Rowing for 12 hours a day in the blistering heat, getting whacked in the head by flying fish and sleeping in a wet, pitch black six-and-a-half by three foot cabin doesn't sound like most people's idea of a vacation.
But Toby Wallace, a 6-foot-7 inch former Cambridge University rower and employee of Center City's Aberdeen Asset Management isn't most people.
"I actually described it to my wife when I talked to her on the phone as my perfect holiday," he said. "I'd much rather be out on a boat doing something like that than sitting in a five star hotel on the beach."
Wallace and a crew of seven other men launched from the Grand Canary Islands in February and set out to break the nearly 32-day world record for rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. Though they narrowly missed it – arriving in the Barbados in 34 days, 15 hours and 31 minutes – Wallace has no regrets.
"It was an amazing experience – there’s no man made life anywhere so at night, the water’s just inky black and the sky’s black and stars are as bright as anything you can see," he said. "Then you go from that total blackness into bright blue sunshine and just the bluest sapphire colored water in middle of Atlantic I’ve ever seen."
The trip had a promising start. "The first week when we went out to sea, we had big swells and lots of wind behinds us – 20 foot swells and 20 knots of wind. We were doing really well for the first eight or nine days," he said.
The men rowed in two-hour shifts during the day and four-hour shifts at night. Wallace said that once he fell into the rhythm, the monotony was surprisingly easy to deal with. "By the time you got to sleep, got something to eat and got water bottles for the next rowing session, you'd be surprised at how quickly time disappears," he said.
"All that was important was how long I had left in my rest or how long I had left to row. Everything condenses into such a small world."
The only other occupants of that world was the occasional sea creature, among them whales and marlins that sometimes rode in the boat's wake. "One of the most interesting wildlife we came across was flying fish," Wallace said. "These little fish would fly out of water and land on the deck, hit us while we were rowing and get into the cabin. Because it was dark, they would end up in all kinds of nooks and crannies on the boat and rot the next day in the heat."
"I tried to save as many of them as possible from committing suicide, but it was tough when I couldn’t reach them."
Rowing against the current
Then the winds died down, at times bringing the men's spirits with them. "For the rest of the trip, we didn’t have any significant wind or swells and, at times, it felt like we were actually rowing against the current," he said. "We just watched as the record slipped away."
The final challenge came toward the end of the trip when the crew ran out of food – in a show of optimism perhaps a little too strong, they only brought enough for their target time of 28 days.
"By the time it looked like we would take longer than 28 days, we had to start rationing food," he said. "I found that lack of calories hard to deal with. Every so often someone would make me a meal because they saw me shrinking before their eyes. It just made me really tired."
Wallace lost 40 pounds. But he said the physical strain was nothing compared to the mental toll taken by the coffin-like sleeping compartment. "It was a bit like living in a dog kennel," he said. "All I could see was a bit of orange from the radio and hear waves crashing on roof of the cabin as we were going along. And everything was wet– it was like lying in a semi-drained pond.
"I was lying in the pitch black in a cold puddle thinking every time there was a wave that the boat was going to capsize," he said. "Once I was sitting in the seat on the deck and had the oars in my hands, I knew what I had to do: row and stay hydrated. It was physically hard but easier to adjust to than life in the cabin."
And the close quarters began to take their toll on the group of eight, once strangers, by the end a well-oiled machine. "We were right inside each others pockets all the time. It’s a challenging environment when you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re physically very tired, you're trying to go as fast as you can and conditions not necessarily in your favor," he said.
"Small things can get blown out of proportion and upset people. After 34 days, I think you could see some cracks appearing and people were ready to get off the boat," he said. "I didn't annoy anybody enough to be chucked overboard and left for shark bait in the ocean, though."
Wallace said that, while he lost often track of time, he marked the days
with messages from his wife Claire. "She wrote me a letter for every
day of the voyage," he said. "I’d open in morning – they'd have
inspirational quotes and articles about other explorers doing crazy
things. That definitely helped pass the time."
The crew also had a rare moment of spontaneity about halfway through the
journey when celebrating one rower's birthday. "It was day 14 or 15, a
very hot day," Wallace said. "We decided to go for swim, our first break
"When I jumped off the boat into the water, it felt like
freedom. It must be what it feels like being released from prison or the
ministry. I was free from rowing, free from the boat and swimming in the
crystal clear ocean water."