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Atlantic Rowing Race Begins

October 12, 1997

LOS GIGANTES, Tenerife Island (AP) _ Two American women, a newly released convicted killer from France and 57 other adventurers shoved off from this Canary Island on Sunday in a 2,700-mile race across the Atlantic _ by rowboat.

The 24-foot boats scattered immediately, bobbing in the waves and looking like colorful, oversized snowmobiles, their sides plastered with sponsors’ stickers.

The 30 two-member teams will be rowing about two months before reaching the finish line in Barbados. One of the teams delayed its departure until late Sunday because a member had stomach trouble.

It’s not simply a question of who will win the race, or even finish it, but whether or not the competitors will survive.

The death rate for people attempting to cross an ocean in a rowboat is about one in nine, according to Kenneth Crutchlow, executive director of the London-based Ocean Rowing Society, whose members are veteran ocean rowers.

``Every racer says they’re going to make it,″ said Crutchlow. ``But statistically, you wonder who will pull it off.″

The racers come from seven different countries and include an Olympic rower, a vending machine salesman and a carpenter. Their motivations are as varied as their backgrounds.

For 34-year-old Pascal Blond, released from prison in September after serving seven years for beating a man to death in a brawl, the undertaking represents redemption. He had previously served another seven-year sentence for killing someone else with a knife in a gang fight when he was 18.

His teammate, veteran oarsman Joseph LeGuen, met Blond last year while giving an ocean-rowing workshop to prisoners near LeGuen’s hometown of Brest.

``Pascal told me, `I want to row an ocean,‴ said LeGuen, a burly 50-year-old with a shaved head. ``Jails are meant to break people, turn them into vegetables. But Pascal always resisted. He is mentally and physically strong _ ideal for this race.″

``I’m not that way anymore,″ said Blond, a muscular man with close-cropped hair, referring to his dangerous temperament as a youth.

LeGuen, who rowed across the Atlantic solo in 1995, is not concerned about winning the race.

``Pascal has paid for what he has done. He has to start his life,″ LeGuen said. ``Whether we’re third or 28th _ it doesn’t matter _ he will win respect and can put his past behind him.″

Victoria ``Tori″ Murden, a veteran mountaineer and the first woman to ski to the South Pole, is in the race ``to reduce life to the bare minimum.″

``All the superfluous stuff is gone,″ explained Murden, who coordinates projects aimed at revitalizing poor Louisville, Ky., neighborhoods. ``It comes down to your hands and your heart making it happen.″

Murden’s partner is Louise Graff, a friend since high school who works in a French restaurant in Charleston, S.C.

To help minimize the danger, two yachts making the crossing will be on standby for emergencies.

Race organizer Sir Chay Blyth, who rowed across the Atlantic in 1966 and who launched the BT Global Challenge round-the-world yachting race in 1994, acknowledges the racers face risks.

``No one has forced them to go,″ Blyth said on a dock as the rowers made last-minute preparations. ``If you don’t want to take the risk, don’t take the risk.″

The boats have emergency locator transmitters, but the yachts won’t be able to immediately save foundering racers.

The boats carry inflatable liferafts. Each team prepared and carries its own food, ranging from rice and beans to precooked pasta primavera and Oriental chicken. Onboard desalinators provide drinking water. If they break down, each boat carries 150 liters of bottled water as ballast.

Except for a 6-foot, 6-inch aft sleeping compartment and a forward storage area, the boats _ made from inch-thick mahogany plywood _ are open to the elements.

Of 53 ocean-crossing attempts, 24 have been successful, and six rowers have died, according to the Ocean Rowing Society.

With the blast of a boat horn, the racers left this Spanish island off the African coast at 10 a.m. Two dozen other boats carried supporters a ways out to sea. The black lava cliffs of Tenerife receded in the distance.

Despite the dangers, the competitors were relaxed moments earlier.

``I’ll turn 34 out there,″ Graff said wistfully, pointing at the ocean.

What will she do on her birthday?

``Eat, sleep and row. The usual,″ she said.

Murden joked: ``I might give her an hour off.″

Pascal noted before he shoved off with Blond that the race won’t really start for about a week.

``When people’s behinds really start hurting, when their backs are aching, when their fingers are a mess of broken blisters, that is when the race will truly begin.″


Race updates available on Internet at http://www.challengebus.co.uk and http://www.oceanrowing.com. Murden’s and Graff’s web page is http://www.adept.net/americanpearl.

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