ocean’s cruel purpose was solely to break you, as it chipped away at your resolve bit by bit, wearing you down to a primitive state, taking you beyond any limits you thought you had, and then some. I had survived. I had conquered the Eighth Summit