At his office on Market Street this week, Toby Wallace looked tan and fit, as if the seasoned rower had been out for a full day on the Schuylkill.
Wallace, a 6-foot, 7½-inch Englishman, had just returned to the city after taking part in a great adventure. He was part of an eight-man crew that rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in 34 days. The goal had been to make it from the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa, to Barbados, in the Caribbean, in less than 32 days - the current world record for a crossing by rowers.
The winds, unfortunately, didn't cooperate. For days, Wallace said, it was "like rowing in concrete."
The hard part, he added, wasn't even the rowing.
"Lying in the cabin . . . about the size of a dog-kennel cage, by myself in the dark," Wallace said. "I thought we were going to tip over every time the boat got smacked and shunted sideways. All they taught me was that if we tipped over, stay in the cabin, when every instinct tells you open the hatch and get out of there."
So never again?
"If they told me to turn the boat around and row it back, I'd have gotten back in," said Wallace, who returned to Philadelphia on Monday. "I absolutely loved it. It's hard to describe how amazing it is. When you're rowing at night, the water is jet black, the sky is jet black. The stars are as bright - you can see the Milky Way, then you row into dawn, and the blackness just becomes a bright blue sky, and the water in the mid-Atlantic is the bluest blue you've ever seen."
Wallace had rowed competitively at collegiate powerhouse Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He was in two crews that beat rival Oxford in the match known simply as the Boat Race. Now 35, he still has his competitive spirit and knew exactly by how much they had missed the record: "Two days, 15 hours, and 31 minutes."
A bitter disappointment, he said, since this had been a competitive exercise in a boat designed for the attempt, the lightest rowing vessel ever used for an ocean crossing.
It was the fastest attempt by an eight-man crew, although think of it more like a four-man boat, a quad in rowing parlance, since the two groups took turns - four-hour shifts at night and one-hour shifts during the day. There was a powered-mechanism to keep the rudder on course and a satellite phone. Wallace talked to his wife in Philadelphia three times over the 34 days.
"I've come to think of it like climbing a mountain," Wallace said of missing the record. "You make your own luck for 90 percent of it - you do the training, you have the right equipment, the right people, the right preparation. But you still need that last . . . call it 10 percent of luck, for the weather and the conditions to get to the summit. Doesn't matter how good you are, if the conditions aren't right, you're not going to get to the summit."
Instead of traveling over 100 nautical miles a day, they were barely making 50 miles midway through the trip. Spirits had been high when they got off to a flying start. Wallace thought it was Day 3 when they were a mile short of the world record for distance traveled in a day (103 nautical miles).
The boat never tipped, but the trip, completed March 31, was memorable for other adventures. Wallace fell overboard on Day 1 trying to crawl to his seat. He was quickly hauled back in, and learned to crawl even closer to the deck. One day, he was part of the four-man crew doing the rowing when a series of three waves took them for a ride. For about 20 seconds, he was going four times faster than he could have rowed.
"The oars were out of the water and you were just in the foam ball of white water," Wallace said. "It was phenomenal."
Wallace, who lives off Rittenhouse Square, works for Aberdeen as a relationship manager in its endowments and foundations department. He is the coach for the company's corporate challenge crew at next month's Dad Vail Regatta, which Aberdeen sponsors.
He had answered an e-mail looking for volunteers to join the crew for the ocean crossing. Two Frenchmen, a New Zealander, and an American from Boston were on the team. The rest were Brits. Some had yachting experience, a few had ocean-rowed, several others, like Wallace, had rowed in a more conventional manner.
"It's the same mechanics," Wallace said of rowing in the ocean. "It takes a bit of getting used to the movement of the boat, rowing through bigger waves, over the swells. The basic process of rowing is exactly the same. Being competent with the oars and knowing what I was doing was very helpful."
Wallace put on 45 pounds before the trip and lost every bit of it, despite faithfully eating the freeze-dried meals on board. ("I was the only one who liked them," he said.) Everyone on the trip had prepared for the weight loss ahead of time.
"I put on [the weight] over four months, a lot through weight training, and I just ate," Wallace said. "I must have [eaten] close to 6,000 or 7,000 calories a day, maybe more. I'd have a whole roast chicken for lunch and a family-size tub of yogurt or ice cream for dessert. . . . If you start at 100 percent (of your normal weight) and dip down to 80, your power-to-weight ratio will fall apart. You need that extra to tide you over as you diminish."
He did not try to eat all the flying fish that got on the boat in the tropics. They'd try to throw the fish overboard before they died.
"Particularly at night, the flying fish seemed to want to fly over the boat," Wallace said. "They're obviously evading predators below . . . They'd hit you in the face and the arms and the back. They could fly 30 or 40 feet, I think."
Physically, he held up pretty well, Wallace said. His hands "were a bit sore," but they don't look too cut up.
"My backside - that's what gets everybody," Wallace said. "Because you're sitting down, putting weight and pressure on it for 12 hours a day. I would show you the pictures but I don't think you would want to publish those."
His adventurous spirit has him talking of someday riding in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race or the Dakar Rally. He wasn't kidding, Wallace said, about getting back in the same boat.
"Now we've kind of got this unfinished business with the ocean, to go and try it again," Wallace said.