Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   June 2020

World’s Oldest Solo Ocean Rower Reaches Antigua

by Jan Hein

When 72-year-old Graham Walters set off from Gran Canaria on his fifth and final row across the Atlantic, he had a good idea of what to expect. Previous voyages provided ample experience with adverse weather and sea conditions. His vessel, George Geary, carried everything needed to address equipment failure and boat breakage. Precise provisioning would last for months. What he couldn’t prepare for was the world he would enter, 94 days later, when he made landfall in Antigua.

Eight miles east of the island on April 28th, Walters anticipated rowing into English Harbour early the next day. That night, winds gusting to 20 knots and agitated seas pushed him off course and though he rowed hard through the night, morning brought the realization that he might miss the island entirely.
Complicating the matter were Covid-19 regulations. Antigua’s borders were closed and any vessel sanctioned entry could do so only in the commercial port of St. John, followed by a mandatory quarantine of 14 days. Weighty questions swirled: if Walters could fight his way back to the island, would he have the strength to carry on to the west side? After 94 days of solitude, would he have to endure 14 more?

Antigua’s Coast Guard, tethered to George Geary through the night via VHF, set out at 10:00AM to survey the situation and offer support. Walters had crossed the longitudinal line of Antigua’s eastern most point but he was six miles off the southern shore. Accepting a tow might void the world’s record he was hoping to set. Not taking assistance could spell disaster. Antigua was expecting him; other islands, if he could reach one, were not.

During months at sea, Walters held weekly chats with his wife, receiving news of a novel virus — its spread, the lockdowns and devastation. She said he’d have to wear a mask in Antigua so he’d earlier fashioned one from an old polishing cloth. When the Coast Guard neared his boat to secure a towline, he glimpsed the world’s new reality. The Guardsmen and crew were masked; his was tied at his neck.
At the entrance to the harbor, George Geary was side-tied to the Coast Guard vessel. Communication with Immigration officials took place, resulting in a decision to allow him to enter the country in English Harbour. A welcoming committee of dinghies motored and rowed out to lay eyes on the man who had rowed 3,000 miles alone. Boat horns blasted, met by cheers onshore. Well-wishers stood atop Fort Berkely, flags waved and cameras were aimed at a hero unlike any other.
Antigua is the finish line of the annual Talker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge and they know how to welcome rowers. A masked crowd, standing socially distant apart, filled Nelson’s Dockyard. Walters’s boat was released by the Coast Guard; he set his oars in place and began pulling toward victory. Slowly the orange boat slid past anchored boats, moored megas and the fuel dock, each packed with waving supporters, cheering their hero home.

As Walters brought George Geary alongside the stone quay, Antiguans hurried to tie her in place. “You de mos’ amazin’ mon,” one shouted. “De strongess mon alive!” Before stepping out, Graham tended to his vessel, securing lines and gear. The boat was, in some respects, a best friend, one he had built in his front garden 22 years before, and she’d carried him across the ocean one last time.
He unfolded himself and stood for the crowd, answering salutes with his own. Jokingly he hoisted a Banks beer. Behind the mask was a broad smile, shining in his eyes. Military and police officials parted the crowd, and then helped Walters from the boat. His first two steps, taken slowly, were steady, but the unforgiving old stone paving threw him off balance and he nearly toppled to the ground. Two guards assisted him to the Officer’s Quarters where TV cameras and news reporters anxiously waited to hear the story.
Anne Marie Martin, Commissioner of Antigua & Barbuda’s National Parks, welcomed him. “By law, I have to keep social distance but I want to give you a big hug! Welcome back to Antigua!” She presented a basket of fruit, masks and hand sanitizer. “We want to keep you safe here,” she said. “We’re told, you’re the safest person on the planet!” For a photo op, they held a big bottle of hand sanitizer between them, as if it were a prized trophy.

Walters answered a string of questions about the voyage: how it felt to have accomplished his goal; what he thought about this new world. Despite exhaustion, he was humorous and full of gratitude. “I’ve been hearing about the world. On the boat, it was the ocean and me. Now, at the end, now’s the time to come to terms with the situation,” he said. “I can see, I did this for everybody in the world.”
As his first meal ashore was placed before him he asked, “Is it all right if I take the mask off to eat this?” With a grinning audience, he dug into a hamburger and fries but not before garnishing them with ketchup.

Twenty-four hours passed before word came from the Ocean Rowing Society, the official Guinness World Records adjudicators for rowing. Walters would receive the record for the oldest person to row any ocean solo, as well as the oldest person to row an ocean more than once. Walters rowed to raise money for Help for Heroes, a charity begun in 2007 to provide assistance to British servicemen and women wounded in combat or injured while on active duty.
George Geary will be donated to Antigua’s museum. Graham Walters, anxious to rejoin his wife in the UK, awaits the re-opening of the airport. Meanwhile, he hopes to use the unexpected island time working on his next book.

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