Situated among the quaint and oh-so-expensive summer cottages surrounding Mill Pond in Chatham, Mass., is a large barn, the workshop of the Mill Pond Boat Yard. Since the 1930s the shop has been building and restoring classic wooden sailboats, dories and runabouts. This past June, however, the barn was home to a different kind of craft: a gleaming 22-foot Kevlar-and-fiberglass vessel that looked like a cross between a great white shark and a Bugatti race car. The craft had three dagger boards like those on sailboats, but a flat bottom like that of a surfboard. A desalinization pump to make potable water out of seawater suggested that the vessel was destined for a long voyage. But why was the compass on top of the cabin mounted backward? And why did the boat have oarlocks? Then the dawn broke: The compass was backward because rowers go backward.
This mysterious craft was called the Ramereve—French for "to row," ramer, and "to dream," rever. It was a transatlantic single scull. Shorter than a flat-water racing single and weighing less than an eight-oared shell, it had been designed to travel thousands of nautical miles.
Frederic (Fredo) Guerin, 36, was both the builder of the Ramereve and the man who would attempt to row it solo from the United States to Europe in record time, or less than the 72 days taken by Gerard d'Aboville of France, who set sail from Chatham in 1980. From his home in La Trinit� sur Mer, a Brittany village that is the Newport of France, Guerin had already sailed the Atlantic 13 times, including three solo crossings. He was so convinced that his high-tech Ramereve would enable him to row across the Atlantic that he invested about $40,000 in the attempt—much of the money borrowed. But he had a handicap: As he explained last June in halting English, building the Ramereve had taken so much time that he hadn't been able to train. In fact, he said, the longest distance he had ever rowed was four miles.
So why was he doing this? To answer, Guerin removed a circle of wood from the bottom of the cabin to reveal a six-inch porthole, his "fishovision." He was especially proud of it. "Sailing...." He shrugged. "Too fast. I want to get closer to the fishes and the squirrels." He meant squales, French for dogfish, but—squirrels or squales—this was nuts.
The old-timers who lived near the Boat Yard were used to Guerin's sort of craziness. Ralph Lightfoot, an expert at navigation, noted that the volume of the Gulf Stream's flow is a thousand times that of the Mississippi. Lightfoot calculated that a lucky boatman might be able to simply drift across on the Stream in 140 days. Lightfoot also said that Chatham, which is on Cape Cod and some 240 miles west of the Gulf Stream, was a good place to start such a venture, and that the Boat Yard's shop had a special karma. The barn had been made from timbers once belonging to Chatham's Naval Air Station, from which, in 1919, a U.S. Navy seaplane made the first flight from the United States to Europe.
A handful of transatlantic rowers had also set forth from Chatham. In 1966, two British Army paratroopers, Captain John Ridgeway and Sergeant Shay Blyth, arrived at the Boat Yard with a 20-foot open wooden dory and the desire to test their survival training by rowing home. The locals gave them new oars and taught them to row the dory, and a small flotilla of townsfolk towed them out beyond the breakers. Ninety-six days later, the Brits reached Ireland. At about the same time, a pair of British journalists tried to make the same crossing. But they did not start from the Boat Yard—they embarked from Orleans, another town on the Cape—and were never heard from again.
In 1980, the 36-year-old D'Aboville, an aristocrat and adventurer, appeared at the yard with a specially designed mahogany lifeboat, hoping to make the first solo row across the Atlantic. While D'Aboville's 18-foot craft had a cabin, it also had the fixed seat of a traditional rowboat. D'Aboville's boat was monstrously heavy—it weighed some 2,200 pounds when fully laden with about 60 gallons of water and 15 gallons of red wine. Within a week after setting forth, the Frenchman radioed for help. The sloshing movements of the craft had turned his wine into vinegar. A Greek ship responded to his predicament and offered to supply him with more wine. D'Aboville accepted, and went on his way. After 72 days, he arrived safely in Brittany and briefly became a national hero.
In 1987, a 29-year-old nuclear technician, Guy Lemonnier, announced that he could row to France in only 60 days. An accomplished oarsman, Lemonnier had trained with the French national team. His $100,000 Kevlar-and-fiberglass boat, the 21-foot Jacquet Enterprise, was equipped with a sliding seat to add leg power to the rowing stroke and a desalinization pump so he wouldn't have to carry a store of water. The loaded weight of the boat was 1,300 pounds.
Lemonnier scorned the Mill Pond Boat Yard for a high-tech marina crosstown. During his days on the Cape, he spoke as if he believed that his combination of muscles and science could conquer any ocean. "I could row around Chatham for 60 days, no problem," he said at a press conference. "This is just that in a straight line." Not so. For several weeks Lemonnier rowed well and fast with the stream, but eventually he encountered the downside of a warm current that crosses a cold ocean. Storms tossed his boat around, beating Lemonnier up so badly that he had to be fished out of the sea by a Soviet trawler some 950 miles short of his goal.
Guerin began thinking about making the crossing in 1987 and got serious in September 1990. He had marine architect Olivier Racoupeau design a superlightweight boat (900 pounds, fully loaded) and talked a Kevlar manufacturer into donating the needed material. In early June, after a blessing at the French convent where Guerin's sister is a nun, Ramereve was put aboard a cargo ship for the voyage to the Mill Pond Boat Yard. There Guerin set up camp and prepared to enter the Gulf Stream.