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Risking their lives for a record

COURTESY PHOTO |  In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean during a 47 day crossing in a Shelter Island-built rowboat are four of the rowers who set a Guinness World record.
In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean during a 47 day crossing in a Shelter Island-built rowboat are four of the rowers who set a Guinness World record.

David Davlianidze was in the middle of the ocean somewhere in the middle of a three-day storm. Waves as high as three-story buildings were tossing his boat as if it had already been smashed to floating debris. He knew, as did the other 15 onboard, that their lives were literally hanging by threads — the tethers tying them to the deck.

“I built the boat and I knew it was going to be okay,” said Mr. Davlianidze, owner of Shelter Island Boats on South Midway Road. But the anguish of riding out that storm left the crew wondering why they had undertaken a journey that could quickly end not in triumph, but in death.

If the circumstances were complex, the answer to why they were battling the vicious storm was simple. They had set out on a January day in 2011 in Big Blue, Mr. Davlianidze’s 39- foot catamaran-style rowboat, to break a record.

And despite setbacks, they did just that — but not the record they set out to break.

The aim was to row — yes, row —  from Morocco to Barbados, 2,750 miles across the open sea, in less than the 33-day record time. But stormy weather, occasions when their craft was surrounded by sharks, and one episode when a whale came close enough capsize Big Blue all conspired against breaking the speed record.

Nonetheless, they made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first 16-member crew to row across any ocean without benefit of sails, engines or other means of propulsion except paddles. They made the trip in 47 days and 18 hours.

To have broken the 33-day record, the crew would have had to travel at about five knots, something they had proven they could do during trials around Shelter Island when they reached a seven knot speed. But that didn’t account for the weather that lost them three days of travel time and other times when currents slowed the boat.

On April 20, Mr. Davlianidze will be honored by his home country, the Republic of Georgia, at a “Georgians in the USA Festival”  for his participation in rowing and for building the craft with assistance from his best friend, Eros Ratiashvili, who is a mechanic at Mr. Davlianidze’s Island Boats. He has also been honored by the New York State Assembly.

Mr. Davlianidze first came to the United States in 1996 on an exchange program, and while visiting friends on Shelter Island, fell in love with the place. He worked at Clark’s Marine for 10 years, before opening his own business in 2007.

How do you enlist a crew to row across the Atlantic? You advertise through the “Ocean Rowing Society,” Mr. Davlianidze said.

There were many who wanted to make the trip and he chose five women and 11 men onboard. They came from throughout the United States, the Republic of Georgia, Canada, Australia, Austria, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

“We were as prepared as we could have been,” Mr. Davlianidze said, crediting the Shelter Island Fire Department in helping with the drills in the waters here.

Preparation for this trip meant crew members built their body strength to handle grueling days of rowing, because Guinness rules required there could be no back up supports on board to power the boat.

When the time came to head for Morocco, Big Blue had to be disassembled for shipping and then reassembled in Morocco. Once it was seaworthy again, there was another delay waiting for foul weather to pass. Nothing came easy: It took five days of rowing to reach the official starting point.

Once the challenge began, the crew worked in shifts with eight rowers at a time taking two hours at the oars while the other eight rested.

They learned that nothing ever goes as planned. The last several days of the crossing the crews was plagued by hunger. They had a wind and solar powered desalinization unit onboard, so they didn’t lack for water. But they had brought provisions meant to last only 40 days. The crew had to ration their meager stores for seven extra days, arriving in Barbados famished, but exhilarated.

Despite the treacherous times aboard Big Blue, Mr. Davlianidze holds one memory dear — jumping off the craft in the middle of the Atlantic to take a swim.

Is he ready for another record breaking voyage?

Not likely, he admitted. Since the incredible time at sea, he’s married his girlfriend, Lali, and is now the father of two children — son Dachi, 2, and daughter, Mia, 4-months old.

When he first planned the trip, his parents — Zurab and Yamur Davlianidze, also Shelter Island residents, weren’t thrilled. But ultimately, they supported him once they realized his determination. His dad even made the trip to Barbados to greet the weary rowers at the end of the challenge.

But Mr. Davlianidze doesn’t think Lali would be encouraging about another run against the odds.