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Sunday, May 6, 2001

Britons aim for Pacific rowing record

Sharks and savage seas lie between Japan and San Francisco


By JULIAN RYALL
Staff writer

Two corporals in the British Royal Marines have struck out into the unforgiving North Pacific Ocean in a 7.9-meter rowing boat called Crackers this weekend, aiming to complete the 8,000 km crossing from Japan to California in a record 120 days.

Tim Welford (right) and Dominic Mee intend to row across the Pacific in this very boat.

Tim Welford, 32, and Dominic Mee, 31, will attempt to better the 133-day mark set by Frenchman Gerrard D'Arbaville in 1992 on the west-to-east route, and were confident that their training would pay off before they set off from Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, 110 km east of Tokyo.

"It's more mental preparation than the physical side, and the only way to be ready for ocean rowing is to go ocean rowing," said Welford.

"We've already got the callouses on our hands, and about two weeks into it we'll be at prime ocean-rowing fitness," he said.

At a reception on April 26 at the British Embassy in Tokyo, Ambassador Stephen Gomersall paid tribute to the "gallant rowers," saying they are "setting off on a very exciting adventure indeed."

"It may sound crazy to some people," he said, "however it is a tradition of the British Royal Marines to push their men to the extremes.

"Courage, determination, resourcefulness and cheerfulness are all qualities that are encouraged in the Marines, and there is no doubt these will be tested to the extreme in the coming days," he added.

On March 30, Briton Jim Shekhdar became the first man to row across the Pacific unsupported when he came ashore in Australia after 273 days at sea -- but the southerly route that he followed is regarded as the less demanding of the two.

The last person to try the route that Welford and Mee have planned was Peter Bird, another Briton, who was lost at sea on his fifth attempt to row from one continent to the other.

It is not known how Bird came to grief, but there are any number of ways it could have happened, Welford and Mee accept. Anything from a collision with floating logs or abandoned containers to an encounter with a huge merchant vessel could run their tiny boat down.

And that is without taking the elements into account: The North Pacific is notorious for severe storms and mountainous seas that will become progressively worse as the voyage goes on.

"With regards to safety, everything comes with risks, and it's a case of reducing them to a point where you feel able to deal with them," said Welford. "I have a boat I know can cope with any storm, having taken her across the Atlantic. I have the advice of the RNLI [Royal National Lifeboat Institution] and the U.S. Coast Guard on safety. We carry life rafts, satellite communications links, VHF radio, two distress beacons, a tracking system, a radar enhancer, personal locater beacons, two sea anchors and some excellent foul-weather clothing.

"I believe in my boat, my crew, my selection of equipment and myself," he added.

The two plan to row into the Kuroshio, the "black current" that is among the strongest in the world, and hope it will help propel them to the finish line beneath San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

"The seas in the North Pacific can be savage, and we are hoping to be in San Francisco before the big storms hit because they are ferocious," said Mee. "If we haven't reached land by that time we are going to have a hell of a rough time.

"The worst part of the trip is likely to come as we get nearer to the coast of the U.S., as there are very few ports and there is no way that we want to be trying to land on a beach in the surf. It's too treacherous."

"Ocean rowing gets really dangerous when you are near land because the elements have such control over you," he added. "In a yacht you can turn into a storm and beat away, but you can't do that in a rowing boat."

Both men, however, are seasoned seamen. Welford rowed across the Atlantic in 1997 and Mee has sailed some of the roughest seas in the world in yacht races, including the famous Fastnet and Sydney to Hobart races.

"We will be following the same route as Gerrard D'Arbaville, but the difference is that we will be out to beat the record," Welford said. "When Gerrard didn't feel like rowing, he didn't row. He just wanted to get across. But we will be keeping the boat moving 24 hours a day, weather permitting.

"Rowing in three-hour shifts we expect to average between 2 and 3 knots, depending on the surf conditions."

Their bright-yellow vessel -- the appropriately named Cracker -- is a veteran of the 5,000-km Atlantic Rowing Race of 1997, which it covered in just over 60 days. Fully laden with stores at the outset, the epoxy-sealed plywood boat will weigh about 1.3 ton. Some 240 kg of that total will be freeze-dried, high-energy rations, designed to provide the crew with 5,500 kilocalories a day.

"It's a lottery every time you go to sea, but there's a lot you can do to affect the odds in your favor by having the best boat, the best training, the right equipment, the right plan and the right communications," Welford said.

"The boat has 14 watertight compartments, and it would take a good number of them to be holed before it could sink," he said. "And she's designed similarly to a lifeboat, so she's fully self-righting.

"We will be wearing life jackets and safety harnesses at all times on deck and we will both have search-and-rescue transponders on us at all times," he added. "All the angles that can be covered are covered."

The dangers aside, both men were looking forward to putting to sea.

"The major concern is the weather; if the wind is blowing straight into the front of the boat we'll just have to put the sea anchor out and get in the cabin to wait it out," Welford said. "The other concern is injuries, but as Marines we're experienced in trauma treatment and -- if need be -- we could do an operation guided by a professional over the phone."

The concern expressed by Mee -- who has bulked up by 3 kg in preparation for the journey -- was more straightforward: "I'll sum it up in one word -- sharks."

The two will be sending e-mail to their families, taking time off from the oars to keep them informed of their progress, and both have allowed themselves a selection of 150 CDs and a couple of books to keep themselves occupied. Welford has Richard Branson's autobiography and "Dracula," while Mee has opted for "Don Quixote" and a couple of Zen meditation books.

The U.S. Marines are planning to salute the pair's endeavor when they reach San Francisco by rowing the final leg alongside Cracker into the harbor.

"The North Pacific route is the Holy Grail of ocean rowing," said Welford. "I've been planning and living this dream for two years and this is the rough one, the tough one."

The team's progress across the Pacific can be monitored on their Web site: www.pacific-odyssey.co.uk


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