John Zeigler
John Zeigler. Courtesy of

When rowers take on the Atlantic

By Brooks Robards - October 18, 2007

What drives a man to test himself physically? What does it mean to win? Those questions hover around "Row Hard No Excuses," a documentary film that follows two men in a race across the Atlantic. It will be shown by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society on Saturday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 pm at Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

In 2001, John Zeigler, a 51-year-old grocery distributor from New Jersey, teamed up with Tom Mailhot, a 41-year-old construction supervisor from Massachusetts, to compete in what may be the most extreme of sports competitions. Along with some of the other 36 teams, they videotaped themselves during what most of us would call an ordeal, in a large boat that looks more like a sailboat without the sail than a rowing scull.

Then award-winning San Francisco filmmaker Luke Wolbach made the footage into "Row Hard No Excuses," the slogan emblazoned on the rowers' tee-shirts. Started in 1997, the Atlantic Rowing Challenge is a 3,000-mile sprint from Tenerife in the Canary Islands to the Bahamas that takes the swiftest rowers five or six weeks and the slowest more than three months. According to the producers, fewer people have rowed across the Atlantic than have climbed Mount Everest.

Among the oldest of the contestants, Zeigler and Mailhot were the only American rowers in the 2001 race. The entry fee for the race is $19,000, and it costs $150,000 to build the required boat from a kit out of marine plywood. According to the rules, none of the two-person teams (women compete as well as men) can have outside help, and each team must provide all of its own supplies. In Zeigler and Mailhot's case, the food alone that they carried aboard their boat, American Star, weighed 730 pounds.

So, who would be crazy enough to take on such a life-or-death challenge? Both Zeigler and Mailhot had histories of pushing their limits physically. Zeigler competed in marathon canoe races, and Mailhot played minor league hockey before an eye injury sidelined him. The documentary suggests both felt compelled to prove themselves to their fathers. Parents, girlfriends and wives, along with friends and colleagues, add perspective.

"This is really a mind game," says Mailhot at the outset. "We intend to win this race." He characterizes himself as a perfectionist and Zeigler as a "bull." Tori Murden, the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic, serves as their informal coach.

The two men start off in high gear, rowing together rather than spelling each other. By the second day, they have covered 60 miles and moved into second place. Then something happens that sets them back, and the struggle begins in earnest.

The nature of the challenge begins to unfold in unexpected ways, as they find themselves trying to exist on only eight hours of sleep over the first three days. Occasionally cutting across their route, tankers prove nearly impossible to track, providing more danger. Rainsqualls pelt them, Zeigler develops butt pain severe enough to be debilitating and friction crops up between the partners.

By the time two weeks have elapsed, five of the original teams have dropped out or been disqualified. When Zeigler develops an open sore on his buttocks and a painful rash on his armpits and feet, and blisters on top of blisters cover Mailhot's hands, physical stamina and brute strength become far from the race's only challenges.

Once Zeigler and Mailhot reach the halfway point, they hit the doldrums. The heat and lack of wind mean they cover only 17 miles in 11 hours of rowing. Heat exhaustion sets in, and they start to hear voices. Later, trade winds bring high seas.

"The meaning of life is that we should admire creation," Zeigler says, suggesting the spiritual dimension of the voyage.

Interspersed with Zeigler and Mailhot's account of the race is commentary from other contestants. A Spanish team lowers a bottle of champagne into the water and finds the amount of water on the planet unimaginable. A team of women moves into fourth place.

While he may occasionally insert superfluous shots of pretty scenery, director Wolbach does have a knack for showing the viewer what it must be like to live so close to the marine elements. Porpoises and a curious turtle appear. The water heaves and rolls as the rowers' oars dip in and out. Clouds boil across the sky.

To find out what happens at the finish, you need to see the movie. Unlike Ernest Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea" or Yann Martel's "The Life of Pi," this event really happened. But truth always has been stranger than fiction.

Row Hard No Excuses, M.V. Film Society, Saturday, Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Doors open at 7 pm. $8, $5 for members. For more information, call 774-392-2972.

Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.