Meet John Dempster: The SA solo rower who crossed Atlantic Ocean in 63 days

It is the stuff of legends; those feats that separate some people from the rest of us. They are the humans who appear to be fearless and scale the highest mountains, cross oceans or tackle what seems to be the impossible. 26-year-old John Dempster, a student from the University of Cape Town joined their club this weekend when he completed a solo race across the Atlantic Ocean in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, which is regarded as the toughest rowing race in the world. You may wonder what drives these super individuals to take on the cold, the wet and other challenges encountered on a race across an ocean. John tackled the nautical 3,000 mile race from San Sebastian in La Gomera, Canary Islands to Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua & Barbuda, which included Christmas Day alone on the boat to fight the stigma around mental health issues. – Linda van Tilburg

I managed to track down South African solo rower John Dempster in Antigua and he’s just completed the 3,000 nautical mile Atlantic crossing; you did it in 63 days, nine hours and 14 minutes. That is just unbelievable; I want to say congratulations. How do you feel today?

Today I am feeling quite sore, it is weird walking on land again, because your muscles get used to always being on a rocking system and when you walk on land, your stabilisers are still firing and I start wobbling when I go upstairs; I find I am walking to the right. My calves have atrophied and I have to rebuild my calve muscles and they are quite tired.

You are incredibly brave. Were you scared out there? 

The Orcas, I had Orcas that would visit me and they were a little bit scary, because one swam around me at night and I couldn’t see because it is easier having your lights off and it is easier to have night vision. So, they would pop up and breath and scare me. The waves which were quite big didn’t really scare me; they were just frustrating because it is a lot harder to row. What truly terrified me was that you have to try and clean the hull of your boat every five to ten days to get rid of the barnacles. So, you have to clip yourself to a safety harness and a line, jump off the boat and use a paint scraper and swim under the boat. The concept of doing that before the rowing started, terrified me and whilst doing it, scared me.

When you are in the water with goggles, you can see straight down for about three kilometres and you can’t really see anything and fish that are obviously much quicker in the water, can appear out of nowhere. I was a solo rower and there was no one on the boat to look out in case something came around, and help me. The other issue was that if I managed to unclip myself from the boat, it would be quite an issue, because staying on the boat is safe and getting out of the boat is not safe.

On day 42 some of the other teams were making up ground on me and I was rowing as hard as I could. I realised I just have to clean the boat. I put on my goggles for like a half an hour beforehand, then my snorkel and then the flippers and then I went into the water to get used to the feeling. I jumped in three or four times before and thought, I don’t feel safe doing this, I would rather go slower and I would jump back into the boat. But on day 42, I realised I had to do it and from then on; it was a lot easier.

John Dempster
Photo Credit: Atlantic Campaigns / Ben Duffy

Was there ever a time when you felt like giving up? 

Just in the beginning, when I was suffering from a ridiculous amount of seasickness. I was throwing up every day, lying in my cabin thinking that I was almost going to die and that I wasn’t able to do the challenge, that initial period was horrible.

And how did you overcome that?

For me, it was just thinking how much work I put in to get to the start line; it took a year and a half of planning. I had all these people invested in me or they donated to the campaign or donated to the charity and then to be rescued at 50 miles, which is less than 1% of the race. It just seemed that it would make all my efforts not worthwhile. So, I just managed to sit there and wait till the seasickness and the symptoms alleviated and that happened at about day six or seven.

You mentioned that the Orcas were quite scary; were there any friendlier wildlife and plants; did you see any green? 

It is a 3,000 mile race and for the last 700 miles you see seaweed for the first time and I remember rowing and suddenly seeing what I thought were some leaves. I was picturing that I am Noah and the seas are bringing me plants; it was like the dove when the floods ended (the dove that brought Noah the olive leaf) and it was quite an amazing feeling. I thought, I actually have an end in sight even though there was still a third of the race left.

There were dolphins that I came across, about five different pods and the first time I saw them in the distance, but the second time they were swimming underneath me; I have great footage of that, and it was so nice having them around. It was around the fourth time that I saw them having fun. They would jump out of the water; dolphins are normally so graceful and some of them were doing these spastic belly flops and landing; I assumed they were giggling. It was just fascinating to see these creatures being social and having fun in the middle of the ocean.

John Dempster
Photo Credit: Atlantic Campaigns / Ben Duffy

So, tell us your story; why are you doing this; to raise money for a charity and to raise awareness of mental health? 

When I was at school and I started rowing; it was in Grade 9; I read this book about these two guys who had done the Atlantic crossing, James Cracknell and Ben Fogle. It seem like a crazy idea at the time, my rowing coach who raced against the one guy recommended it and I carried on rowing until I came to university and I became the president (of the club). In the final year of my mechanical engineering degree, I was assaulted two weeks before varsity started and someone effectively broke my face. It took three operations to fix it and two weeks later a member of the club drowned. I wasn’t present at the drowning, but I had to deal with a lot of the consequences and felt that as the leader of the club; I bore some sort of responsibility, but I felt ashamed.

I felt terrible that this had happened to a member of a club that I was elected to lead. That had a huge effect on me emotionally and I failed all my courses in the first semester of my final year. I took a bit of time off, came back but another incident occurred. My mentor at the club, Lydia Hall passed away from cancer. This was someone I saw on a daily basis and again that affected me. Halfway through the year; I realised that I needed to take a leave of absence, try to clear my head a little.

When I decided to return; I thought all my issues were related to the rowing club and I ended my association with the club. I got halfway through the year and I realised that I haven’t dealt with it at all. I left the university and booked into a psychiatric clinic where I spent three weeks and went to a meditation camp for ten days. I came out of that feeling that I should do something completely different with my life for the next year and a half. Friends of mine were doing the race in a four-man team and I decided that I was going to pursue this.

I looked around for a mental health charity and found the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, SAGAD, got into contact with them and thought they were great people. I flew back to Johannesburg to tell my parents that I wanted to do the race. I carried on working on the campaign for a few months and announced that I was going to do this challenge in November in that year, and it was the first time that anyone had known about my mental health issues. And from then on, I have been organising and working with SAGAD.

It is a really personal issue for me. I have had depression and anxiety for quite a while now and I still think people can do amazing things and I wanted to challenge myself and prove that you can be depressed but that does not mean you have to suffer from depression for your entire life. It doesn’t mean that having anxiety means you are not capable of doing anything else. I wanted to show that I can move away from my issues, try to heal my mind and hopefully come back and pursue my original objectives in life.

The fact that you were alone on your boat for 63 days, that you went through Christmas alone; did you find that that changed your mindset and how you feel about yourself? 

Funnily enough I really like solitude and I have done two meditation camps. They are called compassion meditation camps. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter has done one of these courses and through that training; the challenge was enjoyable. There was no more anxiety; there weren’t any decisions I had to make. I just had to wake up and row, and rowing is something that I love, and I have been doing for ages. So, for me the whole experience was quite peaceful in the end. Every day got better and better and there was one point where I remember that I thought; this is the most relaxed that I felt even though I was rowing 12 hours a day.

John Dempster
Photo Credit: Atlantic Campaigns / Ben Duffy

There is a macho culture in South Africa, especially among men. How did that affect you? 

I had quite a negative attitude towards mental health. I remember being at school and hearing about depression for the first time and thinking; it would never happen to me. And then I dated girls who also had depression and anxiety. I would be sympathetic and helped them but still subconsciously had this opinion in my mind. If you are feeling sad, just “vasbyt’ and work harder and you can always solve your problems by just being more disciplined and more focused, until I got to a point where I almost broke and realised I just couldn’t try harder.

There was something in my mind, a disorder of my nervous system or the chemicals in my brain or whatever the causes are; I just wasn’t able to do the things I have usually been able to do with ease. Being someone who has had that opinion prior; it made me think I was weak, and I did not want to tell anyone. I eventually told my sisters and a year after that told my family and when I announced my campaign it was the first time that I told the public; I told basically everybody. That took a lot of effort on myself to be ready just to tell everyone.

If there is anybody listening to this interview who has struggled with mental health or knows somebody who has struggled with mental health; the first step I found was; if you realise that you are depressed and that you have anxiety; it is okay to have that and you are not weak. After that; you need to seek help. And from working with SADAG; they are such a wonderful organisation; I would urge anyone who realises that they have mental health issues; contact SADAG or contact a friend. And from there just take each day at a time and be okay with realising that you’re not okay and that you’re not weak. You just want to get better.

You have said you have a lot of injuries and scabs from sitting so much and you are recuperating from sore leg muscles. What is next for you and tell us about your injuries?

There was a lot of chafing going on and my bum is not a pretty place. There is a lot of chafing under my arms where they rubbed against each other from rowing. My private groin, genital area took a lot of strain as I wore one set of pants too long and the objects down there formed a type of lychee skin of scabs and then that heeled and peeled off and now it looks almost brand new. That prevented me from rowing for a good three days and there was a lot of painkillers just to sit down and close my legs for the race.

I am planning to go back to university; I want to finish my degree. During the race I was informed that I was accepted back into the university; they have been kind enough to allow me to register late as the race took a bit longer than planned; so hopefully next week I will be heading back into university.  But I would love to do another challenge like this again; maybe in five years and then try to win it or even when I am old and lucky enough to have kids; perhaps do this race each time with my children when they turn 18… if they want to obviously, but I would love to do more of these adventurous crazy things.

Thanks John and good luck with your journey. I think you have been incredibly brave, and it must have been quite an ordeal. 

It was really tough, and most people would say they will never do it again, but for me I think it helped heal me so much and was so enjoyable; I’d do it again in a heartbeat.