'Row for Hope’ Raises Funds for Yale Cancer Center
After 88 days alone with the sounds of the ocean, meals of only freeze-dried rations or energy bars, and wind that blew him every which way but toward land, Paul Ridley is home.
On March 29, Ridley completed a 3,500-mile solo row across the Atlantic Ocean to raise money for the Yale Cancer Center in memory of his mother. In doing so, the 25-year-old from Stamford, Connecticut, became just the third American — and the youngest — to row across the Atlantic alone.
Ridley’s odyssey, which he named “Row for Hope,” began Jan. 1 in the Canary Islands, as he climbed into a narrow, 400-pound custom-built fiberglass boat, determined to row 10 to 13 hours each day to reach two goals: the shores of Antigua and raising $500,000 to fund cutting-edge research at the Yale Cancer Center, his partner in the effort.
“There are easier ways to raise money,” he says, “but I happened to be a rower.”
Ridley began planning his adventure three years ago. He and his sister had lost their mother to malignant skin cancer in 2001, and their father had been successfully treated that same year for prostate cancer. Ridley wanted to do something to bring attention and funding to the deadly disease. “I realized that I could use my ability to row and love of rowing for a cause I felt I needed to contribute to,” he explains.
With the help of his family, friends and co-workers at the Greenwich Associates financial consulting firm, he created a website (www.rowforhope.com) both to raise visibility and support for the cause and to detail every step of the journey.
To prepare for the ordeal, Ridley bulked up with a special weight lifting and fitness program designed for long-duration rowing — gaining 15 pounds of pure muscle.
Ocean rowing, he learned, is a test of financial as well as physical mettle. To build the boat, Ridley spent $60,000 of his own money — his entire life savings and retirement funds. He received another $20,000 in contributions for his food and other expenses, including shipping the boat, which he had named “Liv,” which is Norwegian for “Life.”
He waited two weeks in the Canary Islands for the best possible weather to begin his voyage, and then rowed south, instead of west, to catch the trade winds he hoped would carry him across the Atlantic.
Ridley’s first biggest challenge was near-constant seasickness, which he eventually overcame. His diet had been designed by nutritional experts to provide him with 8,000 calories a day, and he had plenty of fresh water at his disposal thanks to a solar-powered desalination machine that could produce more than six gallons of fresh water a day.
Liv was small, 19’ x 5’, but had a cabin that allowed Ridley to lie flat to sleep — with all of one-half inch of clearance — and that protected him from the occasional 30-foot waves and Atlantic gales of up to 30 knots. Safety was a prime concern: Ridley was harnessed and clipped in at all times, and Liv had been designed to be watertight and right itself if it capsized.
Even fair-weather had its hazards. Having seen his mother die of skin cancer, Ridley — a fair-skinned redhead — took no chances, using SPF 70 and 85 sun block and wearing donated UV protective clothing.
When he wasn’t rowing, Ridley spent his days looking for life in the water and sky, communicating with his land team via a solar-powered satellite phone, writing an almost daily blog and maintaining his boat. He navigated with three GPS receivers, and also carried a low-tech sextant in case all his technology failed and he needed to navigate by the stars (he didn’t).
He had one moment of real danger, a close call with an oil tanker on day 33. “I was rowing along and foolishly had my iPod headphones in both ears. I didn’t see it coming until it was extremely close,” recalls Ridley. “I turned to my left and was looking up at the bow of a 900-foot oil tanker a quarter mile away.” He got on the radio and made a frantic call to the captain, who made an evasive turn.
Ridley also had close encounters with sharks and whales. “They’d check me out but weren’t all that interested, and I wasn’t going out of my way to entertain them by cleaning fish on deck,” he says.
The weather in the mid-Atlantic was unusual for that time of year, he notes, with many more storms than normal, further south than normal. Ridley had a hard time hanging on to the trade winds, but “I never spent time thinking about doomsday scenarios,” he says. As a precaution, he had brought along a 75-pound life raft, which slowed his speed. Without it, “I could have reached shore a few days earlier,” he says.
In the last stretch of his journey, the winds kept blowing Ridley south of Antigua, and he thought he might be forced to come ashore on the treacherous coast of Guadeloupe. He had chosen Antigua because it’s one of the few Caribbean islands with a protected port. At the last minute, the winds turned in his favor.
But he was utterly unprepared for what he saw as he approached the harbor. “I couldn’t believe it. I had replayed the landing scenario in my head a million times over the last three years. I envisioned a bunch of friends and family around, all of us being very happy and celebrating.”
What he saw instead was a beach swarming with boats and photographers. It seemed the entire island had come out to greet him, he says. A reporter from Antigua’s evening news put a microphone in front of him as soon as he touched land, and the owners of all the boats in the harbor came out on their decks, cheering and blowing horns.
“Having not stood up for three months, my walking was very wobbly,” he recalls. “I could not balance myself at all without holding on to someone or bracing myself against something solid.” His first meal, a cheeseburger and French fries, was delicious, he says, “And I don’t even eat cheeseburgers.”
Despite all the celebration and the media attention, says Ridley, all he wanted was to go home; he kept thinking of his mother. “She would have been worried at first, but now I think she’d be proud. My dad is proud — and relieved,” he says.
After coming back to the United States, Ridley sold Liv to someone from Cleveland who is planning her own trans-Atlantic row on a different route. “Seeing the boat get carried away in a shipping container on the back of a truck was a sentimental moment. I had just spent 88 days in it. It kept me alive,” he says.
Ridley plans to continue fundraising for the Yale Cancer Center. So far he’s raised $100,000 of his $500,000 goal and says, “We still have lots of work to do. We think the numbers will continue to go up.”
While Ridley could have partnered with any institution, he chose Yale — despite the fact that his mother did not receive treatment here — because, he says, he wanted “someplace that would put the money to good use, with great researchers and smart people doing good work.
“In conversations with people from all over the world, in the U.K., down in the Canaries and Antigua, you say ‘Yale Cancer Center’ and everyone knows what it is,” he adds.
The money raised by “Row for Hope” will be donated to Dr. Mario Sznol’s melanoma program at Yale Cancer Center. Sznol’s expertise is in cancer immunotherapy, early drug development for cancer, and the treatment of patients with melanoma and renal cell carcinoma.
— By Helen Dodson