Atlantic wide

It’s called the “world’s toughest row”: a transatlantic race from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, powered by human strength. And in December 2015, the first-ever team from Antigua and Barbuda took up the challenge. Joanne C. Hillhouse learns more

Team Wadadli: from left to right, Peter Smith, Nicholas Fuller, John Hall, and Archie Bailey. Photo by Ben Duffy, courtesy the Talisker Whisky Atlantic ChallengeThe triumphant return to Antigua. Photo by Ben Duffy, courtesy the Talisker Whisky Atlantic ChallengeThousands of well-wishers turned up to welcome Team Wadadli home. Photo by Ben Duffy, courtesy the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge

How four brave Antiguans mastered “the world’s toughest row”

Thinking about climbing Everest? How about a real challenge? Not knocking Everest, but folks taking the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge — formerly known as the Atlantic Rowing Race — will tell you that fewer people have done what they’ve done.

Antigua and Barbuda’s Team Wadadli — Dr Nicholas Fuller, age sixty-four; Rowan “Archie” Bailey, fifty; John Desmond “JD” Hall, twenty-nine; and Peter Smith, seventy-four — braved the self-described “world’s toughest row.” They journeyed 2,600 nautical miles, from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, in Wa’omani, a boat no longer than seven metres, no broader than two. They made the Guinness Book of World Records (twice!) while doing so, and they’re the only Caribbean team, to date, to take the challenge, which has attracted rowers from around the globe.

It was Doc Fuller’s idea. “For years I’ve been seeing them row across and come to Antigua as the finishing venue. I didn’t think there was any reason that we couldn’t do it,” he says.

Fuller and his teammates were dubbed “bloody mad.” Rowing the Atlantic, even for seasoned seamen, even with practice rows around Antigua for prep, is hard. “Sailing is much easier,” Smith says. But in the Wa’omani, there were no sails to catch the wind, just human effort, 7.30 am to 8 pm, every day, in two-hour shifts — and even more once the automatic stern broke down ten days in, and a third man was needed on each shift to steer manually.

Working in their favour was a clear chain of command (“Dr Fuller was the boss” — JD), a relationship with the sea (“We know what’s out there” — Smith), a commitment to go the distance (“There’s no ‘give up’” — Smith), everyone pulling his weight (“Look at it like a job” — Doc), a no-drama policy (“It takes two to make an argument” — Archie), and the boat (“I knew that engine inside out” — JD).

It was December 2015 when the race began, and it was cold in the Canaries. “I thought we were going to die,” Archie says. Soon they’d be rowing in 43ºC heat on a steady diet of porridge and noodles slurped out of a Ziploc bag, supplemented by whatever fish they could catch. “Chocolate was one thing we craved out at sea,” JD says. One time they found a stray chocolate bar, stopped rowing, and each had a piece.

Hygiene was a priority. Pee in a bottle, “hang your bum overboard” (recalls JD) for other things; sanitise, sanitise, sanitise.

They were making good time. Then “the hurricane came and we didn’t expect that,” JD says. Nothing to do but tie everything down to the deck, set the sea anchor, and retire two-to-a-cabin to wait it out . . . for forty-eight hours. Wham! Bang! Crash! Forty-foot waves pummeled the small vessel. It was, says JD, “like being in a washing machine.” And that’s about the most pleasant description of the experience.  “It was very, very noisy, hot, and stink,” says Archie. At one point, Smith strapped on the safety harness and “crept out for air.” And, he says, incongruously, “the sea was just beautiful.”

There is wonder in their description of the spectacular sights out there at sea: the humpback whale that “looked just like a submarine coming out of the water” (says Smith); or the days when there was nothing to do but go to the “beach” — “it is so nice that we swim in the Atlantic Ocean!” (Archie). The most beautiful sight, though, came about four hundred miles out from Antigua, when they spied frigatebirds, swooping and picking flying fish out of the air. Synonymous with Barbuda, the distinctive black and red bird was a sign of home. Then came the helicopter, sixty miles out: “the first human we see in fifty days,” Archie says, confessing that tears flowed then as it hit them what they’d done. Twenty boats went out to escort them in, but even so the crew did not expect the welcoming crowd of thousands. “Coming round the corner into Nelson’s Dockyard” was, JD says, “truly emotional.”

They finished fourteenth in a field of twenty-six, and logged fifty-two days at sea. Smith made the record books as the oldest rower — “it felt pretty cool” — and the team as the oldest team overall to cross the Atlantic.

They were sea-battered — a combined sixty pounds lost among them, bone weary for weeks afterwards, slow to shake the row-boat feeling — but they’ve been on a school-visiting, autograph-signing, officialdom-feting high since their return.

Team Wadadli also raised EC$400,000 for the St John Hospice, and planned to raise even more from a screening of their adventure and auction of a commemorative painting by Rachel Bento. Doc may even write a book. And another team is already practicing for the 2017 Challenge.

As for Team Wadadli, they are back at work — Doc at his medical practice, JD doing his tours, Archie on the boat he captains, Smith at the National Sailing Academy. But they are changed men — humbler, not as caught up in the hustle and bustle, according to JD. And bonded: Archie put it best when he said of his cabin-mate Doc Fuller, “we used to be friends, but remember, we slept and hug up and [now] it’s like we are twins.”