Ocean rower Geoff Allum: "You can still do without a watermaker and GPS, but no one seems to want to"

Posted: Dec 07, 2006 12:28 am EST

Last week we ran the story about the song Ocean Cloud that UK super group Marillion recorded to tell the tale of Don Allum, a man who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean twice. Don died at age 55 from poor health, refusing to get treatment because, " I have done everything I want to do," he said.

Don's cousin Geoff Allum was with him on some of the rows and in an interesting interview with OceanRowing.com, Geoff talked about some pressing problems in modern adventure - the issue of us getting too comfy.

There are many examples: Polar skiers can be flown until the very last degree from the pole; mountaineers with zero experience can claim summit of Everest if they buy tickets with resourceful outfitters, and millionaires can get an Astronaut title if they buy a payload seat to Space. Solo sailors with little experience can claim ocean records on high-tech ships sailed remotely by home based crews, while television shows run scripted "survival series" featuring apple-cheeked stars trailed closely by safety crews and medical staff.

Fear that kills

Meanwhile, real exploration is vanishing. The general public can't tell real from fake anymore and tales that could have inspired bravery are lost to well-connected adventurers with a staff of photographers and media people serving a good story.

That's not the kind of exploration that inspires rock groups to write songs however. Don's and Geoff's row did, because their survival was dependant on self-sufficiency, skill and true courage.

The phenomenon of crossing oceans in impossible vessels began in the mid of this century, when Doctor Alain Bombard and his followers decided to find out why so many shipwrecked sailors were killed prematurely in their life rafts. Man can survive in temperate climates at least 9 days without food and water, yet out of 150 survivors from a shipwreck in 1816 only 15 survived the 13 days in a life raft. Most succumbed much earlier due to sheer panic - in other words, fear killed them.

Survival by knowledge and determination

In the 1950s, Bombard survived months at sea and several crossings including the Atlantic in an inflatable boat without any provisions at all, proving that survival at sea is more a question of knowledge and determination, rather than the desperate situation.

In his interview, Geoff Allum describes his first row at 23 years old, together with cousin Don. The two bought a boat, took it down to Las Palmas in Gran Canaria Islands, and fixed it up. "I had never been abroad before in my life...I picked Gran Canaries simply because it seemed to be a good starting point and also it was the same starting point as Alan Bombard who I knew about. Also...it was cheaper to get the boat to Las Palmas than to pay for the extra bit and have it taken to Tenerife or anywhere else, so Las Palmas it was."

Dodging the press

"We left under cover of darkness - the local press people had seen the boat down at the yacht club and they were going to come and film us rowing out of the harbour. Being as we had never really rowed the boat before, we were worried we would make fools of ourselves, so we left next morning at 3 00am before anyone could film or see us. We never spoke to anyone in the Canaries, we never knew anyone in the Canaries."

The guys navigated by sextant and communicated with ships by shouting up the side of the hull. "We did not have any communications, the only thing we had on board re coms was small short wave radio receiver, that enabled us to get the world service. So we could listen to the news, but we had no other form of communications at all. In fact, the only electrical thing we had on board was a torch."


The men went without any fuss, including a water maker, and Geoff still doesn't understand its importance to modern rowers: "I have read Jim Shekhdar's book and he said in one chapter he had trouble with his water maker. which he successfully and quite heroically fixed. but when he explained the trouble he was having with his water maker, he said something like 'if the water maker doesn't work, the trip is over'. And this does explain what modern rowers think of water makers."

"They think if the water makers finished, the trip is over! It doesn't occur to them, that they might go on and drink half a pint a day. We had just enough water to get across, we had 50 gallons for 100 days - thats half a gallon a day for 2 men."

The risky thing with that kind of approach is if the waterbags break, and that's exactly what happened to the two men, "It was the most frightening part of the whole trip - discovering those empty bags. Forget the sharks and all that other stuff, all the rough seas - finding those empty bags of water was the hardest part of the trip."

Lots of sharks

When the storms came, and then the flats with schorching heat - the guys took it one day at a time, "the temperature was over 100 degrees, we did not think about anything else but food, not sex or anything else - just food." They lost weight rapidly, while they were circled by "lots of sharks, lots of wild life."

According to reserach, 89 percent of the world's hammer-head sharks have disappeared since 1986. "That explains why none of the modern rowers are troubled by sharks particularly," says Geoff.

"We saw them all the time, day and night, there was always a shark within sight and we never were without them. Swimming was quite dangerous, luckily there were 2 of us. I remember we used to swim, one would keep a watch out for the other, while he was swimming. While you are swimming, your vision is impaired, because you can only see the next little wave, you can't see beyond it."

"So you don't know if there are any sharks there, and you rely on your team mate to tell you. I remember I was swimming once and there was a shark in sight. I went swimming anyway and he was 100 yards away. Donald was rowing, I was swimming. Donald said to me: "No need to worry", he said, "It is all right"; and a minute later he said "Don't worry, it is still all right"; another minute later he said "I would come in now, if I were you". And the shark bumped the side of the boat about 30 seconds after I got back in."

"It was a tricky landfall"

When the two rowers approached land, they didn't call for a tow when things got rough: "We were headed for Miami, but in the end we were grateful for any land we could hit - the water situation made it necessary to land anywhere we could, which we did. It happened to be Barbados. It was a tricky landfall - we hit a coral reef around the northern point of the Island, and we got a hole in the boat, and went around the Northern point, and landed at a US Navy Base , and the sailors could not believe where we had come from. But when you have rowed the Atlantic, you look like you have rowed the Atlantic: your hair is knotted and bleached, and you are black with sun tan. They were very good to us, they looked after us for 2 weeks and that was the end of that."

"It took 2 weeks because we landed on Barbados with 7 pounds in our pocket. There was nowhere to spend it on the way, so we left with 7 pounds and we landed with 7 pounds between us. We figured, that by the time we had rowed the Atlantic we would either be rich or dead."

Nobody wanted to give us any money

"Of course we were neither rich nor dead. Anyway, everyone wanted to shake our hands, nobody wanted to give us any money. I remember we were invited to a cocktail party at a house up the beach, from where we were staying with some US servicemen, which was at a house where Princess Margaret had stayed in. There were these posh American people, loads of diplomats at this party, and of course it did not occur to anyone, that we had no money and we couldn't buy any cloths, so we went in these filthy shorts and tee shirts, that we had rowed the Atlantic in, and everyone looked at us like we were pirates. Later the Immigration people said: "You have got to leave". We said: "We would love to leave, but we can't leave - we have no money".

"The British government paid our fare home and I had to buy my passport back for the price of the ticket - that's how you get home, when you are destitute. I was repatriated and they would not give me my passport. until I reimbursed them, so it isn't all money and riches, when you row the Atlantic."

I was glad to get off alive. Really, that was my reward

The guys had little media, in spite of being first double to pioneer the route: "We were on news at 10.00 and there was lots of small press articles, nothing dramatic. No one bought our story or there was no big news...it didn't seem to be worth anything then. I was glad to get off alive. Really, that was my reward."

In the interview, Geoff finally reflects on cheating, comfort and commerce. "Ocean rowing is always undertaken for personal reasons for the personal benefit of the person doing the rowing. If you in any way fiddle it or mess about, the only person you cheat is yourself," Geoff said. Regarding safety and comfort the veteran explorer states, "you could still do it without a water maker, without GPS, without computers and without sat phones - you can do without all that stuff, but no one seems to want to."

And about some rowers who chose not to pay a race entry fee to a race organizer, Geoff said: "I cannot see why you would, the ocean is there for all of us, it is free, it is one of our last freedoms. There are some people, who would make it not free. People have still got the right to row across an ocean."

Find the full interview in the links section.

#Oceans #Mountaineering #Polar #Space #Opinion #interview

La Gomera January 16th. Geoff Allum (right) and Martin Wood one hour before his departure.

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