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It was just past seven in the morning, Tuesday September 11, 2001.  I sat there in my car on my way to work and the phone rang.

“Hello, my name is Niclas Mårdfelt.  Do you know about the rowing race between Tenerife and Barbados?”

“Yes!  I do.”

“Great!  The guy I was going to row with has pulled out.  Would you like to participate in that race?  It starts on October 7.”

The rowing competition was something I knew existed, but Niclas Mårdfelt was a total stranger to me. 


I did phone my wife Mary as soon as we had ended that conversation.  Her reply was distinct:

“You better get your ass into that boat!  You would not be Rune if you turned down the chance to row across the Atlantic.”

My employer, I worked as a sales representative, was not as enthusiastic as Mary was and declared that they could not see any kind of benefits coming out of having an employee taking off for such an adventure.  To accept Niclas’ offer would mean that I turned down my future in that company.


The chance comes like a snail but disappears like lightning, is a saying that holds quite a bit of relevance so it was best to act immediately on this opportunity.  Some hours after Niclas presented his offer he got my reply: 

“Yes please!”

Then I heard the news about the airplanes that crashed in to the Twin Towers and Pentagon.  This was a turbulent day in my life.


Ward Evans Atlantic Rowing Challenge started on October 7.  It was a sunny Sunday.  Niclas and I rowed together with 35 other teams away from San Juan on Tenerife.  Ahead of us laid a seemingly endless ocean.  The finish on Barbados was 2900 nautical miles away – if we managed to navigate well.


I had been scared from the day I had accepted to join Niclas in the race and until today.   Most of all I was worried about my incredible predisposition for seasickness.  The thought of being unemployed at the age of 45, in a beginning recession and an uncertain World politic situation generated doubts regarding the economic future for my family.  The possibility to die out on the ocean came in third place on my priorities of fear.  The day before the race started we heard the tragic news of an American who was lost in a storm when he tried to row solo across the Atlantic.  But strange enough, all my fear disappeared when I took the first strokes with the oars.


The seasickness was gone after three days.  My nervous system had probably adjusted to a life with erratic motions.  The Sun was shining during the days, the nights were starry, and it was rather pleasant to row.  However, this ideal World had some serious cracks, because our electric system did not function as it was supposed to.  The solar panels on the cabin roof should have charged a battery that was going to supply the electric engine to our watermaker.  That was the plan, but the machine never did function.  The heat with the hard muscular work we performed called for a daily need of up to 10 liters of fresh water per person per day.  In addition to the water our bodies needed for internal use, we also needed water to wash away the salt from the areas of exposed body parts. 


12 days after we had started, we had consumed 149 of the 150 liters ballast water we had in the bilge.  The sun was beating down on our bodies and the situation turned out to be rather critical.  I had been rowing for many hours, but had not ingested a single drop of water since sometime yesterday.  The symptoms of heat exhaustion started to creep on me when I rested in the cabin after five hours at the oars.   Niclas was trying to adjust the watermaker to manual operation when I took the chance to get some well-needed sleep.


“How do you think this tastes?”

Niclas woke me up with those words and handed me a little bottle with water.  It tasted terrific!  He had managed to rebuild the machine, in spite of not having the proper tools.  I took over at the watermaker and pumped it when my partner rested, and then we took turns like that until we were hydrated and recuperated enough to start rowing again.


Six liters of water per person and day was some kind of minimum for us to function under these conditions.  In the beginning we could pump that volume in four hours.  It was not functional to pump and row at the same time, so the water production slowed us down considerably, together with the fact that we always were more or less dehydrated and thirsty.


Well, we had more than a fair share of problems with our equipment, but our spirits were high most of the time.  Life on the ocean was simple.  We rowed or pumped the watermaker, cooked, ate, and rested.  Strange enough, I did not experience monotony in the surroundings – ocean and sky, or in all those hours at the oars.  In all my life I have had a love for hard physical work and now I got as much of it as I wanted.  My shifts at the oars offered me great opportunities to think.  Perhaps I have never had a lower stress level than what I had on board our boat


Nature played great shows for us every now and then; one such show was when dolphins played around the boat.  I was convinced that they tried to communicate with us when they did their advanced synchronized swimming and jumping.  Some of them tried with success to make eye contact with me.  A human being who has had such an experience is not likely to want to hurt anybody or consider polluting the dolphins’ home – The ocean – with garbage for a long time to come.


Whales were also abundant along the course we rowed.  One morning when I sat there with the oars in my callused hands I saw a flock with 20 – 30 whales approaching from the stern, and suddenly the boat was in the middle of it all.  Pfffschoo, pfffschoo, pfffschoo sounded all around us when they blew from the holes on their heads. 


Just like all the other teams, we took a bearing toward west-southwest until we were at the same latitude as Cape Verde, about 15 degrees north, and then we turned west with the tradewinds that blows between Africa and the West Indies straight against the stern.  The tradewinds usually blow five to 10 meters per second.  But this Fall the winds did not seem to care about statistics.  We lost count of how many days with winds of 15 meters per second or more that we had during our crossing.  Even though I had come to terms with my fear, I did definitely not feel cocky when the wind roared around my ears and the waves were six meter high.  Sometimes we were struck by freak waves that had built up and changed direction so they suddenly struck the boat from the side.  Many of these waves did hit more than the boat, as a matter of fact.  The rower was often splashed with such might that he was almost thrown over board, which I indeed was one night too. 


In a rowing competition like the one we were involved with now has many complicated dimensions.  Muscle is of course one parameter for success.  Yet, the need does go according to ambition.  However, if one just intends to cross the Atlantic, it can be enough to be a lady of less than 60 kilograms of weight applied behind the oars, which has already been proven.  The psychological and social factors are of great importance.  The longer the time the rowers are going to spend in their boat, and the more problems they have, the greater the need to keep the spirits high and the friendship alive.  Niclas and I were surprisingly successful with this, in spite of being strangers to each other until just one week before the race started.


My psychological sore spot was the profound feelings of missing my family.   Every day – almost every hour of every day when I was awake – I did dream of them standing there on the pier when we will arrive in Port St. Charles on Barbados.  No physical pain or thirst was more painful than the one the emotions generated by longing for my wife and our two sons.


That was a fact, but it should also be taken to the record that we had an abundance of physical discomfort.  Most of it came from our behinds that were full of blisters and pimples, caused by the salt crystals’ rubbing against the skin when we were rowing.  We did not wear pants since fabric saturated with salt irritated the skin and made the problem worse.


The Watermaker gave less and less as the weeks went by.  Before Christmas it did quit completely and all attempts to repair it failed.  Then we only had one realistic option, and that was to call the organizer’s support vessel on the satellite phone and ask for assistance. 


It was Christmas Eve and back home in Sweden our families were lighting candles, ate ham and could drink as much beverages they pleased.  It was beyond any doubt in my mind that they were thinking of us.   Our thoughts went to those we missed as we laid there on the ocean and just drifted with the winds and currents in order to preserve what little strength and fresh water we had left.  Somewhere deep inside me there was a feeling of uncertainty.  What if the rescue vessel can’t find our little boat on this great ocean?


But Christmas would not be Christmas if there was not a happy ending to this drama too.  The air was clear and the water relatively calm when I sighted a beige sail on the horizon.  I called the boat on our VHF radio and the skipper on the organizer’s rescue vessel answered.   What a fantastic Christmas present they gave us!  200 liters of water and more food!


To receive outside assistance like this meant that we were disqualified from the competition, but we could still keep on rowing.  And rowed we did; now with rejuvenated strength.


The weather changed after Christmas.  Huge cumulus nimbus clouds did constantly hit us with hammering rain and stormwinds of up to 25 meters per second.  These squalls did only last for some minutes, but they did play rough with us, especially during the nights.  The average wind increased too and was often gale force, and tore up the sea to huge waves that juggled with our boat.  The direction of the wind turned a bit and started to push us south.  This weather condition lasted for the rest of the trip. 


Sometimes I felt like we would never get to Barbados.  The estimated date for our finish was pushed back further in the calendar for every problem that we encountered.  But when I crawled out from the cabin one evening, it was on Tuesday January 8, Niclas pointed toward a small stream of light on the horizon. 

“The Sun set there a while ago, but this light remains.”

My pulse rose when I saw that greenish light.  We both agreed that it must be coming from Barbados.  I turned my head and looked at the light many times during my shift at the oars, and could see it getting brighter each time. 


The next evening when I rowed the night shift, we came in from the south of Barbados.  The rain from countless squalls hammered at my body as I sat there with the oars in my hands.  The tradewinds blew out the smell of vegetation, of cut grass and wet leafs.  I think that only a person who has spent a quarter of a year in a little rowing boat has the full ability to really understand how such a smell can ram the emotions.  When I rowed parallel to the shoreline, some hundred meters from land, I could hear music from some restaurant and smell fresh bread from a bakery.  Niclas woke up and took the oars shortly after we had passed the capital Bridgetown and turned north along the island’s sheltered West Coast.  I went to sleep.


The new day had dawned when I woke up.  I could see greenish water, white shorelines and palm trees.  It looked like we were rowing in a tourist brochure.


That morning we rowed in to the bay where the finish and Port St. Charles was.  The harbormaster came out in a boat, and went back to the marina, then returned again.  When the boat was 50 meters from us, I saw four heads peeked up over the side of the boat along with a big Swedish flag that was flying out in the wind.  It was my wife Mary, our sons Isak and Zakarias, and Mary’s brother John.  Not even someone who has ever won a Nobel prize in literature could describe such an experience with ordinary or extraordinary words, so I will not try to do that either.


After 5400 kilometers of rowing during 95 days, 5 hours and 33 minutes, Niclas and I could finally walk on land again.  Or could I not?  The concrete pier, the marble floor in the custom’s building, asphalt, grass and everything else seemed to be moving beneath my feet.  Niclas made the adjustment seemingly without any problem.  He even performed a show with Cossack dancing shortly after we stepped out of the boat.  Later that evening I fell in to a hedge when John and I went for a walk.  It seemed like my nervous system had to readjust to normal conditions again. 


An incredible sense of euphoric happiness and deep gratitude filled my emotions.  Little everyday things like being with my family, taking a shower, sitting at a table eating cooked food, etc, were sensations that generated sincere joy.  All of these things were a part of every day life just some months earlier, yet was taken for granted that the family, shower, and the food should always be there.


I am convinced that rowing across an ocean would do many people a lot of good.  Life changing tempo out there and all those experiences will be memories for life.  It was apparent that my wife understood the value of my adventure, because just a few days after I had stepped out of the boat she looked me in the eyes and declared that she definitely wants us to row together the next time they have this race.  I replied without hesitation that I also want to do that.

“We can name the boat Loveboat or Loving it, “ said Mary and I agreed that she had come up with a great idea.


It seems like I have not yet totally returned emotionally to the land.  But again, I wonder why I should want to do that?



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