Mumbai: Liquid-blue desert fading into a blue horizon. No human contact. A series of crises caused by equipment failure and damage. Three aborted attempts. Why would anyone want to row solo and unsupported, for 90 days, across the Atlantic in a 23ft wooden boat, from Spain to Antigua? Underlying the question, on the average person’s mind, is the thought that anyone who attempts this has got to be mad.
The day I speak to 29-year-old Bhavik Gandhi, via his satellite phone, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—on Day 42 of his fourth attempt to cross the Atlantic—he’s down, but nowhere near out. He admits that he’s started having mild hallucinations and what he misses most is: “To walk. I haven’t walked more than three metres a day for 42 days now! And human contact, which a sat phone can’t make up for.”
The day is 11 April 2007 and the Stockholm-based venture capitalist has rowed 1,452 nautical miles from Spain. He has 1,505 nautical miles (2,784 km) left to go and has had a very bad night after discovering his boat is leaking. Besides a broken rudder, almost non-existent navigation lights and a near collision with a cargo ship, his desalinator, which generates potable water, is now on the blink.
On his 41st day at sea, when his sat phone refused to charge, Gandhi went into the hatch to locate the spare phone, and found his boat had a leak. “It’s really hard to be alone out here, and I’m trying not to panic,” he says of his situation. “Of course there is fear; fear is part of the motivation that keeps me going.” As do the amazing sunsets and the incredible closeness to marine wildlife. “The dolphins and pilot whales came by and I’ve seen things I’ll never ever see anywhere else, and it all makes up for the extreme hardship,” he says.
On Day 33, Gandhi wrote in his online expedition log: “Just as I was about to take a break, a pod of dolphins stopped by. Quite a sociable lot, they came right up to the boat, playing around the bow, chasing the fish underneath, making their whistling noises and just showing off. They were not scared away when I got into the water (even though I've not had a shower for a month!) and I felt privileged that they allowed me to swim with them in the wild, film them and just be a bystander… trusting me enough to come right up and play around with the fluorescent float on the video camera. Superstition says that they are a good omen. In any case, they definitely lifted my spirits. Every time people ask me WHY? Why cross the Atlantic in a rowing boat, just 2ft above water? How I wish I could point to days like this and say “That's why!”
They are the most magnificent and human-like creatures. This has been one of the most memorable moments of this trip. All of a sudden, all the hardships faced on land seem a small price to pay for an experience like today’s.”
Later the same day, Gandhi requested a rescue team be put on standby in case of an emergency. But this isn’t a helicopter that will just come and lift him out of the water when things are bad. “I’m too far away from land for any helicopter,” he explains. “It will take a rescue boat five days to reach me after I call it. Right now I can only hope that I can somehow fix this leak,” he says, exhausted.
Five days later, Gandhi is still at sea and I’m excited to see his happily titled log entry: “Day 47—Water Leak Update—Leak Fixed. 16 April.”
Later that day, Gandhi posts the following:“An additional bonus today was watching a shark attack from my ringside seat. My eyes have gotten used to watching nothing but blue sky and water and my senses are ever more in tune with the surroundings. I find that I quickly notice any sound or activity, like unusually bubbly or agitated water, not naturally caused by a wave.
I noticed a smooth patch of water just a bit north of the stern. A few minutes later, a big silver mass under the water making its way towards me, which dissolved into a school of hundreds of dorados swimming at top speed toward the boat. A telltale sign they are being chased. I grabbed the video camera just in time to film a massive tail fin cutting an arc thru the water. A few seconds later, the water underneath the boat erupted into a complete war zone (that) went on for about three hours. A gigantic underwater stampede as hundreds of dorados banged into the hull of the boat, fighting for their lives. And me fighting to maintain a ‘look but don’t touch policy’ around my rudder.
Watching the 500-pound shark hunting will remain one of the highlights of the row.
Snacks are being rationed ever since I lost a lot of it in the water leak. My halfway point is coming up this week and will be doing a bit of a clean up through all the hatches on board to see what’s left and what needs to be rationed. Very tired today and have had little sleep as I have been rowing extra hours to make up for the hours lost on fixing the leak.
Gandhi’s first attempt to row solo across the Atlantic was made in April 2006, but abandoned a few days later because of stormy weather that pushed him too far north to be able to finish the crossing before the Atlantic hurricane season began on 1 June. Gandhi reattempted the crossing at the end of the hurricane season. On 20 December 2006, his second attempt began, but his boat’s rudder cable snapped that very day and the attempt was aborted. Six weeks later, after extensive repairs, changes and taking in new coastguard regulations, he began his third attempt on 12 February 2007 from La Gomera, The Canary Islands, Spain. Gale-force winds, a damaged rudder and broken sea anchor soon followed. Gandhi began his fourth attempt to row across the Atlantic from La Restinga on the Island of El Hierro, about 50 miles southwest of La Gomera on 28 February.
Besides health, weather, equipment breakdown and rowing-related hazards, Gandhi also faces dangers from large ships, sharks, whales, icebergs, lost floating cargo containers (incredibly, there are an unbelievable 2,50,000 out there), currents, freak waves and hypothermia.
If he succeeds, Bhavik Gandhi, who was born in Mumbai, where he lived for 14 years, will become the first Indian and Asian, and the 32nd individual, to row solo across the Atlantic. If he does not succeed, my guess is he will be back to try again. Either way, his experience is a gripping tale of endurance and the unfathomable power of the human mind.