DAKAR, Senegal – A New Yorker set off from West Africa on Sunday to become the first black American to row solo across the Atlantic.
Victor Mooney, 41, said the voyage in his homemade, 24-foot boat is intended to raise awareness of AIDS in Africa and memorialize the route that took African slaves to the Americas.
Africans “went through slavery and now they’re going through AIDS and being devastated again,” said Mooney, who lost a brother to the disease.
About 50 people gathered on the beach to watch Mooney head off toward his hometown – many saying they wished him well but weren’t sure why he was undertaking the dangerous adventure.
“He’s crazy,” said Gaston Sabaly, who works at a beachside restaurant. “Everybody wants to go to America but not like that.”
Mooney’s craft has no backup sail or motor, and he is rowing with no accompanying boat. He said the French military has promised to send planes over his route occasionally to check on him.
Fewer than 50 people have completed solo rows across the Atlantic, according to the England-based Ocean Rowing Society. Four have been lost at sea in the attempt and nearly 40 have had to abandon their trips, the group says.
Mooney said he is the first to attempt the trip from Africa. He hopes to reach the Americas in about 120 days. Wind patterns and currents mean he’ll likely hit the Caribbean first, then start up the U.S. East Coast toward the Brooklyn Bridge – which he aims to reach by October.
His trip was delayed for nearly a month in Senegal to fix a keel broken by fishermen who tried to move his boat by rolling it on logs. He called the delay a surprise boon because it gave him time to get to know the local population.
On leave from his job as a college publicist, Mooney wants to raise money for AIDS medicine in Africa. So far he has brought in only about $6,000 – about half what he has spent on the trip – but said he expects more donations as he travels. Mooney said the boat and its supplies are worth more than $100,000, but he got most of his materials as in-kind donations.
Mooney said he’s traveling with three phone systems, three global positioning systems, solar panels, three water purifiers, an emergency life raft and “tons of food.”
“I have backup maybe three times over,” he said. “I even have a backup rudder and three sets of oars.” He also has a computer and a satellite Internet connection to keep a Web log as he travels.
Mooney trained for his trip by rowing around Long Island and New York City. He started planning the trip about three years ago.
“Not everybody could do something like that,” said hotel worker Malik Khouma. “We all hope he arrives safely.”