Grant Blakeway spent 56 days bobbing on the ocean in a capsule 9m long, 1.8m wide and 1.2m high.
Story by Stephen Smith, pictures by Penny Bird
Hillcrest resident and Maritzburg College old boy Grant has a long history and strong passion for the sea, having been a ship’s diver in the Navy for four years and then spent most holidays on or near the sea. The 59-year-old always wanted to have some sort of adventure with the ocean but, as he says, life carries on and you don’t get around to these things.
The spark that changed this was a holiday to Indonesia with his wife, Adri, for their 25th wedding anniversary. “When we arrived at the island everything looked beautiful, but when we woke up the tide had gone out and the beach was covered in plastic. I’d never seen anything like it – it was just unreal. It really woke me up to the problem, and when I got back to Durban I began to notice the same thing and wanted to do something about it,” he says. Grant started looking for an ocean challenge to do, to raise awareness for the plastic pollution problem. He didn’t choose an easy adventure but jumped in with both feet, settling on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. And no, he had no experience rowing.
At 3 000 miles (over 4 800km), the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is known as the world’s toughest row. It starts at La Gomera in the Canary Islands and ends at English Harbour in Antigua and Barbuda. The winners, usually a team of two or four, take around 32 days to complete the arduous journey. Grant, rowing solo, took 56 days, rowing up to 18 or even 20 hours a day. Even when he slept, he had to wake up every hour to check that he hadn’t drifted too far off course and that everything was still ok with the boat.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here – it took Grant a couple of years, and a huge amount of problem-solving and administrative headaches, to actually get to the starting line in the Canary Islands.
At first, he wanted to enter as a team of four, but as often happens, his teammates started to drop out as things started to get real. Instead of giving up on his plan, Grant got further inspiration from para-athlete Kelda Wood, who completed the race paddling solo.
The next challenge was finding a boat – because Grant entered the race without ever having even sat in an ocean rowing boat. He overcame this problem too, as well as a host of logistical issues that were emphasised by COVID-19 and various international lockdowns.
Eventually, Grant made it to the start line on 12 December 2020, the biggest challenge still ahead of him. He battled skin ailments, abscesses and more during his race, as well as the expected challenges of long days paddling, days at anchor not able to paddle because of conditions, rough seas and loneliness. “The hardest part was when you couldn’t row because of headwinds. At one time I was stuck at para-anchor for eight days, and that was very tough mentally. I tried to keep busy by getting the boat in order, but there’s only so much you can do,” he says – adding that his biggest mistake was not varying his diet enough. “I took just four different meals, and repeated them. After having dehydrated chilli con carne three times I never wanted to see it again!”
Grant admits that almost from the moment you sign up for the race, it’s a challenge. “Raising funds, getting a boat, training, getting to the start. None of it is easy,” he says. “While I was out there rowing, I thought I would never ever do this again, but at the moment I’ve already started thinking that I might like to redo it, and hopefully have a cleaner run with the experience I’ve gained and hopefully fewer hiccups. Actually, I’m battling to settle back into my normal life. I’m feeling restless. Almost as I finished I started to miss it. It sounds strange but it’s true,” he ends with a chuckle.
Grant and his wife have three children and run a courier company in KZN. When Covid hit it forced them to realign their business, and they now specialise in going to areas that the bigger courier companies don’t reach.
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Tags: Grant Blakeway, ocean challenge, plastic pollution, Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, world’s toughest row