Next Stop: Brest, France

by Alan Pollock

CHATHAM Rower Jean Lukes waved bon voyage to a boatload of friends and well-wishers just off the Chatham sea buoy shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday, as he set his oars for the long row to France.

Before setting off on what will be his third attempt to row from Chatham to Brest, France, Lukes said he was feeling fine and felt ready to go.

The French national is rowing a special 23-foot, self-righting boat, with the financial backing of several large corporations, to raise money for the French equivalent of the Coast Guard, Les Sauveteurs En Mer. Because he is attempting to break the record for the fastest passage, Lukesí departure will be witnessed and officially recorded by the Coast Guard.

Last Tuesday, Lukes was at the East Harwich home of Ray and Simone Woodland, his local sponsors, loading supplies into his boat. Enough pre-packaged meals for a two-month voyage will be stored in the bow compartments of the boat, just forward of the outside platform where Lukes will row. To his aft is another watertight compartment where he will sleep, eat and plot his course.

The boat is equipped with a 150-watt electrical system powered by four solar panels, along with various electronic navigational aids and a satellite telephone. There is even room for an amenity: a gas-fired kettle that can boil a pot of water in 20 seconds.

"This is my house," he said, motioning to the tiny aft compartment.

In his first attempt, Lukes was three days out of Chatham when, at night, something struck his boat. It remains a mystery what it was, but it damaged one of the boatís oar locks, making it impossible for Lukes to continue.

His second try saw Lukes travel for eight days before developing a back injury. He was picked up by the "Atlantic Mistress," and under the advice of the shipís doctor, Lukes aborted his trip.

Lukes plans to report his position twice weekly throughout the journey, and his sponsors will soon have a Web site where visitors can track his position. His progress will be closely watched in France, where a number of big-name celebrities have signed on in support of his trip. Is he a celebrity?

"Just for my wife," Lukes said with a smile. While she finds his quest nerve-wracking, Lukesí wife knows he will always have regrets if he doesnít make the crossing. "My wife says, ĎIt may be difficult for me, but you can go.í"

Preparing for such a trip is a massive undertaking, and requires a close attention to many details, from equipment and electronics to weather forecasting and personal staminaóboth physical and mental. A weakness in any one of those elements, "like a chain on a bicycle," will cause the whole mission to fail.

Among the challenges Lukes faces is the possibility of hurricanes. Jenifer Clark, a well respected satellite oceanographer with around three decades of experience tracking the Gulf Stream, said it would have been better for Lukes to have left Chatham earlier.

"It takes months to get across the Atlantic, and [Lukes] is risking running into hurricanes if he is still out by August," Clark said. "Actually, hurricanes can occur as early as June, but usually occur in August in September. We routed Tori Murden across the Atlantic and she was nearly killed by two hurricanes a few years ago."

Lukes said he's aware of the danger of hurricanes and tropical storms, and thinks he can reach Europe before the most active part of the season.

Clark was the chief advisor for Chicago cardiologist Nenad Belic, who rowed out of Chatham on May 11. Belic is unusual among transatlantic rowers in that he has no corporate sponsors, and has purposely avoided media coverage. In his only media interview prior to his departure, a reluctant Belic told The Chronicle that he hoped to make landfall in Portugal.

Before leaving, Belic, 62, went to great lengths to dampen media coverage of his trip. He left clear instructions with his wife and sons not to report his position, and did the same with Clark. Belic even asked his co-workers not to respond to media inquiries.

"He only wants to talk to me, my husband and his wife until after his trip is over," Clark said. "He is very bubbly and his voice always sounds like he is laughing. He is a delightful person," she said. While Clark would not disclose Belic's position, she said he has been meeting his navigational goals.

"He is now in the Gulf Stream and is moving at over 4 knots - that means he can make over 100 miles per day - which is great for rowing," she said. The powerful, warm-water ocean current is pushing Belic's boat, the Lun, at a rate of 3.4 knots, Clark reported. Still, he is far closer to the U.S. coast than to Europe.

"Prior to this, he was having trouble making progress due to very adverse sustained negative winds. That never affected his attitude, though," she said.

Interviewed by the Chicago Sun Times, Belic's wife, Ellen Stone-Belic, said her husband was in good spirits, and has seen dolphins, sharks and turtles. He has even gone swimming off the boat, she reported.

Asked why he is making the trip, Belic told The Chronicle that it is a question to which there is no answer.

"I don't know this man," Lukes said of his fellow rower. "I don't know why he's crossing the Atlantic. Maybe you can cross just to be a celebrity, maybe you can cross because you're crazy, maybe you can cross because itís a dream," he said. "For me, I think itís very important to do what you dream."