After 107 Days At Sea, A Safe Homecoming For French Rower

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Transatlantic Rowers

Guirec Soudée crossed the ocean rowing finish line last Thursday, and waved the flag of his homeland, Brittany. PHOTO COURTESY SNSM ÎLE MOLÈNE

CHATHAM — One-hundred seven days after departing Chatham, Guirec Soudée maneuvered his 26-foot ocean rowboat into the harbor at Brest, touching off a festive celebration and an emotional reunion with loved ones.

The 29-year-old adventurer looked energetic and healthy – if somewhat thin – and beamed as he waved to dozens of supporters standing elbow-to-elbow on the breakwater, many waving Breton flags like the large one on his boat. In a TV news report, they can be heard chanting his name as a flotilla of sailing vessels, power boats, small craft and wind-surfers accompanied him through the outer harbor. The massive 242-foot ocean tug Sapeur sounded its whistle and provided a salute from its three firefighting water cannons as Soudée passed.

Towed through the outer harbor, Soudée took to the oars again to row to shore. With rescue helicopters flying overhead, he lit a distress flare and waved it over his head in celebration. He was greeted by traditional Breton bagpipers at the dock, and shouted, “merci, merci!” in answer to the cheers from all around. Spectators were estimated to number around 2,000, both in passing boats and on the quays. Soudée fielded questions at a dockside news conference, shared hugs with family and friends and allowed some children to climb aboard his rowboat. He popped a bottle of champagne, sprayed the crowd and took a swig, and then disappeared with his family and loved ones for a well-deserved rest.

It was a suitable celebration for the transatlantic rower, who lost most communication equipment in a storm on July 3. While Soudée is still recovering from the odyssey, expedition communications director Alice Claeyssens wrote a blog entry celebrating his achievement. While he arrived in Brest Friday, the rower actually crossed the traditional ocean rowing finish line just before 11 a.m. Thursday local time.

Soudée endured “appalling conditions, weeks of being blown backwards, a storm that drowned his cockpit and much of his equipment,” and only intermittent contact with shore thanks to passing mariners, she wrote.

“He once again proved his unwavering determination, his optimism and his passion to achieve his dreams. Declining the slightest assistance from the sailors he met, not even a piece of fish or a shower, he preferred to eat the few leftovers he had, molded by the humidity, and drink the stagnant water of his manual desalinator,” Claeyssens wrote. “It was without assistance that he decided to complete this extraordinary expedition,” she said. The journey covered nearly 5,000 miles, not the 3,000 that would have marked a direct passage without any detours or setbacks.

Despite the solitude of being in a one-man ocean rowboat, Soudée was not alone. He was escorted by dolphinfish, one of which stayed with him for two weeks, which he named Paulette; a booby bird he called Pedro who remained with him for three weeks, and whales and orcas.

With a heavy ocean rowboat, Soudée made it clear from the outset that it was not his goal to set a speed record crossing the Atlantic. His 107-day passage took 30 days longer than the one made by Gerard D’Aboville in 1980. The record west-to-east solo rowing record is held by fellow Frenchman Emmanuel Coindre, who made the passage in 62 days in 2004. Many others attempted the passage and were forced to abort their journeys, and at least one adventurer lost his life while rowing to Europe from Chatham.