BBC News

Sailor from Antigua becomes the oldest man to row across the Atlantic

By Gemma Handy
English Harbour, Antigua

image copyrightAlex Rhodes/Luxury Locations Magazine
image captionTeam Wadadli from left: Dr Nick Fuller, 67; John Hall, 29; Peter Smith, 74; and Archie Bailey, 50

A freak hurricane, debilitating seasickness, encounters with whales and sharks and the loss of a rudder. Those were just some of the challenges faced by four Antiguan men who returned to a heroes' welcome after becoming the oldest team to ever row across the Atlantic.

The intrepid quartet were greeted by a flotilla and thousands of well-wishers brandishing national flags, blowing conch horns and whistles as they made their entry into Nelson's Dockyard on Antigua's south coast on Wednesday, bringing their gruelling 3,000 nautical mile journey to a close.

The feat is a double world record for one of the men - 74-year-old sailor Peter Smith. He became the oldest person to complete what is dubbed the world's toughest rowing race.

Team Wadadli claimed 14th place out of 26 boats taking part in the annual Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, which set off from the Canary Islands on December 21.

Headed by captain Dr Nick Fuller, a 67-year-old GP, the foursome also included professional seamen Archie Bailey, 50, and John Hall, 29.

Around halfway through their 52-day adventure, the team battled Hurricane Alex - the first Atlantic tropical cyclone to form in January in 78 years - in their 8.64 metre (28ft) boat Wa'omoni, setting them back nine nautical miles.

Mr Smith described the 10 metre (33ft) waves as "pretty horrific". They forced the men to abandon their oars and confine themselves to the tiny cabin.

"In a boat that small the noise was tremendous," he told the BBC, "and it felt endless. We couldn't lie down in our bunks - we were bouncing up and down like ping pong balls."

image copyrightGemma Handy
image captionPeter Smith's wife, Elizabeth Jordan, thought the four men were joking when they announced they intended to cross the Atlantic on a rowing boat
image copyrightBen Duffy
image captionIt took Team Wadadli 52 days to cross the Atlantic from the Canaries to the Caribbean island of Antigua

Mr Smith, originally from Penzance, Cornwall, continued: "It feels terrific to have broken the record. I've sailed across the Atlantic three times so I knew what to expect but this was a real challenge - particularly at my age.

"It's a long time to be at sea. There was a lot of hardship, both on the water and the boat itself as it's very small and very bouncy; in 52 days we were never once still."

Mr Smith's wife Elizabeth said she thought her husband was joking when he announced his intention to take part.

"I didn't think he was serious. And then I thought he was crazy.

"I am a sailor myself and sailing across oceans in a boat designed precisely for that is one thing; I can't imagine why anyone would want to do it in a rowing boat."

She added: "It wasn't until we were flying round and round in a helicopter looking for them when they were 20 miles from the finishing line that you really see quite how small and vulnerable they are."

After just 14 days at sea, Wa'omoni lost her steering, meaning the men were forced to steer manually for the remainder of the journey. Christmas was another arduous time with Mr Hall suffering intense seasickness and Dr Fuller struck down with flu.

The team also related tales of passing pilot whales, sharks and marlin - and a breathtaking display by a pod of dolphins.

Age may not have been on the team's side but maritime experience was. While other competitors were forced to subsist solely on freeze-dried food, the Antiguans - all keen fishermen - supplemented theirs with freshly caught mahi mahi and tuna.

Still, the punishing regime saw the men shed a collective 60 pounds (27 kg) in weight - almost half by Dr Fuller alone.

image copyrightGemma Handy
image captionTeam Wadadli had a heroes' welcome in historic Nelson's Dockyard
image copyrightGemma Handy
image captionIslanders donned national flags to welcome the team home
image copyrightPA
image captionThe challenge was won by the much younger Team Ocean Reunion - four British school friends in their 20s

In addition to a thunderous reception from supporters and dignitaries, a steak meal awaited the rowers upon their arrival shortly after lunchtime on February 10.

Surveying the throng who had turned out to welcome them home, a beaming Dr Fuller said: "Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would end like this. It started out as a personal endeavour; I was 66 and thought if I don't do it now, it will never happen."

There was laughter from onlookers as he recalled his struggle to gather a willing team together. The resulting four are long-time friends and seafaring associates.

"The conditions were difficult and we'd been advised we would hit rock bottom at times but there was not a word of anger between us. It feels incredible to have done it," Dr Fuller added.

The family physician credited the remarkable accomplishment to 20% physical strength and 80% willpower.

At the time of signing up for the race he joked he had "no muscles and little physical ability."

Team Wadadli raised more than $80,000 (£55,000) for a local cause, St John's Hospice.

Tourism Minister Asot Michael paid tribute to an "historic display of courage and tenacity, endurance and determination."

Prime Minister Gaston Browne said: "They have brought international attention to Antigua & Barbuda - and pride to this country."

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