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Hurricanes and illegal departures


I have been running around in circles trying to secure a safety boat for my human powered transatlantic record attempt schedule for December 1, 2008 - only 282 days away according to my countdown timer posted at the Pedal the Ocean web site.

According to the Ocean Rowing Society's statistics page, a total of 80 individuals have rowed across the Atlantic ocean East to West from Canary Islands to the West indies this 2007-2008 season (this includes 5 who are in the process of rowing as I type). There were 7 solo rowers, 17 duos, 5 groups of four, one group of 5, and one group of 14 rowers who set a new human powered crossing record of 33 days, 7 hours, 30 minutes (this was a group of 14 rowers! How I would LOVE to break that record as a solo!)

Most of these crossings were participating in the Atlantic Rowing Race 2007, an race organized by Woodvale Challenge. The race entrants are followed across by a support boat, and there are rules regarding the kind of support that would constitute a disqualification, and in those cases, the teams are allowed to continue the crossing, but would be either disqualified from the race aspect of the event, or assessed a penalty. For example, in the 2005 Atlantic Rowing Race, Jo Davies from the all girl team called Rowgirls decided that she was unable to continue due to hurting her back when she fell. She left the race by boarding the support boat after 45 days at sea. The Rowgirls team was disqualified from the race, but the three remaining girls continued to finish their journey and eventually arrived in Antigua. (Jo Davies returned this year and finished the race with another 4 person, all girl rowing team and they broke the womens record by 10 days!) Another example of a rower seeking support is Peter Collette on Atlantic Pete who took a package of antibiotics from the support boat during his solo crossing this year. Since there were only two solo rowers in this years rowing race, Woodvale gave the second rower Canadian Paul Attalla the option to have Peter disqualified. Since Peter didn't end up consuming any of the medication, Paul honorably recognized Peter's solo division win.

For me, this ocean crossing is not a survival adventure, it is about setting a speed record. If the peace of mind that comes with a safety boat near-by allows me to focus on my first goal which is to make it across the Atlantic ocean as fast as I can, then I think the investment is definitely worth it. Just like the Atlantic rowing races, if I need support from my follow boat, say repairs that I am unable to make, or a re-supply of food or water, then I would disqualify myself from any claim on a speed record, but I would still continue to make my way across if possible.

There are many rowers - even solo rowers who cross every year without the security of a follow vessel. If they run into trouble, they reply on the local coastguard for a rescue. Essentially, rowers who use a support boat are assuming most of this responsibility by paying for their own rescue and not relying on the state to provide it.

I have a number of options regarding a support boat, and none of these have panned out so far - except one which looks very promising. Here is a quick run down:

1. Charter a boat and hire a slipper and crew. This is the simplest option, as I can choose from thousands of capable boats and crew members. The problem is that most charter companies do not like their boats to cross entire oceans, and prices that I have been quoted are STARTING at $150,000 !!!!!! I could buy a brand new sailing yacht for that amount.

2. Buy a yacht and sell it when I am finished. This could work, but selling a yacht isn't like selling your car. It could sit in an expensive marina slip for YEARS before it sells, and the loss due to depreciation plus maintenance and moorage costs would be substantial.

3. Buy a yacht and keep it. Sailing the world on our own yacht is a future that Helen and I have discussed and might be interested in exploring someday, we are nowhere near ready to take that step. Also moving the yacht to the Vancouver Island area from the West indies would be very expensive as would the moorage fees, maintenance and up keep once it finally gets here. Keeping it and chartering it out through a charter firm might be an option, but again, I'm just not sure I want to get into that business right now. I need to focus my energies and time on the crossing, not investing in a yacht.

4. Find someone who is sailing across from the Canaries to the West Indies at about the same time as I plan to make my crossing. This is the option that makes the most sense. The average sailing yacht takes about 3 to 4 weeks to cross the Atlantic and I am hoping to do it in 6 weeks. I can pay a fee which would make the extra crossing time required of the support yacht worth their while. The problem with option 4 is finding someone - like finding a needle in a hay stack. I have send hundreds of emails to sailing communities, yacht brokers, marinas, posted in sailing forums, placed classified ads in magazines, and nothing has resulted in any prospects.

Until just yesterday. Rob Hurrell who is my support boat advisor in the Caribbean knows of a world circumnavigation sailing race called Around in Ten. You have to check out this web site - imagine this: A single handed sailing race around the world in boats that cannot exceed 10 feet. Your car is longer than 10 feet. I got in contact with the races organizer Nick Dwyer who will be travelling to the Canary islands to pick up his A 38ft steel Roberts Spray yacht that Nick will skipper as support boat for the around-in-ten race. He needs to sail the support boat from the Canaries to the Caribbean for the start of the around-in-ten race in early January.

Nick Dwyer and his new 38 foot support boat

Nick seems interested in helping me out, and we are working out the details. The fit between our two projects is perfect and the timing is almost perfect. Nick needs to leave the Canary islands no later than November 15. My planned departure date was December 1. Leaving two weeks early shouldn't be a big deal, but there is more to it that you would think.

The first problem is the Spanish coastguard has issued a list of port clearances for ocean rowers. The requirements are all reasonable except for the life raft. My boat is too small for a 4 person approved life raft and I will be followed by a support boat, so I don't see it as something necessary for me to carry. The other problem is they won't allow you to leave until after December 1. Nick wants to leave on November 15.

The second problem with an early departure is the reason why the Spanish won't let you leave until December 1, which is the official end of the hurricane season.

Nick and I have been looking at the hurricane risk as it pertains to our Atlantic crossing, and it appears that a November departure could be pretty safe. Here is a plot showing the number of hurricanes and tropical storms throughout the year showing the 'season' from May 1 to Dec 1:

http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/tcfaq/yearly2.jpg

click to enlarge

Specifically, along my intended route, since 1991 there have been few hurricanes or strong tropical storms in the North Atlantic during the month of November, and very few during the month of December. None of the November storms were on the tradewinds route (my route from Canaries to Antigua). Almost all of the storms occur in a zone from the center of the Atlantic to the west side, and North of 10 degrees. By the time we reach the western side where these monsters generally spawn, it will be December and the number of storm occurrences decreases substantially. Here is a list of all the serious storms that occurred in the North Atlantic over the last 17 years in the months of November and December

Tropical storm Olga - Dec 11 to 12, 2007 - near my destination in the west indies
Hurricane Epsilon - Nov 29 to Dec 8, 2005 - far north of my route
Tropical storm Zeta - Dec 30 to Jan 6, 2005 - far north of my route
Tropical storm Otto - Nov 29 to Dec 3, 2004 - far north of my route
Tropical storm Odette - Dec 4 to 11, 2003 - north of my route
Tropical storm Peter - Dec 7 to 11, 2003 - near the mid point of my route (slightly north)
Hurricane Olga - Nov 24 to Dec 4, 2001 - far north west of my route
Hurricane Nicole - Nov 24 to Dec 1, 1998 - far North of my route

You can view a historical plot of all north Atlantic hurricanes and strong storms and their paths from 1995 to 2007 at this NOAA page: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/pastall.shtml

According to my analysis, if I had departed Canary Islands on Nov 15th in any of the 17 years from 1991 to 2007, I would not have encountered any hurricanes, tropical storms or tropical depressions. I would have come close to tropical storm Olga in 2007 at my destination, but it would have taken a 28 day crossing, and I would have been about 100 miles south of tropical storm Peter in 2003 at my mid-way point. That results in an 11% chance passing by the proximity of a tropical storm, but no encounters with a tropical storm and far from any hurricanes.

In the days prior to the Spanish coast guard December 1st departure regulation, from 1969 to 2004 most of the Canaries departures by ocean rowers occurred in October. Half way through October, the major hurricane risk diminishes quite substantially, but the hurricane and tropical storm risk is still quite high. Here are the number of rowing departures during the hurricane season:

August: 1
September: 2
October: 82
November: 6

So - back to Nick, my support boat, and the Spanish coast guard. Am I will to risk encountering a hurricane by leaving on November 15th? Yes - no question. I think the risk is negligibly higher than departing on December 1. Am I willing to 'sneak-away' from the Spanish coast under the cloak of darkness until safe in international waters? I don't know.

Another ocean rower (who will be unnamed) who has tangled with the Spanish coast guard has advised me to skip the permit application process all together and just leave incognito - regardless of what month I plan to leave. What are the risks?

On December 20, 2006, the Spanish coastguard stopped and searched Graham Walters row boat "Puffin" 8 hours after he departed La Gomera in the Canary Islands. They searched his boat and found a couple of pieces of equipment that they claim didn't comply with regulations. They impounded Puffin and demanded $45,000 to release the boat. They later reduced the amount to 6000 euros which Graham paid.

That same day in 2006, 2 other solo rowers were also towed back and fined. They all eventually departed and made it across, but not without fighting with the authorities and paying fines. Ed Baylis and Stu Turnbull were too fast for the coast guard to catch and they got away.

The fine for not informing the harbormaster of your departure is 1000 euros.

The port clearances from Woodvale are here:
http://www.woodvale-challenge.com/index.php?page=84

I've been told that leaving a small port like La Gomera or El Heiro without being noticed by the coast guard who are stationed in Tenerife isn't difficult. The publicity that the large rowing races generate attract the attention of the coastguard, but 'quiet' departures can go unnoticed. Am I willing to take that risk? I think I need to get in touch with someone who can negotiate an approved early departure for me with the Spanish coastguard and at least make an attempt to play it safe and be legal. However, this is not something that I can leave until the last minute. I will need to get advanced clearance so I can come to a firm agreement with Nick to support me.

A Nov 15 departure could be problematic for me on another front - that is, to have the boat built, tested, fitted out, supplied, delivered and ready to go by Nov 15. Ugh! so much work to do, and I need to get it done right away!

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1 Responses to “Hurricanes and illegal departures”

  1. # Anonymous Anonymous

    as I said you are to use the storms to make your 28 day crossing  

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