The navigator was drifting closer everyday to the tip of the West Indies when all of a sudden the trade winds changed course. Alone in a row boat and surrounded by the immensity of the Atlantic, the ocean transiting sailor had been keeping the pace, rowing on average a 100 kilometers a day since pushing out from the bay of Puerto de Mogán one January 26, 2012.
He was halfway across a vastness of blue and pounding waves, when he realized he might not make it to the first outcrop of Antigua, instead he had to row against the currents, hoping that he would arrive somewhere in South America.
Nicolas Carvajal was born in Bogotá in 1980 and lived only nine years in his native land before his family moved from Cali to London, as his father had been commissioned to set up a subsidiary company in the U.K. Studying at an international school in Cobham, Surrey, the young Colombian was not alone with his global ambitions, as he recalls how in his graduating class, there were 70 different nationalities. It dawned on him that he would become a “citizen of the world” and even though holidays in Colombia were frequent, visiting farms in Melgar and Los Llanos, he put off the idea of returning to live in Colombia and finished studying Law at the University of Warwick. Upon graduating in 2002, he got a job in the City of London working in business development as a telecommunications executive.
He stayed with the company for two years before helping his family’s own telecom business expand into the U.K; and with experience in emerging markets such as South East Asia, Eastern Europe and the sub Sahara, South America was still at his beck and call, yet Nicolas was set on exploring those exotic, faraway places the world could offer, even those which most of us might never see.
He loved water so passionately that he decided to change course and begin training as a commercial diver. He could have chosen the pristine waters of the Maldives or the coral reefs of the Caribbean, but wanting only the best, enrolled at the Dunoon Professional Diving Academy in Scotland in 2009. Nicolas would spend a month at a time “under pressure,” housed in a steel sphere and pressurized to 80 meters below sea level. On carefully scheduled shifts, Nicolas and fellow divers would inspect and weld pipes in the cold and murky depths of the North Sea. The possibility of being that pinstriped barrister, pubbing it on Fleet Street, began to wane, and the Bogotano’s only regret of the seafaring life he was choosing was that he couldn’t “grow gills.”
After a year and a half of beaming artificial light at deep-sea construction projects, Nicolas was forced to return to Colombia after a family member became sick with cancer. Inspired by his grandfather’s love of the outdoors, Nicolas came across a bold and daring idea, to cross the Atlantic in a rowing boat. “I had never rowed a boat in my life,” claims the 34 year old, as we meet in a city where water flows through taps, rather than veins.
Looking at the route that Christopher Columbus took on his discovery voyage of the Americas, he studied the Canarian currents, learned how to read the stars with a sexton, and envisioned crossing the 3,000 miles (5,100 kms), which separate the volcanic Canary Islands from the Caribbean basin in 70 days. He would stock his oceangoing vessel with 100 days of food and wrap his passport in a vacuum packed bag. He aimed to break the world record for “speed crossing” between continents which stood at 62 days. It was an ambitious and epic undertaking and Nicolas thought it best not to face the wrath of the open sea alone.
He partnered with Rodrigo Ideus Forero, Colombia’s first Olympic rower and they set out to raise sponsorships to finance the crossing. The Colom- bians were lent an ocean-worthy boat and they headed in December 2010 to their point of departure in the Canary Islands. But just five days before the two adventurers were going to attempt their speed crossing, Nicolas fell sick. His appendix flared up and he needed surgery. The crossing stalled. “A lot of people lost faith in the project,” recalls Nicolas. Yet, in hindsight destiny had dealt a forgiving hand. “Had we left with the appendicitis I would have died.” With no backing and a boat returned to its rightful owners, the Atlantic would remain an unchartered romance, its swells and sunsets the dreams of capricious others. Or so it seemed.
Nicolas was determined not to let a body of water come between him and his dream. He would cross the Atlantic alone, even if that meant pay- ing for an old wooden row boat with his savings and fixing it up in a Southampton dockyard. On January 26th 2012, as dawn broke over Gran Canaria, Nicolas rowed out of Puerto de Mogán and entered an expanse of blue and towards an horizon of uncertainty. “What I have done?” thought Nicolas to himself as the Canary Islands vanished from view. This would be no “speed crossing,” but a personal commitment for the risk-taking Bogotano. “I had told everyone I was going to do it, and I was raising awareness for cancer research.” Nicolas’ brother had been diagnosed with cancer at age 8 and survived, and his grandfather had died of cancer. “More than the money, I got a lot of letters from cancer suffers who enjoyed the idea of my crossing and wrote me letters,” remembers Nicolas of the worldwide response he received from going to sea.
As Nicolas Carvajal braved his first storm and shifting currents, he was hardly thinking that he would become the first South American to cross solo in a rowing boat the Atlantic, and the 56th person in the world. He had to keep a strict schedule of sleeping at two hour intervals and this became a matter of survival. With Bermuda shorts and sunscreen, a sexton and tins of food, Nicolas was hardly over-engineering his voyage. He wanted to persevere “old style,” with just the basics and the blessing of an easterly wind. “It’s a question of human spirit, rather than equipment,” states Nicolas.
After days at sea, the trusted easterlies turned south, and despite rowing 12 hours a day, Nicolas’ hopes of reaching the Caribbean began to dissipate. Without extended sleep and taking care of dry skin, the rower had to keep strictly to a routine. “In that type of an environment you’re in survival mode,” recalls Nicolas. “I didn’t have time to ‘ponder the meaning of life’ out there. Every decision was life or death”
The rower faced 15 days of storms at sea lasting between 5 to 6 days each. Waves of up to 40 feet (12 meters) pounded his raft and with winds of up to 50 knots. During those tense days Nicolas would shut himself indoors trying to stave off seasickness and checking that the rudder wouldn’t snap. “It wasn’t possible to try to sleep while riding a Rodeo Bronco. There were a lot of times though, I would wake up without having any idea I had been sleeping. My body just shut down.”
On one still night, as Nicolas was sleeping, he was stirred from the darkness by a loud bang. The raft rose up from the sea to come crashing back down. Thinking he had hit a cargo con- tainer, he went out to inspect the hull. Then a second loud thud. The sailor decided to wait it out on deck. Then he realized what had hit him: a whale “curious of what that lump of wood was in the ocean,” nudged up against his 21 foot vessel. He was definetly not alone on the open sea. “The Atlantic is cruel mistress,” recalls Nicolas of photo moments which were never captured. “She lifts her skirt and shows you her thigh. But the moment you try to take a picture, she slaps you in the face.”
About 30 days into the Atlantic, Nicolas was south of Antigua. The northerlies were pushing him towards the mainland, and he began to aim for Barbados. Twenty days later, Barbados became impossible to reach as he had to row against the currents. He thought he might strike land near Trinidad. “When I couldn’t reach Trinidad, I started rowing straight south towards French Guyana.”
Rowing at 4 knots, the raft struck a 5 knot current which enters the Caribbean from the south of South America. He began to “ride his socks off.” With parents anxiously waiting in Miami and tracking his position on a blog, they predicted their son might arrive in Georgetown. They waited 10 days. On April 19th 2012, after 84 days and 7 hours at sea, Nicolas Carvajal made landfall. He was back in South America, near his native Colombia, having arrived in a most unconventional way.
Nicolas’ seafaring adventures didn’t end in a tropical port. After spending time in Bogotá and working on his family’s dairy farm, he took up another challenge in 2013 to cross on a paddle-board the 80 nautical miles which separate the most westerly point of North America, Wales, Alaska, with the closest Russian outpost, Chukotka. With a fleet of kayaks shipped from Seattle to Anchorage, and navigating them 20 days through isolated bays and islands, Nicolas ended up staying two months with the Inupiak Eskimo, waiting for the winds to abate. They never did. It was far too treacherous even though he could see Russia from this whaling communiy. “I woke up one morning and decided to head home. Every failure has something to teach us,” recalls Nicolas.
The trip to Alaska became more about living with a remote foreign peoples than breaking a world record. This is a fundamental part of the Colombian explorer’s greater philosophy on life. As he prepares for upcoming adventures which involve trekking to the South Pole the way Roald Amundsen did in 1911, and crossing the Pacific in his own Kon Tiki, Nicolas Carvajal will be a name much in the news in the years to come. His trips will be based on “human power” and an example to all, that “we only have this life to live.”