“We can only truly know ourselves through the challenges we face, and how we deal with them.”
- Bhavik Gandhi
Imagine waking up one morning, having breakfast, and proceeding to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean later that day. Simply because, well, you’d like to experience it. Most of us can only imagine what it's like to have a burning desire to accomplish such a monumental undertaking. However, getting to know the mind of endurance athlete Bhavik Gandhi certainly dissolved our incredulity.
Bhavik Gandhi sailed into the pages of history when he became the first Asian to row 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in 2007, spending 106 days all by himself in a 23-foot boat. Bhavik battled lack of sleep, harsh weather conditions, starvation, multiple mishaps with his boat, and still ended up having the time of his life. His remarkable story is the inspiration behind our latest Odyssey Regatta watch, a tough stainless steel Regatta chronograph complete with a countdown timer and tachymeter, built for those eager to stretch their sea legs.
Bhavik is a rare individual who takes on arduous challenges in order to pry apart deep-seeded limiting beliefs, unleashing a treasure trove of human potential in the process. In 2003, he climbed Mount Everest despite suffering from crippling acrophobia (extreme fear of heights), eventually talking himself out of that fear to make the journey back down. A year later, he embarked on a Transsiberian trek which took him to Lake Baikal, where he spent a month dealing with -30 / -50 degree temperatures. He was pleased to find that his body could indeed adapt and survive to the unfathomable cold.
One could argue that land-based adventures are relatively safer, as help could be attainable fairly quickly particularly in places frequented by other endurance athletes. Floating alone in the ocean, however, renders you quite helpless should one come across rough waters; not to mention getting trampled by titanic sea vessels crossing your path. There is nowhere to run, and quitting is simply not an option.
How does one sail so far out of their comfort zone, even after failing at not one, not two, but three attempts to get started on a solo voyage from Spain to Antigua?
We spoke to Bhavik to learn more about the man behind the extraordinary athletic achievements, hoping to inspire you, the reader, to take on challenges that the mind would dismiss as unnecessary, let alone impossible. To what end, you may ask?
We’ll let Bhavik answer that.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Mumbai, India, and moved briefly to Sri Lanka along with my parents during my middle-school years. Both my parents worked as lawyers, and they encouraged the rest of my schooling and undergraduate to be in the UK. I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Management at Royal Holloway before moving to Stockholm, where I live and work to this day.
What is the genesis of your adventurous spirit?
The key factor has always been curiosity - wanting to see as much of the world as I could while learning about myself in the process. I always saw travelling as investing in myself, because one can glean invaluable life lessons from exploring the world and understanding different cultures. We are all naturally curious, but not everyone makes it a point to exercise their curiosity to its fullest. Understandably so, as day-to-day stuff gets in the way.
After I had moved to Sweden, I travelled frequently around the world while incorporating physically challenging activities wherever I went; taking part in marathons and so on. I enjoy putting in the groundwork (literally) to get to know the world first-hand, such as the time I journeyed across the Transsiberean trek, following the famous train path all the way from Helsinki to Hong Kong.
Did you plan these routes out before embarking on the journey?
There was no real plan in place. I knew the general route, but I left the rest to on-ground discovery. Some cities were worth spending a little more time in - I would meet many interesting people along the way offering advice on what to do, what’s not to be missed, etc., and I would adjust my time accordingly.
I’d say as much as 80% of decisions were made on-the-go, from where I was going to next, to sleeping arrangements for the night. This was before Airbnb and the ubiquity of Google, so it was pretty exciting not to know what adventure lay around the corner. When I moved across border lines, immigration checkpoints wouldn’t allow me to simply walk across, so I would hop on the Transsiberian train with my paperwork ready. This made cross-country travelling relatively smooth, as there were many checks from Helsinki to Moscow, from Moscow to Mongolia, then onto China, and so on.
If adult Bhavik had told 10-year old Bhavik about his adventures; how he would survive 106 days at sea, battling physical difficulties, starvation, extreme fatigue - would the young Bhavik have believed it?
Good question - I can’t say for sure. I think being that age would have a sense of naivety and fearlessness to it. My 10-year old imagination was mostly embellished by the books I read, so I may have had a romanticized version of adventure-seeking. Still, I doubt the actuality of being out there solo on a rowing boat would have made sense at the time. It was a step-by-step build up over years of travelling, which eventually turned into a burning desire.
Who was the biggest influential figure in your childhood that shaped you as a person?
Reading books on exploration had the strongest impact on me. I feverishly devoured the adventures of Sir Edmund Hillary and Robin Knox-Johnston, and Captain Robert Scott’s expedition to Antarctica, just to name a few. They certainly planted the spirit of exploration deep within me.
Carrying out the idea of crossing the Atlantic would entail coming to terms with the possibility of death. Would you agree?
Yes, of course. However, I busied myself with the planning and logistical aspects of the expedition, and the thought of dying did not affect me enough to dampen my spirits. It’s natural to have those thoughts because after all, any kind of activity poses a certain risk of dying - even a routine commute to work.
By letting go of the elements you cannot control, ie. weather and/or unforeseen circumstances, I could concentrate on what was in my control, such as the safety of the boat, having the right equipment, reinforcing plans with backups, and paying extra attention to the task at hand. This is essential for any undertaking if you’re going to do it properly.
In Formula 1 racing for instance, the drivers navigate challenging race tracks at breakneck speeds - but fatalities are next to none. On the other hand, fatal road accidents occur every single day! Formula 1 is extreme, but proper planning and well-thought out safety measures go hand-in-hand with unflinching attention from the driver, and the results speak for themselves.
Did you not fear the very slim chance of rescue in the ocean?
Well, being in total isolation was the nature of the expedition, and I had to prepare accordingly. That’s why I made sure to have a transponder and tracker with a GPS signal. Granted, they may not have guaranteed rescue, but in the very least there was a hope in case the worst happened. Ultimately, I simply resolved to accept the risks involved.
Why did you choose to set off on your voyage from the Canary Islands?
The Canary Islands are where Christopher Columbus sailed from - I guess that was the romantic aspect that lent some significance (laughs). His last pit-stop before sailing to America was at La Gomera, the same area I set out from. The house he stayed in still stands on the island, now preserved as a heritage site.
While being alone out in the ocean, did you have to create ways to pass the time?
Not really, because you can’t afford to get bored in the ocean. I was always looking out for the huge ships that would cross the ‘ocean highways’. These highways or sail-lanes are generally taken by container ships sailing from one side of the world to the other. At night you can see their lights, much like cars on a highway, and it requires constant vigilance to get well out of their way. A ship 5 kilometres away can reach you in less than 20 minutes, so I had to stay sharp.
How did you sleep?
There was no prolonged period of sleep. I got rest in 20-minute periods (at the most), again mainly due to the ships that may cross my path. It was quite bearable once my brain became used to this pattern.
With your brain stretched to such unusual lengths, did you experience hallucinations?
Yes, they were pretty interesting. I heard garbage trucks, dogs barking, machinery, and other really obscure sounds that seemed to come from an alternate reality. The dreams I had were really intense too, as the brain condenses so much rest into little pockets. Even so, I had to keep my wits about me to avoid running into unfortunate circumstances - I had heard stories of sailors hallucinating and seeing land nearby their boat, causing them to jump right into the sea.
What were your best experiences out there?
There were many. Witnessing flying fish jump out of the ocean and soar above the surface is simply unforgettable. I saw huge schools of tuna fish swarm around my boat, and at times one would jump out and catch a flying fish in its mouth mid-air. At night they seemed to be attracted to my navigation lights and would occasionally jump onto my boat.
Many whales, sharks, and sea turtles came by to check me out too. The thing about a rowing boat is, you’re not making any sounds, like say a motorboat would. This doesn’t intimidate the wildlife, and they came right up to my boat whenever they pleased. I was a little wary of them capsizing the boat so I tethered myself to be safe. I wasn’t too worried though, as my boat was designed to self-correct in the event of capsizing by way of weight distribution; similar to how an egg will only stay upright a certain way.
How did you manage with food, especially after you capsized?
I had enough for the journey, but I did end up losing quite a lot of it at one point. The food packets would develop mould from the damp air, and I had a large amount of it drying on the deck in the sun. The boat happened to capsize and I lost all those supplies, forcing me to ration what I had left. I could survive by simply not eating for long periods of time. Thankfully it was in the final 10% of my journey, around 300 miles from Antigua.
How did you feel when the journey concluded at Antigua?
It's a funny thing - I could have stayed out at sea for a longer time. Being at sea became my world, a life of peaceful isolation with unimaginably beautiful sunsets and sunrises, with nothing or no one to disturb me. At that point I had learnt to trust my boat, I was my own best friend, and even felt more in-sync with the ocean. Just the sound of an impending wave would tell me its size and the impact to anticipate.
When I got back to shore and ‘real-world issues’, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t let down. Three months without having to bother about phones and wars and politics - it was the best feeling.
If you had advice for budding explorers, in addition to just getting started, what would you advise them to be careful of?
Safety first. Always have good equipment and have backups - never compromise on that. Having the right equipment can save your life. I’ve seen explorers with cheap gear, and they suffered the consequences of that.
What kind of lessons have your extreme adventures taught you about the nature of consciousness?
The ultimate reward is self-knowing. Mount Everest taught me how I dealt with fear; by talking to myself and rationalizing my way out of it. Siberia taught me how I could actually handle inhumane freezing temperatures - I would have never known that if I didn’t try. Crossing the Atlantic made me have faith in my own decisions, and that is a very powerful thing. To know that you can trust your judgement in seeing your goals all the way through, despite warnings, naysayers, doomsday scenarios and all that, is a priceless achievement.
You’re more in tune with nature, and the world in general. There’s a lot more appreciation for life, and adversities don't upset you as much anymore.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I guess it would be achieving whatever you set out to achieve. That’s happiness for me. Just completing your to-do list while you have the capability to do so.
What about someone who is yet to find their life’s purpose, or build a to-do bucket list? What advice would you have for them?
I’d say don’t do anything extreme unless you have a burning desire to achieve it. You have to want something really badly. Someone can tell you to climb Mount Everest, but will you actually do it? It has to be a burning desire from within - that’s why passion only goes so far, but obsession conquers your goal.
With all you’ve accomplished, what do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Crossing the Atlantic was a pretty monumental accomplishment for me, so I’d pick that. Also, I was only at 28 years old at the time, so I’m happy I didn't wait till I was older.
What trait do you most hate about yourself, and what do you despise in others?
Personally, I think I tend to take on too many things at once, and that’s never good. It causes unnecessary stress.
In others, I despise animal cruelty.
Which living person do you most admire?
I am a huge admirer of those who dedicate their lives to conservation. Check out an organisation called Animal Aid Unlimited, and the people behind their admirable work.
Could you share with us any authors or personalities that have shaped you the most?
Classic books such as Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, etc. are always worth a read. Another one of my favourite stories is Papillon by Henri Charriere.
As for movies, I’d recommend Life Is Beautiful (1997), Born Free (1966), and Hatari! (1962).
Do you have a motto you live by?
Fear is temporary, regret is forever.
And lastly, how would you like to die?
Surrounded by dogs! (laughs)
We’d highly recommend you to catch a real-life glimpse of Bhavik’s Atlantic voyage via clips uploaded on his official Facebook page. Bhavik currently lives in Stockholm, spearheading Elsa Ventures, a venture capital firm that helps start-up companies grow into full-fledged businesses. Learn more about the man, the athlete, and the personality behind his many remarkable accomplishments via his website. Fun fact: A school teacher once commented on his yearly report “....gives up easily”.