Retired Cardiologist, 62, Rowing From Chatham To Portugal

by Alan Pollock
16th May 2001

CHATHAM --- Shortly after 1:30 p.m. Friday, a 62-year-old retired cardiologist from Chicago rowed his 20-foot heavy weather rowboat away from Chatham, bound for Europe. If he makes it, Nenad Belic will be just the fourth successful ocean row to have departed from Cape Cod. The first in 1966 were Brits. John Ridgway and Chay Blyth rowing together in English Rose 3 then in 1980 Frenchman Gerard d Aboville rowed solo followed in 1995 by  Frenchman Joseph Le Guen also solo.
As of early Tuesday, the Yugoslavian-born Belic was reported to be about 100 miles east of Cape Cod, where he would be encountering gale force winds and tall seas from an unexpected offshore storm.

Nenad Belic
Thursday, The Chronicle found Belic at Pease Boat Works in Chatham, where he was making final preparations to his boat. While previous mariners attempting to row across the Atlantic from Chatham have attracted national media attention, Belic was very reluctant to be interviewed. Asked his destination, his answer was brief.
"Europe, theoretically. Or ideally, Portugal," he said, hardly looking up as he loaded the boat with bags and bags of trail mix, dried fruit and Rice Krispie Treats. The boat, named "Lun," the Serbo-Croation word for "moon," is built with cold-molded wood and epoxy with a Fiberglas shell. It is completely enclosed, with slots for the oars. The boat is equipped with all of the necessary safety devices, including three global positioning devices, a satellite telephone, and even e-mail, all powered by solar panels and two batteries.
"There is no boat like this in the world," Belic said. It was designed by a Worcester man and built by Steve Najjar, a boatbuilder in Palo Alto, Calif. For Belic, the trip is his life's ambition, and the result of more than eight years of work. Unlike some of the previous transatlantic rowers, Belic has no big-name financial backers, and estimates he has spent around $50,000 of his own money to prepare for the trip.Belic said he planned his trip in careful consultation with a noted expert on the Gulf Stream, and after regular updates with weather forecasters. At around 1:30 p.m., when the Lun was towed out through the Southway by a Boston Whaler from Pease Boat Works, weather conditions were ideal. 
But by Tuesday, a weak storm system that moved through New England over the weekend had begun to move back to the west from the Canadian Maritimes, according to National Weather Service Meteorologist Tom Fair at the Taunton forecast office.

"It's an abnormal weather system," Fair said. "Usually they go from west to east, and this one is going from east to west." As of noontime Tuesday, Fair said conditions 100 miles east of the Cape were unfavorable, with northeast winds around 30 knots and 10- to 12-foot waves.
"He should be going backwards right now," Fair said. The forecast called for slackening winds, shifting to the east and southeast. Like all transatlantic rowers who take this route, Belic is attempting to ride the swift current of the Gulf Stream to Europe.
Before his departure, Belic said he knows the Coast Guard does not look favorably on voyages such as his, but he is confident that the Lun is sufficiently seaworthy for the voyage.

"I went to the Coast Guard here," Belic said. "I said, 'I have kind of an unusual question.'" Belic said when he told the Coast Guardsman at the desk that he planned to row to Europe, the young man called for his supervisor. After asking him a number of questions about his boat's equipment, Belic said the Coast Guard approved the trip. "They said, 'Bon Voyage, have a good trip.'"
Coast Guard officials say they have no record of that conversation. Contacted by The Chronicle after Belic's departure, the Coast Guard diverted an HH-60 helicopter to search for the 20-foot craft, with the goal of possibly intercepting it for a safety inspection and interview. But the helicopter found too many boats in the area to notice the Lun, according to Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. John Kondratowicz.

The Lun
After contacting Belic's family, the Coast Guard in Woods Hole passed on the information to its district operations center in Boston, which, in turn, is sending it to the Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Va. Kondratowicz said officials have yet to have any direct contact with Belic, who did not return the Coast Guard's e-mail message.
"But there's probably reasons for that," Kondratowicz said. "I'm not apprehensive. Think the guy took all the preliminary steps and made sure he had all the necessary safety equipment. Of course, it would've been nice to have physically inspected his boat prior to departure," he added.
The Lun had its sea trials on Lake Michigan, during two 300-mile practice trips from Chicago to Mackinac Island, Belic said. During the runs, Belic encountered seven-to-eight-foot waves and stiff winds. Belic said he thought the trial was an adequate test of conditions on the North Atlantic. A father of four, said he has come to terms with the danger inherent in the passage.
"My wife, she is a darling," Belic said. "But she is not doing very well with this." Belic estimates that there is a 50 percent chance that he will successfully reach Europe, and a 48 percent chance that he will have to turn back.
"The risk of disappearing is about two percent," he said. Since 1966, six ocean rowers have have been lost at sea  5 of them attempting to row across the Atlantic and 1 while trying to row the Pacific. "Life is hazardous," Belic said, not gazing up from the weather reports in his hand.
Among those closely watching Belic's progress is Kenneth Crutchlow of the London-based Ocean Rowing Society. Crutchlow said that another mariner, Frenchman Emmanuel Coindre, is currently attempting a passage traveling the other way, from Canary Islands to the West Indies and Tim Welford and Dom Mee are rowing the Pacific from Japan headed for San Francisco. The safeness of an ocean rowing  trip does not necessarily hinge on the size of the boat, Crutchlow said.
"It has more to do with the self-righting capability of the boat, rather than the size," he said. One key  (besides being properly equipped) to a successful passage is to leave early enough in the season to avoid the bad weather off Europe in the autumn, Crutchlow said.
"A rower does not want to be at sea in September, certainly not in October, and no way in November," he said. "So let's hope he has a fast crossing." The record for the fastest passage leaving from Cape Cod is held by Gerard d'Aboville of France, who rowed his boat, Captaine Cook, from Chatham to Lizard Meridian in 71 days, 23 hours. ,
While there is no substitute for practice on the open ocean, Crutchlow said, Belic already has more experience than many first-time rowers who have never taken their boats to sea before attempting the passage.
Even under ideal conditions, it is not likely that Belic will make landfall in Portugal, Crutchlow said. Of the 9 successful west-to-east transatlantic passages on record, five made landfall in Ireland. 1 in UK and 2 in France.
"No matter what, it will be winds and currents that dictate where he goes," Crutchlow added.
In his only newspaper interview before embarking on the trip, Belic said he knew he would be asked the obvious question: why is he attempting the trip?
"It is a question to which there is no answer," he said.