An alarm that goes off at 4am is never welcome. But an emergency alarm that sits you bolt upright in a cramped sleeping cabin in the middle of the pitch-black Atlantic is a wakeup call from hell. Especially when it suggests you’re about to be run over by a brute of a ship which hasn’t registered you’re in its path.
“The system told me I had six minutes until collision. I would have had no chance. By the time I’d got dressed, into my harness, found my flares, and tried calling them twice on the radio, this thing lit up like a floating city was just 0.2 miles away. I was absolutely bricking it,” admits Jasmine Harrison.
Happily, the 750ft drilling ship’s crew answered her last-ditch attempt to reach them by radio and changed course in time, but Jasmine is still wondering how they got so close without picking up her radio beacon. Presumably when you’re mid-ocean, in the dead of night, the last thing you expect to come across is a 21-year-old alone in a rowing boat.
That near miss after 37 days at sea nearly brought a premature end to an epic 3,000-mile voyage, and one which is still under way. Jasmine Harrison, from Thirsk in North Yorkshire, set out from the Canary Islands on December 12, aiming for Antigua and to be the youngest female to row the Atlantic alone.
She is doing this under the auspices of the Talisker Atlantic Challenge, an annual race that this year had 55 entrants. At the time of writing, Harrison’s one-person “team”, Rudderly Mad, is the backmarker, as it has been for several weeks. She is just over halfway across, while seven of the other boats have already finished. That’s partly down to most of the advance guard being either two- or four-person boats, while she is one of only eight solo rowers, and partly down to bad weather victimising the rear of the flotilla while the front end was able to push blithely on.
In Jasmine’s case those adverse conditions meant a whole fortnight of going nowhere. On one day she gritted her teeth and rowed a punishing 12 hours in order to inch seven miles into a headwind, then took a three-hour sleep, only to find herself pushed back to where she started. A fortnight of such demoralising buffeting, with zero forward progress, might have made lesser mortals give up. “I ended up screaming out loud at whoever is controlling all this: do you not understand I’m trying to get somewhere?”
There is not much in her bartender-cum-swimming-coach background that suggests she would be up for this kind of challenge. Her home town is nowhere near the sea, she doesn’t come from an adventure-minded family, and indeed has never been on a holiday abroad with her parents.
She had always been good at all sorts of sports, but rowing had never crossed her mind until she got a job in the Caribbean, aged 18, as a swimming coach, and witnessed the competitors in a previous Atlantic race come ashore. “I thought it looked so cool. And if they can do that, then so can I,” she says, speaking by satellite phone from the tiny cabin of her 21ft boat, Argo.
She didn’t get into a rowing boat until December 2019, and before setting out she had notched up only the minimum 120 hours experience required to take part. Now she’s rowing from 15 to 18 hours a day, a punishing regime that her body has adapted to remarkably well, albeit with a few aches and pains. “It hasn’t been any harder than I anticipated. Mind you, last night I had to stop early because the wind and stupid waves meant lots of pulling on one side and my grip was giving me dead fingers.”
The fact that she doesn’t get sea-sick has helped enormously — although the seasickness patches she used at the beginning had alarming side-effects. “I started hallucinating, my vision blurred and I couldn’t read my navigation equipment.” Not ideal when you’ve an ocean to cross.
For someone who has never done anything remotely like this before, the first challenge was finding the £80,000 budget required. Harrison managed to raise £50,000 from sponsorship, fundraising events and donations, with the rest from her savings. Her boat alone cost her half the budget, although it is far from new, having done the journey twice before. “Argo’s my security blanket,” says Jasmine, “he knows the way and he hasn’t capsized. We’ve had some knockdowns [where the boat is thrown on its side], but he’s never actually rolled over.”
She has sufficient food for 85 days, but it hasn’t all worked out as planned, because fancy freeze-dried expedition meals that taste good on land have proved “too posh” for her tastebuds at sea. “The likes of Thai chicken curry with rice — I just want the rice. Moroccan lamb with couscous — I just want the couscous. So I end up eating a lot of biscuits and cereal bars, and I know that I am not getting the right nutrition.”
She treated herself at Christmas with a bottle of beer and fried spam. “And I am fantasizing about a big KFC bucket on arrival, God knows why, because I’ve only ever had one once before.”
Overall, though, she is relishing every day that passes — the colours of the evening skies, the whales, the flying fish that land on the deck. She was enjoying swimming with dolphins too (attached to her boat by a harness at all times) but stopped recently after spotting sharks lurking nearby.
“I love it, and I try to savour every moment,” she says. “I’m easily distracted so I’ve not been at all lonely. Don’t get me wrong, I really want to get there — and I’d rather not come last. But I’m really going to miss all this when I do.”
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