Oliver Levick ’08 could be called a thrill seeker. An adventurer. A swashbuckler, even. This past winter, the former Economics-Finance major rowed 2,637 nautical miles to compete in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
Levick’s four-person Team Epoch paddled for 56 days, from Spain’s Canary Islands southwest to Barbados, through 30-foot swells, gale force winds, and extreme temperatures.
“It was an awesome experience,” he says of the journey, which started on December 5, 2011, and ended January 30, 2012. “I’d never been on the ocean before, so it seemed like the most ridiculous thing I could do out of my comfort zone – which immediately made me want to do it.”
The alumnus may be best described in a friend’s blog post: “You are totally crazy, in the most awesome way.”
Race of a Lifetime
The Talisker challenge is deemed one of the toughest races on the planet; since 1997, fewer than 150 people have crossed the finish line. This year, 17 teams attempted the trek, shoving off last December in specially designed ocean rowing boats that, at just 7 meters long, provide only a small cabin to keep the elements at bay.
For Team Epoch, the trip was knotty from the start. Just three days in, flooding in the boat’s hatch fried the main battery. That meant relying on limited solar power to run vital equipment such as GPS navigation, a water filtration system, and the auto-tiller designed to keep the boat on course.
“We kept each other going and motivated,” Levick says of his teammates, all experienced collegiate rowers: Sonya Baumstein and brothers Jonathan and Christopher Crane, sons of noted English explorer Nicholas Crane. “We had lots of problems, but we broke them down into smaller challenges and just took it one day at a time.”
When power problems persisted, Team Epoch launched into emergency mode: water rationing (just 5 liters per person, per day), no lights, no navigation, no radio. The danger was substantial.
“We were a ghost ship,” says Levick, whose craft sported a tongue-in-cheek name bestowed by its previous owners: Limited Intelligence. “No one knew we existed. It was scary because we did see cruise ships in the shipping lanes and got incredibly close to one.”
To keep the boat on course, he strapped the rudder to his right foot with a rope.
“I’ve had lots of injuries in the past, but the pain from this journey was like nothing I’d ever felt,” says Levick, who most recently worked as a trekking guide in Peru and Bolivia. “Your entire body is covered in salt sores, cuts, blisters and bruises.”
Tides of Emotion
The team rowed in two-hour shifts through all 56 days. During rest periods, Levick slept an hour at a time, on a two-inch rubber mat inside the cramped cabin. It took another 40 minutes with a propane-powered Jetboil to prepare his limited diet: smash (a mashed potato mix popular in Levick’s native Britain), instant noodles, couscous, soup, oatmeal, peanut butter and nuts.
“It’s just row, eat and rest; those are the basics to survive,” explains Levick, who moved to the United States as a teen. “We got angry at times, but learned quickly to brush it off. We chose to put ourselves in this volatile situation and the ocean wasn’t going to give in.”
The environs could likewise be kind, supplying stunning sunrises and sunsets and a few surprises.
“On the 10th day, I counted 35 meteorites in one two-hour shift. It was gorgeous,” he recalls. Numerous wildlife sightings also replenished his spirit: whales, dolphins, marlin, tuna, squid, even a trio of sharks.
Despite a lingering physical toll – he’s seeking treatment for carpal tunnel in both wrists – Levick says he would attempt the challenge again. It did earn him a berth in the world record book, as part of the first mixed-gender crew to successfully row the Atlantic. Overall, Team Epoch finished eighth among the 11 competitors that completed the challenge.
For now, Levick is leading a more grounded life: running his parents’ fruit farm in Westford, Mass., and racing professionally on the downhill mountain bike circuit.