Ninety days stranded in the Atlantic Ocean with nothing more than a paddle and only creatures of the deep to keep you company sounds more like a Spielberg-ian nightmare than a sought-after adventure, but that’s just what brothers John and Kurt Schwartz are set to endure this December.
The part-time winter mountaineers are trading their thermals for oars in an attempt to become the first US boat to win the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, a 3000-mile paddle from the Canary Islands to Antigua & Barbuda—justly known as the world’s toughest row.
Six people have died attempting the crossing but the New Yorkers—by way of Texas and San Diego—take solace in the fact no fatalities have occurred since the race’s official inception in 1997. Rescues on the other hand? Well, if they capsize in the 50-foot hurricane-induced swell that crews were forced to endure in 2015, they can rest-assured a passing ship, support boat or helicopter will be at their service promptly—within the next seven days or so…
More people have been into space or climbed Everest than have rowed the Atlantic. So what exactly would inspire someone to spend upwards of two months on a 26-foot rowboat with their brother and just a single bucket for a bathroom? We asked big brother, John.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’re both mountaineers. How’d you come to contest a 3,000-mile open ocean paddle?
JOHN SCHWARTZ: Most of what we do, when we’re not working, is winter sports—skiing and mountaineering. But one day I was flying over the Atlantic and looked out the window—and this sounds kind of cheesyy - but came up with the idea to paddle the Atlantic. Well, some of it. We both paddled in college. Then, of course, we did a little bit of research and sure as hell, you know it, there’s a race out there that people have put together. And people actually do it.
It’s been 12 months of preparation and movie role-like weight gain to get Atlantic fit…
We’re working with a nutritionist and trying to put on another 20 pounds each on the expectation we’re gonna lose a chunk of that on the way across. I’m eating 3,000 calories a day and Kurt’s eating 3,600. It’s a lot. I’m grotesquely full all the time. It’s surprisingly more difficult to put on weight than we thought. Ideally we want to put on as much muscle as possible but the moment you start losing that, it’ll impact performance. So to counter that, it’s a matter of putting on fat, too.
So you’ve had to swap mountain climbing for mountain climbers…
Anywhere from four to six days a week we’re training; principally, power lifting and rowing. We’re doing strength conditioning with a coach, a lot of weightlifting for size and strength and a lot of time in the rowing machine to try and come to terms with the monotony of it all. Of everything, that’s what’s most terrifying for me. A lot of adventure sports and the stuff we normally do, like mountaineering, require a lot of skill and commitment. We do a lot of bivouac stuff in the Presidential Mountains; we’ve done climbing in Italy and Switzerland and out in Southeast Asia. This is nothing to do with climbing. This is about the mental preparation and capacity you have to be in to get yourself across.
You’ll be taking turns paddling two hours at a time, 24 hours a day?
That will certainly take some time to get used to. We’ll paddle 12 hours each per day. But distance-wise, there are days you’ll go backwards. Around 40-50 miles a day is a good clip if you can consistently do that. But it’ll be hard. This chunk of the ocean used to be known as the “horse latitudes”, because there’s no tradewinds at all and sail boats used to die and the horses aboard would subsequently die and be thrown overboard. So in the middle of the ocean, there’s not much going for you except the rowing and the current. Makes mountaineering look easy!
Salt sores, ripped hands, head gashes and infected butt sores, pain is a daily factor…
The race is self-supporting, so we’ve got a medical kit and that’s it. So whatever happens on the boat, we have to deal with - the torn up hands, the open gashes that can’t dry when you’re perpetually wet. Your skin becomes malleable. There’s one guy who completed the race, Ben Fogel, who ended up popping codeine for the final two weeks of the race because of a bum infection. He couldn’t sit down without it. We’ve got rash creams and bum cream, and we have to treat little things before they become big things.
It’s a deadly crossing and at least a third of the field is expected to retire through injury or damage…
Tough things happen. There have been rescues and boats broken and adrift at sea waiting for help. There have been instances where rope and sea anchors get caught up in shark fins and all sorts of stuff. You’re at the mercy of the elements and hitting floating container ships and things you’d think probability-wise would never happen. But it does. Last year’s event, the first hurricane since Hurricane Andrew hit the Atlantic. And you look at the progress of the boats during that time and for three or fours days all they did was spin around in a circle together. You can deal with boat malfunctions and expected extreme weather. But to get a hurricane and 40-50 foot swells in the middle of the ocean, you’re putting yourself in that tiny cabin and praying that the boat functions as promised.
From the look of your Instagram, the food provisions don’t exactly look gourmet…
It’s terrible. They call them MREs - meal ready packages. They’re dehydrated meals you warm up on the boat and about 600 calories each and we have to eat five to 6000 calories on any given day. It’s a lot of food! We’ve been lucky to work some people who’ve given us some inventory and shown us the meal plans they’ve had. It’s primarily those coupled with peanut butter, jerky, chocolate and stuff like that. With an inch and half layer of cake salt on your skin and a month of eating the same dehydrated meals, that chocolate will taste pretty good.
The brothers have nominated the Sam Fund - a charity that supports young adult cancer survivors - as their beneficiary and are racing to raise money and awareness for them in remembrance of late friend Jeremy Hill, who was a board and John’s former boss.
Check out www.row32north.com for updates, where they’ll be live blogging and streaming during the race, which begins December 14.