Blindfold to Memmert

To my mind, October 22 is the greatest and most memorable day in ‘The Riddle of the Sands’. It’s the day Carruthers and Davies row a dinghy in thick fog, all way from Norderney to Memmert and back again.

It’s atmospheric, full of tension & jeopardy, and describes an extraordinary act of derring-do with the kind of fine detail that places you right there in the boat. But can it actually be done? Is this something that Lloyd notDavies and I should attempt as part of our creative re-playing of the book? The answer is a resounding… NO.

For a start, we’d have to learn to row a dinghy, and rowing, let me tell you, is a dying art. The arrival of the low-cost outboard motor has seen to that. Why bother learning about a load of old rowlocks if you can putt-putt-putt to wherever you want with one swift yank of a pull cord?

Nobody rows any more.

We’d also need to get a lot better at navigation. Sure, we plan to have a prismatic compass, a lamp and everything else listed in the book – including the whisky and tongue sandwiches – but we certainly don’t have Davies’s navigation nouse. We’d be lost within minutes. On top of that, we’d have to be rowing at a *very* high speed for several hours. As you can see from the map in the book, and my rough copy made on Google Maps, the trip is 14 miles each way. Childers is, as usual, curiously specific about timings.

“It was twenty-five minutes to eleven when we noiselessly pushed off.”

“It was twenty-five minutes to eleven when we noiselessly pushed off.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.39.13
14 miles in 4 hours – can it be done?

They reach the eastern outlet of Memmert Balje at 11:10 and take a three minute break. At ‘a few minutes past one’ Davies estimates that they still have “eight miles before us, allowing for bends”. They get to within a quarter of a mile from Memmert at “nearly 3”, i.e. 14:55.

Certainly this is a tour de force. They’re covering 14 miles in just over four hours, and they do the last eight miles in under two hours. In other words, Carruthers is rowing at roughly 3mph for the first two hours, and 4mph for the second two hours. And let’s not forget, he’s then got to row them back again to Norderney by 20:00.

Listeners to the latest podcast will know that I consulted the cloud about what’s the fastest one can go in a row-boat, and for how long. The consensus seems to be that 3mph is the maximum speed, and anything more than a couple of hours would result in even a fit young man hitting the floor – and certainly suffering from severe blisters on both the hands and the bum. This isn’t a discomfort that Carruthers mentions at all when he eventually sits down for dinner with the Dollmans.

Don’t get me wrong – there are examples of people who have rowed a long way in a small dinghy. In 1896, just a few years before Childers sat down to write ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ there is the fine example of Harbo and Samuelsen who rowed across the Atlantic in an 18-foot boat, taking 55 days to get from New York to the Scilly Isles  – a record that stood for over 100 years. (That’s a rough speed of 2.5 mph btw)

John Fairfax and Sylvia Cook

And if you’re looking for real-life bona fide rowing adventurer – rather than us two middle-aged wannabes – look no further than John Fairfax, who not only sculled his way across the Atlantic, but also spent a year with the equally extraordinary Sylvia Cook rowing across the Pacific from San Francisco to Australia.

Fairfax led a very colourful life as a sometime animal skin trader, cigarette smuggler, South American pirate and Las Vegas baccarat player (and, believe me, that’s just a snapshot the man’s life). Sylvia Cook, by contrast, went on to live a slightly more conventional life, and still works part time  in a B&Q in Surrey. There’s an excellent interview with her about the amazing Pacific crossing here btw:

All in all, it’s pretty clear that Lloyd notDavies and I lack the skills, the physique, the bravery and the sheer madness required to take on a long and dangerous row. The maths suggests that even the great rowers of this world would find it hard to do what Carruthers and Davies allegedly achieve – 28 miles in 8 hours in thick fog and with a strong tide against them for part of the way, and some fiendish navigation to boot.

Yet again, we’re going to have to admit that some bits of a ripping yarn like ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ are not entirely do-able in real life. But that doesn’t mean we won’t try. Watch out for us next year – we’ll be the the middle-aged guys with an outboard motor and a GPS puttering around on a cloudless unfoggy day looking a bit lost. In our heads, we’ll be dreaming of being Harbo & Samuelson. (We can never come close to being John Fairfax).

4 thoughts on “Blindfold to Memmert

  1. A word of caution here: don’t confuse “speed over ground” (SOG) with boatspeed. If I remember rightly, Davis had chosen the timings so that he was advantaged by the rising tide as he rowed up to and over the watershed and then by the falling tide as he continued onwards towards Memmert. Given that the tidal current can easily reach 1 to 1.5 knots, this would increase a boatspeed of 3 knots to 4.5 kts (best case) over the ground, which make it look a bit more do-able.

    Also, are you measuring in nautical miles or statute miles (there is a very significant difference)? I’ll assume you are using nautical miles for now. 14 nautical miles at 4 knots takes 3.5 hours, close to what Childers specified. And by the time they get over the watershed and Davis makes his “8 miles to go” statement, the falling tide would be well set in and the SOG could have been quite high.

    I do agree with you however that the physical effort of rowing so far so fast makes the timing unlikely, to say the least. And they still have the return journey to face, with the tide a bit adverse, at least for part of it.

    And when/if you do try and replicate this journey, do take all the survival kit you can cram in to your (hopefully) unsinkable craft. And a paper chart. And a GPS!


  2. Your discussion of the rowers crossing various bodies of water has to mm be my favorite of your podcast segments. A great example of what the adventure club offers.
    Let us know when that t-shirt is ready for purchase!


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