Owen Gray of Reno prepared to exit his cabin and change shifts with his boat partner as the pair rowed across the mid-Pacific Ocean—just as a large flying fish hopped aboard their boat, uninvited.
The fish was very upset.
“It sounded like it was right outside my door, because they go crazy when they land on the boat,” said Gray, 57.
He yelled to his rowing partner, Jayme Linker, 35, of Colorado. “I was like, ‘I’m not coming out,’” Gray said. “‘I’m not opening my door until you get that thing out of here, because it’s not coming in my cabin.’”
Linker used a broken oar—ruined by powerful waves earlier in the 2,800-mile trip—as a spatula to scoop the fish back into the ocean. Gray then took over the oars while Linker got some sleep.
That day marked the most exciting shift change in a human-powered voyage that began in Monterey, Calif., on June 12, and ended in Kuai, Hawaii, 45 days later. Gray, who rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 2021, and Linker, who was on a two-rower team in that race, braved the Pacific’s wind and weather.
Gray and Linker met while training for the 2021 Atlantic rowing race, a 3,000-mile trip called the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. In that event, rowers cast off at the port of La Gomera in the Canary Islands and reach landfall on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean Sea.
Gray completed the Atlantic row in 70 days, 19 hours and 29 minutes. He was the only American solo rower in the event and raised more than $200,000 for Okizu, a 40-year-old organization that supports families impacted by childhood cancer. This year, Gray set his sights on the World’s Toughest Row in the Pacific. There was no solo class, so he needed a partner.
It turns out Linker was looking for a boat and also planning to row across the mid-Pacific. “We started talking, and then we ended up deciding, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Gray said.
Linker’s path to world-class rowing began when she was 12, she said, and developed anorexia. She wound up in a hospital twice and was in recovery, but relapsed after she graduated from high school.
“I just started getting really busy and wasn’t taking time to eat, so I got really, really sick,” Linker said. “I ended up having three heart attacks. I had hypothermia. My heart rate was in the 20s. It was not good.”
Since then, Linker has been able to keep the disorder in check by participating in extreme adventures, she said. “In order to keep myself accountable, I needed to find something to train for, because training allowed me to eat, to kind of keep the mental issues of the eating disorder at bay. I started seeking out harder and harder events, which led me to rowing the ocean.”
High tech and a bucket
She and Gray christened their team Aloha Kai, meaning “love of the sea” in Hawaiian. The pair trained individually and together. World’s Toughest Row, the organizer of the event, required teams to complete 120 hours of ocean rowing. They trained near San Francisco and off the coast of Southern California, using a Rannoch 25 boat named Lily. Gray bought the 24-foot boat after selling the one he used for his solo trip across the Atlantic.
Built for safety, not comfort, the boat has two small watertight sleeping enclosures, fore and aft, and is designed to self-right if it capsizes. Its high-tech electronics include solar panels, GPS navigation and satellite communications equipment. It has a fresh water-maker, a life raft and a para-anchor—kind of an underwater parachute that prevents the craft from drifting too far in the wrong direction. A bucket serves as a toilet.
When the teammates departed from Monterey on June 12, they faced an immediate challenge: large and relentless waves.
“At the beginning of the race, we got hammered pretty hard,” Gray said. “Jamie was rowing, and we had a partial knockdown, where a wave hit the side of the boat and tipped the boat enough that it broke her oar. (The oar) was made of carbon fiber, so that’s not too surprising, but we have a 3/8-inch metal plate that holds the row gate, and that got bent up. We got hit with enough force to bend an iron plate.”
The team rowed together until they escaped the choppy seas. They then shifted to a schedule of one person rowing for two hours while the other rested.
“When you’re off the oars, by the time you actually get out of your seat, go to the bathroom, sit in your cabin and try to eat, you only have, like, of the two hours, maybe an hour max of rest time,” Linker said. “But then you’re having to do everything else, so you’re not getting a lot of sleep. So physically, you’re drained. Mentally, you’re drained. Emotionally, you’re drained, because you’re not sleeping. You’re malnourished. You’re dehydrated. You just can’t keep on top of all those things as busy as you are.”
On board, Gray and Linker had clearly defined roles. Gray was in charge of navigation and a device called an “autohelm” that adjusts the rudder so the crew won’t have to keep adjusting the steering. Linker used a desalinator to convert sea water to fresh water. Both team members maintained the boat’s solar panels.
“Jayme is the polar opposite of me,” said Gray. “Where I’m the person who’s always thinking about the worst-case scenario, she’s unbridled enthusiasm. Having that dose of optimism is a nice balance for me.”
The team got to know more about each other on the trip. Topics of conversation ranged from the technical aspects of the journey, to what they missed about home, to what they were going to eat when they reached land.
“We talked about everything,” said Linker.
A lonely ocean, an angry bird
During the journey, they saw only one small sailboat sharing the vast Pacific. Unlike the Atlantic trek, when rowers encountered whales and sharks, the upset flying fish and an aggressive sea bird were their only company.
“One night, there was this attacking bird,” Linker said. “I just started screaming on the oars, because it was darting at me, and it was going on for probably 15 minutes. And it just kept swarming, and finally, I was like, ‘I can’t,’ so I threw the oars, and I went into my cabin.”
Gray’s wife, Marianne, was the team’s navigator and on-shore contact. She and Owen talked every day via a satellite phone. Marianne reported weather forecasts, what bearing to row and other vital information.
Marianne wasn’t too concerned about the perils of the sea. “Owen is super-methodical, super-particular—like, he knew that boat inside and out,” said Marianne. “There’s some inherent danger out there, but there’s inherent danger driving to the Bay Area.”
Compared to the Atlantic crossing, the journey across the Pacific was relatively monotonous. “Every morning was grey and cloudy,” Gray said. “Afternoon breaks, (then) a few hours of sunshine. Then you go back to cloudy and overcast.”
Even the waves looked the same. “The waves are never (huge), but they’re always powerful,” he said. “The Atlantic was way more varied.”
On the last leg, the pair passed through weather spawned by the tail end of Hurricane Calvin. The hurricane’s track was 150 miles south of their course, but it still created high seas and “pretty windy stuff,” Gray said. Then their water-maker motor started dying, and water rationing began: They got one “wet” meal a day, with no showers and no laundry. They also switched to one-hour-on, one-hour-off shifts, which made resting difficult.
“It was not a lot of fun,” Gray said.
Aloha Kai arrived in Hanalei Bay on July 27, with an official completion time of 45 days, 6 hours and 17 minutes. Out of 14 teams, Gray and Linker ranked 12th. They are the first U.S.-born mixed-pairs team to complete the mid-Pacific row.
During the trek, Gray raised more than $116,000 for Okizu. Linker raised $8,200 for the cause of eating-disorder awareness. Along with monetary donations, corporate sponsors and organizations helped provide food for the trip, and Battle Born Batteries in Reno donated lithium batteries for the boat.
Linker plans to row back-to-back oceans in 2024. The Atlantic is first on her schedule, and then she will embark on a trek across the mid-Pacific to Hawaii. There, she plans to restock her provisions and continue across the Pacific to Australia. After that challenge, she said, she wants to row across the Indian Ocean.
Gray, back in Reno, is still decompressing from his latest journey and has no immediate plans for another ocean trek. He and Marianne, he said, are taking advantage of what’s left of summer by attending Reno Aces baseball games and going camping.
And he plans to clean up the boat and fix that broken water-maker.