Top 10 Expeditions of 2021: #8: First NY-London Solo Row

Over the last 12 months, ExplorersWeb has documented incredible adventures in climbing, cycling, running, walking, skiing, and anything involving force of will and dedication to a dream in the outdoors. As this year comes to a close, we present our countdown of the Top 10 Expeditions of 2021.

Ocean rowing may not be as aesthetic or technical as climbing, river kayaking, or other expeditions we typically cover. But where it lacks in those areas, it makes up for its lack in those areas with a heightened need for self-reliance, perseverance, and a good head for risk. After all, you’re always one capsize away from a watery grave.

As on the 8,000m peaks, there is a swathe of well-publicized and more straightforward ocean rows each year, typically as part of organized events such as the Talisker Atlantic Rowing Challenge. Occasionally, however, independent and ambitious ocean journeys make you sit up with interest.

Back in August, Ian Clinton, Simon Chalk, Jordan Swift, and Matt Mason in the Ocean Revival became the first crew to row across the North Atlantic Ocean from New York to London. Before this, only 57 rowers, including just 16 soloists, had crossed the North Atlantic. None had traveled west to east from New York to London.

Reaching London is harder than ending in the western UK

Most who row the Atlantic follow the prevailing winds and tides from east to west, and those few crews who started in the United States typically finished in France, Ireland, or the Isles of Scilly, at the southwest corner of England. The Ocean Revival team pioneered that harder route in August. The same month, former SAS soldier Ian Rivers rowed alone west-east from New York across the Atlantic, but he finished at the Isles of Scilly.

Mark Delstanche trains aboard the Ocean Revival before his own solo attempt. Photo: Square Peg/Facebook

 

Cue the stage for Mark Delstanche from the UK and a solo row attempt from New York to London. Unlike many ocean rowers, Delstanche wasn’t a first-timer. He had some pedigree as an adventurer. He had previously summited Everest and Cho Oyu and had rowed 600km with a team in the Canadian High Arctic. A former club rower, Delstanche had spent the past 20 years as a professional yachtsman, more recently captaining a super-yacht.

Delstanche set off from Battery Park, New York on June 14. He faced complications almost immediately. The custom-made flywheel-powered propeller on his boat, Square Peg, broke before he even reached the Atlantic. Then the main solar panels failed on the third day, wiping out auto-steering. This meant that Delstanche had to steer with his feet for the remainder of the journey. It also forced him to limit his water consumption.

Within that first week, Delstanche had issues with his oars. He quickly replaced them with a backup pair. No doubt these equipment wobbles would have spooked a less able seaman.

Delstanche’s planned route in red, and actual route in green.

 

His proposed straight-line route was a cool 7,000km. By mid-to-late July, the superyacht captain was halfway through the journey. Delstanche’s fortunes were mixed, though, as storms in the North Atlantic were particularly bad that summer. In total, he reported facing eight storms and a hair-raising seven capsizes. The first capsize knocked out some electronics and revealed weep holes, which he patched up with the ever-dependable duct tape.

The list of woes continued: a lost compass light and non-functional VHF radio, tracker, and all deck navigation equipment. But this and continuing fog didn’t drag Delstanche down. He made good time and hit the British coastline on August 21.

Killing time in Cornwall. Photo: Square Peg/Facebook

 

An 18-day wait

However, on reaching the Cornish coast, Delstanche had to wait for favorable winds before rowing the remaining 600km to the capital. In the end, Delstanche bided his time for 18 days. Oh, how he must have pined for his super-yacht minibar during those weeks.

Toward the end, Delstanche went full gas for the finish to ensure that the wind didn’t push him away from shore. “I slept four hours in four days and at one stage rowed for 27 out of 31 hours. At times, my mind and body were totally disassociated and very much on auto.”

Finally on September 19, after 97 days, he crossed the finish line at Tower Bridge, London, just inside his target time of 100 days. In doing so, the former firefighter-turned-yachtsman pocketed his own slice of ocean rowing history, during a particularly challenging season weather-wise.

After 97 days at sea, Mark Delstanche reaches London. Photo: Square Peg/Facebook

 

Very few people set out to row a new ocean route, and in particular, solo. Fewer finish, especially within their target time. Despite an eventful journey encompassing a number of storms, equipment failures, and dunks in the ocean, Delstanche displayed an unwavering commitment to his goal, and ingenuity to find workarounds to these failures. In doing so, he edges into the outer echelons of our top 10.

Ash is an outdoor and adventure writer from the UK. His words have featured in global outlets such as The Guardian, Outside Magazine and Red Bull. He works as a public health scientist by day and writes about the outdoors in his spare time. Ash's areas of expertise are polar expeditions, mountaineering, and adventure travel. For vacation Ash enjoys going on independent Arctic sledding expeditions. Read more at www.ashrouten.com


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Thrill seeker
Thrill seeker
4 months ago

That’s doing the 14 summits blindfolded in my book.
Amazing accomplishment.