South African solo rower Grant Blakeway completes the last few oar strokes to power Melokuhle into English Harbour, Antigua and Barbuda, for the finish of the 2020Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Picture: Atlantic Campaigns
South African solo rower Grant Blakeway completes the last few oar strokes to power Melokuhle into English Harbour, Antigua and Barbuda, for the finish of the 2020Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Picture: Atlantic Campaigns

The world’s toughest row

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Feb 20, 2021

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Melktert made by his wife and loads of rest – that's what recovery has been about this week for SA solo rower, Grant Blakeway, 59, who completed the 2020 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge – a 4 800km row across the Atlantic Ocean, aka The World's Toughest Row.

Speaking from Antigua on Wednesday, Blakeway, who lives in Durban, said it took three days "to find his land legs" after 56 days, 3 hours and 29 minutes at sea. The challenge started on December 12 from La Gomera in the Canary Islands (off the North African coast) across the vast Atlantic Ocean, arriving in Antigua in the West Indies last Saturday.

Durban’s Grant Blakeway fires a flare in celebration after crossing the finish line of the 2020 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge Picture: Atlantic Campaigns

Blakeway, who could barely stand from exhaustion when he finally docked in the English Harbour, Antigua, said this week: "I'm feeling much better. I'm eating like a horse and recovering fast, although I've still got rower's claw."

He went from weighing 106kg when he set off to 88kg when he arrived and the race's traditional post-race hamburger and chips also included half a melktert made by his wife Adri, who was waiting for him at the finish.

"Arriving in English Harbour, I hit crystal clear, flat water and there were all these super yachts in front of me. It was all unreal after being at sea alone for 56 days," he said.

Blakeway took on the gruelling challenge to raise awareness of pollution in the oceans.

When he and his wife, Adri, went to Indonesia five years ago to celebrate their wedding anniversary, Blakeway said he was shocked at the amount of pollution washed up on what he had imagined would be pristine beaches.

"I was dumbfounded by what I saw in Indonesia, when the tides changes, the beaches looked like the local dump in eThekwini.

"When I got back to Durban, I started to notice the pollution on our own beaches," he said, adding that he started looking for a platform to raise awareness around pollution.

Grant Blakeway aboard Melokuhle during the pre-race period in San Sebastian de La Gomera, Canary Islands. Picture: Atlantic Campaigns

After seeing a YouTube video on The World’s Toughest Row, he signed up in 2018 for the 2019 event, but there were problems with his boat's hull and he had to postpone until 2020.

His boat was made in Scotland, a torpedo shaped vessel he named Melokuhle and, although having been a navy diver and radio operator, Blakeway had never rowed before. His boat was originally to be sent to Durban so he could train, but Covid ended that plan.

"So I had to go across to Scotland in September to train, starting with 14 days in isolation. I have done sea-kayaking off Durban, but not rowing. The first time I have ever climbed into a rowing boat was October. With the Scottish weather and tides, I managed to do the 120 hours required to qualify for the race. Some guys do months on boats before the challenge," said Blakeway, although he had been training on a rowing machine in the gym ahead of the 2019 challenge, which he had continued.

"I was very nervous about leaving the marina in case I fell out, but felt I would be fine once I was out on the open sea. The last person I saw was 56 nautical miles from Gomero (departure port)."

What followed was an extreme test of endurance. Blakeway said he only rested for four hours a day from 10pm to 2am, but still had to set an alarm every hour so he could wake and make sure he was still on course and that there were no ships ahead.

"I had very little sleep, and on Christmas Day, I spent six hours completely stripping my water maker and putting in new seals," he said, adding that the first weeks were a huge battle.

"I had a boil lanced on my backside just before I left and that got infected, plus I got infections on my legs. I didn't eat properly, and learned some very hard lessons out there. If I'd had a cop-out button, I might have pushed it,“ he said.

But he persevered and also had some great sightings of marine life, especially pods of dolphins frolicking around his boat, although he also spotted a large shark behind him at one point.

"I had to clean the barnacles off the bottom of the hull and was reluctant to get into the water and risk infection again in the sores on my legs. So I was trying to clean the hull with a rope when I saw this huge shark following me," he said.

Having grown up in Pietermaritzburg, Blakeway attended Maritzburg College and funds raised from the challenge will go to three organisations: the Maritzburg College Education Foundation, White Sharks Projects in Gansbaai and The Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation in Cape Town.

So would he do it again ?

"I went in blind not knowing what to expect. If I was to do it again, I would do it differently, such as making sure my water maker worked properly,“ he said.

The Independent on Saturday

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