In a rowboat over the sea

2014-07-08 14:00

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Riaan Manser and Vasti Geldenhuys spent six months rowing from Morocco to New York across the Atlantic. Hanlie Retief caught up with the two adventurers

The couple from Betty’s Bay is a media sensation in the US after spending six months travelling from Morocco to the Big Apple – in a rowboat.

On the phone all the way from New York, across the Atlantic, which Vasti Geldenhuys and Riaan Manser crossed with 1.8?million oar strokes (each!), Vasti laughed when I asked: “So, how many times did you want to hit him over the head with your oar?”

“He wouldn’t even have seen it coming because I was sitting at the back!”

Nearly six months at sea, 10?765km on a 6.9m boat, over 6m waves, between freighters that could crush you without even seeing you, sharks that sometimes followed you for days – that’s what happens when someone like Riaan says to someone like Vasti: “Let me show you New York...”

The two have created a media frenzy since they arrived in the city on June 18. The Americans can’t get enough of this romance-inspired combo. They do five or six TV interviews a day, and even The New York Times waxes lyrical about the two tanned adventurers from South Africa.

“They can’t believe we really rowed to New York with that little boat – rowed. No sail, no motor. We can’t either,” says Vasti. “It feels so surreal.”

After all these months of silence, New York’s noise – hooters, ambulances, planes and people shouting – is a bit overwhelming. “An overload of sounds. You get on land with your wobbly sea legs and suddenly everything is available. It’s overwhelming.

“People joke here that I would probably never want to see a boat again. Mm, maybe not a rowboat, but I already miss the sea.”

The best thing was her first shower when she could wash her hair. “We could not even bath properly on the boat. Just to have conditioner in my hair!”

Vasti is the first woman from Africa to tame the Atlantic Ocean by rowboat.

Riaan has a few firsts to his credit: around Africa on a bicycle, around Madagascar and Iceland by kayak.

But now this professional adventurer is in the background and you hear him laughing. He says: “Vasti’s the hero in this adventure. That’s nice.”

For 14 years, Vasti has bid tearful goodbyes to her Columbus. When he leaves on his expeditions, she remains in her lawyer’s office.

Riaan says: “Her support was always the romantic part for everyone. Now she’s done something amazing with me – that’s so romantic.”

If she knew then what she knows now, she would never have put her foot in that boat, Vasti says without hesitation.

“No way! Physically, it’s exhausting, but mentally it’s?...?intolerable. People always talk about mental strength blah blah blah. You must first be in a situation like this to realise how you cope mentally. You have to keep telling yourself there’s a goal.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to row for so long every day? Your body aches, you can’t go on. Then you go to sleep and the next morning you have to get up and sit in that seat again. The view is the same every day, only the weather changes, so you don’t even know if you’re making progress.

“On mornings like that he just said, ‘C’mon’.”

She starts laughing again, and you hear relief and victory.

Every morning, before they started rowing, they prayed for strength. “It’s only by grace, and by everyone’s prayers, that we are alive today.”

The Americans keep asking: “Were you scared?”

“Yes. Duh. But not of something like breaking your foot – afraid you would die.

“We had a kind of saying among us: ‘You gotta wanna.’ And when things started getting bad, we shortened it to: ‘You gotta.’”

She never realised the Atlantic Ocean “was so rough, and all the time. It’s never smooth, only sometimes for a few days, but other times – phew, it’s bad!

“Stand next to a building about three storeys high – that’s how high the waves were. And if you want to go out, say to go to the toilet, you have to time it. You can’t just open the cabin door, because if a wave breaks over the boat and floods the cabin, then we go down.”

Her most frightening moments weren’t when she was pinned under the capsized boat; it was the day the boat drifted away from Riaan while he was swimming.

“I couldn’t get the boat to turn, I couldn’t row back, couldn’t stop. Eventually, he grabbed the fishing line. But?...?it’s?...?if you get lost there, nobody will find you. They couldn’t even find that plane that got lost [Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370].”

You can hear the fear in her voice.

“When he was back in the boat, I realised how the day could’ve turned out. I would be alone on the boat; he would be lost in the middle of the ocean. It’s frightening just thinking of it.”

And what did she do then?

“I screamed at him so much the sea wouldn’t be able to wash it off!

“Only then came the relief. Suddenly you love him again just because he’s back in the boat.” She laughs under her breath.

But that was the only shouting session. The couple’s punishment for each other was the “silent treatment”.

“We once spent two and a half days not talking to one another. It was deathly silent on that boat.”

Just rowing and wrestling with your own thoughts.

All the time, for six months, they were less than 2m apart. The smallest things then start working on your nerves. “Like: You didn’t lick your spoon properly, you didn’t tie that rope properly.”

They always thought they knew each other, but now. Riaan laughs...

“What I appreciate about Vasti is that she does what she says. In the adventure world, there’s a lot of boasting, but actually to do something?...?You should’ve seen Vasti standing on the boat with her headlamp, the fishing rod swinging around behind her head with a 150kg shark on the line. How she got the hook out of the shark’s mouth, with 10 other sharks circling around.

“People talk about the great thing she’s done now. But they don’t understand. It’s the small things that make her so amazing. I love her now more than ever.”

And Vasti?

“Oh, people think he’s so hard, but he’s got such a soft heart.”

The monotony of rowing, stroke for stroke, was the worst for him. “Africa and Madagascar were physically more challenging, but this one was not only painful for your body, but for your mind too,” he says.

But the reward was great too, she says. “The marine life. To swim in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and you know it’s 6?000m deep, there’s a royal blue colour underneath you and that’s all you see?...?very special.”

Several producers have approached them over the past week about shooting a documentary. Riaan is going on a “little trip” to the South Pole next year. She wants to go to the Bar, become an advocate. But their actual next adventure, both of them say, is marriage and having children.

And what will daddy say to the children one day? He laughs. “You’d better listen to your mother, she’s made of steel.”

They spoke to Vasti’s father, Boy Geldenhuys, in Fish Hoek, and the former minister, MP and ambassador gave a long sigh of relief. He was especially worried about his daughter.

Vasti says: “Ag shame, hey. I think they’re happier than we are that we arrived here safely. We had bought the boat and booked the tickets before Riaan and I had the courage to tell them what we were planning to do.”

Before they left, her parents gave them a note. “All it had was a verse from Deuteronomy: ‘Do not be afraid, do not be alarmed, for I am with you.’ Every time we felt bad, we read it.”

In the long hours on the water, life distils to ordinary, simple things. That’s what you miss the most, they say.

Riaan says: “We have the biggest possible bed in Betty’s Bay so that the ‘kids’, a Great Dane, a boxer and a pig named Russell, can all pile in together.”

Vasti says: “Just to lie on the couch watching rugby. Basic things that people do every day and do not appreciate. To go into a supermarket for a cooldrink?...?I have never liked apples, and what did I miss the most? Apples! When we got to the Bahamas, oh, that first apple, it was heavenly.”

At night they sometimes watched films on the laptop. “Friends downloaded films for us, and I don’t know why,” she bursts out laughing, “but they were mostly about boats sinking and shipwrecks! Even Robert Redford’s All Is Lost. What were our friends thinking?”

Specifically selected for the trip was a book about Christopher Columbus, especially because they followed his route, “to the very same island [San Salvador] where he landed”.

And to poor Columbus, who never set foot on the continent of what is now North America, she would’ve liked to say to him: “Just a bit further north, that’s what we did.”

They will be in New York for a few more days. A friend lent them bicycles, and she and Riaan are crisscrossing the streets like old New Yorkers. “We don’t actually see other New Yorkers doing it, only us and the bike messengers. It’s another adventure.”

The one thing she will always take with her after this trip is patience.

“Riaan says you must not say these clichés, but my parents’ little lesson of every oar stroke helps?...?out there on the sea, it doesn’t feel like that, but every stroke brings you closer to the end.

“And that’s what I’m really trying to say. Every little bit helps. People think, oh, it’s too long, it’s too little, eat the chocolate even though I’m on a diet.

“I’ve learnt now, every little bit helps.”

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