Going solo

  • Image credit: Sean Woods
  • The two 12-volt 80 amp-hour deep-cycle gel batteries get trickle charged by ten fixed 20-watt solar panels;
  • Radios and power management systems are housed in the aft accommodation cabin
  • Peter van Kets puts his solo ocean-crossing rowing boat Nyamezela (meaning "to push through tough times" in Xhosa, or simply "vasbyt") through its paces while conducting sea trials in False Bay.
  • The standing solo race record for the Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Challenge is 78 days, and van Kets is determined to beat it.
Date:30 November 2009 Tags:, , , , ,

Taking on the Atlantic single-handed is a daunting challenge. Doing it in a rowing boat takes a special kind of madness.

Those who regularly travel by sea between Europe and North America talk of Crossing The Pond. But, make no mistake; the Northern Atlantic is anything but a benign pool inhabited by Lakeland fairies. It’s a daunting challenge in a sailboat… and absolute madness the way Peter van Kets intends to do it – rowing single-handed.

For the two months, East London adventurer and motivational speaker van Kets will know isolation few others will have experienced. He will battle storms, 100 km/h winds, sleep deprivation, aching muscles and blistering heat. And then, just when it seems things can’t get worse, he’ll have to deal with pressure sores in unmentionable places.

It comes with the territory in the Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Challenge. When van Kets slips his mooring in the Canary Islands on 6 December and heads into the large ocean swell at the start of his epic 5 438 km man-powered solo journey to the small island of Antigua in the Caribbean he’ll be on his own, literally. The only contact he will have with the outside world will be via his satellite phone, a tracking unit relaying his position back to the race organisers and a VHF radio with a measly range of about 10 km. Should disaster strike, an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) will indicate his position to search and rescue teams. Even then, because of the vastness of the ocean and his remote location, help could take as long as five days to reach his exact position.

For company, van Kets will have to make do with his iPod, an occasional visit by curious sea life, and the odd ship that’s strayed out of the shipping lanes. This is not an endeavour for anyone even remotely fainthearted. Successful completion means entry into an extremely elite group of outdoor adventurers: more people have climbed Mount Everest and ventured into space than have successfully rowed across the Atlantic. Astonishingly, van Kets is already in that elite club.

Two years ago, he and partner Bill Godfrey won the Pairs Class of the 2007/08 Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Challenge. They completed the arduous crossing in 50 days.

At least he’s ensured of a good understanding of what he’s up against.

Speed vs survival
The Challenge, regarded as the toughest rowing race in the world, requires a boat more like a high-tech survival pod than anything you’d normally see skimming over placid inland waters. Weight is everything in an ocean rowing boat – the lighter the load, the faster each stroke of the oars will propel you. But ocean rowing is not a hurried endeavour. Average speeds are about 6 km/h, rendering the traditional design considerations of wetted surface areas, frictional drag and hydrodynamics irrelevant.

What matter is stability. The boat must be able to re-right itself after capsizing, without any extra input from the crew. This is achieved by incorporating a narrow, deep hull with a low centre of gravity as well as a large cabin area in the stern and a smaller equipment cabin in the bow.

The protected accommodation in the stern offers several advantages. During extreme weather, when prudence dictates that it’s time to heave to, there’s adequate shelter. In this situation, when a drogue (sea anchor) is deployed from the stern, the boat will lie bows high and stern to the wind and waves, reducing the odds of its being rolled or pitch poled. But, with the normal rowing position occupied, the windage of the hull and accommodation is balanced by the hull’s underwater profile – so the boat can be rowed at any angle to the wind with minimal inputs from the rudder. And, with the prevailing winds expected to strike the boat on its rear quadrants, the aft cabin provides the occupant with the greatest protection from the wind while resting or preparing food.

Van Kets’s boat, named – meaning “to push through tough times” in Xhosa, or simply “vasbyt” – is a popular design penned by legendary performance yacht designer Phil Morrison, who is hailed by many as the guru of ocean rowboat design. Says van Kets, “I’ve always believed when undertaking a project of this nature that you need to surround yourself with great people. You need to have the right boat, carry the right equipment and have everything installed properly. Fortunately I have a great team backing me.”

Designed for the long haul was built in Cape Town by Jaz Marine, a company specialising in high-performance composite boats. The hull – made out of carbon fibre, Kevlar and epoxy, and using a vacuum consolidation construction process – is lightweight yet extremely strong. But most importantly, its inner PVC foam core makes it virtually unsinkable. One hundred and fi fty litres of water, stored in sealed containers under the main deck, provides useful ballast in the event of a knock-down. And a dagger board, situated in the forward equipment cabin, is there to minimise leeway when van Kets experiences beam (side) winds on his crossing. To add strength, the mounts for his row locks have been machined out of solid chunks of aluminium so they don’t break along a weld. Stephen du Toit from Performance Craft fi tted the boat out, and Robert Galley from Galley Electronics took care of all electrical installations.

Ten fixed 20-watt solar panels, providing 200 watts of charging capacity, will trickle charge the two 12-volt 80 amphour deep-cycle gel batteries. A fl exible roll-up solar mat that can be spread out on the deck when van Kets is not rowing. “Unfortunately it’s heavy, but it’s going to be worth having when I need it,” he says. The small desalinator can make 25 litres of fresh water an hour, but van Kets has no intention of producing that amount, saying “I’ll only make about 12 litres per day to cut down on the weight I’m carrying.” It can also be manually operated, just in case his electrics fail. Other essential electrical gadgetry includes a radar transponder, two satellite phones, two VHF radios (one fixed and one waterproof handheld unit), two GPSs (one fixed and one handheld with spare batteries), bilge pump, automatic steering helm, one white navigation light and two internal lights for the cabins. And just to help keep himself sane, van Kets has two iPods – one 120 GB unit with a 2 GB model as backup. Variety shouldn’t be a problem: his playlist stretches to over 5 000 songs. And, so he doesn’t have to rely on headphones, he has waterproof speakers. “I don’t like rowing at sea with headphones, especially at night,” he says. “That’s because I want to hear any ‘growlers’ before they hit. These rogue waves can be heard coming from a distance, but if they catch you unawares and hit the boat they can knock it over, and the pain you then feel as a femur strikes one of the oars hard is excruciating.”

Feeding the machine
Propelling yourself across an ocean requires a huge amount of energy. Van Kets expects to burn about 8 000 calories (the equivalent of eight meals) a day. He’s been fattening himself up in preparation, as he expects to lose about 15 kg of body mass along the way. His diet will consist of about two-thirds freeze-dried food (stored in watertight compartments under the wet deck) and the rest wet rations, namely peanuts, raisins, fruit juices, and – most importantly – biltong (all stored safely in his cabin). To supplement his supplies he’ll take fishing gear along. Cooking takes place on a small gimballed gas stove situated in front of the forward hatch.

Race rules make it mandatory for competitors to carry 90 days’ worth of food – and organisers haven’t ignored environmental issues, either. He can’t simply dump packaging over the side: he must keep all his rubbish for race organisers to audit once the crossing has been completed. Even a single item missing will result in a penalty.

It took van Kets almost a year to recover physically from his first Atlantic row. To prepare for this event, he’s been training for the past year. Sports fitness guru Professor Tim Noakes of the Sports Science Institute, his mentor last time out, is on the team again.

Van Kets’s training regime started with pre-strengthening – so he didn’t injure himself while training! He then moved on to strengthening his shoulders, knees and back, before undergoing a threemonth stint of intense endurance training to toughen up his core muscles. “The idea is not to get to the start of the race feeling like a jackrabbit,” van Kets says. “If I arrive at the start peaking physically, I would probably last only 10 to 15 days. Instead, I’ll use the first 70 per cent of the race for good solid training and then seriously put my head down and race the remainder.”

Being one of the few individuals with any experience of this event, van Kets has a few advantages over many of his fellow competitors. Example: it didn’t take him and his partner on the previous race long to realise that huddling in the tiny cabin during a storm was a mistake. The violent motion of the boat and the deafening noise made any sleep or rest impossible. So, instead – while their fellow competitors battened down their hatches and set their drogues in preparation for the blow – they rowed. “While the other teams were playing it safe we were covering significant ground,’ he says. “It was a strategy that really paid off. In fact, I think you’re better off outside as you have more control of the boat, which means there’s less of a chance of being rolled over. I’ll defi nitely be adopting this strategy again.”

The standing solo race record is 78 days, set by Australian Peter Collet in 2007. Van Kets is determined to beat it. No, that’s not quite right: if it all comes together as planned, he will obliterate it. “If the weather is good and I experience no storms I hope to make it in 50 days,” he says. But he’s leaving nothing to chance. “I’ve mentally prepared myself for 120 days at sea. If it takes any longer than that, then they must come and fetch me!”

To follow van Kets’s epic solo Atlantic challenge visit www.own-your-life.co.za