Basics At Sea

Posted on June 6, 2014 in General

Although the voyage is epic, the daily reality of life at sea can be surprisingly mundane. Like the rest of us, ocean rowers need to eat, drink, sleep, and go to the bathroom. Far removed from the convenience of domestic infrastructure, even these simple tasks become far more difficult than they sound.

We’ve already written about the food that the ocean rowers will take with them.

Food mountain

But how do they boil water to rehydrate their freeze-dried meals? Most will be using Jetboil camping stoves, a welcome update on the old cookstoves that used to get coked up, leaving a sooty residue on cooking pots that managed to spread itself onto everything else. A Jetboil is a super-fast and convenient solution, apart from the dodgy ignition sparks, so the crews have been encouraged to take their own lighters for use once the spark fails. Cold freeze-dried meals are not much fun.

As for water, the advent of the watermaker has revolutionised ocean rowing. The historic ocean rowers had to take all their water with them in storage tanks, which was far from ideal if their voyage took longer than expected or if the tanks became contaminated. In 1986 Don Allum ran out of water when his voyage exceeded the expected 100 days and ended up drinking his own urine for the last 2 weeks of his voyage. He lost 84 pounds in weight and his kidneys never fully recovered from the ordeal.

Thankfully, these days we have electric watermakers.

These are desalination plants that draw in seawater and through a process of filtration followed by reverse osmosis turn it into fresh water. They are powered by solar panels positioned on the cabin roofs, which also provide power for cameras, satphones, laptops, iPods, GPS’s and any other electronics on board. Watermakers are complicated pieces of kit, which is why crews also need to take manual watermakers in case the main watermaker fails – although it requires about an hour of pumping to generate enough water to keep one person alive for a day, which is not really how you want to be spending your leisure time after a long day at the oars.

People often ask how ocean rowers sleep. The sarcastic response is badly, intermittently, and not for very long, although solo rowers are relatively lucky in that they can choose whatever schedule suits them, unlike the typical 2 hours on, 2 hours off regime endured by pairs and fours.


But usually what people really mean is, “what happens to the boat while you sleep?” to which the answer is – it just drifts. You can’t put an anchor down when the ocean is two miles deep, and although you could put out the sea anchor (a parachute that you put out under the waves to grab hold of a ton of seawater as a kind of liquid anchor) you can actually make some very useful miles overnight as the wind and currents will normally be in your favour on this route from California to Hawaii, so you want to make the most of that.

And finally there is the question that many people must ponder but usually only schoolchildren ask: how do you go to the bathroom? The simple answer is “bucket and chuck it” – once the crews get out beyond the Marine Protected Area, of course. Do your business in the bucket, and chuck it overboard. Once out on the open ocean, nature will dispose of the evidence long before it reaches the beaches.


As with sleeping, solos have a distinct advantage here. At least one of our rowers is concerned about getting stage fright when trying to go to the bathroom in front of three brawny crewmates.

So there you have it, the basics of life on an ocean rowboat. Not glamorous or epic in the daily details, but we believe that for our crews the end will amply justify the means.