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Row Hard, No Excuses
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by Jay Seaver

"Seriously extreme sports."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: The Atlantic Rowing Challenge is a race for the extremely hard-core: Two people in a rowboat, rowing from the Canary Islands to Barbados. $19,000 to enter, and all entries must supply their own roughly $150,000 kit boat. The only prize is a trophy. If you call the support yacht to leave the race, you're required to burn your boat so that it doesn't clog up the shipping lanes. It's an event for those who crave an adventure and are willing to pay for it - financially, physically, and emotionally.

Row Hard No Excuses primarily follows two middle-aged Americans, Tom Maihot and John Zeigler, as they attempt to win the 2001 edition. 51-year-old Tom hails from New Jersey; Massachusetts-based John is about ten years younger. They're among the oldest participants in the race, and even before the race proper begins, it's a challenge: Building their boat takes longer than expected, a marriage breaks up, and Tom's family business has to hire new people to cover his leave of absence. Indeed, some of the entrants don't even make it to the Canary Islands.

Most do, though, and we meet a few: There's a young married couple from England, a pair of women from New Zealand, a cheerful pair from Spain, and more. Along with water-makers, enough food to last three months, and other supplies, the teams carry video cameras. Between the time they cast off and the time they either arrive in Barbados or call the support yacht to quit, the rowers are the filmmakers as well as the cast, and between them they capture everything - the beauty of the ocean, celebrations as the teams reach milestones, and the toll that the race takes on its participants, which can be ugly.

Some of the footage is beautiful: When the skies are clear, the endless horizon and deep blue of the ocean are dazzling. Even some of the underwater footage, such as when a rower climbs underneath the boat to scrape the barnacles which gather on the bottom, looks fairly impressive. Other times we see things that we perhaps would rather not - a couple months of rowing all day builds up and bursts sores, no matter how well a racer thinks her or she has prepared. They frequently turn fairly pink, too. And there comes a certain point where rowers start using the cameras like unscripted-television confessionals, not just because the filmmakers have likely asked them to, but because he or she is either trying to make it the rest of the way alone after someone bailed or isn't talking to his or her partner and this is the closest thing they have to human contact.

Tom and John get to that point once or twice, which is part of the reason I'm glad other racers gave filmmaker Luke Wolbach footage. Tom and John are tough, impressive competitors, but it's nice to be able to cut away from them to Spain's Pancho and Pedro, for instance, who seem to be preternaturally cheerful, considering how difficult a task the race is. There are several teams I wish I'd seen more of, but I suspect Wolbach's hands were somewhat tied in terms of what footage he could get. I would love to have sene more of Debra Veal, for instance, but I doubt she and her husband recorded the events which led to how they wound up finishing the race - or at least weren't willing to share it. (Absolutely nobody was surprised when Wolboch told the audience they had separated during the Q&A.)

Those looking for nailbiting suspense or a particularly inspirational story probably won't find it here. Though all the teams give the expected comments about not being there to come in less than first, the actual order of finish is pretty close to irrelevant; this is definitely one where finishing at all is enough of a victory. Even with that, though, I wouldn't call the vast majority of the film particularly uplifting. What Tom, John, and the others display is mostly stubbornness, and though the film only briefly allows itself to openly express much more than admiration, audience members may wind up with much more ambivalent feelings. The racers put themselves through a lot, and it's not clear at all that what they get in return is worth it.

There's plenty to stand up and cheer for, too, but I think this is more interesting. We've seen plenty of "victory against the odds" stories; wondering whether trying to defy those odds is courage or mere ego is something we don't see quite as often.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15924&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/09/07 21:40:37
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