by Sarah Fesenmyer (NOAA Research Communications)
NOAA Research employee Cynthia Way and her boyfriend James Caple plan to row across the North Atlantic Ocean this spring and summer, crossing 3,300 miles from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Ireland in a 24-foot boat. They will row every day and night for up to three months or more. If successful, the couple will be the sixth pairs rowing team to ever to make this west-to-east crossing of the North Atlantic, and the first American pair. They will cross the ocean unsupported, relying on the supplies they can fit in the vessel’s tiny cabin and their own muscle and stamina. “Everything in my life has been leading up to this challenge!” says Way.
Why are Way and Caple leaving their office jobs inside the Washington D.C. beltway for three to four months to row 10 hours a day across an unpredictable ocean, alternately baking in the intense sun and being tossed by rough seas? Way works in human resources as NOAA Research’s Chief Learning Officer, developing strategies for the organization to increase its effectiveness. She is a strong proponent for the need of both organizations and individuals to continually learn and grow.
Caple and Way on flat water
[Credit: Sport Graphics]
Way’s upcoming ocean passage is just such an opportunity. “We want to challenge ourselves to do something amazing, something that is also scary and way out of our comfort zones and will stretch our capabilities,” she says. Way served in the Navy for six years and has been a competitive and passionate flat-water rower since high school. But she has never rowed on the open ocean, let alone across 3,300 miles of horizon empty of anything besides icebergs or possibly a massive container ship. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in education at George Washington University, researching how immersion outdoor experiences help people reconnect with nature in a society where fewer and fewer people have any deep contact with the outdoors. Her voyage across the North Atlantic will give Way a personal perspective.
For his part, Caple, a software engineer, has been planning and preparing for this trip for the past nine years. In 2007 he read a news article about Roz Savage, a renowned solo ocean rower, who was rowing across the Indian Ocean at the time. “I had no idea people could do that,” says Caple. He was hooked on the idea, and last year the couple asked Savage to be their advisor while they prepare for the trip.
Way and Caple with their 24-foot ocean rowboat
“Rowing away from land and out into the open ocean runs counter to most human instincts for self-preservation,” says Savage. “Once you get out there, you’re faced with the daily challenges of life on a small, tippy rowboat, where even the most mundane of tasks takes at least twice as long as it does on dry land. Add to that 10 to 12 hours of rowing a day, with the associated aches, pains, fatigue and sleep deprivation, and you get a picture of how tough it will be.”
Savage has been advising the team on how to stay safe, such as keeping themselves and their gear attached to the boat at all times. On her own trip across the Atlantic Ocean in 2005, Savage broke all four of her oars in rough weather. Way and Caple will be taking eight oars.
The first people to ever row across an ocean were Franky Samuelsen and George Harbo, two Norwegians who crossed the North Atlantic from New York City to Great Britain in an 18-foot wooden rowboat in only 55 days in 1896. Way and Caple would love to break this time record, which still stands, but their primary goal is simply to cross the ocean safely.
The couple is plotting out as many details and logistics for the trip as they can, from gear to emergency protocols to their daily schedule. During the day they plan to take turns alternating between three-hour rowing shifts and sleeping in the cramped cabin, which has about enough room for one person to stretch out or to just barely sit up straight. At night, when visibility drops, they will switch to one-hour rowing shifts, with the other partner on constant watch for cargo ships, icebergs, and large waves. Way hopes they will manage to both take a break from rowing twice a day to share a meal together.
The two rowers will need to eat constantly. Although Way doesn’t think she is capable of this, her trainer wants her to eat 7,000 to 10,000 calories every day, which is three to five times the recommended intake for a moderately active woman and the equivalent of consuming 2 to 3 jars of peanut butter daily. Peanut butter won’t constitute their entire diet, but it will be a staple because the Vermont Peanut Butter Company is one of the team’s sponsors. The couple will make one hot meal a day on their camp stove and will generate fresh water with a solar-powered desalination unit. If their solar panels break, there is a hand-crank option.
Way and Caple picked their approximate ocean route from Massachusetts to Ireland to reduce their potential contact with hazards. They would like to stay just north of the busiest shipping lanes between the United States and Europe, but south of the highest density of icebergs floating down from the Arctic in spring and early summer, although they may not be able to completely avoid either. Personal injury is another major hazard. If necessary, the couple will be able to call back to the United States on their satellite phone for a medical consultation. But if one of them needs to be evacuated to land, they could be 1,000 miles from a hospital even after being rescued by the nearest ship.
Caple inspects the boat's electronics
The most terrifying aspect of the journey for Way is the possibility that they will need to hunker down through one or more large storms. The North Atlantic hurricane season officially runs June 1 through November 30, encompassing almost all of the team’s planned voyage, and storms can develop year-round, with large, roiling seas. A private weather service will provide the team with weather forecasts for their route every three days via satellite phone, based on NOAA products like WAVEWATCH III. So the team will likely know if they are rowing into rough weather, but they will hardly be able to change course to avoid it.
When a storm starts to develop, the couple will tie or clamp everything down, set out a para-anchor﹘an underwater parachute that creates drag, acting like a break to stabilize the boat﹘and then both scramble into the sealed cabin to put on helmets and seatbelts and wait out the storm. The para-anchor will provide some stability during a storm, but it won’t prevent the boat from rolling over in big waves. Their boat is designed to roll back up if it flips over, although it might not self-right until the next wave, leaving Way and Caple upside down in the tiny cabin for a few dark moments. Under the extremely unlikely circumstance that the boat doesn’t flip back up, “We have a hammer and an axe in the cabin to break the windows and swim to the surface,” says Way.
If the couple falls into life-threatening trouble, they can activate a distress signal from radio beacons on their life vests. The distress signal would be picked up by a satellite, such as from the NOAA SARSAT program, and then transmitted to the U.S. Coast Guard or another country’s search and rescue authority. The nearest vessel that is able would then divert course to rescue them, which could take a few hours or could take much longer, depending on the team’s location and the condition of the seas. If the rescue boat is a cargo ship or tanker, it may be a daunting operation simply to board the ship from their comparably tiny ocean rowboat.
In the weeks before their adventure, Way and Caple are writing standard operating procedures for every possible disaster they can think of: what to do if the boat catches fire, when to evacuate the boat and board their life raft (only if their boat is sinking), how to ration food if their trip takes longer than expected. This month they hope to make one overnight row out to Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, but they will not have time for a longer open ocean practice run before launching from Marion, Massachusetts, in mid-May. Both Way and Caple are at the gym training on rowing machines called ergs after work every day and have also wedged an erg into their living room for additional practice hours.
They will leave land any time after May 16 when a 5-day stretch of decent weather allows them to make a break for the open sea, rowing together for more power until they are safely away from the hazardous coastline. You can track the team’s progress on their website and blog, which they will update by satellite:
“In our society, it can be hard to even fathom stepping away from our office cubicles and daily routines,” says Way. “We want to show that it can be done—We want to inspire people to get out and do something great.”