By Gemma Handy
Little did Graham Walters imagine how much the world would change within three months when he began his epic mission to become the oldest man to row solo across the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
Back in January, the coronavirus outbreak was weeks away from being declared a pandemic and lockdowns were still limited to China.
The 72-year-old’s arrival into Nelson’s Dockyard yesterday may have lacked the full fanfare it would have received had it not been for virus-related social distancing requirements.
But the carpenter from Leicester in the UK rowed into Antigua beaming with joy as he staked his claim to the world-record breaking feat.
Escorted in by Coast Guard boats to the sound of blaring horns in honour of his achievement, Walters stumbled as he took his first shaky steps on land after 94 days at sea.
And despite being keen to be reunited with wife Jean who he had married just a month before his departure, Walters will have to remain in Antigua until travel restrictions are lifted.
Walters is no stranger to the ocean; the row was in fact his fifth Atlantic crossing but he was determined to complete one more in the wooden vessel he crafted himself two decades ago.
“This trip really is about the boat which I built 22 years ago in the front garden of my house from plywood,” he told media.
“That boat has been with me three times across the Atlantic before this, so it’s getting old – like me. I thought, why not be the oldest person to row the Atlantic with an old boat.”
Walters hopes to leave the vessel, named George Geary after his grandfather, as a gift to the Dockyard Museum.
Unlike Walters, the George Geary is showing its age. Three weeks into the journey, tragedy was narrowly averted.
“The sea knocked me over, my knee went straight through the deck and smashed a big hole in it,” Walters related.
“I didn’t realise how bad the boat had got as it stands outside under tarpaulin. Obviously the water had got to it. It was a real shock when I looked at the damage and realised how soft the plywood had become.
“I had to mend it as quickly as possible because the water was coming in and flooding the boat. That was the most worrying moment of this trip; I thought the boat was going to go.”
Three months of solitude may not be for everyone but daily highlights came in the form of sitting in the sunshine – and food.
“Food is a big part of it,” he grinned. “The next meal is always something you look forward to. It goes around in your head.”
When Walters completed his last mammoth voyage, the first thing he wanted to eat was a “cheese sandwich”.
This time, it was the thought of English staple roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with a glass of red wine that was tantalising his tastebuds.
Walters visited the gym daily to ensure he was in fine fettle for the journey. One benefit of being solo is the freedom to choose your own rowing regimen, he laughed.
“In previous rows I found two hours on, two hours off, really hard. So I did that in the daytime but just two hours at night because the darkness helps you sleep,” Walters explained.
“I’m feeling good now; I thought I would feel much worse when I finally finished.”
Throughout the voyage, Walters’ chosen charity was never far from his heart. He has raised almost US$2,000 for Help for Heroes which assists British servicemen and women wounded in the line of duty.
After nine weeks of being isolated, Walters will now have to self-isolate to keep him safe from Covid-19.
“It’s incomprehensible what’s happened to the world. I have been talking to the wife by satellite phone the whole way and she’s been explaining what has been going on but it was difficult to take in,” he admitted.
“Things were getting worse and worse but I couldn’t really think about it until I finished. For me, it’s been peace, the ocean and me. Now is the time to come to terms with the situation.”
Walters has had his share of adventure over the years and this voyage, he says, will be his last.
“At old age you look back on the things that were most dangerous and the situations you got into. I do a lot of climbing and I’m a big scuba diver so I regularly get stuck in wrecks,” he said.
Two previous disasters nearly put the brakes on his last hurrah. One was being hit by a storm and losing a 21-year-old crewmate overboard. The other was when the boat he was travelling in sank in the Atlantic and he had to be rescued by helicopter.
Walters’ wife was adamant he would not risk his life attempting another.
“It took me two years to find the right moment to say, I want to do this one more time,” he added. “And this is it.”