row2k Features
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean Solo at 19: Capsizing in 40 Foot Waves and Setting Records for Ocean Conservation
February 5, 2018
Ed Moran,

Oliver Crane was facing a decision three of his siblings had already dealt with - what to do in the year between high school and college.

Something in the Crane family genes has the kids looking past traditional "gap" year activities, like traveling, volunteering and soul searching to find life's direction.

His oldest brother, Cason, completed a quest to be the first openly gay man to scale the Seven Summits, having started the quest as a high school freshman on Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money and awareness about suicide among LGBT youth. He completed the task by reaching the peak of Mount McKinley when he turned 20.

His second oldest brother, David, spent his gap year biking across Africa to raise money and awareness for the nature conversation project, Conservation International.

And older sister Bella hiked the Pacific Crest trail from Mexico to Canada to raise money and bring attention to the plight of Syrian refugees.

When Oliver, 19, finished his senior year of high school at the Peddie School in Hightstown, NJ, he needed to find his gap year mission before beginning his freshman year at Princeton University.

"I knew I was going to take a gap year, and it was something that my parents really encouraged and that my older siblings had done. So I was looking to take on a challenge that was a multi-month challenge that tested my limits mentally and physically as well as raise money for something I was passionate about, which is ocean conservation."

Oliver had rowed on the Peddie crew team and is hoping to row on the Princeton lightweight team when he gets there, so something rowing seemed like a good place to start. When he researched the search terms ocean and rowing, he came across the Talisker Whisky Challenge, the annual winter trek of rowers who race across the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands to Antigua & Barbuda, a row of nearly 3,000 miles.

Crane in his boat

He knew he had found his gap year quest.

"When I saw that I thought, 'Wow, this is crazy.' And I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do." Oliver figured that the Crane parents - mom Isabella de la Houssaye, a dedicated marathon and ultra-sport athlete, and dad David, would buy right in after what his three older siblings had done.

"I called my mom and told her and she was like, 'What! Are you sure?' And my father just said, 'No, I'm not letting you go out in the middle of the ocean by yourself.'"

But, Crane said, when they realized he was serious, "they quickly got behind the idea."

And so, Crane, with no experience in ocean rowing, "or anything like it," purchased a boat, had it delivered to Devon, England, a fishing village on Britain's Southwest coast and went over and trained there for two months.

After training, Crane launched his journey on Dec. 14, 2017, from the Canary Islands off the coast of Northwestern Africa, and made landfall Jan. 28, 2018. The crossing took 44 days, 16 hours and nine minutes and in completing the row, Crane became the youngest person ever to solo-row the Atlantic.

A Rough and Tumble Ride

Dealing with the waves
Crane knew the crossing was going to be a challenge, and he even brought along a rugby helmet to wear when he was sleeping in the 23-foot boat's cabin. But he wasn't prepared for the early sea sickness - he didn't sleep the first few nights because he was throwing up - or the weather conditions and waves.

The weather was more active than usual and some of the various crews participating in the Talisker Whisky Challenge were pushed by intense trade winds that enabled crossing records to be smashed. Crane had prepared for a 90-day crossing but finished in 44. Crane's "Homeward Bound" quest was one of 26 teams or solo crews that participated in the race. Some crews are still at sea, and their progress and the quest leader board can be viewed here.

"The conditions were incredibly rough," Crane said. "But it was all moving in the right direction, so that's why the world record this year for fastest crossing ever was smashed by like seven days. And then the solo record for the quickest solo crossing was also broken this year. It was good and bad because the weather was really scary; pretty much every boat out there capsized at least once, but it made for such a quick crossing."

Crane said the waves were almost constant, and he was frequently capsized and washed overboard while rowing, and then banged up inside the cabin when he was trying to sleep. He said the first few times his boat rolled were "exhilarating."

Then it got scary.

"You're constantly tethered to the boat," Crane said. "You have to be because the boat is so light. If I went in the water, and wasn't tethered, I would never be able to swim fast enough to catch the boat, and then you have to be strapped into the foot plates because the water is so rough." Crane said one of the first times he capsized, he could not get his feet immediately free.

"The waves got up to 30 and 40 feet," Crane said. "They just tower over you. It was scary and magnificent at the same time. In the middle of the Atlantic, waves have time to really grow in power and size.

"It's not every wave, but you see these sort of super waves - like in Life of Pi and all those Hollywood movies where it's all CGI generated; you think they exaggerate the size of the waves but then you see these waves and the motion, and you're just awestruck by it.

"Most of the big ones, you would just slowly rise up all the way to the top until you are above everything else, and you can see so much more around you, and then you fly down like surfing. The ones that caused me to capsize were ones that would break. You could tell by the color whether they were going to break at the top, and you quickly learn to fear that."

And they kept him awake.

"When the waves break on the boat, it completely throws the boat around and rolls it. I never slept more than three hours at a time the whole way across. Even when I wanted to, when it was so stormy out that I couldn't row. You just shoot awake when a wave smashes into the boat. Inside the cabin, it's really incredibly loud, and you get banged up."

But it was not all a scary ride

Crane on New Year's Day

The sights of the sky at night, and an unexpected whale breaching "were breathtaking," crane said.

"I saw a whale pop up right in front of my boat, and I turned around and the fin had come out of the water within maybe two feet of the bow, it was incredible. And, sometimes when the wind would die down at night, and the water was completely flat like a mirror, there would be so many stars in the sky and they were so bright that it made the water glisten and sparkle with the reflections of the light. It was really magical."

When it was finally ending and Crane caught sight of land again, he was struck by how worried he was that he would not be able to communicate what he had experienced at sea and what effect being at sea for so long would have on his body. And while he was happy to have reached the conclusion of the journey, he was also sad it was ending.

"Even before I saw land, as I got closer to the finish line, I was nervous and anxious about whether I would be able to handle talking to people and still function. But when I saw land for the first time and I saw Antigua, I had these emotions run through my mind. It was happiness, but then there was this sadness that it was coming to an end."

Crane will spend the coming months continuing to raise money for Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation. Crane's fund raising goal is $100,000.

To date, he has raised $60,000. Go here to read more about Oceana and Crane's fund raising efforts.


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