Book Review: The Crossing: Conquering The Atlantic Ocean In The World's Toughest Rowing Race
January 1st 2000. Whilst most of us are slowly awakening to a new millennium, wondering if the Y2K bug had happened or not and possibly nursing a sore head from the night before, 27 year old Ben Fogle woke up on the remote Scottish Island of Taransay. This island that had been uninhabited for over 25yrs was to be his home for the next 12 months as he was part of a group of people selected for the television programme Castaway. In many ways the show seems quite tame compared to today's "Reality Shows" as there were no public votes or even a winner, the aim was to create a new community from scratch and every few weeks we would be given a look inside by the film crews.
Meanwhile, another 27yr old was very busy as well at the start of the year. James Cracknell had missed out on the two previous Olympic Games due to missing out on selection and then illness but as this Olympiad started, he found himself a member of the Blue Ribband crew of the British Rowing team, the Men's Coxless four, alongside Olympic legend Steve Redgrave who was aiming to become the first person to win Gold at 5 consecutive Games in an endurance event.
Fast forward 4 years and I am captain of my college boat club and receive paraphernalia inviting me and members of my club to take part in the next Atlantic Rowing Race that will take place the following winter. I seriously thought about taking part for probably as long as it will take you to read this review (imagine the stories to tell the grand kids!) but I soon saw sense as ignoring the inherent risks of rowing the open ocean and missing some time off my studies, the thought of spending a couple of months in a tiny boat with just one other person for company and nothing to see apart from the emptiness of the ocean, I thought you would have to be mad to take part!
Meanwhile, Ben Fogle, now a successful TV presenter had also seen adverts publicising this race and despite the fact that he could barely row, the adventurer inside of him was determined to take part. He just needed to find a partner. James Cracknell meanwhile had just won his second Gold Medal at the Athens Olympics and was contemplating whether or not to retire or keep training for the next Olympics in 2008. At an end of year awards dinner, a slightly inebriated Fogle saw his chance and went up to ask Cracknell if he'd join in. "NO" was the immediate reply. Fogle retreated, tail between legs, wondering who else he could ask but unbeknownst to him, he had planted a seed that would not go away and about 1 month later he got back in touch to change his answer to "Maybe".
The two started to plan and try to arrange sponsorship and by November 30th 2005 they were sat in their 23ft long home for the next few weeks on the island of La Gomera, ready to start their challenge. It hadn't been easy, hey had come close to being barred by the organisers for being so disorganised and Ben Fogle was still not a very skilled oarsman but they were ready to go. For the next 49 days the only other living souls they would see were one another and to get to their destination, it would be all down to their manpower.
This book was first released only a few months after their epic adventure had finished and takes the form of a diary, where both of the men write interspersing memories, from the build up, all the way through the voyage itself. You would have thought that there wouldn't be too much to write about when your day involves moving backwards and forwards with oars in both hands, day and night with nothing to see excpet endless blue. However, they manage to keep you enthralled as they regale memories, often with very different recollections of the same event. There was drama such as when the boat capsized and Fogle was washed overboard, or when their water pump failed. It was at this time you saw the difference in characters as Fogle just wanted to go for the adventure whereas Cracknell, after two Gold Medals could not quell the competitive streak inside, always thinking about "THE RACE" rather than the achievement, even down to the point at which he was enforcing water rations. With their pump broken, they could dip into their emergency reserves being used as ballast, but this would incur time penalties in the race itself! There are also the down periods, such as Christmas Day when they shared satelite phone calls with their families, including for Cracknell his young son. There are also lighthearted moments such as discussions of rowing naked to reduce chaffing and also, the impacts chaffing was having on their bodies (not a part to read when eating!).
When the pair finally arrived in Antigua they were met by their families and they had done it, they had been the first two man boat to finish the race. I can't imagine the joy and relief but unlike some people who apparently never speak again after the stress caused by such a crossing, the two who had barely known each other a couple of years earlier, had become great friends. Indeed, Cracknell was best man at Fogle's wedding, Ben having proposed to his girlfriend the day after arriving in Antigua.
I really enjoyed reading this book when it came out. As I mentioned earlier I was already a rower myself so was a fan of Cracknell's and I had considered being a fellow competitor (although having read the book even more glad I stayed on shore!). Despite what in many ways is quite a monotonous journey, I could not put the book down and would recommend to anyone who likes adventure or remembers either individual.
Following this adventure the two have done subsequent adventures together such as travelling to the South Pole or cycling a rickshaw from Edinburgh to London. Their plans for further adventures were put on hold when Cracknell suffered life-threatening head injuries following a cycle crash that has left him with ongoing health issues but in 2013 they did team up again. However, these adventures aren't covered in this book although there are some other great books out there.
If you are in the UK like me, then find this book at Amazon through this link!
Have You Read This Book?
In addition to the book, a documentary was aired with video footage from their trip. If you read the book I would really suggest catching up on the documentary as well! You can watch a promo of this documentary below.
In the UK like me? Use this link instead!