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Jol Byerley's Jul 05 Letter from Antigua

It was way back in 1969 that a splendid 69-year-old English Grandfather called Sid Genders rowed (that’s right, rowed) a home-built boat across the Atlantic from Falmouth in the UK to Antigua! I think he took about 78 days from the Canaries to Antigua. He had practiced for this trip in the Edgebaston Resevoir and other various waters, including of course the River Thames.

He had no major sponsors, very little equipment, and the general idea was to just follow the sun until he hopefully reached one of the islands of the West Indies! There were no such things as a GPS in those days and anyway I doubt if he would have been able to afford one. Sid had no previous sea going experience but had an idea if he just kept going he would end up somewhere on the east coast of the great American Continent.

Well as it happened, the easterly trade winds were blowing quite hard that year and therefore a good and helpful current was assisting as well. He had built into his boat several lockable floatation areas and what he hoped were watertight lockers in which to keep his food supplies and plastic water containers. He had a couple of cheap compasses which school boys would attach to their wooden trolleys and tow behind their bicycles.

Anyway, he survived two capsizes, and spent some time resignedly swimming around and retrieving his scattered belongings. Then he somehow managed to right his boat and almost unbelievably arrived in Antigua (which could have been anywhere). He even wondered if the inhabitants of this island could speak English.

Now in those days, Peter Deeth had some years before built a hotel on the shores of English Harbour and one morning went for a stroll down to his little dinghy dock. On it he found a battered rowing boat and a bearded and very sunburnt Sid.

“I say old chap,” boomed Peter, “ where have you come from?” Sid, only wanting to sleep, replied “Oh, Falmouth.” Of course, Peter thought he meant Falmouth Harbour which is just around the corner in Antigua. “Well,” said he, “’Fraid you can’t stay here so you had better go back to Falmouth. This is for the use of hotel guests only.”

Anyway, it was all sorted out eventually. So when James “Tiny” Little, another Englishman arrived in English Harbour just the other day after having rowed a bigger, much heavier and seemingly almost unmanageable rowing boat from the Canary Islands, encountering head winds, adverse currents and all manner of other problems, I naturally thought of Sid Genders! So, along with an ever-growing flotilla of yachts and dinghies, Judy and I in Hightide slowly accompanied him down to Nelson’s old dock opposite the Officers Quarters in English Harbour where he was given a really wonderful welcome.

But it took this transatlantic rower all of 15 minutes just to row from the entrance of the harbour to the Dockyard, which makes you realize why it took him 116 days across the lonely Atlantic! His boat, called Womble, had a whole lot more equipment than Sid Gender’s boat and was, in theory, uncapsizable. He also had solar panels, a GPS, and some sort of radio transceiver for daily contact with his home base, not that there was anyone around who could have helped him in anyway. He also had customized oars made out of carbon fibre and a dry place to lie down when exhaustion took over.

Tiny, having taken considerably longer than he expected, was in fact close to complete exhaustion when he arrived. He had rowed many more miles owing to the adverse currents and winds and was very close to running out of food and water. He had lost more than 7 stone on the crossing.

So, if I have made it look as if Sid Genders really won the battle of the transatlantic oarsmen, consider this. Tiny is a publican from Norwich, Norfolk in England and owns The Alexandra Tavern, a Norwich pub. He is normally of “comfortable” size and appears to be much more suited to serving a pint of Bullards from behind his friendly bar than battling the very lonely Atlantic. We were to learn that he has done this just to start the “Davenport Trust”, to help severely depressed youths. Tiny, who only previously went to sea when he was in the Royal Navy (a chief petty officer on a submarine and then in the engine room of the Royal Yacht Britannia) was badly shaken when a young friend of his family took his own life not so long ago. So imagine this then. A comfortably off, middle aged man with a wife and two bouncy teenage daughters suddenly attempts to row single handed across the Atlantic! After taking 116 days on the passage from the Canaries to Antigua, being twice nearly run down by giant cargo ships and then tracked for 12 hours by a thirteen-foot shark, as well as having dislocated both shoulders, he nearly starved to death just before his arrival in Antigua. But he succeeds!

Well, coming from Norfolk myself, all I can say to Tiny Little is “good on yer my boy but that’s a rumen hint it.”

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