How an ancient mariner became a modern hero

Graham Walters: One of his voyages was “like trying to row a skip filled with concrete”. © Graham Walters

Do we all need a challenge? Yesterday, 72-year-old Graham Walters came within six miles of rowing across the Atlantic Ocean single-handed, showing that age is no barrier to ambition.

“It’s been a rough couple of days with large waves. One wave managed to knock me off my feet: I hit the deck and my knee went through. I have managed to patch the damage. Another large wave pulled the boat onto its side, so I had to bail out like mad […]. As long as the leaks only need to be bailed out twice a day, then all OK. Around 1,420 miles travelled so far.”

This was Graham Walters’s Facebook post for 4 March. The carpenter from Leicestershire was five weeks into one of the toughest challenges on Earth: rowing solo across the Atlantic.

His boat, the George Geary, was one he had built himself in his garden 22 years ago. Yesterday, he all but made it to Antigua after a 3,000-mile voyage from the Canary Islands. But for adverse winds, which forced him to accept help from a coastguard vessel, he would have been the oldest person to achieve the feat.

There were plenty of dicey moments along the way. According to his wife Jean, “He had a rocky start, with the lights going, a leak in one of the compartments, and the boat bucking like a bronco. I worried whether the boat could handle it because it is old. But Graham was very upbeat, and he’s a very determined individual.”

At one point, he had a close encounter with a hammerhead shark; there was also the danger of colliding with a much larger boat.

To make things harder, Walters had decided to do without a support vessel. This meant that he had to cram everything he needed for his three-month expedition into the George Geary, adding to its weight.

His supplies included dozens of boil-in-the-bag meals and a huge number of chocolate and energy bars. When an electronic device for making sea water drinkable failed, he had to resort to using a hand-pumped one which took 50 minutes to produce half a litre.

This was not Walters’s first Atlantic rowing bid. He already had four successful ones behind him – two with a partner and two on his own. Another attempt had to be abandoned after just one day, when his boat capsized in heavy seas.

He has called this his “last voyage”. “It sounds like a sad occasion,” he says, “but I would say ‘grand finale’ might be nearer the point, for me and for the boat. For me, it’s to show life has not passed me by.”

Do we all need a challenge?

Stormy weather

Some argue that rowing the Atlantic is pointless when anyone can cross it in a few hours by plane. People who set themselves that kind of goal are egotists who cause their family and friends unnecessary anxiety. There is nothing wrong with being normal: everyday life is a challenge in itself, so we do not need to make it more difficult. We should stick to things we know we can do well.

Others argue that we all have capabilities we are unaware of and, unless we are put to the test, we will never discover what they are. Just as body-builders increase their physical strength by lifting ever heavier weights, so we build our confidence and mental strength by trying more and more difficult things. No one ever achieved anything by remaining inside their comfort zone.

You Decide

  1. What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced?
  2. Would the world be a better place if explorers had never left their own countries?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you are about to set out on a three-month, solo voyage. Make a list of everything you need to take with you. Then draw a diagram of your boat, showing where you are going to store it all.
  2. Copy the map of Graham Walters’s journey from the link in Become an Expert. Draw a graph showing how his speed and the air temperature varied from day to day. Then work out how long it would take him to row across the Pacific Ocean at the same average speed.

Some People Say...

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

Helen Keller (1880-1968), American author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Humans have always admired those who rise to challenges. The ancient Greeks celebrated the idea of “arete” (excellence), meaning that everyone had a duty to make the most of their abilities. Tennyson’s poem Ulysses includes the famous exhortation: “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”. President Kennedy rallied American support for the space race with the words, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
What do we not know?
Whether relishing a challenge is a specifically human quality, or whether it is common to all forms of life. Animals who are confined to a shed or a field will almost invariably try to escape, however difficult it seems. The Covid-19 virus could have confined itself to animals but, unfortunately for us, it felt impelled to make the leap to human beings.

Word Watch

Bail out
Scoop water out of a boat – though it has also come to mean jump out of an aircraft in an emergency with a parachute. It comes from an old French word for “bucket”.
Antigua
An island in the West Indies. Christopher Columbus was the first European sailor to visit it, in 1493.
Canary Islands
A group of islands on the edge of the Atlantic. Their name comes from the Latin “Canariae Insulae”, meaning Islands of the Dogs. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote that they contained “vast multitudes of dogs of very large size”.
Bronco
A wild horse. The term derives from a Spanish word for rough, and was popularised by American cowboys, the bravest of whom were known as ‘bronco-busters’.
Hammerhead
A type of shark with a flat head. This may have evolved to help its vision, since the position of its eyes means that it can simultaneously see above and below it.
Capsized
Turn over in the water. It comes from the Spanish word “chapuzar”, meaning to dive.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.