Dubai resident Christophe Papillon hoping to conquer epic rowing challenge

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A great voyage: Papillon and his cousin will row some 4000kms if successful.

Dubai resident Christophe Papillon, along with his cousin Clement Heliot, will be rowing across the Pacific Ocean this summer – 4000km from San Francisco to Hawaii – looking to conquer what is described as the toughest rowing race in the world.

Sport360° caught up with Papillon to find out what drove the French pair to tackle this challenge.

How did this idea of rowing across the Pacific Ocean come about?

My cousin and I cycled across Europe, from Paris to St Petersburg in 2010 over a month and a half. We really enjoyed doing that. We thought it would be very tough physically, and in the end, when we arrived in St Petersburg, we saw that it was possible and that it wasn’t so bad. We could have gone further.

After that we were thinking about our next adventure and we thought we needed to do something bigger. We started to read about different kinds of challenges that are possible to do and we got interested in rowing an ocean.

We met a guy (Pierre Mastalski) at a boat show in France – he’s become part of our support team – who just started (two years ago) without having slept a single night on a boat before. He just started to learn how to row, to build up his project, and then he went into the sea and he crossed the Atlantic ocean. So you think ‘okay, if you do it the right way, then it’s possible. 

What’s the goal behind this adventure?

We wanted to face the most important challenge that we could. There are more people on Earth who climbed Everest or went to space than crossed the ocean. So this is something very unique.

We are also in partnership with Surf Rider Foundation. There’s like a continent of trash, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and we’ll be rowing across it and the aim of our crew is to raise money for the foundation that is dedicated to cleaning up the plastic trash.

What kind of preparations are you and your cousin going through to be ready?

I’m not a professional sportsman and I’m not a seaman. So I have to become both before starting and that’s a big challenge. But for that, we have the experience of the guy who crossed an ocean before to tell us what to do, we have the support of a company who helps athletes prepare for such things. And we’re getting seaman training.

We are also putting much more time intoour physical preparation. But we are focusing more on how to use our boat, and being able to repair whatever happens to it. We believe that we don’t need to be ‘Supermen’ to row through the Pacific, what we need is to be able to endure the same kind of effort as a person who’s running for a marathon.

What we have to work on is endurance. Because it’s going to be 10 hours of rowing per day per person and it will be a minimum of 50 days.

Is there a world record for this?

The world record is 64 days but it was made by a guy like 15 years ago and he had a bad boat and he didn’t have all the communication like now. So we know that we can break the world record, there’s no doubt in that.

Tell us about the boat you will be using?

The boat we bought has crossed the Atlantic four times. And we trained in it for a week and a half in the summer of 2012, rowing each day for five or six hours, just to see if we could work with it. And it worked very well. It’s a prototype. It’s a 7m boat that has a little cabin where you can sleep. It’s 2m wide and it's made for collapsing.

The way you put the balance with the weight allows it to collapse in a storm and then to return to the other side.

And you and your cousin will be rowing at the same time?

Most likely we won’t be able to row at the same time. It’s better to alternate because you always have to have somebody row because if you’re not rowing at all then you’ll be carried away by the current. You need to have some time for resting. So the plan is to alternate every two hours. When you have a storm, you can’t row. You just wait until it goes away.

What about food and water?

We’ll need to bring with us all the food and supplies. Now we are planning the meals we’re going to have on the boat. It will be between 3000 and 4000 calories per day. The guys who competed in the Challenge Cup across the Atlantic last December, they lost 500 grams per day in the first month. So you can easily lose 10 or 15 kilos.

So right now, part of our preparation is not just to grow muscles, but we’re putting on weight as well because we know we’ll be losing a lot of it. We aren’t taking water with us. We’ll have a machine that will desalinate the water and we will put some energy powder in it and some stuff to give it better taste.

You’ve had some training in Brittany (France) last year, but how do you simulate the conditions of rowing in an ocean?

We are going to San Francisco one month in advance so we can have at least one week at sea by ourselves. A boat in San Francisco will take us in the deep sea and leave us with our boat for one week and then we’ll come back.

The only way to be prepared for rowing an ocean is by rowing an ocean.

You must be very close to your cousin if you’re willing to spend 50 days in an ocean with him?

Some athletes rely a lot on the fact that physically they are able to endure the worst. Great sailors are able to find the best way to cross the ocean. For us, our strongest asset is the fact that as a pair, we’ll never break up. Anything can break, but not us, it’s impossible.

How many other boats are entered in this race?

Right now there are 13 boats. The name of the race is the Great Pacific Race. It’s the first time a rowing race is going across the Pacific ocean. Today there are less than 40 guys who have crossed the Pacific in a rowing boat. On this route, some crews will be solo, some will be pairs and some will have a crew of four. So we’ll be racing in different categories.

On your website you listed numerous adventurers as your inspiration. One name stood out – Richard Branson. Why him?

The way he jumps into life is a little bit the way we jumped into this project. When he started his businesses, he didn’t have the experience before and he decided ‘I’m going to make my own knowledge’. When we go to the ocean we’re not sailors and we’re not athletes, we’re thinking ‘okay it’s going to be difficult and there’s a lot of learning but we’re going to be able to make it’.

He’s also a funny guy, he went around the world on a hot air balloon, kite surfed across the English Channel. The way he sees life through challenges is special.

You’ve been living in Dubai for two years now, what else have you been doing besides working on this project?

I’m in charge of sales, in the Gulf region, for a French company that manufactures safety shoes. I’d been playing rugby with the Dubai Sharks, but I stopped for four months to avoid injuries. I’ve always done a lot of sports without the pretention of being an athlete.

You can follow Christophe and Clement's updates on their Facebook page and their website. For those interested in helping them fund their trip, you can go to their crowd funding page here.

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