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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 30 October 2014

9 October 2014

I have been silent for several months as I focused on a number of literary projects, several of which I will share with you in the coming days and weeks. Today I would like to tell you about a book that I merely read.

Recently Penguin Books asked me to review a pre-publication copy of SALT, SWEAT, TEARS – The Men Who Rowed the Oceans by Adam Rackley,

I was intrigued. I am a rower, a rowing coach and a rowing historian, but the rowing we do is on ponds and rivers and lakes and artificial race courses. We scurry for cover whenever lightning even threatens. Rowing across an ocean involves sliding seats and the same oarlocks and sculls that we use, but my world, our world, and the world of ocean rowers rarely if ever overlap. These men who row out of the sight of land, who row in nearly total isolation, often go for months at a time, braving the most trying of conditions, and the historical statistics suggest that their chance of being lost at sea - Could there be a more lonely death? - might be as high as 1 in 10.

Rackley is the first to attempt to document the entire history of this remarkable human endeavor, and this is a significant contribution to the historical record. Fewer than 350 successful crossings of an ocean have ever been completed. In all of time, fewer can say they have made it across an ocean under their own power than climb Mount Everest in a single good year. Sometimes these curious men need to be reminded that what they do is a truly singular undertaking.

Like climbing Mount Everest, ocean rowing is a world that fascinates me from a distance but I NEVER want to experience firsthand, which makes SALT, SWEAT, TEARS all the more valuable. It is a window into an alien world, and a spellbinding one at that.

I had no idea that the first crossing of an ocean took place in 1896!

A couple of Norwegian immigrants to America seeking fame and fortune rowed across the North Atlantic in a fishing dory, for Heaven’s sake! Alas, their spectacular feat was largely ignored, and the fame they sought eluded them. After them, no one was foolish enough to follow in their wake for 70 more years, and the first boat to try was lost at sea. Now that’s a story!

By the time of the author's own crossing of the Atlantic in 2010, the boats had become more sophisticated, and now there are freeze-dried foods, solar cells and electronics galore. But one must still pull at oars to make any progress.

To ocean rowers of the modern era, what they do has become, at least to them, almost . . . routine . . . that is until the first mid-ocean storm hits.

“In this tale of adventure, endurance and self-discovery, Rackley details the seventy days that he and [his partner] Jimmy rowed in two-hour shifts, eating and sleeping in a boat seven meters long and two meters wide. Rackley recounts the physical and mental hardships that he and Jimmy faced, the toll it takes on the body to row nearly constantly with little time for recuperation, and the crushing isolation of spending weeks apart from civilization.”

Oh, my!