The Asia Review of Books on the Web

Review by Tim O’Connell, Monday 24th November 2003

The owl and the pussycat had it easy

“Build a small ocean-going rowboat, find a rowing partner and then row unsupported 3,000 miles from Tenerife to Barbados. How difficult can that be?” wondered Hong Kong sailor Christian Havrehed, leafing through a brochure for the 2001 Ward Evans Cross Atlantic Rowing Race.

Three years later the young Dane had his boat, his partner and his answer. Experienced and armchair adventurers alike will enjoy accompanying the pair through travail to triumph in BEIJING TO BARBADOS IN A ROWBOAT: HOW CHINA AND THE WEST PULLED TOGETHER TO ROW ACROSS THE ATLANTIC.

Killer whales, wayward ships, tropical storms and festering boils — these are just some of the troubles encountered once the Yantu (Mandarin for “underway”) and 35 identical boats finally cross the starting line.

By then Havrehed has considerably complicated the challenge in his determination to make it about more than personal achievement. His idea is to cross the Atlantic with a mainland Chinese rowing partner and raise scholarship funds for mainland students at his alma mater, the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales. In so doing he hopes to promote the school’s ideals of “international understanding and cooperation,” provide encouragement “for all the struggling joint ventures in China” and help the mainland establish a tradition of sports-based charity. “Work as a team and you will achieve more” is scrawled in Chinese characters above the entrance to the boat’s tiny cabin.

This interesting cross-cultural aspect is at the heart of From Beijing to Barbados, both in the complex race preparation phase, which fills half the book, and during the gruelling 56-day journey itself. The Mandarin-speaking Havrehed and his partner Sun Haibin — a former PLA triathlete — contend with a disgruntled Guangdong boat-builder, puzzled mainland journalists, reluctant sponsors and a Chinese sports bureaucracy wary of the blame that would attach to any disaster. “This is not the way things are done in China” becomes a familiar refrain.

That the attempt is ultimately given a tacit official go-ahead and Sun returns home a national hero is encouraging. That not a single dollar of the sponsorship money raised comes from the mainland indicates how much further the concept of sports-based fundraising has to go.

While the pair plan and train from the Yantu’s base at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, another crucial question looms. Can two near-strangers from vastly different cultural backgrounds, neither of whom have ever rowed before, nor speak the other’s native language, summon the common understanding needed to survive two months of isolation at sea? Relationships, even marriages, have come spectacularly unstuck during the race — that proves to be the fate of the other Hong Kong entry in the 2001 event.

“Great…If we get into a fight at sea he will be a trained killer and I will have to improvise!” the author jokes when the ex-soldier turns out to be the only candidate qualified for the job.

Once the Yantu takes to the water, Havrehed describes all too clearly what it is like to row and sleep in a cramped, semi-open boat, alternating two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, for nearly two months. Fear, worry, and both physical and mental exhaustion are constant shipmates. The excruciating butt-pain forewarned by veteran rowers eventually necessitates a near-religious, “princess-on-the-pea padding” ritual at every shift change.

Yet through it all, regular doses of gallows humour, mutual encouragement, friendly competition and the odd burst of euphoria keep the pair paddling steadily westwards, and ready the crew of the Yantu for a final, unexpected challenge as they approach the coast of Barbados.

Illustrated with humorous sketches and 16 pages of colour photos, Beijing to Barbados in a Rowboat is an adventure story with a contemporary Asian flavour, and an entertaining addition to the carpe diem genre.

Notes: Tim O’Connell holds the record for rowing around Hong Kong Island, approximately 1/110th of the distance travelled by the Yantu.