Rowers trying for trans-Atlantic mark

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Four Dutchmen hope to row from New York to the Scilly Islands in less than 55 days

Four Dutchmen are attempting to break a long-standing record by rowing across the Atlantic in less than 55 days. The team boarded a specially built 36-foot rowing boat May 27 and set off from New York City for the Scilly Islands southwest of Cornwall, England.

As you read this, the rowers remain on the Atlantic and hope to reach the Scilly Islands July 16, making the passage in 50 days. If all goes as planned, they will then row to their home city of Rotterdam, Netherlands, having covered more than 3,400 nautical miles.

“This is going to be quite an adventure,” says 28-year-old rower Maarten Staarink just days before departing. “We will face many challenges at sea, but we are confident that we can do this. We are all very excited.”

In addition to Staarink, the team is composed of Gijs Groeneveld, 26, Robert Hoeve, 27, and Jaap Koomen, 31. The men, who met while studying at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, each put their careers on hold to take part in the trip.

The rowers plan to follow the same route the Holland-America Line made between New York and Rotterdam, according to information on the team Web site, www.oceanfours.com. The record they are trying to beat was set in 1896 by two Norwegian fishermen who rowed an 18-foot skiff from New York to the Scilly Islands — one of Holland-America’s original stopovers — in 55 days. The record for that route has never been broken.

“We figured if we are going to do something like row across the Atlantic Ocean, we should try and break a record while we’re at it,” Koomen says.

Rowing with the Gulf Stream, the crew hopes to average 2.5 to 3 knots. Once the rowers complete the leg of the voyage to the Scilly Islands, they will resupply and proceed to their finish in Rotterdam.

The rowers realize that rowing the Atlantic, especially since they had no prior experience, might seem strange to some. The decision to take on this challenge, they say, was unexpected.

“This isn’t what we had planned to do,” says Koomen. “Maarten and I are sailors and were always thinking about sailing around the world. When we found a race for us, Robert and Gijs wanted to compete, as well. But the race didn’t work out. We took some time, talked about things and decided to do it ourselves, to row and to break a record.”

Staarink says rowing the Atlantic was a more logical undertaking than sailing. “With sailing, you need a lot of experience to do something like going across an ocean,” he says. “Two of us aren’t sailors. You can learn how to row in only a few years. That seemed like the best thing to do.”

The men began pitching their idea to potential sponsors in October 2002. Representatives from Vopak, a global provider of storage facilities for liquid chemical and oil products, were particularly interested in supporting the effort.

“These guys are thinking the unthinkable and doing the impossible, proving that with concentration and some training, anything is possible,” says Vopak CFO Jack de Kreij. “Plus, they are energetic, have common sense, and make a good team. We are happy to support something like this.”

In all, the team raised around $280,000 from 45 sponsors and nearly 100 individual contributors. Then came the task of learning how to row. In early 2003 the friends contacted accomplished rower Max Kloosterman and started a 2-1/2-year training plan.

“Learning to row isn’t always easy,” Kloosterman says. “But these guys are driven. Overall, their preparation went by quickly and easily.”

Construction of their boat, Vopak Victory, began in June 2004 and took about four months to finish. It has forward and aft cabins. The aft cabin can accommodate three people and is used for cooking, eating, navigation and sleeping. The forward cabin is used for storing provisions, clothing and medicine. Also on board is a desalinator capable of producing nearly 4 gallons of water per hour, a bilge pump and solar-charged batteries.

To help ensure the crew’s safety, the boat is self-righting, and is equipped with a short-range VHF radio, satellite e-mail and phone systems, an EPIRB, life raft and life vests. Although the men were confident in their rowing capabilities, they admitted just days before leaving New York City that they were concerned about weather and other potential hazards.

“Things can get dangerous in the middle of the ocean,” Staarink says. “We will have to be mindful of waves, weather and of large container ships. If the boat rolls and we have serious damage or serious injury, we’ll have to stop. We hope to be able to manage all of the obstacles, though.”

The crew’s safety also is a concern for families and friends. “I’m excited for them and hope they come back successful but, well, also safe,” says Staarink’s sister, Janneke. “They’ve put a lot of effort into this.”

Koomen says that one of the team’s strengths is the bond the men have formed since they began training. “We’ve been at this for almost three years,” he says. “We’ve managed to learn a lot from and about each other in that time and will continue to. I’m completely confident in this team.”

And even if they don’t beat the 55-day record, the rowers say they won’t be too disappointed. “If we can cross an ocean and make it safely, that’s still something,” Groeneveld says. “This is going to be an experience. We’re excited to be out there and to have the adventure.”