Mother Nature didn’t miss many opportunities to remind Dixon McDonald of home ground advantage as former Vanderbilt student and three teammates attempted to paddle across the Atlantic Ocean. A spear-shaped marlin’s beak provided a particularly sharp example when it pierced the hull of their craft hundreds of miles from land – and any potential rescue – during the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge 2020.
Participants in the annual race sail approximately 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands, just off the coast of Africa, to the Caribbean nation of Antigua in boats that are only 28 feet long and just over 3 feet wide. McDonald and teammates Jimmy Carroll, Todd Hooper and Jono Mawson were about two-thirds of the way across the ocean when they felt a car-like shake. The sharp bill of the marlin had pierced the hull and missed a teammate’s leg by a few inches.
The McDonald’s team sealed the resulting leak and finally arrived at the port on January 17, 2021, 36 days after boarding. They finished third out of 21 teams in total and second in their division. About two inches of the marlin’s beak came for the ride, still pointing skyward from the bottom of the boat.
The encounter with the marlin epitomized McDonald’s initial reaction to learning of the breed’s existence three years earlier. âI couldn’t believe people did something like this,â recalls McDonald. “It seemed a mixture of madness and stupidity.”
Before learning of the event, McDonald had spent little time using as much as a rower. But the endurance challenge drew him in for reasons dating back to Vanderbilt. A former high school tennis player, he lacked competition and camaraderie in college. He ran two half marathons as a senior, then engaged in triathlon training after moving to New York after graduation, qualifying for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships and the Marathon of Boston. He was working in London when he heard about the Talisker race and put together a team with three British friends.
During the race, there were stressful times beyond meeting the marlins, including a storm that nearly knocked them off the boat. When there was no drama, there was a boring routine. They rowed in two-hour shifts, two still rowing and two sleeping as best they could.
Yet there was also an indescribable beauty. A meteor shower lit up the sky. Bathing in the middle of the ocean, McDonald peered through water so clear and deep it defied description.
The team raised over $ 250,000 for four charities. McDonald’s share went to Achilles International, which is committed to expanding the disabled community’s access to endurance competitions.
âIt’s a seemingly impossible chase,â McDonald says. âTrying to do it with three other people was really appealing. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, I just knew I wanted to do it. I wanted to see if I was ready for this.