Cape attorney rows from Morocco to New York

November 1st, 2014

By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

Cape Town attorney, Vasti Geldenhuys, has claimed the title of being the only woman from the African continent to have rowed across any ocean, a title she is very proud of.

Ms Geldenhuys, 36, and her longtime partner, Riaan Manser, 41, rowed from Morocco to New York. Ms Geldenhuys told De Rebus that the trip took almost six months. They left Morocco on 30 December 2013 and arrived in New York on 20 June. The pair rowed for almost 11 000 kilometers, doing 1,8 million oar strokes each. They arrived back in Johannesburg on 10 July.

Ms Geldenhuys was admitted as an attorney in 2005 and as a conveyancer in 2009. She started her own firm in Somerset West trading under her name in June 2013 where she specialised in civil and criminal litigation, especially evictions and drunk driving cases. She put the firm on hold during her travels and has not had a chance to re-open it as she has been giving inspirational speeches all over the world since her return.

Ms Geldenhuys said that while she was on the boat, she decided that she wanted to do her pupilage at the Cape Bar next year and she recently handed in her application.

Of the six months it took to get from Morocco to New York, four and a half were spent at sea in a 7 by 1,5 meter rowing boat. The pair rowed for eight to 12 hours a day and did not see any land or people for two and a half months. ‘We also only spoke to each other for two months after our satellite phone broke after we capsized approximately 2 000 km from the nearest land. I was capsized underneath the boat and Riaan got thrown out, luckily grabbing on to a rope to prevent him from being washed away into the deep blue,’ she said.

Ms Geldenhuys said that the scariest moment was when Mr Manser wanted to film their boat from the sea. ‘He took the camera and filmed a bit. He misjudged the speed the boat was being pushed by the wind and the swell and he could not swim back to the boat fast enough. I could not physically turn the boat around by myself. His swimming was hampered because he had the camera in his hand. After the third time grabbing and missing, he stopped swimming. He had swallowed so much water by that time that he had to stop or drown. When he stopped, in a matter of seconds the boat was 30 to 40 meters away from him. The terror I felt when he stopped swimming is difficult to describe. What saved him was the fishing line we were trawling behind the boat. He grabbed onto it and I reeled him back to the boat. Amazing,’ she reminisced, adding ‘the ocean is so vast, there is no way anybody would get to you in time if anything goes wrong. They will also never find you.’

Ms Geldenhuys said that when they got close to the Bahamas, the shark population increased considerably. She said that the waters up the east coast of the United States are riddled with sharks and that they could not keep the fishing line in the water anymore because they were constantly catching sharks.

The pair got food poisoning from eating a fish, they had caught, for the third day in a row. She explained that they did not have a fridge and the outside temperature was an average of 35°C. She does admit that they pushed it a bit by having some of the fish for a third day in a row.

When asked whether there was a time when they needed medical attention, Ms Geldenhuys said that she caught surfer’s eye, which is when a fatty deposit grows onto the white of your eye next to the pupil. She explains that it is caused by the sun. ‘I was very worried. I did not know what it was and what to do about it so I taped up the one side of my sun glasses with duct tape to keep the sun out and rowed with one eye for more than half the trip,’ she said, adding that Riaan had a bad ear infection, he had to plug the ear and sit it out as they did not have any medication for that as well.

The couple ate freeze-dried food, which Ms Geldenhuys explains as the same food that astronauts eat when they go into space. ‘You just add hot water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Thereafter, you have roast lamb, Moroccan lamb, roast chicken, cottage pie, etc. It was so tasty. The last two hours of rowing in the day, Riaan and I spoke of the food we were going to eat that night,’ she said.

‘We also caught plenty of fish. After halfway the fish was plentiful. Dorado, Tuna, Bonita and Triggerfish. We sometimes caught fish we had no clue of what type it was, but we still cooked and ate it. Flying fish used to jump into our boat at night. At first we cooked them, but then realised we could use them as bait to catch bigger fish,’ she recalls.

Ms Geldenhuys said that Mr Manser lost about 12 kg and she lost about 7 kg on the trip.

Ms Geldenhuys said that they were not rowers before they left and that they only practised on their rowing machine at home, which was different compared to rowing on an ocean in a real rowing boat. She said that the first time they rowed any rowing boat was two days before they left.

‘I am glad to be back on terra firma. The journey was much tougher than I ever expected, but it was a once in a life time experience. When we were on that boat, I specifically remember saying that even if they gave me R1 million, that I would never ever do it again. Apart from the physical agony you are in every day, the trip is mental torture. The scene is the same every day. It is very monotonous. You cannot judge your progress because there is no reference point. I do not think people can grasp how tough something like this can be. I definitely will not row to New York again, but maybe somewhere in the distant future, I will ask Riaan to take me somewhere else,’ she said.

When asked whether she had any regrets, Ms Geldenhuys said that the only regret she has is that they did not take more spices on the trip, adding that she now understands why spices were so popular in the 15th century.

She said that it is amazing how you miss everyday things one so easily takes for granted, and how small things that you never thought could, can bring you so much pleasure, such as a small packet of sugar.

Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele,

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2014 (Nov) DR 6.


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