Beyond the Shore: Fisher Alumnus Breaks U.S. Transatlantic Rowing Record
May 26, 2016
After 40 days on the Atlantic Ocean, Phillip Theodore ’89 and his rowing partner, Daley Ervin, were within reach of breaking the United States record for the fastest row across the ocean. One of the 40 teams competing in the 2015 Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, the pair felt they were moving at a snail’s pace. With exhaustion, ache, and hunger setting in, they were unsure if they would be able to break the current record of 52 days.
“We were so close,” said Theodore. “I knew I couldn’t live with myself if we came that close and didn’t make it.”
Rewind to 2013 when the team’s idea to enter the race first hatched. Theodore, an extreme sports enthusiast who has run dozens of races on four continents, had just completed the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, an ultramarathon that takes competitors across the Alps through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While celebrating the race’s completion, Theodore was issued a challenge by an onlooker. “You guys think you’re tough,” he said. “Try rowing a boat across the Atlantic Ocean.”
And with that, Theodore and Ervin formed Team Beyond, and began the intense process of preparing to embark on what is dubbed the “world’s toughest row.”
The Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge is more than 3,000 nautical miles, beginning at San Sebastián in La Gomera, Spain, and ending in Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbour in Antigua. Race teams can be either solo, pairs, or foursomes and the boats are small vessels, measuring about 5 feet wide and 23 feet in length, and outfitted with sleeping quarters and space to store food, supplies, and equipment.
The rowers departed from Spain on Sunday, December 20, and though they underwent a year’s worth of training for the experience, nothing could prepare them for the challenges—from capsizing to malnourishment—they would face.
“If you’re not tethered and you go overboard, you’re never getting back to your boat,” Theodore explained of the perils of capsizing.
Other obstacles? Sharks. Volatile, intense storms stirring up 40 foot waves. A relentless sun. Pitch-black night.
“You wake up every morning to a big, blue parking lot. And most of the time, the ocean acts like it does not want you out there,” Theodore recalled. “It is an angry, ugly body of water.”
The environmental challenges are second, though, to the physical and mental strain of rowing. Within days of being at sea, both teammates experienced sea sickness. And, because it’s impossible to stay dry on the boat, salt sores developed, exacerbating blisters that formed from constant rowing.
Among the hardest parts of the race, Theodore recalled, was the war of attrition. While the team was required to pack a minimum of 70 days’ worth of food at 5,000 calories per day, the intense rowing causes racers to burn around 10,000 calories per day. A feast on the boat meant fresh-caught mahi-mahi basted in olive oil, and a piece or two of chocolate.
The team’s custom-designed boat was fitted with solar panels to help power the navigation system, autopilot, and radar, important pieces of technology that alert boats that they are within each other’s path. A flaw in the design, though, left Team Beyond’s batteries draining quickly, and for 75 percent of the trip, they used a compass to navigate their way across the Atlantic.
“Anything that could go wrong, went wrong,” Theodore said. Help of any kind would be three to four days away, and usually means being rescued by a cargo ship, so the team figured out quickly how to find solutions to their problems.
Thirty days into the race, a call on the boat’s satellite phone from Theodore’s wife brought news of Alabama’s College Football National Championship win and falling gas prices. It also brought to light a new mindset.
“These things don’t really matter; it’s all background noise,” Theodore said. “On the boat, you learn the things that are important: faith, family, friends. I’m extremely fortunate to have gone through this experience and have this brought to me with such clarity. I promised myself I would not forget it when I got off the boat.”
As they approached their destination, the record within reach, the duo knew their only option was to rally, and rally hard.
“We stayed on the oars around the clock,” Theodore said.
The effort paid off. The team completed the race in 45 days, 9 hours, and 21 minutes, shattering the previous U.S. Pairs Division record by a week.
“Coming into Antigua, there was a sense of relief and accomplishment, because you never knew if you were going to make it,” said Theodore. “We hadn’t slept in a few days, but we were super amped.”
While the Talisker Whiskey Challenge is behind them, Team Beyond’s work has only just begun. Part of the race included using the experience as a platform to fundraise for a nonprofit or advance a social cause, and today, the pair have found themselves on an even more powerful mission than rowing the Atlantic.
“Our focus was food insecurity,” said Theodore, citing the statistic that 50 million people in the United States—adults and children, alike—go to bed hungry. He also spoke of the duo’s hope to increase awareness about the importance of healthy living habits in alleviating the nutrition crisis in America.
Rather than raise money for the cause, Theodore relied on his expertise as an investment and strategic advisor to launch a foundation that address issues of food scarcity and nutrition by leveraging existing resources and infrastructures in the community to ensure their effort’s sustainability and efficiency.
Through consultancy work with Ironhawk Advisory Group, Theodore served as the interim president and chief executive officer of Ready Pak, a producer of single-serve and family-sized salad kits, cut fruit, and vegetable snacks. He saw an immediate connection between Team Beyond’s goals and Ready Pak’s access to fresh vegetables and fruit. Theodore and Ervin approached the company’s new CEO about setting up a mechanism for rescuing from landfills the produce that wouldn’t make it to stores. With Ready Pak on board, Team Beyond set into motion a three-year plan to divert the leftover produce from product facilities near Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Philadelphia to community food banks.
Theodore said that the initiative will deliver an estimated $5 million worth of vegetables and fruits into these communities. Team Beyond is also working to bring on more partners in their efforts, and have continued to promote healthy living through speaking engagements at local schools.
“We want to continue to use extreme sports as a platform to inspire,” Theodore said. “People are capable of doing much more than they ever dreamed imaginable.”