Barbados is a friendly, little island – a mere 21 miles long by 14 miles wide – and it is often joked that surely “everyone must know everyone”.
And though the verdict may still be out on the truth within this premise, there are certainly two young men whose names, and smiles, no one will ever forget – Phil Als and Randal Valdez. For in 2003 this two-man rowing team became the first from the Caribbean to row the 3,000 nautical mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean in the prestigious Atlantic Rowing Challenge race from Tenerife to Barbados.
With a pride that grew with each passing day – for 43 awe-inspiring days – the entire nation of Barbados followed the progress of their team “Rowing Home”. We heard of their rough start, as strong eddie winds and unkind currents forced them into last place. In fact, it took 7 days for Randal and Phil just to get away from the starting line. But by December 1st, almost a month-and-a-half later, the team triumphantly pulled their last stroke on the oars, and courageously finished in third place. Gliding into the Port St. Charles marina – with throngs of supporters chanting their name and praising God for their triumph – Phil and Randal came home.
“We’ve been friends for 23 years,” says Phil, “and we’ve both always been sea-people.” But what made these “sea-people friends” want to cross the Atlantic – in a rowboat nonetheless?
It was a dream that began in 1997 when the first Atlantic challenge came to Barbados. Phil recalls meeting a rower from New Zealand and being inspired by the challenge of the race. Unfortunately, that rower – his name too was Phil – died in an ultralight plane crash just a few months later. “He made it all the way across the Atlantic, but then died at home,” and so Phil decided to take up the challenge in the memory of his namesake and friend.
“We trained for a year, both physically and mentally,” says Randal – himself a fisherman – and the race was incredibly grueling. However, in the mists of it all they saw sights the beauty of which will never fade. “We saw the most beautiful sunsets; the clearest moon-lit nights; the calmest glass-like seas; the largest ocean swells; and whales the size we could previously not even imagine.”
“At one point I jumped in and swam with the porpoises,” smiles Randal, ” and we saw a whale 100 feet long jump from out of the water”.
And now almost a year later, looking back on the race, the two friends speak of the greater lessons learnt – “Teamwork was very important, and this I learnt from Phil – if you want to do something, set your mind to it and do it.”
“We’d like to thank all of Barbados for their prayers and belief in us. We were the only team in the race who were actually rowing home and this was a tremendous feeling,” says Phil. Indeed, “Nothing is beyond your reach once you apply yourself.”
Article is written in 2005 and compliments of “Ins and Outs of Barbados” Magazine