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Rob Hamill: Transatlantic Rower

Interviewed by Dave Moran

How did this race come about in the first place, and where did you get the idea to row across the Atlantic?

The organiser, Chay Blyth, had rowed the Atlantic in 1966 with John Ridgeway, and this sowed the idea for a transatlantic rowing race. Port St Charles in Barbados became the major sponsor.

In June 1996 I had been at the Olympics, and I saw a little pamphlet saying ‘Atlantic Rowing Race – Interested? Call this number.’ I think it was an American entrant looking for a partner. I didn’t contact him, but the idea really bowled me over. It was the end of the Olympic campaign and I was thinking of moving on, but after rowing for 12 years it was difficult to decide. The adventure and challenge of this race, and its competitiveness, appealed to me. The rest of the Olympics team thought I was crazy.

Back to New Zealand in September 1996, I found out that, to secure a place in the race, I had to send a bond. The entry fee was equivalent to NZ$10,000 plus another $16,000 for the boat kit, which was basically a slab of 23 sheets of precut plywood which you could stick together according to the plans supplied.

I spent six weeks trying to raise the money, with limited success, and ended up taking a second mortgage on my house. The money had to be received by the race organisers in the UK by December 1, 1996 and the race start date was October 12, 1997. It was a very tight schedule, especially since there were competitors already training before I had even heard about the race.

In November, I went to a businessman in the Waikato, Brian Perry of Perry Holdings. He is one of those philanthropic types who is very generous and tries to help out. At the time, I was working a normal eight-hour day and training for the upcoming nationals. On arriving home about 8.30pm I finished off the proposal to Brian and went round to his house at 10.30pm, knocked on his door and introduced myself, and said I needed to borrow ten grand. He was quite interested to hear about the race, and came on board. It was a loan at that stage but ended up becoming a full sponsorship. This got the challenge going. I sent the money off and then went looking for a partner. Graham Dalton (Grant Dalton’s brother), helped with finding sponsorship and general advice. The Sunday Star Times did a front-page article in their sports section, and Phil Stubbs read it. He gave me a call. I nearly went with one of the Olympic guys, who was one of the strongest men in the team, a very good athlete and a great friend, but I needed someone with a bit of sea savvy. I had never been out of sight of land before on a boat. The big plus with Phil was that in addition to his surf boat rowing skills, he had sailed the North Atlantic and was a pilot, so his navigation skills were particularly good.

Building the boat was my main priority. I approached Steve Marten, who built the America’s Cup yacht KZ1, Grant Dalton’s Merit Cup, and Fisher and Paykel. He is an absolute professional with a great lateral-thinking mind. Marten Marine and a company called Firebird Marine initiated construction work up to the stage where we could finish it off ourselves.

When Phil came on board we allocated our jobs according to our particular strengths and weaknesses. I focused on fundraising. Getting the money together was a big challenge, and I ended up having to quit my job so I could concentrate fully on fundraising. Phil did most of the finishing work on the boat, with hired hand, Nick DeMay. I worked on setting up the electrical system. The solar panel was a nightmare. We experimented with various systems to make it tilt towards the sun. I wanted to minimise its weight as much as possible. We had one 20kg battery on board. Most of the advice was to ‘take two batteries, don’t muck around.’ But we knew that weight was so important. We installed one battery providing 65 amp hours. Most of the other boats had over 200 amp hours. That’s about 20kg as opposed to about 70kg of batteries, a huge difference.

In June we launched the boat at Viaduct Basin in Auckland and did our first training row out to Great Barrier Island. We arrived at Great Barrier after about 20 hours of rowing, absolutely dehydrated and a complete mess. Some people on the island put us up for a few hours, fed us and set us on our way back home. It was a really good experience, that first row. We suffered from dehydration because we didn’t use any fluid replacements – adding powders to the drinking water – so the water ends up just going straight through you. After about eight to ten hours you are sweating salt, so the salt content of your body drops and your body thinks it doesn’t need all this water, so it flushes it straight through. I would have one swig and go to the toilet, it was terrible. After that we used Horleys Replace to keep our salt levels up, and from then on we had no problems. Right through the race, even in temperatures of 35ºC, we had no problem with dehydration at all.

We did a lot of testing. We went out to Great Barrier again and then to Whitianga. Another time we went out east of Little Barrier and ended up at Tutukaka, our longest row, was three days. We rowed around White Island off Whakatane. It was obviously the best training, just getting out in the boat. But it was very dangerous too, because the weather could change and we could get blown out to sea or onto rocks, so we had to be careful. We also did gym work, on rowing machines for two to four hours at a time: mind-bending stuff! The preparation stages were split between training, fundraising, building the boat and organising the logistics. We hadn’t organised what would happen after the race; we figured we would worry about that when the time came. There was a whole group of sponsors and we just couldn’t have done it without them. Some made cash contributions, which were absolutely crucial; some donated products or services. If I really needed something specific, I just had to keep on trying until that person or company got interested, or until they would do it just to get rid of me. Sometimes the negativity was devastating, but others were really enthusiastic.

When you finally got to the start at Tenerife in the Canary Islands and saw the other crews and boats, what were your impressions?

We discovered that we were the only Southern Hemisphere entry. This was the first time that the race had been run, and people had been saying, ‘Have you thought about this or that?’ They were all worried about container ships or submerged containers. The other boats had extra fibreglass over the plywood, and some had stainless steel folded around the bow. I heard of one team, who obviously had heaps of money, who had actually sheathed every single piece of timber with an extra layer of fibreglass. Imagine the weight involved in that – it was hundreds of kilos. It’s not like the America’s Cup where the boats are kept a big secret, you can walk around and check out what’s happening. Everyone knew what we had done with our boat. One or two wondered, ‘God, is that thing going to hold together?’ I questioned it a bit myself, but I trusted Steve.

Who seemed to be the biggest opposition? Did you have any idea whether you could win?

Right from the start, I thought we could win the race because it was the inaugural event and it was very amateurish. Also because it was such a new event, certain types of people were going to enter, not really knowing what was involved. I would say three-quarters of the competitors were just there for the challenge, and the race was secondary. For us, winning was the first priority. We were a bit dodgy on some safety issues. For example, we only wore our safety harness for a couple of hours during the race, because it restricted our rowing technique and slowed the boat very slightly. We were there to win, and wearing the harness was not helping us to meet that objective. I think in retrospect that we should have developed a safety harness that would have been easier to wear – just a waist belt maybe.

30 boats started the race, with two people in each. We only considered one or two as serious competitors. One was a British army crew who had been training in the Mediterranean for a year on paid leave. Another was from the Special Boat Service, the marine equivalent of the SAS: real crack guys, and they looked tough. Then we saw their boat! It was so rough – they must have got the fibreglass and just slapped it on, and the finish was atrocious. There was also a crew from Jersey whom we rated highly. However, one of the crew was hurt during the race and they had to airlift him off. The Germans looked very fit and positive, their boat looked very good, but heavy. One was a commercial fisherman, so they were quite tough characters, but about two weeks into the race they just packed it in. Nothing went wrong, they had just had enough.

The start of the race was amazing. There was a penalty that if you crossed the line ten minutes before the starter’s gun, you would get a twelve hour penalty, and if it was within one minute before the start you would get a 24 hour penalty. So we started about 100 metres behind the line, but quite a few boats were right on the line. It just didn’t seem worth the risk! So we started pretty close to last. It was bizarre, there were people who just didn’t know how to row! They were floundering around, sitting at the back, not using their legs, watching the oars go in the water and looking like beginners trying to row a dinghy. We thought there was a potential safety risk, because these people had no concept of how to move a boat, and they were heading across the Atlantic! That was probably the majority of the crews. They didn’t know how to row properly – I couldn’t believe it.

Even the crews who supposedly knew something about boats had heavy boats and had overloaded with masses of food and equipment. We rowed through the fleet, all bar one boat, being crewed by Peter Haining. He was the only other real rower in the fleet. He was a world champion, and he went like a rocket as if it was a 2000 metre race. Half an hour into the race he had a good 100 metres on us. About half an hour after that, he was a couple of hundred metres behind us. He had a heavy boat. So we were feeling, ‘Gee, this is going all right.’

One of the keys to your victory was rowing all the time. How did you do that?

We had decided during our training in New Zealand that we would try to row 24 hours a day, keep the boat moving all the time. We didn’t know whether we could do it. In New Zealand we had experimented with four hour shifts. We were doing two on and two off during the day, and at night we would change to four hours to give each other a real break. But we found that the speed dropped off after two hours, and it was just mind-bending for the person rowing. You couldn’t do it effectively. So we decided that two on, two off 24 hours a day was the most efficient, and occasionally we would row together when we could. The first week was the hardest, trying to get our circadian rhythms adjusted to four hour cycles instead of 24 hour. We never did adjust completely, but the first five to seven days were terrible. I was seasick for the first 24 hours, and had great difficulty getting to sleep. We slept in the big bulbous part of the stern where there was just enough room for one person to stretch out. After the race, I slept for ten hours at night but kept wanting to doze off during the day. It took a while to return to a normal sleep pattern.

What happened in rough weather?

The biggest seas we encountered were 4.5 metres (fifteen feet) from crest to trough. That was with wind chop and wind-generated swell, so they were breaking at the top which made things interesting! On day seven, we had to put the sea anchor out because the wind changed and was pushing us backwards; this was one of the disadvantages of being high out of the water. We had to keep the sea anchor out for three days. This rough weather came at a good time, as we really needed a break. It just got rougher and rougher, and you could injure yourself if you tried to row. As you came down off the wave the oar would just about rip your arms out of their sockets. That is how the man in the Jersey crew injured his back; they tried to row into a really rough sea. We retired to our small, rolling, cabin. We would listen to the BBC World Service on our shortwave radio, which was interesting. Then one day the receiver got swamped so overboard it went. After three days the wind dropped and we started rowing again. Generally we had pretty good weather. There was one crew which was on its sea anchor for 20 days, and they were quite a good crew too. If they had received the same conditions as we did, they would have finished within two to three days after us.

So even though everyone was going across the Atlantic in the same direction, there was quite a difference in weather conditions.

Everyone was on different courses. I sought advice from Mike Quilter, a Whitbread veteran navigator. He suggested taking the great circle, and Phil spoke with Godfrey Cray, who helped set some way points into the GPS. Our course ended up being ‘middle of the road’ compared to the other crews.

I remember reading in an interview that you were very surprised about the lack of fish life and the pollution in the Atlantic.

Yes, there was a lot of pollution. I didn’t see any whales or sharks, and Phil only saw a couple in the distance, although I heard a whale blowing one night. I did see a couple of marlin. There was a lot of plastic pollution, bags and buckets half submerged, wrappings, shopping bags and so on. It was unbelievable. We fished only when we were on the sea anchor, and caught half a dozen dorado. We argued about whether to take a 100gm fishing line because of the extra weight involved; hook and line, not even a sinker. That’s how fanatical we were in minimising weight. We had a small, fully gimballed gas cooker which Don Putt at Waikato Polytech designed. I gave him some photos of one I had seen, and he designed one that was lighter. It was a brilliant design, by far the lightest cooker on any of the boats I saw.

I remember reading you rowed naked to avoid salt water sores on your backsides.

Back home during our training we had problems while wearing synthetics. We ended up sewing wool inside our shorts, but it was like a woolen nappy, it was just too hot. So we rowed butt naked with wool on the seats. We would sponge the salt off our bodies with a little fresh water in a bucket. We used massive amounts of sunblock, long-sleeved shirts, hats and sunglasses, just the usual precautions. The shirts were long enough to cover our backsides and drape over part of our legs.

Did the rowing mechanism survive the whole race?

We had a few minor problems with the running gear of the seat but the boat still has the original gates (the plastic things that the oars fit into) and they look as if they have hardly been used. They were just normal rowing gates, the lightest you can get. Some of the boats had big cast iron or brass ones, which were heavy.

How tough was it mentally?

On the second afternoon, when we had to fix our watermaker, we had lost about four to six hours. Late that afternoon, we were met by the mother ship for the first and what turned out to be the only time. They told us we were in fourth place. The race was about 30 hours old or less, and we had lost four to six hours making no progress, and we were still in fourth place! We couldn’t believe it. I said ‘Are you sure?’ and they said, ‘Yes, there’s a boat a couple of miles ahead of you.’ From that point on, and especially after seeing the way people were rowing at the start, we knew the race was more against ourselves than against the other crews. It was down to whether we could stick with the regime of two hours on and off around the clock. Getting up for your shift during the night was the worst part. Not getting up was just not an option, because first you would be letting yourself down, but also you would be shaming yourself in front of another guy. So it was an ego, pride, competition thing that kept you going. I guess I have never been more competitive in my life, and I’ve rowed in some pretty big competitions. It really brought out the best in both of us. What kept us going was the desire to win, and the fear of failure and being shown up against the other competitors.

Was there any point during the race when you felt like giving up?

I NEVER felt like giving up! When the watermaker broke down we thought we had to. The mother ship might have been able to supply us with water, but we would have been disqualified. We discussed whether we should do that and just row across anyway, but we wanted to be official winners.

How did you find out you were winning, and what was your reaction when you found out how far ahead you were?

A boat came to meet us 10 miles from Barbados. We were communicating by VHS. After the small talk Phil asked ‘Can you tell us what our position is?’ They came back with our latitude and longitude, and Phil said ‘I mean what’s our position in the race, are we third, tenth or whatever?’ When they told us we were first, we just about fell out of the boat. We were still about 70 miles out to sea at this stage. We didn’t want to be overtaken at the last hurdle, so Phil asked how far back the next crew was. They replied ‘560 miles!’ We thought we should be winning, with the effort we were putting in and the way we had been going. But 560 miles – that was a bit over the top. So we had a couple of minutes’ break!

This sort of rowing must be totally different from Olympic rowing in a straight line down a river. How difficult was it to row and keep the boat on course?

It wasn’t too bad. If we were on a quartering sea we would angle the rudder and use it as a trim tab so it would keep us on the course we wanted. I had sculled with two oars before, so it wasn’t much more difficult than normal competitive rowing. But I could see how some people struggled. They had no coordination or body awareness. We plotted a course and stuck with it. If the compass deviated three or four degrees, we would haul the boat round and get it straight. We wouldn’t let the boat go off course for more than 30 seconds, we would be mesmerised, our eyes on the compass. At night your eyes would be crossing and going out of focus, staring at that little red glow. Then you would come to your senses and check it properly to make sure you were still on course. That was crucial. For example, the French team, who came second, rowed 150 miles further than us.

What was it like when you finally got to the finish line at Port St. Charles in Barbados?

There was a big crowd. After 41 days at sea with only one person to talk to, and suddenly it was all chaos and microphones. It was a shock.

What will happen to the boat now?

In May and June of this year it toured around New Zealand and was displayed in Westfield shopping centres. We have sold it to a group of companies who will use it for a period of time, and then lease it to a museum, yet to be negotiated.

What are your plans for the future?

The Olympics is unfinished business, so I have decided to have another crack at the double sculls. I know I can win, it’s just a matter of getting the support, minimising the things that could possibly go wrong, and setting up the structure and network. I am not going to work a 40 hour week again while I am preparing for the Olympics. You just can’t do that. I guess finding financial support will be an important part of the preparation. I want to organise the Kiwi challenge for the next transatlantic race, which is in 2001. In the meantime there are a couple of other races being planned for 2000. One of them is a solo race across the Atlantic, but I’ve got to decide between that and the Olympics, and really the Olympics is the priority for me at the moment. I lost my job to do the race, so now I am just trying to get public speaking engagements for income, and write a book about our experiences in the race. Phil has gone back to the police force. Really I have no official employment at the moment, just talking about the race and some of the issues that come up, like persistence, teamwork, commitment, goal setting and so on. It has been really well received and I am enjoying it, it’s been good fun.

Thanks, Rob, for taking the time to tell us of your and Phil’s amazing achievement. We wish you well with your Olympic preparation, and ultimately, a gold medal.