Vanderbilt Magazine

Up for the Challenge: Dixon McDonald, BA’11, completes world’s toughest rowing race in 3,000-mile trek across the Atlantic Ocean

The team rowed in shifts of two, with two team members resting in the stern compartment.

Mother Nature didn’t miss many chances to remind Dixon McDonald who had home-field advantage as the Vanderbilt alumnus and three teammates attempted to row across the Atlantic Ocean. A marlin’s spear-like bill provided a particularly pointed example when it pierced the hull of their craft hundreds of miles from land—and from any potential rescue—during the 2020 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

Entrants in the annual race row approximately 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands, just off the coast of Africa, to the Caribbean nation of Antigua in boats that are only 28 feet long and a little more than 3 feet wide. McDonald and teammates Jimmy Carroll, Todd Hooper and Jono Mawson were approximately two-thirds of the way across the ocean when they felt a jolt akin to being rear-ended by a car. The marlin’s sharp bill had pierced the hull and missed a teammate’s leg by inches.

Dixon McDonald, BA’11, before (left) and after (right) rowing across the Atlantic Ocean

McDonald’s team sealed the resulting leak and eventually rowed into port on Jan. 17, 2021—36 days after they had embarked. They finished third among 21 teams overall and second in their division. About two inches of the marlin’s bill came along for the ride, still pointing skyward from the bottom of the boat.

The marlin encounter embodied the initial reaction McDonald had upon learning of the race’s existence three years earlier. “I couldn’t believe that people did something like this,” McDonald recalls. “It seemed a mix of insanity and stupidity.”

Before learning about the event, McDonald had spent little time using so much as a rowing machine. But the endurance challenge attracted him for reasons that go back to Vanderbilt. A former high school tennis player, he missed competition and camaraderie in college. He ran two half-marathons as a senior, then committed to triathlon training after moving to New York after graduation, qualifying for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships and Boston Marathon. He was working in London when he heard about the Talisker race and assembled a team with three British friends.

During the race, there were stressful moments beyond marlin encounters, including a storm that nearly tossed them from the boat. When there wasn’t drama, there was wearying routine. They rowed in two-hour shifts, two always at the oars and two sleeping as best they could.

Yet there was also indescribable beauty. A meteor shower lit up the sky. Bathing in the middle of the ocean, McDonald looked down through water so clear and deep that it defied description.

The team raised more than $250,000 for four charities. McDonald’s share went to Achilles International, which is committed to expanding the disabled community’s access to endurance competitions.

“It is a seemingly impossible pursuit,” McDonald says. “To try and achieve that with three other people was really appealing. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, I just knew that I wanted to do it. I wanted to see if I was up for it.”