Incoming PU Freshman Crane Rows Across Atlantic, Setting Record, Learning Life Lessons on Voyage
ATLANTIC ADVENTURE: Oliver Crane celebrates in Antigua this past January after rowing across the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Crane, a resident of Lawrenceville who is headed to Princeton University, rowed the 3,000-mile journey in 44 days, and at age 19, became the youngest person to ever row solo across the Atlantic.
By Bill Alden
It took a while for Oliver Crane to develop a passion for rowing.
“I first experienced crew at Mercer Rowing Club in eighth grade, but I didn’t really row much then,” said Crane, a resident of Lawrenceville.
“All through middle school my main sport was ice hockey, but I ended up getting five concussions so I couldn’t do contact sports anymore. I ended up doing cross country and rowing at Peddie and fell in love with rowing after that.”
After getting accepted to Princeton University and graduating from Peddie last spring, Crane decided to follow in the footsteps of his older siblings and take an adventurous gap year before starting college.
With brother Carson having scaled the Seven Summits and another brother, David, having biked across Africa, and a sister, Bella, having hiked the Pacific Crest trail from Mexico to Canada, Crane ended up finding a challenge that would involve his passion for rowing.
He came across a YouTube video regarding the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge and found his mission.
“As soon as I watched the video, I said ‘I want to do this, I am going to do this,’” said Crane.
Overcoming some initial resistance from his parents and then procuring a used boat that had been used in the event the year before, Crane put in the legwork to prepare for the voyage,
“I had to meet all of these requirements — certain training hours, all of the proper equipment,” said Crane, who did some of his training outside of Devon, England.
“I found the boat last summer and registered in the summer and then I had two and a half months training, taking survival courses, navigation; all the on boat and on the water training. The biggest goal of training was to put on as much weight as possible, fat and muscle. It is not like other sports where you have to beef up with lots of muscle.”
Crane left La Gomera, Canary Islands on December 14, 2017 and made landfall in Antigua on January 28. His crossing took 44 days and, in the process, the 19-year-old became the youngest person to row across the Atlantic.
As Crane launched his trip, he quickly realized the ordeal ahead of him.
“They blast a cannon in La Gomera; the adrenaline is pumping through your body but then within an hour, it really sets in that you just took the first stroke of a million and there is 3,000 miles to go,” said Crane.
“I also realized ‘wow I am really alone now. I am a solo rower, there is no one else out there to help you.’ It is all on your shoulders.”
Going solo meant that Crane faced an exhausting daily routine. “I had planned for doing two hours on and two hours off; I would do that on 24-hour cycle,” said Crane, who slept in a watertight cabin and consumed freeze-dried meals to keep fueled.
“It is really important for solo rowers because you need to always be aware of your course. It became really important for me when my auto hull, a machine that automatically steers it when you are not awake, broke the night before the race. It made it more important that I stay awake, so I never slept for more than two hours at a time.”
Taking advantage of favorable conditions, Crane rowed along as a steady clip.
“I averaged about 65 miles a day,” said Crane. “The reason why you go to the Canary Islands to start is you get on the same route that Columbus made it across, because it captures as much of the current and trade winds as you can to blow you across.”
The winds and waves caused some harrowing experiences for Crane as he capsized several times and nearly didn’t make it on one occasion.
“The third time was really scary because I was using rowing straps and I would strap myself in really tightly,” said Crane.
“When the boat flipped, I had trouble getting out of the straps and surfacing to breathe. Eventually I managed to kick out of my own shoes.”
While Crane was constantly on alert, he was able to savor the beauty of the interplay between the sky and the sea.
“On an everyday basis, the sunrise and the stars would make the water sparkle,” said Crane.
“They would be so bright, they would reflect off of the water. It was amazing. I also saw whales. One day a whale popped up right in front of the boat within three feet.”
Crane got anther surprise on December 25. “One of the coolest moments was on Christmas when a sailing yacht came up behind me,” recalled Crane.
“It was a massive sailing yacht filled with 20-year-old kids. They came up next to me and pulled alongside and said ‘what’s up Ollie.’ They knew my name. I thought I was going crazy. They were tracking on the race tracker and they knew my course. They circled around me, sang Christmas carols, and went on their way.”
As Crane made his way to landfall, he had some anxious moments.
“It also got a little nerve-wracking, you row 3,000 miles and you are basically heading westward the whole time,” said Crane.
“As long as you are going west, you are pretty much good. You get close to the finishing in English harbor, it is smaller than a football field, and I got really nervous because the winds were picking up and it got really stormy. I was afraid that I was going to get smashed on the rocks. The Antiguan search and rescue actually met me a few miles out and helped me into the harbor.”
Once he landed safely in the harbor, Crane was reunited with his family and enjoyed a hot meal.
“I couldn’t walk at all because I had been in the water so long,” said Crane, who went from weighing 170 pounds at the start of the trip to 144 with a body fat of four percent at the finish.
“The first thing I did was have the traditional ocean rower dinner, which is a cheeseburger, chips, and a cold Coca-Cola. It was definitely the best burger I have ever had.”
Being in the water so long helped Crane gain some valuable lessons along the way.
“It is learning about life, it is not just about the good moments,” said Crane.
“I had plenty of lows. I had some of the saddest days of my life, but also some of the happiest. I learned that stillness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People, especially in my generation, are always on the phone or doing something or going on social media. We think that sitting still, thinking, and reflecting is a waste of time and not being productive, but that really isn’t right.”
Crane is looking for the trip to be productive in another way as he has used it as a vehicle to raise money for Oceana, an advocacy organization for ocean conservation, and HomeFront, a Trenton-based charity. Crane has raised about $65,000 for Oceania and just under $3,000 for HomeFront and plans to keep that effort going by giving talks about his experience, including one to be presented at the Princeton boathouse later this spring.
“Oceana works around the globe for ocean conservation,” said Crane, who has created a link for charitable contributions, www.crowdrise.com/homeward.
“They work with governments to pass major legislation that protects ocean sanctuaries and establish sustainable fishing practices. Their goal is to conserve the ocean in a way that continues to feed the world’s population for future generations.”
As for his future in rowing, Crane is considering joining the Princeton crew program as a walk-on.
“I talked to the coaches; they like to get rowers who are experienced to try out,” said Crane.
“My body has been destroyed, going from best shape of my life to the worst. My back hurts and I have had to do a lot of therapy. It has been a while since I have gone on an ERG machine so we will see.”