Nite Ize Field Team member Colin Sanders accomplished a feat most would consider impossible when he rowed for 83 days straight to cross the Atlantic, alone, in a rowboat. We were able to talk to him about his adventures, struggles, and triumphs -- and about how this massive goal was fueled by wanting to help others.
Q: Hi Colin! First off, tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into ultra long distance rowing?
About four years ago I decided I needed a grand adventure, something that would challenge me physically, mentally, emotionally and even financially. I spent a lot of time skiing in the mountains when I was younger and always suffered from the altitude. Climbing Everest was out. To be honest, climbing Everest seemed mundane in some ways anyway, since thousands of people have summited at this point.
Solo rowing the Atlantic was different and definitely more unusual. Few have done it and it fit my personality better. When people ask me why I rowed across the Atlantic Ocean my answer is typically “ego and self-gratification”. Sometimes I wish there was a more profound motivation but at age 64 I think I had something to prove to myself, that I could take on something incredibly tough and succeed.
Q: How does a multi-week rowing journey work? Do you row for 8+ hours a day and rest the other 16? Heck, don’t you drift while you're not rowing?
I rowed for 10-14 hours each day. At the beginning of the trip I had a routine where I rowed for three hours then took 15 minutes off. Again and again. As I got further across the ocean and started to wear down physically I had to shorten the shifts and take more frequent breaks.
I would usually start just as the sun was rising because rowing in the dark just isn’t fun, particularly when the seas are rough.
When I stowed the oars at night I just drifted. Depending on how big and steep the waves were that evening, I had to decide whether to drift free, put a warp off the stern or para anchor.
Note: A “warp” is a thick line that provides drag and some directional stability downwind and a para anchor, also called a drogue, is about the size of a bushel basket and gives the boat enough drag to produce excellent downwind stability.
It was always a fine line because I always wanted to pick up as much free distance as possible by drifting and the MRE drag I had, the less I would drift. Insufficient directional stability downwind could end up turning the boat sideways to the wind and waves and even end up with the boat capsizing.
And capsize it did. New Year’s Eve while the boat was on the warp. She got hit by a large wave as it broke and ended up rolling over and over several times. Anything not locked down flew everywhere, including a liter of olive oil!
The boat righted itself but after composing myself I had to go on deck in the pitch dark - in a really choppy sea with big waves - to pull the warp in and set the drogue. Setting the drogue isn’t easy even in the smoothest of waters because it uses a bridle attached to each side of the stern, but in big waves, high wind and darkness? It was very tough.
Q: How do you train for a rowing marathon like you did? You just rowed across the Atlantic Ocean! How on Earth did you prep for that?
I had a really great trainer. It was a partly strength in the upper body, but a lot more about core strength and flexibility. We spent a lot of time on stretching to ensure that my back and core were the strongest possible. I actually spent very little time with an indoor rowing machine because it has little in common with ocean rowing when you often only have one oar in the water at any given time.
Q: Your Trans-Atlantic journey was from Puerto de Mogan in the Canary Islands to English Harbour in Antigua. How did you choose that route and did you ever run afoul of whales, sharks or enormous cargo ships en route?
Actually, that particular route is the classic course to get across the Atlantic Ocean. Originally, I was going to head for Barbados, but I just couldn’t get far enough south to make that a viable destination. Halfway across Stokey my UK-based navigator said, “You’re going to Antigua, mate!”.
I did see the odd cargo ship but really not that many ships at all. Part of that is the vastness of the ocean: They could have been passing within five miles and I would have never known. In terms of wildlife, I remember seeing one pilot whale, lots of dolphins and several swordfish but no sharks at all.
Q: What’s one aspect of the row that was the toughest?
The emotional and mental side of the journey was the most difficult. Being completely alone for 83 days was hard, especially in tough sea conditions. The loss of my music 28 days out was a real blow to my emotional state too: I had spent a year curating downloads on Spotify, never realizing that you have to sign in every 30 days to keep the downloads active. I didn’t know that and one month into the trip suddenly had no music at all. I ended up giving monologues and speeches on a wide variety of subjects that I knew something about, singing songs, coming up with thought experiments, and trying not to go crazy out there in the middle of the ocean. It wasn’t easy, but I made it!
Q: What's your favorite Nite Ize product and why?
I started out with a lot of Nite Ize gear, but to be honest, it wasn’t until I was doing the actual row that I realized the excellent quality of all the products. The Gear Ties I used every single day. It was typically so rough at sea that it was critical that they quickly and easily secured equipment on the deck. I also used the S-Biner Marine to secure equipment that I viewed as “mission critical”, including my multitools and water bottles. They were on deck every single day and at the end of the journey none of them had a single spot of rust. I could hardly believe it, because so many other tools or pieces of my kit rusted or corroded with the constant salt water exposure. The Nite Ize equipment never, ever corroded!
Q: Are you ready to circumnavigate the entire Earth in your boat now? What is your next grand adventure?
Ummmm no. The Atlantic was enough at 4000 km (2485 miles). Not sure what my next adventure will be, but it’ll be something. I have lots of living to do yet!
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your charity A Million Possibilities?
I raised about $150K for Community Living Ontario. Community Living supports people like my son Jeff, who has intellectual disabilities. We came up with the name “A Million Possibilities” hoping to raise $1 for each stroke I took crossing the Atlantic. Ultimately, we didn’t raise a million dollars but we were still very happy with the results.
Congrats on your remarkable achievement, Colin. We look forward to hearing about your next adventure!