boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

To France he'll row, row his boat

He hopes to beat record for voyage

ORLEANS -- Charlie Girard is not a man of the sea. Instead, the mechanical engineer is betting on a sleek boat he engineered himself, six months of intense workouts, and a little luck to row by himself 3,600 miles from Cape Cod to his native France and into the record books.

After three years of preparation, Girard planned to push off this morning from the Orleans Yacht Club, attempting to beat the record set in 2004 of 62 days, 19 hours, and 48 minutes for a solo rowboat crossing of this route across the North Atlantic.

Dozens of yacht club members and others curious about him showed up yesterday afternoon to watch his final preparations.

"I'm just fascinated that someone would do this," said Robert Liberman, 55, of Lexington. "This is a little bit of history."

Some had one question: Why?

"It's very difficult to understand," said Girard, 26, a balding, wiry man who wore a black T-shirt, brown shorts, and white Nikes with black socks. "There is not one answer. I want to test myself to know what I'm able to do when my life is in danger. Exactly, in fact, I don't know why."

His girlfriend, Sabrina Boisset, 27, has given up all her free time to help Girard reach his dream and has given up trying to figure out how he came to it.

"He has tried to explain it to me, but in reality, it is something only he understands," said Boisset, who met Girard at the University of Metz. "It's very difficult for me because there's a lot of thinking in my head. I'm proud. I'm nervous."

Girard allowed that he was inspired by fellow Frenchman Gerard d'Aboville, who made the crossing from Chatham to Brest in 72 days in 1980.

But while d'Aboville rowed a wooden boat, Girard says his vessel is more expensive and took more time to build than any other that attempted the feat before him. He took out loans to pay for about $81,000 of the roughly $270,000 cost, and found enough sponsors to pick up the rest, he said.

The custom- designed 23-foot boat, named Caliste and made of resin and synthetic fibers, has a slick white and red finish and is covered with sponsor decals. It is filled with state-of-the art gadgets. A sophisticated auto pilot will keep Girard on course. A machine will make salt water drinkable and an MP3 player will keep him sane. Anything electric will run on a battery that will be recharged by four solar panels.

Any crucial piece of equipment has a manual backup, such as a sextant to navigate by the stars in case the global positioning unit conks out. He has a laptop and satellite phone so can send and receive e-mail and update his progress daily on his website, atlantique2007.com.

With everything inside, including Girard, the boat weighs about 800 pounds. He plans to row about 10 hours each day in two-hour increments with breaks in between. He will sleep a total of about five or six hours of every 24 hours, curling up for naps on a short foam board inside a small cabin. He has enough dehydrated food, sweet condensed milk, and cereal bars to last 100 days.

Girard spent six months preparing his body with a trainer, running through the Alps near his home in Aix-les-Bains and toning his abs and lower back, sometimes training for 10 hours a day.

He said he isn't afraid of the rowing, during which he can concentrate on the activity, but is scared of the nights when he's alone with the ocean and moon.

Girard will have several medications on board, but since the smallest injury could be dangerous in the middle of the ocean, he also has a digital camera to take pictures of any wounds to send to doctors on standby so they can prescribe the treatment.

Breaking the record is the goal, but safety is more important. Last evening, Coast Guard officials were checking him and his boat to make sure he can make the crossing safely.

"You have to live for this project," he said. "It's three years of my life only to prepare for this adventure."

Jean-François Girard, 30, said his brother has always been competitive, spending much of his childhood involved in sports, especially judo.

"When he does something, he always wants to be the first," Jean-François said. "But crossing the Atlantic? No, I did not expect it."

His father, Marc Girard, helped prepare the boat by patching a small hole with caulk. "He's been wanting to do this for a long time," he said. "It's his dream."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES