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The Final Hours

Oliver Bailey
Photography by Tobi Corney and Brendan Delzin

In March this year, five amateur rowers set two world records after becoming the first team to row unsupported from mainland Europe to mainland South America. Oliver Bailey recounts their final day, navigating through Venezuelan waters renowned for drug trafficking and piracy.


The final 24 hours of our record-setting trans-Atlantic row were the most memorable.
For the first time in 50 days I could differentiate tones other than the blue-grey hues of the sky and the ocean. When I exited the bow cabin at dawn, the vivid green flora of Trinidad suddenly sprang into view and it came as some relief. The previous day we’d been panicked by the possibility we could miss a waypoint that would secure our passage along the north coast of Trinidad. Any oversight in our calculations and the equatorial currents might drag us toward the Windward Islands, far from the South American continent. We steered for Tobago on a south-easterly bearing, which allowed for the influence of wind, swell and current. From there we would pass the island heading for the Venezuelan peninsula and across the Bocas Del Dragon – an 11-mile channel separating the two countries.

As we drew closer to the continental shelf, flying fish collided with the boat more frequently. Being struck in the face was not only annoying but painful. The deck was strewn with carcasses, but we were so focused on finishing, none of us noticed or cared.

The rising sun illuminated the emerald-green water of the Trinidadian coastline, and the local current boosted our speed to 6.5 knots. This was the highest average we’d achieved since surfing down huge seas off the west coast of Africa.

The unmistakable sound of helicopter blades announced the arrival of our chaperone – the Trinidadian Air Guard. The Venezuelan coast is considered extremely dangerous and has a high incidence of drug trafficking and piracy. Most recently, pirates had robbed and shot at local fishermen, killing one and wounding three in the Gulf of Paria, 14NM south of our destination.

We had prepared for every eventuality. Foxy, my crewmate and Special Forces veteran, had used the satphone to contact a security agency that determines threat levels in hostile environments. They had deemed our target area relatively safe, providing we didn’t deviate any further south, and recommended a protective escort. To make light of the situation we’d imagined our adventure reaching a denouement in our capture and extortion, where we’d be marched to the Venezuelan highlands and crammed into bamboo cages. After everything we’d encountered so far, it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

The Venezuelan consulate and coastguard had liaised with our support team and were due to take over responsibilities from their neighbours once we’d traversed the border. With diplomatic tensions running high, it had been made clear that if either guard aided us in the other’s jurisdiction, it could cause an international incident.

As we drew closer to the continental shelf, flying fish collided with the boat more frequently. Being struck in the face was not only annoying but painful. The deck was strewn with carcasses, but we were so focused on finishing, none of us noticed or cared.

ocean-row

We tempered our excitement by continuing life on board as we had the previous 50 days: a routine consisting of two hours rowing and two hours resting, interspersed with administration duties. The ceremony of preparing and consuming food had blossomed into a fine art of boredom alleviation. Our weight loss had been dramatic – as soon as we had calculated a ration surplus for the final week, we’d raised our calorific intake, consuming up to seven full meals per man, per day. We considered eating the last of the ration packs – content in the fact we would never eat a freeze-dried lasagne again – or should we wait for the real thing, now we were hours from land? We ate them.

The north coast of Trinidad is raw and uninhabited, isolated by the Northern Range – a rocky wall which gradually rises from the southern lowlands to 900m before tumbling abruptly into the sea. Its inaccessibility has preserved the landscape and it teems with wildlife. Around us, pelicans swooped and bombed for their aquatic prey while the peculiar frigatebirds, which from a distance look like pterodactyls, circled above leatherback turtles drifting out to sea from secluded sandy beaches.

As we entered the mouth of the alcove, the roar of the sea dissipated. Cascades of broken swell rippled past us and lapped the cliff walls. I particularly recall the scent of pine as we paddled in silence.

We were approaching Venezuelan waters and anticipated a change of guard now our eye in the sky had departed. The sun sank to the horizon, and the wind and swell had increased, as it so often did at this time of day. In our wake lay the final rocky outcrops of the Trinidadian territory. As we rotated shifts and I grabbed the carbon oars for perhaps the last time, Foxy was back on the VHF attempting to communicate with the Venezuelan authorities but there was no response, only static. Several rusting tankers ghosted past us in the twilight. Presumably their AIS had alerted them to our presence, but I doubt they had physically seen our 8m boat bobbing along the evening swell. We hadn’t communicated with a single ship the entire journey despite coming dangerously close to collision off the coast of the Sahara.

During those early weeks, we had spent ten days in a low-pressure system being battered by 30ft waves and I had been thrown overboard twice. I had since developed a new-found sense of calm and knew I was prepared for any situation this crossing could throw at us, but felt a distinct unease about landing on a hostile coastline.

We had defined clear risk parameters for the most dangerous part of the challenge. And yet all we had now were the coordinates and a Google Earth image of a hypothetical jetty in a small alcove, 3NM south-west of the easternmost tip of the peninsula.

While skipper Matt and I pulled on the oars, the remaining crew, Aldo, Ross and Foxy, readied the boat for a makeshift docking. To deter unwanted attention, we turned off all the electrical systems and our head torches as we slipped into covert mode – something the three former Special Forces soldiers were well versed in.

As we entered the mouth of the alcove, the roar of the sea dissipated. Cascades of broken swell rippled past us and lapped the cliff walls. I particularly recall the scent of pine as we paddled in silence, illuminated by a faint slither of the waxing moon and the odd flash from the distant Chacachacare Lighthouse to our rear.

Ross edged over the roof of the cabin, clutching a torch that he would briefly activate for a sense of perspective, before switching it off again. Foxy, who had conducted countless covert operations in the past, advised us to remain silent as he steered the rudder manually towards the shadows of the alcove. The boat was now completely surrounded by pine-straddled cliffs that loomed over us.

Ross was the first to catch a glimpse of the end waypoint. ‘What is that? Where is the f**ng jetty… there’s no jetty!’ My heart sank – the entire challenge rested on all of us physically stepping off the boat and taking the GPS fix on land, in accordance with the Ocean Rowing Society rules.

ocean-row-arrival

We began to cycle through scenarios. Could we anchor the boat, swim to the cliff wall and get purchase on some outlying rocks long enough to prove we had set foot on the South American continent? Or should we reverse row out of the bay against the swell and search for another location further down the coast? This could add hours to our challenge time, and heading into the Gulf of Paria – a known piracy hotspot – in the daylight was a huge risk.

Drawing closer, we found a tiny shoreline. No more than 10m wide and flanked by boulders, there was barely enough space to beach the nose of the bow. Two metres back from it was a partially cemented cliff face that displayed an industrial warning sign. Whatever this inlet had been used for, it wasn’t sunbathing.

We were now close to running aground and couldn’t afford to damage the boat’s hull. Ross was the first to jump out. He waded up through the water and onto the shore. Aldo followed, clutching his phone, makeshift camera and portable Yellow Brick unit. Both men stumbled around in the darkness. As I had moved from my rowing position to the bow, readying myself to disembark, Matt was the only man on the oars and he performed some reverse strokes to slow us down and prevent a hard landing.

As I launched off the boat, I hadn’t considered this was the first time in 50 days my legs would be on terra firma. I tumbled over and was momentarily submerged before pulling myself up and crawling up the bank. I dragged myself to my feet just as the boat’s hull smashed into my shin, which began to bleed into the water. My land-legs were severe and weak, very weak. Rowing 12 hours a day for 50 days had caused substantial atrophy in underused muscles.

As I stumbled around like a paralytic drunk, my crew shouted at me to buffet the boat’s bow and prevent it from grounding any further. I slid along the nose so it partially supported my weight and used what little strength I had left to heave it back into the water. I waded out further as Foxy and Matt jumped in to help steady it. Now Aldo had marked our GPS location and with all of us out of the boat – standing on the South American continent, having rowed there from Portugal – it was time to get photographic evidence of our outstanding achievement and then leave as fast as possible.

Although elated at officially completing the challenge, we were also depressingly far from our families, a hot shower and a soft mattress. It was 15NM to Chagaruamus, a yachting hub and retirement village to the west of the Trinidadian capital. In order to reach it, we’d need to row at least 4NM miles back into the channel against the wind and the swell where, if we were lucky, we’d get picked up by the guard – depending on the notoriously unreliable VHF communication.

We rowed through the placid waters of the bay and back out into the channel. The change was instantly noticeable – the surface felt like treacle and the 8ft swell smashed into our bow, lifting the stern out of the water momentarily before plunging us back in. For the first half hour, we crept along at less than a knot. It was the hardest I had pulled on the oars and yet progress was painfully slow.

We were all desperately tired and becoming impatient. Foxy was shouting into the satphone at the Trinidadian coastguard HQ who were doing their best to coordinate a rescue by communicating our location to the search vessel and telling us which bearing we should head toward. ‘I don’t care how you do it, get us out of here…’

As I launched off the boat, I hadn’t considered this was the first time in 50 days my legs would be on terra firma. I tumbled over and was momentarily submerged before pulling myself up and crawling up the bank. I dragged myself to my feet just as the boat’s hull smashed into my shin.

I needed to rest. I’d spent almost three and a half hours on the oars and hadn’t slept a wink in 18. While Matt rotated with Ross and Aldo, I rotated with Foxy and slid into the smaller stern cabin, which housed the power and communications systems. As I drifted in and out of consciousness, Foxy would abruptly swing the cabin door open, lean in and grab the VHF receiver, scream down it, shut the door and carry on grunting at the oars. This went on for several excruciating hours as he tried to communicate our location and bearing to the coastguard through a damaged VHF radio.

Eventually, I woke to hear unfamiliar voices outside the cabin. We had crossed back into Trinidadian jurisdiction and the rescue party had sided to us in a large craft, capable of towing us home. They threw over a line and we secured it to the bow. After 50 days, 10 hours and 36 minutes our adventure had finally and resolutely ended. It was one of the finest feelings I’d ever experienced. We had just completed one of the hardest endurance challenges in the world.

Oliver divides his time between investment banking, travel-writing and charity fundraising. He’s currently planning an extreme-sports blog for busy professionals and is learning to paddle for his next challenge.

Website: www.runninggun.co.uk
Twitter: @Turbobail
Instagram: @Baileypower100

Photography by Tobi Corney and Brendan Delzin

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