For many of us, these last few weeks of the year are a slog to vacation, a much-needed respite filled with, perhaps, fourth helpings of maple-glazed ham, too much wine, and an afternoon nap or two.
But for three Texans setting sail from the Canary Islands this week, the time for resting is over. Instead of ham, they’ll eat dehydrated food. Instead of wine, they’ll chug desalinated ocean water. The naps will still be there, but that’s all sleep will ever be for the next six weeks, 90 minute shifts here and there as they row around the clock across the Atlantic.
Drifting off on December 14 in an ocean double scull, the team dubbed American Oarsmen will sail Columbus’ second route to the Americas—3,000 miles as the crow flies—eventually docking at English Harbor in Antigua. David Alviar, BA ’09, Brian Krauskopf, and Mike Matson have prepped for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge for the last two-and-a-half years. Traditionally a British race that only 250 people have ever completed, Alviar didn’t find much modern documentation in his research in the lead up to the event.
“They didn’t have waterproof GoPros back then,” Alviar says.
“It was hours and hours of frustration trying to figure it out, like an independent study in college … except your mentor was unresponsive,” he says. “It was a lot of trial and error, jimmy rigging things along the way. Our auto steering will fail. We have spare parts but we have to figure out how to use them. I wish I could tell you what was going to happen.”
As per race rules, the team will carry 5,000 calories of food per day per crewmember for 65 days of food, though the trio of native Houstonians hope to finish the race in as close to 40 days as possible, estimating a total of up to 3,500 miles rowed. As such, each rower will lose approximately 20 percent of their body-mass, rowing as much as 12 hours each day. Two rowers will be advancing the ship at all times, while the third crewmember will prepare food, fix gear, or sleep. Alviar says that no one will get a full-night’s sleep for the duration of the race, instead they will practice polyphasic sleeping, which will accumulate over the course of 24 hours. As for going to the bathroom, that’s just a bucket on deck.
Growing up in Houston, Alviar never rowed in his life until he was an upperclassman at UT. The son of Colombian and Spanish immigrants, he played soccer and ran track. While walking past Gregory Gym one day, he was recruited by members of Texas Crew, UT’s club team. Alviar’s sister in law was rowing for Stanford at the time, so he heard them out.
“I ended up loving it; I was totally addicted,” he says. “It has been pivotal in every single way in my life after.” Alviar credits then-Texas Crew coach Jeff Mork with pushing the already disciplined student to another level.
“In terms of the discipline and knowing how to treat yourself as a human being and accepting failure and being critical of yourself, he communicated that and I’ve relied on it,” Alviar says. “I now seek opportunities to tear myself down and build myself back up.”
After UT, he took a coaching position at Rice University, where he met Matson, another coach. He returned to Austin every once in a while to race with Texas Crew alumni, but as he got older, he realized he wanted to take it up a notch. Matson and Alviar researched and discovered ocean rowing, eventually adding a third teammate in Krauskopf. That’s how they’ve ended up adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, when, say, there are many more efficient ways to cross that waterway now than there were in the 15th century.
American Oarsmen will be joined by 11 other teams at the outset, but Alviar says that they will all be separated by miles of ocean within the first 48 hours. Fortunately, the team is equipped with GPS guidance, satellite phones, and, perhaps most importantly, modern safety measures should a brutal storm hit. Aside from harnesses, helmets, and life jackets, the boat is also self-righting and equipped with a para-anchor, which the team will only deploy in the event of a hurricane. The tiny sleeping cabin can snugly fit all three crewmembers if needed, but Alviar says the boat has a better chance of holding up if they stay on deck steer it directly into a storm instead of letting it twist in the wind. Furthermore, if the boat takes on a certain amount of water, an emergency satellite feed activates and a rescue attempt is made via two race-sanctioned ships sailing in opposite directions, one tailing them from Africa and the other headed toward them from Antigua.
“If we call for help, we abandon ship,” Alviar says, noting that once they leave their ship, they are disqualified. “That would be horrible.”
Alviar is rowing for Teach For America, an organization he joined after graduating from UT. After a recovery period—”the race tends to leave you a withered beacon of a human being,” he says—he’ll continue his job designing pre-K-12th-grade curriculum and begin the next phase of his life.
“I’ve been given a license to be selfish,” Alviar says. “Now it’s time to make other people happy, too.”
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