Pioneering explorer and record-breaking rower Riaan Manser and Fanafikile ‘Fana’ Lehakha are on a mission to row across the Atlantic Ocean in 45 days. Photo: Supplied
Cape Town – South African rowing icon Riaan Manser and his Soweto rowing rookie, Fanafikile “Fana” Lehakha, narrowly escaped a life-threatening incident barely a week into their rowing odyssey to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Pioneering explorer and record-breaking rower Manser told of the nerve-racking incident he and Lehakha experienced after they had started out on their epic journey from South Africa on January 9.

“Most large sea-going vessels have an AIS (automatic identification system) tracker on board. This allows ships to ‘see’ and communicate with each other at any given time.

“Using simple VHF technology, this feature is almost a no-brainer for anyone contemplating an ocean crossing. The problem for us was that our AIS decided that it only worked inside the safety of harbours.

“This was no good to us, considering we want to know when a 300m- long container ship is headed down on us. Fana and I have only rowed a few hundred kilometres, but we learnt the biggest lesson a few days ago.

“We were 6km past the southerly point of Fuerteventura island (second largest of the Canary Islands). We had called our family to say goodbye and we were ready for the open ocean.

“We had earlier noticed a container ship south of our position, but took little notice of her as we completely trusted our AIS system to warn us.

“But it didn’t. And then the ship was almost on us. Our AIS system was not working. I’d like to say I made the correct call immediately. But I didn’t.

“My first comment to Fana was that we were going to have to suck this up and tackle the Atlantic crossing without AIS. Then it hit me just how wrong I was. If it was just me, alone, yes, then I had the right to decide this.

“But I now have someone else’s life in my care. Non-negotiable. We turned that boat around, not knowing if we could make it back to land in that wind. But we did.

“We had a technician assist us, painstakingly servicing every single cable of the boat’s electronics until he found a connector that had, with time, become dislodged. It was that simple. Now our AIS works.”

Lehakha had been chosen to row with Manser and cross the Atlantic Ocean in 45 days following an elimination process that sifted through 15000 entries from across South Africa.

Manser said Lehakha, who hails from the landlocked province of the Free State, had shown him that their odyssey was way bigger than just a rowing effort across an ocean.

“What I think, though, has been Fana’s biggest lesson thus far, is that an adventure like this is not a ‘plug and play’ experience. It has been a gruelling and stressful month here.”