"I'm not a dreamer— I'm a doer"
That's how the 34-year-old Guatemalan Juan Carlos Sagastume Bendaña, the first Latin American to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat, describes himself. His incredible high-seas exploit took 64 days, 13 hours and 16 minutes, covering a distance of 3,281 miles from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean.
The route covered by Sagastume and his 46-year-old companion, the British athlete Andrew Barnett, is one made historic by the world's greatest mariners. Even so, no more than 200 brave souls have dared to make the journey without sails or motors in a 22-foot vessel weighing no more than 2,000 pounds, relying solely on momentum powered by human muscle and a paddle. These are the regulations of the Atlantic Rowing Race, a unique competition in its category.
Fulfilling a dream
Twenty-six boats put to sea on Nov. 30, 2005. Juan Carlos and Andrew sailed aboard one of the 20 boats competing in the Doubles category. More than two months later, they earned seventh place in the category and fulfilled their dream on Feb. 2, 2006.
"Neither of us had rowed before, nor did we have experience on the high seas, but that was not a limitation," Sagastume explained. "I signed up for the competition, and just 22 months before it began, I learned to row. What motivated me was the magnitude of the challenge and the fact that so few people had dared to try it. "Now," he says, "I am the first and only Latin American who's successfully competed on this route. I consider myself a pioneer, and it makes me extremely proud to prove that in Guatemala we can do such extraordinary things. My name might be erased or forgotten one day, but the fact that a Guatemalan succeeded in this type of competition will go down in the annals of the Atlantic Rowing Race.
On board the Mayabrit
In spite of the extremely difficult conditions experienced during the more than 60 days on the high seas, Juan Carlos emphasizes that an atmosphere of great respect permeated the interaction between him and his companion in adventure during the voyage. The mariners aboard the Mayabrit (the name they christened their vessel in homage to the respective cultures of their nations, Mayan and British) were patient, respectful and tolerant. That was the key to them fulfilling their destiny.
They met each other in Canada while competing in the Yukon Artic Ultra, a 317-mile competition in which competitors trot non-stop in temperatures below 22 degrees. "He won first place, and I won second," Sagastume explained. "That was when we decided to take on the challenge of crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat. We began our training three months later."
The beginnings of a great athlete
A triumphant and pioneering Guatemalan in the Sables Marathon, a 143-mile race through the Sahara Desert in Morocco, as well as in the Extreme Sports Championship in Tamaulipas, Mexico, Juan Carlos Sagastume began his extreme sports career as a cyclist during the 1990s.
Before competing in his first long-distance competition, he worked a double shift in the United States to be able to buy the professional bicycle that he needed for the 4,039-mile race through 12 countries. The race took him 85 days.
"Crossing the Atlantic," he says, "was a clear reflection of my constant determination, which has enabled me to meet the objectives that I've set before myself. I believe it's important to set clear goals. The work of attaining them comes later."
Sagastume believes that crossing the desert and the crossing the ocean have something in common: "The greatness of the challenge. Human beings are capable, and if you put your mind to it, anything's possible. I spoke to the sea and told it to let me pass through. I asked it to not hinder my passage. I bruised two ribs, pulled several muscles and severely beat up my hands. The weather hasn't been that severe since 1954. We experienced temperature extremes, just like in the desert. We alternated one-and-a-half hour rowing shifts with an equal amount of rest, without ever stopping. I became conscious of the fact that a human being is nothing in the midst of the sea. "I'm just a grain of sand, I thought, but the idea never passed through my head of giving up the competition. While paddling, I told myself that the pain was only temporary, but abandoning the struggle is something that stays with you for life, just as the triumph does," he added.
Juan Carlos still gets excited when remembering the nights on the high sea and the incredible brilliance of the stars. "I become one with the oars as they entered the water—I absorbed that sound and the sight of the rainbows of color, reflections and fluorescent lights sparkling off of them as they came out of the water. During those long days, I could appreciate the splendor of nature. It's like having your mind in blank to enjoy the landscape, watch a falling star, hear the sound of a whale exhaling, the passage of dolphins and even the anguish facing the threat of a shark.
Recounting his experience, Juan Carlos remembers having "three great storms. One day, we were in the lead, and a storm pushed us back into 12th place. We then had to redouble our efforts because we'd gone a week without being able to paddle—without being able to do anything—stuck inside a 31-inch-high cabin. The whole ocean seemed against us."
A participant and not just a spectator
With this race, the athlete says he reconfirmed three of his primary characteristics. "The first is that I am not a dreamer, I'm a doer. Many people have dreams but never do anything to make them come true. The second is that I have decided to be a participant and not just a spectator of life. I'm not content with just watching what other people do. I discover something, I like it and I do it. The third thing is that I only like to set big goals—the loftiest in existence. Now I only want to compete against the best. Only in that way will I be able to prove that Guatemalans can be great. It's a way in which to earn respect for my country. That's why I like giving my all for something, so that later someone might say that a Guatemalan could be #1 in the world. We must continue setting this example—even if we're only just two or three now, little-by-little there will be more Guatemalans at the head of the finish line, the resulting fruit of a genuine effort. With this, I want to demonstrate that 'we fly higher than the condor and the golden eagle,' as our national anthem says."
The experience of Juan Carlos Sagastume Bendaña continues to color his memories and emotions. "I want to share all of my reflections from my journey, which I recorded in a logbook and hope to publish soon. I'd like to impel Latin Americans to be more disciplined, to make the decisions to triumph and to have the passion it takes to fulfill their dreams."