The Swell of the Oceans

Kenneth Crutchlow passed away on 17 January. Crutchlow and Peter Bird founded The Ocean Rowing Society in 1983.

31 January 2016

Chris Dodd writes on Kenneth Crutchlow, who passed away on 17 January, and The Ocean Rowing Society:

A few days before Doris docked at Cairns after a 257-day row across the Pacific from San Francisco, Kenneth Crutchlow passed into the great enclosure in the sky at the age of 71. Doris was rowed by a crew of British women doing continuous two-hour shifts. Ken devoted a large chunk of his life at the helm of his baby, The Ocean Rowing Society, which he set up in 1983.

Kenneth was a one-off. From 1958 to 1965, he rowed at Gladstone Warwick Rowing Club on the River Lee in London, now subsumed into Lee RC. In 1965, he was rowing at Thames RC in Putney when he began a seven-year hitchhiking escapade round the world. In 1969, he was in Florida stringing for the Daily Sketch to greet John Fairfax’s arrival to complete the first solo oar-powered crossing of the Atlantic.

In the course of his wanderings, Kenneth repeatedly challenged himself. He entered the Top of New York’s Empire State to Top of London’s GPO Tower race. He rode a bike from LA to Mexico City. He ran and cycled across Death Valley and biked from San Francisco, where he made his home in 1972, to Alaska.

Record sales of the Desert Boot in 1971 coincided with Kenneth Crutchlow running 130 miles across Death Valley for a $1,000 wager in August 1970, wearing a bowler hat and Clarks Desert Boots, whilst carrying a rolled umbrella.
Record sales of the Desert Boot in 1971 coincided with Kenneth Crutchlow running 130 miles across Death Valley for a $1,000 wager in August 1970, wearing a bowler hat and Clarks Desert Boots.

In 1981, he shipped a small fleet of London taxicabs to Sonoma County and launched London Transport Sonoma, a business that he expanded into Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. Three years later, he paid $14,000 to the Vietnamese government to secure the release of Richard Knight, an English nutter who had entered Vietnam illegally in search of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure, and two Thai fishermen who had accompanied the bounty hunter. Crutchlow said it was his ‘duty as an Englishman’ to help the fishermen. ‘It was an Englishman who got them into Vietnam. If he wasn’t going to help them, then there had to be an Englishman who could.’

In 1987, Crutchlow challenged Tom Crawford and Mike Witwer to a team race over the 146-mile Badwater Ultramarathon course from Death Valley to Mount Whitney – for a pint of ale. Crawford and Witwer had completed the course in the previous year in 70 hours and 27 minutes. Kenneth advertised for a partner in Athletics Weekly and recruited Eleanor Robinson, considered to be the best female ultra runner in the world. Witwer pulled out, fearing that a woman would beat him, and Jean Ellis joined Crawford instead. Robinson, aged 39, took the lead early on and never relinquished it. After 108 miles, she was four hours ahead and completed the ascent of Mount Whitney after 52 hours and 45 minutes. Crawford and Ennis finished in 58:57, and 45-year-old Crutchlow in 126:30 alongside a journalist who ran along to get the story.

Rowing loomed large again in Kenneth’s life when his friend Peter Bird completed the first row from San Francisco to the Great Barrier Reef in 1983, a distance of 9,000 miles achieved in 294 days. The same year, the pair founded the Ocean Rowing Society. The principal aims were to keep a record of all rows across the oceans and to monitor and advance the efforts of people bold enough to take on oceans. The society and its website has done that ever since. At the time it was set up, there had been 32 attempts to row an ocean (14 of them successful) since Norwegians Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo crossed the Atlantic from Battery Park, N.Y., to the Isles of Scilly in1896 (55 days 13 hours). Now I have the impression that the oceans are as awash with rowers as Everest is with climbers.

Bird, with Crutchlow as his manager, made five attempts to become the first person to row the north Pacific from Vladivostok to San Francisco, only to be lost at sea on a voyage that began in March 1996. Peter’s son Louis has entered this summer’s Great Pacific Race from Monterey Bay, California, to Honolulu in memory of his father. With no rowing experience, he is training on the Bristol Channel, England.

Though heartbroken by his friend’s death, Crutchlow continued to encourage and assist ocean rowers, directing the society from an office in Santa Rosa, the Press Democrat described him as one of the most audacious and intriguing chaps ever to grace Sonoma County. He and his Ukrainian wife Tatiana – a marvelous cook, concert pianist and webmaster – kept an ever open door to ocean adventurers when they moved to London around the turn of the century, and Kenneth arranged specular black tie dinners at which proceedings would include live messages from those at sea.

In 2002, I reported a wonderful Crutchlow occasion in Regatta magazine when he invited all the women who had crossed an ocean to the Royal Geographic Society in London. ‘The Royal Geographic is a humbling place,’ I wrote, ‘dressed in dark wood and decorated in the style of pioneer cartographers, its rooms and corridors resonating of great “We were there” to celebrate one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, the eleven women who have crossed oceans in rowing boats.

‘The evening began and ended with mingling in the spacious bar, a rare bar where the stories are seldom tall. There were Stephanie Brown and Jude Ellis who placed fourth in the 2001 Atlantic rowing race. There was Sylvia Cook, the first, who opened the bidding with an east to west Pacific crossing with John Fairfax. There was the intense Kathleen Saville who crossed Atlantic and Pacific with her late husband Curtis. There was the diminutive Nadia Rice, a speedy racer with her husband David in the 1997 Atlantic rowing race.

‘There was Isabel Fraser who has married the man with whom she did the 1997 race, Richard Duckworth. There was Jan Meek, another 1997 veteran who crossed the ocean with her army cadet son Daniel. There was Diana Hoff, the Scottish doctor whose solo Atlantic crossing ended on the fifth of January 2000 but started on the same day alongside the American Tori Murden, who completed the voyage first. Murden was the only absentee, having stayed at home at the last minute to care for a sick relative.

‘And there was Debra Veal, the media’s solo saga of last year who rowed the Atlantic in 111 days, 98 of them on her own after her husband Andrew abandoned ship and disqualified her from the race. You could always spot Debra in the venerable gloom of the Royal Geographic because she was haloed by arc lights. The TV crews recognised nobody else.’ (Regatta, June 2002)

I guess the Royal Geographic Society would be too small to host all female ocean crossers today. It has, after all been quite a week, what with Doris and the Coxless Crew conquering the Pacific and another British outfit, Row Like A Girl, lowering the women’s Atlantic record from La Gomera to Antigua by five days (40 days, 8 hours, 26 minutes).

Kenneth Crutchlow pushed boundaries all his life, and found fun doing so. His spirit will, I’m sure, live on.

One comment

  1. What an extraordinary man. Had he not existed it would have been necessary to invent him.

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