Capt. Mark Delstanche of 73-meter M/Y Yalla set out to row solo across the Atlantic from New York to London to raise awareness for ocean conservation. After a few delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Suez Canal blockage, he finally cast off on June 14 to begin the journey he had worked toward for more than a year. He reached London on September 19 — a total of 97 days, which bested his 100-day goal. He also raised nearly £43,000 for his two charities. His achievement also makes him the first person to complete the solo, unsupported Atlantic row from New York to London.
“Overall, the whole experience was incredible; however, almost every day brought about highs and lows with the ever-changing conditions,” Capt. Delstanche says. “The sheer physical and mental effort day in, day out, as well as dealing with the ever-changing seas, made it incredibly tough; however, the times of peace and absolute solitude — as well as the marine life encounters — more than made up for the tough times.”
“Overall, the whole experience was incredible; however, almost every day brought about highs and lows with the ever-changing conditions,” Capt. Delstanche says.
He says he was a little surprised at “just how hard it actually was and how far I was able to push myself, far beyond anything I had previously done,” especially near the end. At four days out from London, he was watching the wind and had to really push to get to shore before he was pushed back out. “I slept four hours in four days and at one stage rowed for 27 out of 31 hours and at times, my mind and body were totally disassociated and very much on auto,” he says. He began seeing things, but he kept on rowing. “I knew that I’d gone way beyond limits that I’d previously experienced.”
Of course, Delstanche had trained for the row for more than a year, so he was physically prepared. “The work that I put in prior to departure paid dividends in that other than tendon damage in my hands, meaning that I cannot now close them beyond a rowing ‘claw,’” he says, noting that the claw might come in handy for rowing, but not so much for holding a toothbrush or knife and fork. Otherwise, he came out in one piece with no injuries — he even managed to jog up the gangway at Tower Bridge to greet his supporters at the end of the row. “A little more time on board the boat prior to departure would have definitely been beneficial as there were quite a few routines and handling characteristics of the boat that I had to learn as I went along; however, no amount of training could have prepared me for the conditions that I encountered,” he says.
While he was mostly fine, his equipment didn’t quite fare quite as well. His propeller broke before he even reached the Atlantic, both his main solar panels failed on the third day — meaning he had no autopilot and had to steer with his foot the rest of the way. This also meant he had to limit his water consumption. The drive system he had designed failed on day six, which he had anticipated, so he had brought two sets of oars with him. “The first capsize knocked out my deck speakers and highlighted quite a number of ‘weep holes,’ but duct tape and Sikaflex had me fully waterproof by the fourth capsize,” he says.
The list of what went wrong continued — he lost his compass light, plus all his deck navigation equipment, tracker, handheld VHF (and his ability to email) during a capsize in early August. Oh, and a sock. As Delstanche explained, it was a bad summer for storms in the north Atlantic, which made things harder and more unpredictable. He faced eight major storms and capsized seven times. He was also nearly hit by a humpback whale.
“It was by far the hardest thing that I’ve ever done — made climbing Everest look like a walk in the park!”
He admits the weather did cause him some anxiety, but it was mostly in anticipation of the forecasted storms. “I received them every four days and there wasn’t a single forecast with purely beneficial conditions, such were the weather patterns in the Atlantic this year,” he says. “It was by far the hardest thing that I’ve ever done — made climbing Everest look like a walk in the park!” (Yes, Delstanche climbed Everest in 2010.)
But in the end, he was mostly happy with how the trip went, and those mishaps merely served as lessons — as Delstanche says, “I should have rowed an ocean first before deciding to reinvent the wheel with a propellor drive system.” He would have placed a bilge switch and a VHF handset for the main set on deck rather than in the cabin. “After capsize number four, I adapted a dagger board to make a makeshift brace in my cabin, effectively pinning me into my bunk, which proved really handy for the next three [capsizes] but apart from that, I was pretty happy with how everything went.”
While his original departure date was pushed back several times, Delstanche ultimately feels the delay had no real effect, noting that the weather patterns meant no other boats left before the end of May anyway. As he explains, four boats left before him; one solo retired and the other two solos arrived after him. Maybe if the timing had been different, perhaps he wouldn’t have been stuck for 18 days waiting for the easterly winds to pass. “That said, I found that one of the worst mindsets to adopt throughout the journey was the ‘what if.’ It tends to chew you up for no benefit whatsoever, [it’s] better to just accept what is and get on with it,” he says.
As to whether he would do it again, “There will be other adventures, but nothing on this scale,” he says. “I set out not only to set a world record and raise money for my charities, but to prove to myself that I could push myself beyond the limits of human endeavour. I feel that I have now achieved that and can probably take my foot off the gas a bit now!”
While he may have been rowing solo, he was by no means alone on his journey. “Although the whole experience was incredibly tough on me, it was just as tough for my wonderful wife and gorgeous boys who have lived every moment of the trip with me,” he says. When he was having a bad day, his wife and sons kept him going, “despite any fears that she might have, and my boys would always tell me never to quit, however bad the circumstances. It’s only through their unwavering support that I was able to push through and make it to the finish line.”
“I set out not only to set a world record and raise money for my charities, but to prove to myself that I could push myself beyond the limits of human endeavour. I feel that I have now achieved that and can probably take my foot off the gas a bit now!”
And once he made the finish line in London, “[I] hugged my wife and kids, met everybody that had supported me, and went to the nearest pub for a couple of drinks (non-alcoholic as I had to row the boat back to a slipway to haul it out) and for what could have been the world’s most delicious burger!”
Of course, Delstanche really appreciates his yachting sponsors, who funded about 25 percent of his project. He was also very appreciative of the captain and crew of M/Y Gene Machine, who he happened upon about 1,000 nautical miles off the U.S. coast during Gene Machine’s own Atlantic crossing. “[They] provided one of the highlights of the trip and some of the best photos when they diverted for a fly by,” he says. “Between them, they gave me a real sense of fraternity within the yachting community that I have never felt before.”