“Pura vida” is the buzz phrase of Costa Rica. It means fun, laid back, chilled out, easy going. But for four British men, something got lost in translation.
“Pura Vida” was the name of their boat; however, this was not just any boat. It was to be the men’s home for almost seven weeks. It was to carry them almost 3,000 miles. It was to test them to their limits.
Pura Vida was a rowing boat, and their entry in the 2007 Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race, the “premier event in ocean rowing,” according to the Woodvale Challenge Web site.
The guys decided on the name as they were competing to raise money for projects in Costa Rica run by U.K.-based charity Raleigh International. The Big Issue Foundation and Crisis, two other British charities that work to help homeless people improve their lives, will also benefit from the crew’s efforts.
The story began when Tom Harvey, 29, who two years ago worked as Raleigh’s logistics manager in Costa Rica, decided he wanted to raise funds to build a preschool in the Conte-Burica Indigenous Reserve in the south of the country.
In late 2006, he joined up with Carl Theakston, 44, and together they decided to take up the challenge of the transatlantic race. Having been inspired by a BBC documentary, John Cecil-Wright, 29, was next to join up, and Robbie Grant, 28, who had been planning to compete in the race single-handed, was the last member of the crew to come on board.
The team spent the next year organizing sponsorship, acquiring the necessary medical certificates and seamanship qualifications and, most importantly, training hard.
Cecil-Wright told The Tico Times he tried to go to the gym twice a day during this period. However, not all the training was quite so demanding.
“We spent a lot of time drinking together as well – bonding. And that was actually very important,” he said.
They also took their boat out onto the water of the river estuary in Falmouth, Cornwall, as often as they could, an important point considering they had almost no experience rowing.
“It was really just a case of learning our way around the boat and learning to row,” Cecil-Wright said. “We couldn’t prepare for the Atlantic as conditions on the estuary were just totally different.”
Sleepless and Naked
On Dec. 2, the boys set off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands along with 22 other boats.
“Initially, the excitement of the race means that you don’t miss much – you’re just focused on the race,” Cecil-Wright said. However, as time went on, different people started craving “creature comforts … like having a shower and a good night’s sleep.”
As well as themselves, the men were unable to wash any clothes throughout the crossing. The constant sea spray soon covered everything with a layer of salt, meaning that the clothes they did have quickly gained the texture of sandpaper, and birthday suits became de rigueur. No wonder the guys are now “better friends than (they) were before.”
The men rowed in pairs, doing two-hour shifts at night and one-hour shifts during the day, meaning it was impossible to sleep for more than an hour and a half at a time. Even then, restful sleep was hard to come by in the hot, damp, cramped cabin.
Food was another issue that was never far from the rowers’ minds. As they were spending 12 hours a day exercising, the men had to consume an astonishing amount each day: a breakfast ration pack, four main meals, one dessert, five chocolate bars, one packet of pork rinds, a Pepperami (a British sausage snack) and five liters of energy drinks and protein shakes, for a total of 8,000 calories daily. Cecil-Wright still lost about 20 pounds.
In spite of the many difficulties they faced, it was not hard to stay motivated, Cecil-Wright said.
“We knew there would be miserable times, and we were expecting them,” he said. “So when they came, we just thought, ‘OK, we’ve just got to get through this.’”
One surprising motivating factor was the competitive spirit of the crew.
“Before we set off, our objective was just to get across … but we very quickly became the first out of the four-man crews. It started to dawn on us that we could win it,” Cecil-Wright said.
When times were really bad, several things provided release. One proved to be music: Grant wrote on the crew’s Web site that “the right song playing at the right moment can bring moments of absolute magic.” The rowers also received messages from family and friends via satellite phone, and Cecil-Wright even admitted to listening to audiotapes of the Harry Potter books to help keep spirits high.
However, the best motivating tool was often laughter, born out of friendship.
“There would be days when one of the crew,myself included, would be feeling pretty down, but it would never last that long because you just listen to the chat that is going on and it really brings you out of your shell,” Cecil-Wright said.
On Jan. 19, after 48 days, two hours and 52 minutes at sea, Pura Vida crossed the finish line in EnglishHarbour, Antigua, 130 nautical miles ahead of the second-place crew, to win the race. A post on the team’s Web site read, “Words struggle to describe what a fantastic moment it was for us.”
Looking back on the whole experience, Cecil-Wright said, “It was a great feeling, being out there with the lads and knowing that we were doing something incredibly tough, but being able to laugh about it as well.”
It seems once was enough, however. Asked if he would do it again, Cecil-Wright was categorical: “No!”
The Next Stage
The race is only part of the story. The challenge now is to put the money raised to good use. To that end, Cecil-Wright is now in Costa Rica, a few weeks into a three-month spell working as a project manager for Raleigh International.
“It is brilliant being here now, actually working on the project, using the money we have raised,” he said.
At the time of this writing, the crew had raised £18,500 ($36,450) and hoped to get up to £30,000 ($59,130), most of which will go toward funding Raleigh International projects in Costa Rica, Cecil-Wright said.
London-based Raleigh International is dedicated to encouraging personal growth and development of young people from all nationalities and backgrounds, including the disadvantaged, homeless and at risk.
The organization does this by running volunteer expeditions around the world that aim to help realize the United Nations’ Millenium Development Goals, particularly the aims of achieving universal primary education and ensuring environmental sustainability.
In addition to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the charity operates in Namibia, Malaysia and India, working with community organizations to improve the lives of local people.
Ross McKenzie, program manager for Raleigh in Costa Rica, spoke to The Tico times to explain what the charity does here and how the money raised by the Pura Vida crew will be used. He said that last year the charity built a community center and health post in the Conte-Burica Indigenous Reserve and that this year it will build a neighboring preschool for the young children in the community who are not yet old enough to go to school. He added that the organization, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, has undertaken more than 145 projects at 95 different sites in Costa Rica and Nicaragua since it began expeditions to Central America in 2001.
Cecil-Wright is looking forward to the challenge ahead.
“I have never done anything like this before in my life,” he said. “It is a big new experience, and I am finding it really exciting.”
For more information about the Pura Vida team, and to donate online, go to www.atlanticrowingchallenge.com. For more on Raleigh International, visit www.raleigh.org.uk or call 556-4279.