In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, after rowing a 24-foot boat more than 1,500 miles in 40 days with as many miles ahead of him before landfall, Owen Gray’s spirits are, in a word, buoyant.
“I’m holding out well, physically,” said Gray, a Reno resident who last year trained for the endurance race at Pyramid Lake, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. “Reaching the half-way mark was a huge thing. That was my primary focus for several weeks. Now that I’ve done that I can break the second half of the race down into smaller, more manageable goals.”
In a satellite-phone interview with the Reno News & Review Jan. 19, Gray explained his next way points: “Right now, I’m focused on reaching 40 degrees west (longitude), which I should get to today, then I’ll be concentrating on reaching the 1,000-mile point (from Antigua) next week… I feel great.”
A 3,000-mile voyage
Gray, 56, is the only American solo rower participating in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, the world’s toughest rowing event. A fleet of 36 rowboats, some with as many as five rowers, embarked from the port of La Gomera in the Canary Islands on Dec. 11 and pointed their bows west toward the island of Antigua in the Caribbean Sea. The fleet is now spread out over more than 1,000 miles of ocean. The race’s support yacht, Suntiki, visited Gray when he reached the half-way point of his journey..
He hopes to reach Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbour in Antigua in mid February. Those interested may follow the progress of his trek in real time via an online tracker and see more photos and posts on his Facebook page.
Each day, Gray rows for 12 to 14 hours, often fighting winds and swells to stay on course. He’s a retired certified public accountant who has taken part in many endurance events over the years, but the trans-Atlantic rowing event is his toughest challenge so far. His slogan is “Remember the WHY” – the reason he is alone in the vast ocean pushing his body to the limits.
Rowing for kids with cancer
He so far has raised $175,000 for the Okizu Foundation, a 40-year-old organization that supports families impacted by childhood cancer. Gray has been a volunteer at the foundation’s summer camp in the Sierra, which was destroyed in the Berry Creek Fire in 2020. The money he raised will help Okizu continue to offer their free programs. Donations to Okizu may be made online. More information about Gray’s voyage can be found on his website.
“Remember the Why.. You could be in an office… Giddyup Buttercup.. Shut up and Row” and the logo of the Okizu Foundation” – signs affixed to Gray’s boat that he faces while rowing.
Approximately 1 in 285 children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday, Gray noted. “Until there’s a cure for cancer, we’ll need organizations like Okizu and the Northern Nevada Children’s Cancer Foundation,” he said.
A personal challenge
Gray has competed in multiple half-Ironman and full Ironman events; endurance bicycle rides such as the Death Ride, Davis Double, Seattle to Portland and endurance open water swims including 20 Alcatraz crossings. But, “as crazy as it may sound, I have no rowing background,” he noted.
But he does have experience seeing cancer’s impact on families. Gray’s mother lost her battle with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1996. “She was very fortunate to have her siblings and extended family spend time visiting her in the hospital,” he remembered. “I couldn’t help but notice other patients whose families were not able to provide similar support.”
Gray, then living in California, began volunteering at the University of California, San Francisco pediatric bone marrow transplant unit. He also served as a counselor for two summers at Okizu’s summer camp. “While it is heartbreaking to see kids and their families deal with childhood cancer, it is also inspiring,” Gray said. “… At 56, I am at the point in my life where I want to try to repay a small part of the blessings I have had in my life.”
“The strength that these kids (with cancer) demonstrate in the face of such adversity is amazing – they are true little warriors. I seek to channel their strength as I face the adversities of the row, but those pale in comparison to what these kids are forced to handle.” – Owen Gray.
Training and preparation
Gray and his wife, Marianne, covered the expenses of the race themselves, including purchasing the Rannoch R25 rowboat and 85 food and snack bags equaling 515,000 calories. He survives on about 6,000 calories per day and expects to lose about 25 pounds on the voyage. His cargo includes satellite phones, a beacon, an internet link, an instrument that alerts him to any ships in his area, a buoyancy suit and other emergency equipment.
On Jan. 19, Gray had traveled 43 nautical miles (about 50 land miles) since the previous day. That’s less distance than he would like. “It’s a little windy tonight,” he said in the satellite call. “Two weeks ago, I averaged 49 nautical miles a day, and 31 miles a day last week.”
His course must be due west, he said, but the wind and the swells are pushing his boat, Owens Rowing, to the south. “So mostly I have to work my way across everything,” he said. “It’s eased up a bit this week… Weather-wise it’s been beautiful. This week, I had rain almost every morning, but it burns off and I’ve had sunny days.”
Although other vessels in the fleet have encountered sharks, dolphins and flying fish, Gray has seen only the support yacht once (on Dec. 28) and two sailboats after the first three days out from the Canary Islands. He speaks to Atlantic Campaigns safety officers on a satellite phone every two or three days and they track his progress. While rowing, he tries to keep his mind on matters other than the physical task. When resting he writes blog posts and posts videos. The isolation and loneliness of the vast ocean is offset by his ability to communicate via satellite link and a radio.
“I’m doing OK,” Gray said. “I talk to Marianne just about every day. She gives me updates. I get messages from supporters and notes from the kids from the Okizu Foundation. So I’m really not alone.”
Salt, wind and sun
Gray has a prosthetic left shoulder and his legs will atrophy during the journey because he isn’t walking, but he said he has no physical complaints other than his skin turning into faux leather. “The only difficulty I’m having is that my skin is getting exposed to the salt water, the wind and the sun,” he said. “One big difference in rowing on the ocean is that it’s really hard to do a proper row stroke. I’m using my arms a lot more than I would on a rowing machine or on a lake. On a lake, I’d be relying more on my core.”
Back home in Reno, Marianne Gray keeps her husband informed about weather forecasts and other updates. She isn’t nervous about his journey; she doesn’t doubt his ability to go it alone.
“He’s a good partner, a good team player, but when he wants to do something like this, he likes to do it solo,” Marianne Gray said. “… People ask me if I’m worried or anxious, but I’m not really. I trust Owen’s ability and his skill. The race is fairly safe. The boat, if it capsizes, it self-rights and the safety equipment is extensive and he understands all of it and knows how to use it. He can’t delegate something to another team member; it’s all up to him.”
Another 1,500 miles ahead
Marianne Gray said she’s looking forward to reuniting with Owen next month. “He’ll be battered and bruised when he gets back, but I never had any doubts he would get across the ocean,” she said. “I think it’s a big compliment to Owen that (the trip) doesn’t make me worry… He did everything possible to prepare and he’s very deliberate and methodical. He checked every box and that gives me a lot of comfort.”
As Marianne holds the fort in Reno, Owen keeps relentlessly rowing just like he did at Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe last summer. But these days he navigates waves and swells that dwarf anything he experienced while training. For another month, he’ll have nothing in view save a boundless seascape under an endless sky.
In his personal man-against-nature challenge, he has no illusions about conquering the sea.
“What I need to accept is whatever the ocean is going to give me is what I’m going to get,” Gray said. “I can’t change that or control that, so I need to just accept it and not let that impact me.”