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Conquering the sea: Charleston woman rows the Atlantic Ocean; journey featured in book

Louise Graff rowed across the Atlantic Ocean with an international team, starting in Morocco and ending in Barbados. Buy this photo

Louise Graff has checked a pretty big item off her bucket list: spending 47 days rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean as part of a 16-person team.

It’s been almost three years since Graff, now 50, rowed from Morocco to Barbados. But earlier this year, Graff was able to relive her adventure when one of the rowing crew members, Canadian author Charles Wilkins, published a book about the experience, “Little Ship of Fools.”An accompanying documentary called “The Big Blue” also chronicles the journey. It had a showing a month ago at the Terrace Theater.

The preparation for such endeavor is intense, yet it pales in comparison to the physical, mental and emotional roller coaster Graff underwent for those 47 days.

Graff trained for six months, working out six days a week for two to four hours. She hit the rowing machine, swam, did yoga and weight training.

“I felt as ready as I could be,” Graff said. “A lot of it is strength and being physically fit. That is a part of any endurance sport.”

But it was much harder to prepare for the mental and emotional toll of such a trip.

“You don’t know until you get out there and experience it. You have to find a way to work through the physical pain of what you’re asking your body to do and the emotional part is pretty intense.

“At times I was so tired and physically hurting,” she said. “It was a roller coaster of emotions.”

A love of the water


A self-described “aquaholic,” Graff said she’s always felt her best on the water. Even growing up on a farm in Kentucky, Graff’s had a lifetime interest in swimming, canoeing, kayaking and rafting.

In fact, the water is what drew her to Charleston in 1989. She lives on Johns Island where she owns rental properties, allowing a schedule flexible enough for her aquatic adventures.

The first was in 1997, when Graff and a rowing partner started out in a voyage across the southern Atlantic Ocean. They had to abandon the trip just a couple of days into it when Graff’s rowing partner fell ill. Graff put the idea of a lengthy ocean row out of her mind.

That is until she came across a post on row2k.com, a website for rowing enthusiasts. Someone was looking for crew members for a row across the Atlantic Ocean. Graff couldn’t resist clicking the link and reading more.

“I could not get it out of my head,” she said. “It literally grabbed hold of me.”

Ready to row


The boat, named “Big Blue,” was 40 feet long and 24 feet wide. It was equipped with sliding seats for four people to row on each side and stocked with food, first aid materials, safety gear and desalinators.

The boat’s “pod,” about the size of a walk-in closet, had a kitchen, storage and eight bunks. The space was “cozy,” Graff said, especially the couple of times the seas were so rough everyone had to pile in and stay safe.

The international team ­— 11 men and five women — joined together in Morocco. They rowed the coast for five days to get to Tarfaya, Morocco, where they would head out to sea for a grueling and exhilarating adventure of a lifetime. The crew’s goal was to break a world record for this route, originally done in 33 days.

The team headed into the ocean on Jan. 15, 2011, rowing until March 4. The route to Port St. Charles, Barbados, is calm but the crew still encountered headwinds and cold temperatures.

From 10 p.m. to sunrise, the boat was relatively quiet, and during her nighttime rows, Graff would soak up the starry skies and intense quiet of the open sea. Rowers would turn on their iPods and row as they listened to music. Graff’s iPod was equipped with about 1,800 songs but it was “Crash” by the Dave Matthews Band that was on replay.

“Music helped get us through,” Graff said. “You get tired of talking eventually. You get tired of thinking.”

Rough seas


The crew rowed two hours at a time and then took a two-hour break. Graff used the breaks to hydrate, eat, clean up and tend to any bruises or blisters, plus try to get a little rest. Quarters were tight. Everyone was tired and sore. Emotions ran high.

Even the kindest of people and the calmest of spirits get rattled on a trip like that. “I probably said some pretty bad words,” Graff said with a smile. And she had her share of tantrums, including when she’d had her fill of tuna. “The little things can be blown into big things.”

At one point on the trip, the perfect quote for the journey came to Graff and she noted it in her journal: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea” from Isak Dinesan, author of “Out of Africa.”

“The sea does cure a lot of things,” she said. “There were certainly sweat, tears and the sea. We had all those things pretty intensely.”

Back on land


As the days ticked off, Graff began to visualize making landfall in Barbados. A group of friends and family, including her niece Siobhan Egan and longtime partner, Noreen Powers, were awaiting her arrival. As the boat approached its final destination, Graff’s joy intensified as she could hear the cheers of her friends before she could see them.

In the weeks following her transatlantic adventure, Graff woke up every couple of hours accustomed to her rowing schedule, and had a little trouble keeping her balance after weeks of being tossed at sea. Plus, life was noisy.

“Everything seemed really, really loud,” she said. “The cars, people talking, being in a crowded room ... it’s an odd sensation. Life on land is very loud.”

Earlier this year, Graff was able to relive her adventure when one of the rowing crew members, Canadian author Charles Wilkins, published a book about the experience, “Little Ship of Fools.” An accompanying documentary called “The Big Blue” also chronicles the journey.

In his book, Wilkins describes Graff as the “heart and equilibrium” of the crew. “Even when conditions were at their worst and few of us had anything left with which to comfort either our crewmates or ourselves, she would invariably have a little joke or offer a word of encouragement, or would dispense a 10-second back rub or hug,” he wrote.

So what’s next on Graff’s bucket list? Her next chapter is a bit of question mark, she said. But she’s still rowing with Dragon Boat Charleston, and she and Wilkins have discussed a row down the Intracoastal Waterway.

On a recent vacation to Belize, Graff learned about a four-day canoe race there. “I was intrigued,” Graff said.

And so another bucket list item may be checked off soon.

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