Post date: 
Sunday, 13 January 2019
Steve on his boat - photo credit Ellen Hoke

Last year, Steve Sparkes set himself the challenge of a lifetime, to become the first blind man to row across the Pacific. 

It’s considered by some to be the world’s toughest rowing challenge, 2,700 miles from Monterey Bay in California to Honolulu in Hawaii. 

But 57-year-old, ex-Royal Marine, Steve Sparkes, and rowing partner, Mick Dawson, were determined to conquer it. 

They set off from a very peaceful Monterey, but from day one the seas were never kind. He says: “We didn’t see the sun for five weeks, basically we rowed out and that was it.” 

Swept overboard

Reaching dry land in August last year, it took them 82 days to complete and it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing. At one point during the mammoth journey Steve was swept overboard and was only saved due to the fact that he was tethered to the vessel at all times.

Mick says: “It wasn’t too much of a panic for me because he had actually scraped back onto the boat by the time I got out to check if he was still there, it’s an occupational hazard, but it’s no less serious for that.”

Steve adds: “I got back onto the boat because I was tethered and once the boat righted itself, it pulled me back on. The first thing Mick said when he came out of the cabin was ‘are you alright?’ I said yes, are you alright to carry on rowing?”

Eye of the storm

With the team name Cockle Shell Endeavour, Mick and Steve were the third of five teams to complete the Great Pacific Race. Two teams dropped out along the way, one 21 due to hyperthermia, another due to exhaustion and on the last leg, the two men were offered a tow as a category five hurricane set in. They refused the offer of assistance.

Steve adds: “When the hurricane decided to upset the proceedings, we were told basically we can get you a tow, get you a lift or you can ride it out.

We’d come all that way, 25 miles to finishing, there was no way we were going to get off that boat after all that, no way.”

Safety first

Steve has a huge affinity for the royal blue, 21-foot long and six-foot wide at the beam boat, calling it the love of his life at the moment. “She kept me safe for 82 days,” he adds. 

The boat has a small cabin at the front and bigger one at the back – providing just enough room for the pair to squeeze into when necessary. He adds: “She got battered every day by horrendous waves, she stood the miles, she did the distance and she looked after us and looked after us well.”

Having completed the challenge Steve Sparks broke the record for the first blind man to row across the Pacific. The journey wasn’t just for the fun of it though. Steve and Mick have already raised more than £11,000 for Blind Veterans UK and the Royal Marines charity. 

Mick adds: Both those charities, they just do fantastic work, they help people, they helped Steve and that doesn’t happen for nothing, so they need support.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of Connect Magazine.