To cross an ocean, one stroke at a time

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Gritty trans-Atlantic rowing challenge between U.S. and U.K. boats brings out the best in both crews

Gritty trans-Atlantic rowing challenge between U.S. and U.K. boats brings out the best in both crews

It seemed a veritable battle of David and Goliath — a 53-foot ocean rowing vessel pitted against a 30-foot experimental oar-powered multihull. And yet both parties showed grit and determination that proved the old adage: it’s not about winning or losing, but how you play the game.

On Jan. 17, the British and Irish crew aboard the monohull La Mondiale completed the 3,000-mile journey from the Canary Islands to Barbados in 33 days, seven hours and 30 minutes. The time smashed by two days the 16-year-old standing world record set by a French crew aboard the same boat.

“It was a great privilege to skipper La Mondiale and even better as it went with the blessing of the previous French crew and their Captain Gerard Seibel who met with us in Paris and helped and encouraged us to better the record,” says 35-year-old British sailor Leven Brown in an email to Soundings. “In addition our main sponsor was my former employer Brewin Dolphin; what can be better than that?”

The vessel ORCA (Ocean Rowing Challenges America), a custom-made multihull rowboat by New Yorker Roy Finlay, 45, finished the journey in 36 days and 55 minutes. The crew achieved the status of becoming the first multihull rowing vessel in history to cross the Atlantic and, in the process, broke the record for the fastest four-man rowboat by four minutes.

Finlay says the accomplishment of crossing the Atlantic in a multihull gives him great satisfaction.

“Records are meant to be broken — and they will be — but this goes into the history books and you can’t take that away,” he says.

“The race was really secondary in the end,” says American Chris Cuddihy, 54, and one of the four crewmembers on the ORCA. “I think the crew of the La Mondiale was pretty astonished we made it across.”

A blog posting on Jan. 20 on the La Mondiale crew’s Web site,

www.oceanrowevents.com, notified the public of the ORCA’s safe arrival in Bridgetown, Barbados, and offered hearty congratulations.

“I really had no idea how tough it would be,” Cuddihy says of his adventure. “I turned 54 on the water and I have to say, it was probably the most significant experience I ever had.”

It has long been a dream of Scottish-born Roy Finlay’s to take the world speed record from La Mondiale, a monohull that completed the journey across the Atlantic in 35 days, eight hours and 30 minutes in 1992. His first attempt was made in 2000 in the 52-foot Atlantic Endeavor, ORCA’s polar opposite. The row was abandoned 2,300 miles short of its mark amid acrimony among the 16 crew. Taking a different tack, Finlay decided to simplify with a smaller vessel. ORCA is composed of a single-piece foam-filled fiberglass hull with pontoons attached by outriggers.

The improvements worked to Finlay’s advantage — after departing from the Canary Islands on Dec. 15, ORCA achieved a maximum speed of 17.3 mph recorded on GPS while riding a 20-foot wave northwest of the Cape VerdeIslands.

Meanwhile, it took Brown and the crew a year to prepare for the trip, training their bodies and rehabilitating what Brown describes as the “derelict” La Mondiale.

“[I have] a tremendous sense of pride and satisfaction at our team’s achievement at smashing a record held for 16 years but also a huge respect for the French team who set the record in 1992,” says Brown. “We appreciate how much their bodies must have ached as ours certainly did!”

Both ORCA and La Mondiale ran into their share of problems along the way. The ORCA crew found themselves sans satellite phone shortly before Jan. 1 when the vessel took on water, short-circuiting their communications system, and soon after their sound system went as well.

“I really don’t recall when we lost the music, because the days really began to run together,” says Cuddihy. “Rowing for three weeks without music was very tough.”

Cuddihy’s son Ryan, 26, from Riverhead, N.Y., who was posting regular blog updates of the trip for friends and family, says he began worrying when he didn’t hear from the crew five days after New Year’s Eve.

“I remember having dinner with my mother when the phone rings and a man from a Dutch merchant ship explained to us that my Dad and the crew were okay,” says Ryan. “They found another ship using their VHF radio about six days later that was able to give us another update.”

The hardest part of the journey for La Mondiale was the storm that hit two days out of Puerto de Mogan, forcing them to be on sea anchor for three days.

We were going nowhere with 13 anxious men champing at the bit to get on with the race and record,” says Brown. “Keeping the crew occupied and assured during this period was tough.”

Though the ORCA crew has gone their separate ways since completion of the journey, Cuddihy says for the most part they got along.

“Being on a 30-foot boat with three other guys — there’s no dignity,” says Cuddihy. “We all decided to give each other our space.”

Cuddihy says one crew, Denis Richardson, 32, who helped Finlay build the ORCA, is now on a merchant ship in Barbados, and he hasn’t heard from Ronnie Desiderio, 46, who threw his cell phone into the water on completion of the journey.

As for Finlay, he says he’s now retired from rowing across oceans.

“I am more of a yachtsman than a rower,” he says. “I prefer sailing.”

Brown says he and his crew certainly had to learn to deal with the myriad of personalities in such close quarters for a number of weeks.

“The huge learning outcome for me personally was to get to grips with all the human eccentricities of men put under such tremendous strain both mentally and physically and how to deal with such,” says Brown. “Our team was second to none to survive an extreme test of stamina and bravery.”

Finlay says he’s now managing another rower, Greg Dougherty, who plans to attempt, with a second crew, to row from New York to France this summer aboard ORCA, replicating the historic voyage of the first two ocean rowers. On June 6, 1896, Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo, both Norwegian immigrants, set out from New York City and arrived in the Isles of Scilly 55 days later.

Finlay and Dougherty are seeking sponsorship and crew. For information, contact Dougherty at rocexpedition@gmail.com . www.atlanticorca.com