If you ever find yourself rowing 3,136 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll likely have encounters with whales, dolphins and marlins, lose at least 15 pounds, and have a very sore butt by the time you’re finished.
That’s what Jonathan Harrison and his two Seattle-based crewmates learned this winter while rowing the annual Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge from the Canary Islands to Antigua. In 40 days, five hours and 30 minutes (yes, they were counting), Team Pacific Boys completed what’s regarded as the world’s most challenging long-distance rowing race.
“We basically had four goals,” said Harrison, a 28-year-old project manager and amateur adventurer, in a phone interview from Antigua a week after completing the journey Jan. 21. “No. 1 was survive. Two was get across. Three was have fun. And four was to win.
“We didn’t quite achieve No. 4, but we did have a great time.”
The voyage was the culmination of nearly four years of planning, waiting and training.
Harrison, who’s originally from Vancouver, B.C., once went on a 1,200-kilometer (746-mile) cycling trip around Taiwan, and after that experience started looking for an even bigger endurance challenge. In 2018, he visited the island of La Gomera in the Canaries to meet with Atlantic Challenge race organizers to assess how well the race was organized and what safety precautions were in place.
He was impressed by what he learned, and set out to acquire a boat and assemble a team.
While working as a global supply manager for Amazon Web Services in Seattle, Harrison spent most of 2019 recruiting his team. After some fits and starts, he was joined by Kramer Lewis, 27, who also lives in Seattle and works for AWS, and Isaac Mackey, 27 — an experienced rower who lives in Santa Barbara, California.
“We were originally a four-member team,” Harrison said, “but with the pandemic and people’s busy timelines, we ended up with three. We were actually quite happy how that turned out.”
Next up was getting a boat. For about $75,000, Harrison purchased the Lionheart, a 28-foot vessel designed for long-distance rows — a veteran of several successful crossings of the Atlantic and a circumnavigation of the United Kingdom. The 2,000-pound boat has compact sleeping cabins in the bow and stern, an auto-tiller that keeps the vessel on course so the crew can focus on rowing, and an array of solar panels that power the boat’s navigation and communications systems, as well as equipment for making freshwater.
Once the boat was transported from Antigua to Florida, Harrison rented a moving van that wasn’t quite big enough — so the team drove the Lionheart nonstop to Seattle with the bow poking out the back of the truck. “That was a comedy of errors,” Harrison said with a laugh. “Definitely a bonding experience in itself.”
Then the pandemic hit. The race was put on hold, but Harrison kept busy making plans and raising funds.
By the end of 2020, the crew was beginning to row, and would eventually log more than 1,000 hours of rowing in preparation for their crossing. Before the Atlantic Challenge, the team completed the Washington 360, a five-day race along the shores of Puget Sound, plus several 24-hour rows off the Washington coast, and a four-day expedition off the California coast that Harrison remembers as “really intense,” thanks to deep fog, steep 8-foot waves and unpredictable currents.
On Dec. 12, 2021, Team Pacific Boys departed La Gomera and quickly settled into a regular rowing schedule. Two rowers would take two-hour shifts and give the other teammate a rest. At night, one rower would helm the boat while his teammates got short stints of sleep (three and a half to four hours). Each rower was responsible for 14 total hours of rowing each day. “That we could do the 14-hour shifts and maintain that after Day 5 was a pleasant surprise for all of us,” Harrison said.
On Day 7, the crew began to encounter the doldrums — hot, calm days that began with headwinds and that presented extremely difficult conditions for rowing. “We were continually trying to pull ourselves away from being sucked into a storm,” Harrison said. “We were rowing like mad and my hands really hurt for a couple days afterwards. That day was tough.”
Harrison said Atlantic conditions were unusually stagnant this year, causing many teams to head almost directly south before cutting a “J” west toward Antigua.
Rowing alone at night also presented challenges, though those solo times could also be peaceful and meditative. “It’s either quite tranquil, [and] we got to liking it because it’s your quiet time,” Harrison said. “Or it could be a nightmare.”
Mackey remembers a harrowing night rowing alone in 5- to-10-foot swells. “We had two nights of rowing in the bigger, breaking waves,” he said. “We were conscious of the risk of flipping because waves were crashing on deck and against the side of the boat. My mind entered a state of heightened proactivity to prevent flipping: scanning the waves, always securing important gear, distributing my weight and pressure on the oars as needed.”
There were many blissful moments, too. The rowers encountered turtles, whales — and once, a tiny flying fish landed inside the boat. Huge marlins were a bit disconcerting, Harrison admits, since the team had heard the fish had a proclivity for trying to poke holes in boats with their spearlike bills. “We think they’re following the boats because the cruise ships usually feed them,” Harrison said.
Lewis won’t soon forget rowing amid a pod of 15 dolphins. “Their elegance moving together through the water together was breathtaking,” he said. “I could hear them talking as well. I like to think they were saying kind things to us.”
Each day, the crew was ravenous from rowing more than half the day, every day. Hundreds of pounds of food onboard were carefully organized and pre-packed in zip-locking bags. The Pacific Boys team relied heavily on granola and protein bars, electrolyte and protein powders — supplemented with occasional dehydrated meals. “The couscous didn’t work so well, but the ramen was great,” Harrison said.
A typical Atlantic Challenge rower burns through 5,000 calories a day; Harrison said that by the time the Pacific Boys reached Antigua, he’d dropped from 145 to 130 pounds — a considerable amount for the relatively small-framed rower. “I definitely feel a little more frail. I wasn’t super big to start.”
And in case you’re wondering, the crew toilet involved three buckets and a cup for rinsing. “Don’t get your buckets mixed up” was a hard-and-fast rule, Harrison notes.
Further into the journey, it became apparent the Pacific Boys hadn’t brought enough foam for the seat cushions. Continual hours of rowing quickly flattened all the team’s seat pads. “We all had sores on our butts because we went through a lot of foam,” Harrison said. “Basically it became a rock-solid seat.”
Lack of sleep was the biggest hurdle for Mackey. Hallucinations among the crew weren’t uncommon, whether from inconsistent sleep or seasickness meds — which the crew quickly stopped taking when one of them began seeing firetrucks on the horizon.
“I experienced auditory hallucinations in the form of voices describing nonexistent dangers or unintelligible yelling,” Mackey said. “Those in turn made it harder for me to sleep. I would wake up thinking I was on deck or even rowing.”
But the team established a good rapport, with Harrison serving as the captain and prime decision-maker, Lewis as the handyman and navigation expert, and Mackey as the motivator/cheerleader.
“Those strengths actually became apparent earlier, in the six months leading up to the race,” Harrison said. “That’s when we really kicked into high gear.”
In addition to the goal of putting more than 2,800 miles of ocean behind them, the team used their online and social media platforms to raise money for the Assistance League of Seattle’s Operation School Bell. About $5,000 in donations will go toward the charity’s mission to provide new clothing to Seattle kids and families who are unable to afford them.
On Jan. 21, Team Pacific Boys reached Antigua 40 days after starting — which turned out to be the precise estimate the team had been shooting for. “We nailed exactly what I thought we would,” Harrison said. “Of course we hoped to be faster, but given the conditions, that was about as fast as I think we could have taken it.”
Harrison said he’s not interested in a repeat performance or different long-distance row. Having perhaps quickly forgotten the days of sore butts and anti-chafing cream, however, he’s now planning a long-distance cyclocross ride across Canada. “That’s a longer-term dream and one that will take even more time to plan than this one.”
Lewis said getting through the rough patches of crossing the Atlantic taught him resilience. “This row greatly increased my mental fortitude and ability to persevere through challenging times,” he said. “Even during the preparation for the race, there were a lot of opportunities to give up. The determination and perseverance will stay with me for the rest of my life.”