I dare say most of us have – occasionally and fleetingly – considered taking on an extreme physical challenge. Climbing Everest, sailing around the world, rowing an ocean… and then most of us, very sensibly, have instantly dismissed the idea. Heck, I find a 20 minute erg enough of a challenge – I’m hardly ocean rowing material. Yet there are increasing numbers of people who, having had the thought, hold on to it, share it and then devote years of their lives to making it happen.
SALT, SWEAT, TEARS – the Men Who Rowed the Oceans, published by Penguin last month, is ocean rowing survivor and former fund manager Adam Rackley’s account not just of his own experience of rowing the Atlantic with Jimmy Arnold, but of those of his predecessors – the brave, driven and frankly reckless people who have thrown their energies and risked their lives to propel a tiny and vulnerable craft across shark-infested, current-riven, wave-tossed oceans. Some lived to tell the tale – others, tragically, were lost at sea. All deserve our respect and awe.
When I was sent this book by the publishers, I can’t deny my heart sank a little. Ocean rowing, whilst still a niche endeavour, is increasingly popular and you don’t have to go that far in the rowing world to meet someone who’s done it. I’ve interviewed several and whilst each one has a tale to tell, the stories do tend to merge into one long tale of blisters, sunburn, exhaustion, fear, fatigue, claustrophobia, waves, more waves, sharks, boredom, self-discovery, big skies, loneliness and relief. It seems harsh to say so when the endeavour is such a hard one, but it all becomes a bit… repetitive.
Not so with this book. Whilst Rackley’s own experiences pretty much fit the mould, what makes this book stand out – and had me reading deep into the night – was the stories of the early ocean rowing pioneers like George Harbo and Frank Samuelson who in 1896 ignored everyone’s dark warnings and made it across the Atlantic in a craft that wouldn’t look out of place on a boating lake in the Home Counties… and then were largely ignored by the world.
Then there’s John Fairfax, pirate, smuggler and Giant Personality, who thought nothing of hopping out of his boat to brandish a knife in the face of passing sharks. There’s Peter Bird, who in 1983 was the first to row solo across the Pacific, only to… oh, I won’t spoil the story. You just have to read it for yourselves.
This is a cracking read. It’s beautifully written – and I don’t say that lightly – with vivid descriptions that never resort to cliché. If you’ve ever taken the idea of ocean rowing beyond that first, flickering thought, this book could send you off on a path that will eventually take you on to the high seas. Otherwise it’ll make you very glad you’re waking up on dry land each morning. I heartily recommend it.
SALT, SWEAT, TEARS: The Men Who Rowed the Oceans, pub. Penguin, ISBN: 978-0-14-312666-9