Mike Matson has done something few people in their right minds would even think of doing.
Two years ago he and two other men rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in a race sponsored by a whiskey maker. The Missouri City resident recounted his adventure Oct. 19 as the guest speaker for the Cullinan Park Conservancy’s Picnic for the Park.
Racing as a three-person team in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, Matson and his friends David Alviar and Brian Krauskopf set out on Dec. 14, 2016, from the Canary Islands, off the coast of North Africa, on a 3,000-mile journey to Antigua off the South American coast.
“There is no external power outside of your oar,” he said. “There’s no sails, there’s no motors. You’re entirely self-contained in the boat; you are not allowed to be reaching any outside help. If somebody were to drive by and drop a bagel into your boat, you’re disqualified. You were 100 percent at the mercy of the elements.”
Matson is a graduate of Elkins High School. His senior year was marked by the 9/11 terror attacks. Upon graduation, he went into the U.S. Naval Academy where he did competitive rowing. He eventually went to Rice University where he helps coach rowing. He also became a volunteer firefighter.
“At the Naval Academy I learned a lot of skills that were pertinent to this ocean crossing. A lot of the background that I brought to the team came from there,” Matson said. “I learned how to row, that was part of it. I was on the men’s heavyweight crew team while I was there; rowed three years with them. I learned my seamanship and navigation skills, which comes important when you’re in a 22-foot boat away from land.”
The rowboat is a 22-foot carbon fiber vessel custom made in England, which Matson named Anne in memory of a close friend, Anne McCormick Sullivan, who was one of four Houston firefighters to die in a fire in 2013.
“Anne actually got christened by the governor to be an official vessel of the Texas Navy,” he said. “So Texas was once its own country and when it was it had its own navy. So she is an honorary vessel to the Texas Navy and she was the first vessel in the Texas Navy in over 100 years.”
Sailing nowhere near Texas, Matson and his partners were attempting to make history of their own.
“We made up a three-man team and we were actually the first three-man team in history to ever do this,” Matson said. “There had been prior attempts with three-man teams and they had all failed, unfortunately. We were dumb enough to think we could do it differently, so the three of us put our names in the hat and entered the race.”
On the morning of the race, a dozen boats headed out with teams ranging from one to four people.
“We were about to leave and we found out that our navigation system is completely broken. We fried our circuit board and we ended up steering all the way, 3,280 miles, across the Atlantic Ocean by hand,” he said.
The only electricity they had came from solar panels, “which powers our battery bank, which powers all of our communications so we can talk with other boats, as well as our AIS, which will tell other boats where we are.”
The three men, all in their 30s, were crammed into the boat with their provisions, which consisted of enough freeze-dried food to last them for 50 days.
“This was actually really fun,” he said. “We got to see a full moon. It’s something we take for granted living in cities is the moon cycle. We don’t really pay attention to that. But when you’re at night and you don’t have any lighting, all of sudden you become very dependent on the moon. When it’s a new moon and it’s pitch black outside, it’s way different on your personality and how you react and how you get along in the boat.
“When we were out there we hit a storm during a new moon. The blackest I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve been in houses where they simulate fires and you’re blacked out with black smoke. We were on the boat and we turned off all the electronics and I held my hand right here and you can’t see it, it was that pitch black. There was no external light,” he said.
During his talk, Matson put up a slide showing some partiers on a yacht.
“They were probably the only outsiders we spoke to in two months,” he said. “We got passed by a yacht. It’s terrifying in the middle of the night. You don’t have any idea what’s going on. You’re rowing along and you see two lights coming at your and they’re getting bigger and bigger and they’re not moving away. Finally they showed up and were having a good time. They were quite inebriated. They took this picture and were somehow able to track us down and get it to us. It’s the only known picture an outsider took of our boat.”
They also had a close encounter with a container ship.
“The closest encounter to a ship I had was between me and that back wall, which on a 22-foot boat in the middle of the Atlantic is kind of scary,” he said. “It was a terrifying moment and what happened was they came up behind us and we think they thought we were in a life raft and they were looking to rescue us, so they were coming at us to try and save us and they saw we were a bunch of idiots rowing and we were fine. But they got really, really close. We saw on average about one ship a day, there was that much traffic going on out there.”
Matson also showed slide of some of the wildlife they encountered, including a giant sea turtle.
“It has a five-foot diameter shell, which is wider than the back of my boat,” Matson said. “He has a giant mouth that is filled with teeth that go all the way down his throat. It looks very prehistoric, almost off of a Godzilla set. He followed our boat for quite a while.”
Less dangerous but more annoying were the flying fish.
“One morning we woke up and had about three or four hundred of these little fish scattered around the boat. They’re little, tiny baby flying fish and they were a pretty blue color and it was ages taking them out. If we didn’t take them out they started to smell, so we had to find them all,” he said.
Then came the mature flying fish.
“They pelted us constantly and it sounded like a gun barrel blast when they would hit the side of the cabin in the middle of the night and wake you up. They’re very suicidal,” he said.
The also saw storm petrels, (“Known to be bad luck for sailors.”) and minke whales.
In addition to the adventure and race, there was a side benefit to the trip.
“We worked with scientists while we were out there collecting water samples to analyze the water in the Atlantic,” he said. “We collected them all the way across, so we have liters and liters of water samples and six days before the end of the race we flipped on our side and lost them all. So, no data for science, unfortunately.”
The Anne finished fourth out of 12 boats. They were first in their three-person division and one of only 11 boats to finish the race. They completed the voyage in 49 days and 14 hours, barely meeting their goal of crossing the ocean in under 50 days.
“You get a lot of questions: How do you prepare for something like that? The first one is the physical side,” he said. “Obviously, rowing 12 hours a day for two months runs its toll on your body, so there’s two kinds of trains of thought. You … spend a lot of time on the rowing machine just building the ability to move that long for that many days. And a lot of weight lifting. You need weight lifting to build up a lot of body mass.
“Part of this race involves actually bulking up in size to prepare for the inevitable weight loss. On the crossing I lost 31 pounds. So that gives you something of an idea how much of a toll it takes on your body mass,” he said.
For their next adventure, the team set out from the mainland in a race to Hawaii in the Pacific, but that ended in the tail end of a hurricane and a rescue by a container ship.