Home Editor's Picks 90 Minutes closer to Antigua | Peter van Kets

90 Minutes closer to Antigua | Peter van Kets

by Ingrid Hale
In part 1 of Peter van Kets’ epic adventure rowing across the Atlantic with Bill Godfrey, the adventurer tells of their preparation for the event, and the first few days at sea on Gquma Challenger. 

Rowing unsupported and unassisted across the ocean seems nuts, right? Well it is! I’ve done it twice now and I’m not sure why exactly. Having said that, they have both been the highlights of my life (and provided a few of the lows as well). What a privilege to be immersed in absolute silence in the middle of the ocean with thick bioluminescent plankton – every stroke through the water and myriad fish under the boat and around me lighting up with this bright-green fluorescent glow while overhead the meteors and stars give a dazzling galactic performance. It’s just off-the-charts mind-blowing! As good as it gets, it gets equally terrifying.

This is the story of my first row.

The journey of Gquma Challenger began in 2005 and ended with a promise I was not to keep. It was a chance meeting that changed the course of my life forever. A friend introduced me to another surfer, Bill Godfrey, whom I recognised as I’d spotted him surfing on many occasions. The introduction went something like this.

‘Pete, this is Bill. Bill wants to row across the Atlantic Ocean. Bill, this is Pete. Pete is planning to paddle unsupported in a sea kayak from South Africa to Madagascar. You two have a lot to talk about.’ And off my friend paddled. I was indeed thinking about an unsupported kayaking expedition across the Mozambique Channel to Madagascar, a trip I would have to place on the bucket list for the time being. Bill’s plan to compete in the 2007 Woodvale Challenge Atlantic Rowing Race seemed far more exciting.

Our chance meeting quickly turned to deep conversation. I sensed that Bill was very serious about the race and was determined to make it work. As a one-time member of the South African national rowing squad, he had serious credentials. A friend, Dave Pattel, who had been interested in rowing with him had had to pull out because of family commitments, and he had reached a point requiring new energy and some positive input. Suddenly he had a likely candidate bobbing in the waves next to him. I had entered the 250km Port Elizabeth to East London Surf Ski Challenge twice, I had undertaken a couple of ocean crossings by yacht, and I was the proud owner of a Yachtmaster Offshore Certificate, which allowed me to skipper a boat across any ocean.

Before we paddled our separate ways into the surf, Bill asked me if I would like to take his friend’s place and be his rowing partner. At the time Kim was barely two months away from giving birth to our daughter Hannah, and there was no way I was going home to tell my pregnant wife I’d decided, while surfing, to flit off and row across the Atlantic for a few months. Needless to say, she would have pulled out the shotgun. So my life-preserving response was something along the lines of, ‘No, but call me again in a few months if you haven’t found anyone else. Once Hannah is born things may have settled.’

A Call From Bill

Almost to the day six months later I received a call from Bill. Amazingly, he sounded slightly surprised that no-one was keen. Funny thing, that! By this stage I had almost forgotten about our conversation behind the breakers at Queensbury Bay, but when I heard his voice again my heart skipped a beat. There may be a chance that this epic row could actually happen… And besides, I was looking for something interesting to do.

With a new addition to the family, my decision could only be made with input from Kim. The two of us have an incredibly strong relationship, which works on the mutual understanding that we share the responsibilities of our marriage equally.  As a legal advisor for Mercedes-Benz, she had a serious career to consider, and she would have to work and hold the fort at home while I was away. Beyond that, there was the danger factor. The race would be entirely unsupported and a lot can go wrong in a 5 500km expanse of water. At the same time, Kim is herself an active, outdoorsy person, and would go on to become something of a trail-running legend, eventually running, mountain-biking and kayaking the perimeter of South Africa.

In the end, it came down to a bunch of flowers and a copy of the documentary Through Hell And High Water, the story of James Cracknell and Ben Fogle’s race across the Atlantic in 2005. After talking about it in some depth and then watching the documentary, she turned to me with an expression I will never forget, and said, ‘Pete, if this is your dream and it’s what you want to do, I will never stop you. Go for it!’

Bill and I committed to race the 2007 Woodvale Challenge together in November 2005. It was the start of more than two years of intense training, extended periods away from home, trips around the country in search of sponsors and to complete the various requisite courses we needed to enter the race, more training and massive financial stress. Sponsor after potential sponsor emailed variations on the following theme: ‘We regret to inform you that, while the idea of rowing across an ocean may fill you with enthusiasm, it holds no similar appeal for our marketing department who advises that any available funds may be better spent on obtaining psychiatric intervention. Nevertheless best of luck in your misdirected endeavour, etc.’

Our boat

Christened Gquma Challenger, an onomatopoeic Xhosa word representing a loud sound, the roar of a lion or the sound of crashing waves, she measured 7.1 metres by 1.9 metres. She would carry all our food and equipment for two months at sea. At the stern was the cabin, our shared bedroom that was barely long enough for a man to lie down flat without his feet sticking out the hatch. The cabin contained the all-important communication equipment and navigational instruments. Amidships came the two rowing positions. Most of the time there would only ever be one person on the oars, usually but not always in the rear/ front position, though there would be occasions when we rowed together. Towards the stern was the storage compartment for the parachute anchor and drogues, rope, anchor and the like. Solar panels were affixed to various surfaces to charge two deep-cycle batteries that would power the radio, the desalinator for making drinking water and the GPS.

The day Gquma Challenger arrived at the DB Schenker facility in East London, the CEO, Tony Pheiffer, was coincidently visiting. He had not heard of our row yet but was fascinated by it, and was delighted his company had been of some assistance to us. ‘Is there anything else you need assistance with?’ he then asked. ‘Now that’s a question we have been waiting to hear for a long time,’ I replied.

As we rolled the boat out he phoned his counterparts in Germany and they agreed there and then to sponsor all our shipping and to throw in € 2 000. It was a good start, but we still had the race entry fee to pay and time was running out. One morning I received a call from one of my uncles, John Donnelly, to find out how the preparations were going. We eventually got on to the race entry fee and our deadlines. To my amazement, he called back a few hours later with the news that he and his brother, Lionel, had agreed to pay the fee. I was completely thrown. I’m not one for involving family and money, so I was a bit hesitant, but they won me over. It was the most generous gift I could have ever imagined, and without my uncles I’m not sure the story would have had such a happy ending.

We still needed a further $30 000 to cover the remaining costs. As fate would have it, the money eventually came from the company that built the aluminium mounting for our cooker. I called a friend, Brian Harmse, who owned the East London business TFM-Fabkomp to ask about the mounting, and we got chatting. A day later he called back to say his company would like to be our title sponsor for the race and could I please send our banking details. Unbelievable! The money was deposited the same day, and we were all set for the race of our lives.

San Sebastián start line

Despite overwhelming odds and countless logistical challenges, we made it to the starting line in San Sebastián on the island of La Gomera as the only African entry in the 2007 Woodvale Challenge Atlantic Rowing Race. Even then, it was only just. We had a mandatory two weeks on the island to prepare our boats for close scrutiny by race officials. Now we just had an ocean to row across!

Together with 22 other entrants, we finally got underway at midday on 2 December 2007. As the sound of the starting siren floated away in the briny spray, we headed for the horizon and into the unknown, with a physical challenge of epic proportions before us and without the prospect of seeing land for two months.

Within hours the weather turned. It started to rain and the wind changed direction, throwing the sea into a mess. Bill began feeling nauseous. Seasickness had been the demise of many a team in previous races; you simply cannot row if you have been constantly sick over an extended period. Bill toughed it out as best he could, powering through his shifts despite all the vomiting, but it quickly became a worry for us. Depending on the severity, three days is about as much seasickness as a man can take while exerting himself physically.

By the third morning of the trip, I was really concerned about Bill. There is only so much you can vomit without becoming severely dehydrated. I told him that today was the day we had to sort out his seasickness. If he wasn’t better by that evening we would have to pull the plug on the campaign.

I think this brought home the reality of our situation to Bill, as after his shift he immediately disappeared into the cabin and took a suppository of some description. It worked; by that evening he had almost totally recovered. The next day we discussed our rowing routine again and, because we needed more rest between shifts, decided to change it this time to 90-minute shifts.

We had hit on the routine that worked for us, and we stuck to it for the rest of the race, covering an average of 2.5 nautical miles (4.5km) per hour and 58 nautical miles (or 108km) a day. Our newfound rhythm allowed us to power back into contention, and over the next few days we managed to haul in the race leaders. Over the course of the two weeks we had spent in San Sebastián we had tried to establish who our prime competition would be. Now we could see that it was the boys in Pendovey Swift, No Fear and Go Commando who were pushing the hardest.

Then we received the news that there was a major storm heading our way and the boat went deathly quiet…

Complied by Debbie Hathway

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