Olympic rower Guin Batten has completed her solo crossing of the Zero Degree Channel in 7 hours 16 minutes, setting a world first for the 60 kilometre passage between Huvadhoo Atoll and the island of Fuahmulah.
The 42 year-old silver medallist, who also holds the world record for her solo row across the English Channel, said she was awed by the excitement, enthusiasm and knowledge of her local supporters, 200 of whom were waiting on the beach at Fuahmulah when she arrived.
“It was a bit tricky getting through the rocks, but when I arrived I was given flowers, a coconut to drink, and many, many handshakes,” Batten says.
“I got back in the boat and went round to the harbour where the entire primary school was waiting – there was probably 500 people there too.”
The crossing itself was “picture perfect” – although surrounded by “terrific thunderstorms”, an “amazing show of light and sound”, none came close and for most of the journey the water was “calm and silky clear.”
“The weather was perfect, with very long, rolling three metre waves. It was pleasant and calm – you wouldn’t have known you were in the middle of the Indian Ocean with three kilometres of water under you,” Batten says.
Setting off in the early morning darkness on Tuesday, Batten rowed at a constant speed of about 8.5-8.7 kilometres an hour, a “jogging pace” that meant she only needed to drink three litres of water “and half the food I thought I would need” during the crossing.
Rowing in the darkness was “surreal”, she says. “We spend our days sitting in front of screens and machines, but out here you feel alive. It was something you don’t do everyday.”
Batten was accompanied by her support vessel, the coastguard and a fishing dhoni – “about 40 people who looked like they were having such a good time” – together with dolphins and a pod of pilot whales.
The Maldivians on the fishing dhoni came to her rescue at one point, five to six hours in, “when I started feeling low. It was a real bad patch,” Batten says.
“I had to think really hard on different things every 2-3 minutes to take my mind off the pain in my hands and body – you don’t make good decisions like that. But the locals on the dhoni got the music and the drums going and started dancing, then threw a bucket of water over me.”
She is full of admiration for the local fishermen who helped the vessels navigate the reefs and currents out of Huvadhoo Atoll, one of the most technically difficult parts of the crossing.
“Their local knowledge and experience was so impressive,” she says.
“After two hours I couldn’t navigate using the island and had to steer off the support boat, which was stressful. The skipper had a really hard job working to keep the course.”
With Batten exhausted by her journey and being draped with garlands, some of the locals took the opportunity to have a row in her boat.
“One of the girls [who had a go] was a natural – she looked like she would’ve picked it up in an hour,” Batten says. “One thing I really felt while I was doing this challenge, was that rowing is a common language.”
With her hands shredded by blisters (“here in the humidity the skin becomes soft”) caused by over seven hours at the oars and wearied by thousands of handshakes, Batten now intends to enjoy some of the Maldives’ more traditional tourist pasttimes.
“I know I said previously that I wanted to do some exercise before lying on the beach – well now I’m quite happy to do just that.”
President Mohamed Nasheed said last week he was “delighted” that Batten had become the first person to row solo across the Zero Degree Channel.
“I hope her efforts will be a catalyst for the revival of rowing in the Maldives,” he said.
Batten’s world-first attempt at the zero degree crossing was supported by UK-based NGO Friends of Maldives, with assistance from British Airways, Coco Palm Resorts (Maldives) and Crew Room.