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South African solo rower Grant Blakeway completes the 2020 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge
By:
Team Blakeway

Melktert and a long-awaited reunion at the finish line as eco-warrior triumphs against the odds to conquer the World’s Toughest Row. The Aquarium Foundation is one of the beneficiaries of Grant’s fundraising campaign. Thank you Grant!

Grant arrives in Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour in Antigua and Barbuda (Image credit: Atlantic Campaigns)

Grant Blakeway could hardly stand when he stepped ashore in Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour, on Saturday 6 February 2021. He had just finished the World’s Toughest Row in a time of 56 days, 3 hours, and 29 minutes – and he was utterly exhausted.

The 59-year-old Durban businessman set off from San Sebastian de La Gomera on 12 December last year to row across the Atlantic Ocean in the 2020 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, alongside 20 other teams from around the world. He was the only South African among them, and one of eight solo competitors in the 2020 fleet.

The premier event on the global ocean-rowing calendar is sponsored by Talisker Single Malt Whisky and organised by Atlantic Campaigns. The race involves a 3000-mile (approximately 4800km) unassisted row from the Canary Islands to Antigua and Barbuda. Race teams compete solo or in groups of up to five people, and carry everything they need on their boats.

A struggle to the start

For Blakeway, the finish line represented much more than just the completion of the race: it was the culmination of a two-year-long journey. In 2018, he’d signed up to participate in the 2019 edition of the event, with the hope of leveraging its global platform to shine a spotlight on marine plastic pollution. It wasn’t to be. A vacuum pump failed during construction of the LB4, the boat he was to row across the Atlantic. The hull was not structurally fit to use, and it was necessary to cast another. The new project timeline meant he would not be on the start line that year.

Grant Blakeway (Image credit: Grant Blakeway)

“I was devastated,” recalls Blakeway. “After months and months of planning, everything fell apart. I was disappointed for myself, for my family and friends, and for the supporters who had embraced my mission to raise awareness about the plight of our oceans. It was a very difficult time for me, but I was fortunate that Atlantic Campaigns allowed me to defer my entry for a year.”

At the dawn of 2020, Blakeway renewed his preparations in earnest. The boat was due to be shipped from the UK to South Africa, and he was looking forward to training along Durban’s coastline. “You have to complete 120 hours of rowing in your race vessel before you arrive in La Gomera to start,” explains Blakeway. As a former SA Navy ships diver, he was comfortable at sea, but he’d never done any serious ocean-rowing before, and he knew he’d need time to find his sea legs aboard the nine-metre-long boat that would be his home for up to three months on the Atlantic.

He was prepared for that. He was not prepared for the impact of a global pandemic. “When South Africa went into hard lockdown at the end of March, the last thing on my mind was the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. The world just felt unreal. There was so much uncertainty, and so much anxiety and fear. But there was hope, too. And if I look back now, I think that’s what motivated me to push on… The chance to show others that, no matter what life throws at you, you can pick yourself up and try again. And you can keep trying. You can vasbyt, and you can persevere.”

The boat never made it to South Africa. Between the COVID-19 port restrictions and the travel bans, it was a step too far. Blakeway flew to Findhorn, Scotland, when international flights resumed late last year and, in a picturesque but very cold part of the world, he completed his training row aboard Melokuhle. “She had her own journey to the start line,” Blakeway says of the torpedo-shaped vessel that shares his team name. “She was built in Ukraine, transported across Europe to Scotland, and then shipped from the UK to the Canary Islands, where we set off into the Big Blue together.”

A battle to the finish

The journey from San Sebastian de La Gomera to English Harbour was physically and mentally challenging from the get-go, confesses Blakeway. “I had a horrible abscess on my bum and it had been lanced a few days before the race. I was in a lot of pain, and sitting down for hours on end, day after day, didn’t help matters! Then a boil on my leg turned nasty, and swelled up to the size of a golf ball! And that’s not an exaggeration… I’ve got pictures,” he chuckles.

He says he can laugh about it now, but alone at sea, he was pushed to his limit and beyond. “The fatigue is something I’ve never experienced on that level before,” he explains. “You’re so tired you can’t see straight. Everything takes twice as long as to do, because you’re exhausted. And even when you’re concentrating really hard, accidents happen.” He burned his hand while making dinner one night, and lost a tooth when the hatch door hit him in the face.

“This race is difficult enough when you’re in a group, but when you’re a solo rower, everything becomes harder. You’re the human engine, the navigator, the radio operator, the repair man, the medic, and the cook,” he says. “When something breaks, you have to fix it. When something goes wrong, you have to make a new plan. One way or another, you find out what you’re made of during this race. The mighty Atlantic Ocean gives so much, and takes so much, too.”

For Blakeway, a husband and father of three, the isolation was overwhelming. He credits his wife Adri for giving him love and tough love in equal measure. “She’s my biggest fan and my most loyal supporter, and I would not have made it without her,” he says. “We’ve been married for 30 years and this was our longest time apart… Five months of phone calls and texts, from the time I was in Findhorn until I arrived in English Harbour.”

Their tearful reunion followed shortly after Blakeway was taken from the dockside podium to a nearby restaurant – to sit down, drink, and eat before returning for his full interview. His exertion over the past 56 days, 3 hours, and 29 minutes had taken its toll. “I could hardly stand,” he reveals. “I thought I was going to faint because I was so unsteady on my feet after so long on the water. And I was quite hungry, too!” He supplemented the traditional post-race hamburger and chips with half the melktert that his wife had made in preparation for his arrival.

Grant arrives in Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour in Antigua and Barbuda (Image credit: Atlantic Campaigns)

For Blakeway, a husband and father of three, the isolation was overwhelming. He credits his wife Adri for giving him love and tough love in equal measure. “She’s my biggest fan and my most loyal supporter, and I would not have made it without her,” he says. “We’ve been married for 30 years and this was our longest time apart… Five months of phone calls and texts, from the time I was in Findhorn until I arrived in English Harbour.”

Their tearful reunion followed shortly after Blakeway was taken from the dockside podium to a nearby restaurant – to sit down, drink, and eat before returning for his full interview. His exertion over the past 56 days, 3 hours, and 29 minutes had taken its toll. “I could hardly stand,” he reveals. “I thought I was going to faint because I was so unsteady on my feet after so long on the water. And I was quite hungry, too!” He supplemented the traditional post-race hamburger and chips with half the melktert that his wife had made in preparation for his arrival.

A mission to continue

Blakeway’s ocean voyage has made him even more determined to inspire change. “Marine plastic pollution is a serious problem around the world, but the situation won’t change until we change,” he says. “I was grateful that I didn’t see much pollution during my Atlantic crossing, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Microplastics are almost impossible to see, ghost nets can lurk below the surface, and floating plastic debris can travel from shore to shore. My route from the Canary Islands to Antigua and Barbuda covered a tiny part of the Big Blue. There’s a whole wide ocean to protect, and it’s our responsibility to stand for good, and make a difference.”

Blakeway is raising funds in support of three organisations committed to the education, development, and mentorship of South Africa’s future ocean-defenders and leaders: The Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation in Cape Town, White Shark Projects in Gansbaai, and the Maritzburg College Education Foundation in Pietermaritzburg.

Grant at the Two Oceans Aquarium (Image credit: Grant Blakeway)

 

The Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation’s Oceans in Motion outreach programme is designed to give children an unforgettable experience with live marine animals. Aquarium staff travel to under-resourced schools in the Western Cape to deliver hands-on, interactive lessons about the sea, its creatures, and its most pressing modern challenges.

White Shark Projects’ Recycle Swop Shop enables children from nearby Masekhane to swop their recyclables for household goods. The children collect plastic, tins, and bottles to earn points, which are then exchanged for basic foodstuffs, toiletries, and school supplies. The shop has been running for more than a decade, and is a valued support system within the community.

Maritzburg College (Blakeway’s alma mater) has produced some of SA’s most prominent sportsmen, academics, social entrepreneurs, and business leaders. The Maritzburg College Foundation creates opportunities for boys from all walks of life, so that they matriculate ready to face the world’s challenges, and prepared to lead in their own communities.

“The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge has been a life-changing event,” concludes Blakeway. “I’m so grateful to my family, my friends, my supporters, and to everybody who cheered me on from their corner of the world. When you receive messages from people you’ve never met, it’s incredibly humbling. All I can say is ‘thank you’. From the bottom of my heart… Thank you. You carried me through.”

If you would like to support Grant and us, please donate to his Back a Buddy campaign here

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