Al Grover’s epic Atlantic adventure

grover1Al Grover was having a midlife crisis. It was 1985, and the affable 58-year-old family man with a marina business in Freeport, New York, had developed an itch.

“I’d been going to work for 30, 40 years,” he says. “I wanted something a little different.”

His hankering had developed a distinctly Norwegian flavor. As an Evinrude dealer, Grover had learned a lot about the company’s founder, Ole Evinrude, who was born Ole Olsen in Norway and immigrated as a child to the United States. Promotional videos and marketing materials about its founder got Grover thinking: Why not cross the Atlantic and voyage to the Evinrud farm — the site of Ole’s birthplace and his namesake — powered only by outboards?

Grover thought this radical plan would be good for business, but he didn’t stop there.

At age 10, Grover had started fishing offshore and worked his way up to mate, making $2 a day. In the 1930s, fishing was a different business. Electronics were scarce to nonexistent, and success was largely based on a seakindly boat, good seamanship skills and local knowledge. A fishing boat running an unprotected inlet with 4,000 pounds of mackerel had to be able to take a following sea without broaching. It was this kind of boat Grover had in mind as he designed his Groverbuilt 26, a long, narrow vessel with good fuel efficiency. The build found a strong following with Long Island fishermen, with 130 Groverbuilts sold in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Grover_Spirit_of_FreeportOffshore fishing is one thing, but could a skiff like his make an Atlantic crossing? The idea was fraught with challenges, most of them fuel-related, but Grover figured if he could handle 4,000 pounds of fish, he could certainly carry 700 gallons of fuel. Keeping it dry was another chore. The air vents on the hull were sealed to prevent seawater ingress, and 18 40-gallon aluminum tanks were stashed aboard — six on the bow and another 12 running abaft the open pilothouse to the stern. The hoses moved air into the engines and fuel out of the tanks. A diagram kept track of the numbered tanks so they could be swapped around as ballast.

grover2Grover’s wife, Arti, was not thrilled with the trans-Atlantic concept, but she eventually contributed some of the most important safety ideas, including air bladders strapped to the stern for extra buoyancy.

On Aug. 1, 1985, after three years of planning and various postponements, Grover felt it was now or never. He and his 28-year-old son Al Grover Jr. set sail from Pictou, Nova Scotia, on Transatlantic, powered by twin 65-hp Evinrudes.

At first, they did watches in four-hour shifts but quickly changed that to two on, two off. The accommodations made Spartan seem downright cushy. “To sleep, we’d climb into the 2-foot-by-6-foot space between the fuel tanks in the cabin,” Grover recalls. “The violent motion of the ocean wouldn’t be so bad with the tanks squeezing you.”

A nor’easter off the Grand Banks soon tested them with 20-foot seas and 40-mph winds. Unable to make headway, they killed the engines and drifted stern to the wind until the storm subsided. By then, they were 150 miles off their intended route to Norway, via Greenland. They decided to change course and continue on to the Azores.

Life aboard was not comfortable. A failing O-ring allowed a dribble of fuel to leak each time a tank was swapped. Between the gas fumes, the lack of sleep and the sticky saltwater spray, on-board conditions were rough.

“We didn’t have much of an appetite, to be honest,” Grover remembers. They’d provisioned using an early version of a kit that the armed forces refer to as MRE (Meals Ready to Eat). The MRE came wrapped in tinfoil, and when put in a special pouch with water — any kind of water — a chemical reaction heated the food. They had about a dozen of these self-heating meals to choose among, and they drank a lot of juice boxes.

grover3Grover says one of the scariest parts of the crossing was when they encountered a French sailor who passed along news of Hurricane Claudette’s projected collision course with the Azores. They were running 6 or 7 knots toward the same destination, and at one point they lost power. With no communications or lights, they drifted stern to the wind, with everything secured, for 24 hours about 75 miles off Flores Island in the Azores, as Claudette pounded it. The rubberized air bladders on the stern did their job. On the storm’s outer edges, Transatlantic experienced 60-foot seas and 75-mph winds.

In a dark moment, Grover tried to cheer his son. “We have a lot to be thankful for,” he said. “We’ve had a good life.”

“You’ve had a good life,” the 28-year-old shot back. 

Once safely ashore in the Azores, they swapped out the crew, with Grover’s 25-year-old son Dante coming aboard. The eight-day trip to Lisbon, Portugal, was less eventful, but Grover remembers it as a time that brought him and Dante, who now runs Al Grover’s High and Dry Marina in Freeport, much closer.

In all, the trans-Atlantic portion of the trip took 33 days. The Grovers headed home and were entered into Guinness World Records for the smallest outboard motorboat crossing of the Atlantic. There were speaking engagements, celebrations and, no doubt, a lot of recovering.

The following summer, Grover returned to finish the trip to Norway, bringing Arti and his daughters, Joanne and Andrea, along for the three-month itinerary through the web of canals that start in Barcelona and connect Spain to Norway.

grover_mapGrover, now 89, divides his time between Freeport and Vero Beach, Florida.  “I didn’t go to college — I wasn’t a very good student,” Grover says. “But what a blessing it was to grow up and get that education on the water, fishing. When I look back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

“Well …” he says with a chuckle, “90 percent of it, I wouldn’t change.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue.

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