If you missed the Prologue to my book in an earlier post you can click here to read it now. In the meantime here’s the draft chapter 1:
CHAPTER 1: IN THE BEGINNING
These are purely personal insights of what happened during our genuine attempt to become the first boat in history to row the Atlantic in under 30 days and I am going to tell it how I saw it, confident that two thirds of the crew will be pretty much in agreement with my view, some may not!
During our trip we set a number of precedents for ocean rowing; perhaps the most significant of these being live radio broadcasts every morning on the Heart FM Radio Drivetime show, the biggest commercial radio station in the UK and part of the Global Radio group. The Heart network has 9 million listeners tuning in across the country every week and sometime after our trip Heart FM let us know that they had their best ever listener numbers for the quarter that included our time at sea.
The second thing was a device called ‘iPadio’ which allowed us to do live phone ins to our own website and these were immediately published as live audio from whichever crew member phoned in. This was brought into the trip by Mark Beaumont who strove to do these every day and they were predominantly delivered by him and his concise, deliberate reports give a great insight into life on board the boat as we progressed across the ocean, chasing the record, giving insights into conditions, morale, and ‘crew dynamics’. Mark was rightly proud of bringing this to the crew but as ever Simon’s quick wit added a laugh to the whole thing; when Mark had announced to us that he was bringing ‘iPadio’ on board, Simon, quick as a flash said, ‘So what’s that then Mark, a Spanish iPad?’ All of us laughed but I suspect Mark did not find it quite as funny as we did!
The first ipadio broadcast was from Mark ahead of us leaving for Africa and our ‘jumping off point’ in Tarfaya on the coast of the Western Sahara. Most of the subsequent ipadio reports were left by Mark Beaumont, Media Mark was another of his nicknames on the trip, as he was excellent at keeping the website, newspaper, twitter etc up to date. He described December 28th, leaving home day as follows with some insights into what was ahead. Remember that the words you read are a transcript of what the person was actually saying right there and then, (subject to bad reception and hearing properly what was said) this is not my recollection of things that were said and done with all the failings of memory, perspective and personal opinion, this is a personal account, live from the time:
Play the audio below with the transcript available underneath:
Mark ipadio 28 December Wednesday 16.42 hours 6 days to departure.
Hi this is, erm, Mark Beaumont and it’s the 28th of December and it’s around about midday. Still in Scotland but the bags are packed and this afternoon I’m flying down to London to meet up with the rest of the team from where we’ll fly out to Marrakesh in Morocco tomorrow. Erm, these phone blogs are probably the best way to follow the expedition, we’ll be calling in whenever we have satellite coverage, up to once a day if we can. And I’m sure you’ll hear by the tone of our voice how well it’s going or even how tough it is.
We’ll be leaving from Tarfaya in Morocco and we’ll be out there all of January and the beginning of February finishing in Port St Charles in Barbados. Erm, the dream is to bring the world record back and erm, really to go sub 30 days, it’s been talked about for years; is it possible to row a boat over 100 nautical miles a day across the Atlantic ocean? And er, if the weathers with us and we can hold it together as a team er, then, then, then, that, that, that should be possible.
Erm, so do check back and er, be a part of the expedition er, there’s going to be a lot of information, you can track it online, you can see exactly how we’re doing, you can send us comments and feedback on the expedition as it happens.
A huge thanks to all the, the sponsors and supporters who have got us this far, I mean we couldn’t be at the start line if it wasn’t for all the backers. So erm, thanks to them and er, I hope that er, we can now go out there and er, and do our bit and bring the record back.
A couple of times Mark got lost with Si’s humour, the most memorable one being on our Day Skipper Navigation course we had down on the Isle of Wight with our weather guru and salty sea dog Stokey Woodall. We’d gone out for a few beers at Stokey’s local and Mark had been telling us one of his ‘When I did the world’ stories. It prompted Simon to jump in and tell us about a trip to Australia that he’d been invited on by a distant relative. Simon went into great detail as to how he got out to Australia, how had had to cross part of the outback to get to a remote hotel all culminating in the phone call he had with his Aussie relative who farmed in the middle of nowhere in the outback and details of his welcome party. The fella had phoned Simon and said, ‘Yeah look mate it’s going to be cracking party; we’re going to have a big barbie, shrimps and everything on it, we’re gonna have beer, tonnes of beer, we’re going have whisky and there’s also gonna be drugs and wild sex!’
Simon said he retorted, ‘Wow, er, ok well that sounds pretty amazing, what should I wear?’
His Aussie relative replied, ‘You can wear whatever you like mate, it’s only going to be you and me!’
At that point we fell about laughing whilst Mark looked slightly bemused until he said, ‘You’ve never been to Australia have you Simon.’
At that point we were all doubled up with crying and in pain from laughing as poor old Mark had not seen the joke coming at all!
Anyway both the ipadio and Heart FM transcripts and audio are brought to you in these blogs with the transcripts of the broadcasts and you can hear the audio just as they were broadcast from the boat out at sea. It is up to you to read between the lines over what we felt we could say, and what we meant as we described life on the ocean wave! You will hear how we felt as much as anything as you listen to the laughter, pain, fatigue, joy, heartbreak, depression and excitement in our voices. The impromptu moments as a big wave hit the boat mid-sentence, the emotion as a loved one spoke to us from thousands of miles away as we bobbed about in our little rowing boat, in a very big ocean.
Please note that the following text this is largely from my diary that I wrote on board the ship that rescued us and I say again it is merely my personal view of what went on from my perspective, if aspects are wrong I hold me poor memory responsible but would say my notes written on the rescue ship were comprehensive, the iPadio and Heart FM material is verbatim, as are any other interviews and blogs – all a matter of public record.
The story for me really starts back in 2011 when two ocean rowing boats were effectively racing head to head across the Atlantic to try and set a new world record; one was Team Hallin using a rather ungainly trimaran design, essentially a slim main hull with stabilizing outriggers and was racing against a conventionally designed ocean rowing boat, Sara G, a monohull with a larger rear cabin and smaller fore cabin. The crews had set off from different point, Hallin from the Canary Islands and Sara G from Tarfaya in West Africa – I liked that idea a lot as it was rowing from the mainland across the ocean rather than getting a few hundred miles head start setting off from the islands.
To set a record the average speed of any crossing boats are pro-rata’d to a set distance so it would all come out in the wash at the finish line – and that can be variable with some boats going to Barbados whilst others go to Antigua. Both Hallin and Sara G were heading to Barbados and it was clear that although they had started on different days the race as going to be ridiculously tight. Both benefitted from a massive ‘purple patch’ of perfect weather in the mid ocean that lasted for 12 consecutive days, subsequently the skipper of Sara G explained to me that they hardly had to row and were going faster than world record pace.
As it was Team Hallin rowed into the harbour first with a new world record under their belts, unfortunately for them Sara G rowed into the same harbour 12 hours later and broke that record!
It was those events that really captured my imagination, this was not just rowing across the Atlantic it was racing across it to set a new world record – now that sounded a world more exciting and captivating than simply setting out to row the ocean and picking up some sort of spurious world record based on how old a crew was or similar. To me World Records are about speed – there has to be an outright open speed record and then individual records or boat type of male or female crews, solo, pairs, fours, sixes etc. To be given the title of World Record Holders based on ages for example is not the point, you just have to get across for that and that is just doing it, not racing it. A bit like being the world record holder for the fastest London marathon runner dressed as a gorilla. Nah, not for me. You don’t get gold medals at the Olympics for being the fastest rower dressed as a gorilla or the fastest oldest rower, you get one for just being the fastest.
Whilst the boats were at sea I’d looked up Sara G not least as I had been looking at getting on board a boat with a guy who something of an ocean rowing legend. He had said about Sara G being too big and heavy to ever make a record and yet here she now was, holding the record. I’d had my doubts grow with this fella though when he was building a record crew and was changing from what looked like a sharp 6 man crew in a carbon fibre 6 person boat to a bloated 14 – 16 person crew aboard a massive 8 position sweep oar boat. As more details arose about his own financial difficulties it began to look to me more and more like an emergency money raising exercise rather than a genuine world record attempt. Let’s face it, excluding Simon as skipper, he was going to get the income from potentially 15 paying crew members at something like £15k a head, £225,000 versus 5 paying crew at £15k per head, just £75,000.
With the Revenue and bankruptcy authorities all wanting payment it seemed a clear decision to make, and I bailed out of the trip; a good decision as it turned out as they were at sea for ages!
So I’d pinged some messages to the skipper of Sara G, Matt Craughwell, to say what an epic effort it was and I was utterly gripped by their trip and keep smashing it. Plus, I’d love the chance to catch up with him when he was back to look at future options and crew opportunities. Matt was good enough to respond and said he would be in touch once he was back home in Hertfordshire in a few weeks time. I couldn’t wait.
That time seemed to go in a blink and it wasn’t long before I was sat at Matt’s dinner table one cold evening having driven down in my ‘hairdressers’ MGF car, roof off despite the cold, that was why I had a convertible, the roof was nearly always off, even in the rain, I just wore a hat. His lovely wife Helen had cooked up a nice dinner and we sat and talked ocean rowing; the options it seemed were to get in a boat the following June 2012 to take on the Indian Ocean record or to go later that same year or early 2013 and be part of an Atlantic crossing that would just be going across, not looking for records. That was kind of disappointing for me as I wanted to go for a record on the Atlantic was the ocean I wanted to cross, if nothing else it was something I had always dreamed of, rowing the Atlantic, not rowing the Indian Ocean.
The racing trip though would be on the Indian Ocean. I said to Matt that I’d be on for any and all sea trials which were double edged, to see if you were up for it yourself and to be tested to see if you were of the ‘right stuff’. At this stage I felt I had had my fingers burned with Simon Chalk on the possibility of going into a ‘money boat’ where really all you needed to get a place was the right amount of cash and the prospect of going into a performance boat where the crew was genuinely selected on the individuals capability not their bank balance.
Matt’s view at the time seemed to be that if the Indian boat covered all its costs then it could be less money per person as performance would be the be all and end all. The Atlantic boat was really for his company which ran all this, World Ocean Rowing Limited, to be able to make a good profit. That is all perfectly reasonable as at the end of the day he is providing the boat, resources, prepping it etc. etc. and damn well should be able to make a profit. Not least he is away from his own self-employed business as a heating and plumbing engineer for at least a couple of months and so can’t earn in that time whilst helping people like me realise their dreams of rowing an ocean for a fraction of the cost of the then Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race.
My heart was set on the Atlantic though and I think it was around April time that I got a call from Matt to say a sea trial was set up as Sara G was back, we’d have to do some bits and bobs on her and then get out on the water for 12 – 24 hours with a couple of seasoned ocean rowers and me and another ‘newbie’. I was properly nervous of this; the crew had Matt plus another of the world record crew, Graham, a guy called Yaakov who had been to sea before with Matt on board a boat called La Mondiale that also used to hold the record although she had a ‘Pan Pan’ emergency and the crew had to be rescued. ‘Pan Pan’ is where you have an emergency but it is not a life threatening one, you need help, people will come, but they know you are not in really big trouble, that is reserved for the classic ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday.’
The sixth man was a big Irish fella who I warmed to straightaway; collected and measured, he had a great rowing background and not least was a big lad in good nick. Good first impressions. Clearly I can’t say what they were thinking the other way round but I could only hope that they were ok with me and I could only aim to make a solid impression out on the water.
Sara G was based at Rossiter’s boatyard in Christchurch, Dorset and I set off at around 5am for the three hour, 150 mile trip down to the boatyard. I was in my MGF and it was a beautiful day so roof off, no traffic early on and it was great, exciting, start to the day.
I duly arrived in Christchurch, spent a while finding the boatyard and drove in to see Sara G for the first time, perched up on her trailer with Matt on board doing stuff already and a couple of other guys involved and doing things. It was a nervy experience for me, were these other lads part of the record crew too? What was I even doing here? Just ordinary me, a river rower with no ocean experience at all, let alone ocean rowing and these guys full of experience and knowledge – then the penny dropped, they started where I was, and none of them was a river rower so like as not their rowing technique would be substandard, even the record holding lads. Maybe I’d be able to hold my own.
Anyway it turned out that a lot of what we had to do was get the boat loaded for going out to sea and sorting out some new foam padding to sleep on and other bits and bobs. The time came for a safety briefing which was essentially showing us the lifejackets, telling us how to put them on, we did not practice that, and that they would be tucked down in the ‘coffin bunk’ out the way unless we needed them. There was a brief chat on the EPIRB and as far as I remember that was it.
When I’d met Matt for dinner I had talked through my rowing experience and acknowledged that the sea would be a very different thing but that the physics to make a boat go faster were the same; I also was pretty insistent that I got to go in the stroke seat where I felt my rowing skills would make the most difference and not least I had a burning desire to stroke the boat across the ocean. I wanted to own that place and make sure it was mine. To be fair to Matt he was happy for me to do that and so we set off rowing out the harbour which was a laugh as I had not realised just how far from the sea we were. There was me in the stroke seat, a guy behind me who was a newbie and Yaakov in the bow seat.
It is a twisting and turning river that suddenly expands out into a big estuary that looks like you can take a direct route across rather than following the marker buoys but you soon realise that is never going to happen as we were still scraping the bottom with Sara’s daggerboard at times even in the channel. Unfortunately we had also got our timing wrong and the further we progressed the more we realised that we had missed the tide and eventually had to turn round and go back in to wait for the next one. Bugger.
It did give us all a chance to have some grub together though once we were back on shore and we were soon sat in subway chomping on ridiculously large sandwiches washed down with nice healthy fizzy drinks. This is where one of the lads came out with what I thought must be some sort of Walter Mitty type existence – maybe he was telling it for real, I just could not suspend my belief enough to take it on board. He had turned up in a car which from memory was a pile of junk (unlike my MGF!) but regaled us with a story about how he was a former stock broker who had a salary of £250,000 plus the same in bonuses, got fed up with it and joined the army to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and had come out of that and was now looking for some form of adventure. He sat there in his aviator sunglasses with about as much meat on the bone as a stick insect I found him very difficult to be credible in any way.
My view was that the proof would be out on the water – anyone who is ex-army is going to know how to push themselves and we would find out on the sea, not in Subway.
As it turned out I believe my gut feeling was right; the poor fella could not take to rowing at all and was something of an uncoordinated donkey but also he had no power or commitment on the oars – dipped them in the water and got them wet but definitely no signs of power making the boat go faster. Not proof he was Walter Mitty I know, but…..
After the sea trial we came in with 24 hours under our belts and I felt I had rowed to the max for those 24 hours; in that time I had established a really good rapport with Yaakov and we worked well together with good banter too when we swapped out of our seats. Matt had done something different to what we’d ultimately do at sea where I stated off in the stoke seat and rowed for 40 minutes at which point I swapped out with the whoever was due in. The next man up rowed for 80 minutes and then he swapped out. After that the last man swapped out at 2 hours at which point I went into his seat. As such we all got a go in a different seat, be it stroke, centre or bow.
Early on it was apparent that the bow seat and geometry was odd and I don’t think we ever got to the bottom of why, partly as the first inkling of trouble over-ruled it in that when I brought it up I was told that this was not river rowing and the boat set up was not the same as a river boat because this was ocean rowing and you have to row round your problems. I took it as read. I was the novice here and Matt was the expert, but at the back of my mind it was a niggle as the boat should at least get set up perfectly irrespective of what water we were on so that we could at least have a chance of best performance. Even when we rowed back in and were on flat water of the estuary and the river the bow set up felt distinctly odd and was hard work to maintain timing with the stroke and centre seat. I could not pin it down, it felt like either the gates for the oars were set in a different place so you rowed through much more of the work and/or the heights were very different, maybe it was the spans which you could see were visibly different down the boat as the riggers and gates were not adjusted to the curve of the hull. Don’t know what it was, but it was very odd and clearly not right.
The other boat set up issue that was very apparent immediately was that the stanchions holding the safety bar in place hugely impeded length in the stroke seat. It was madness really that a boat designed for rowing clearly had fundamental set up issues that were blindingly obvious. The stanchions were vertical aluminium uprights that had a safety bar running for stern to bow to prevent crew getting washed overboard. The problem was that they were set in the wrong place to allow the boat to be rowed properly.
I’m guessing that as a non-river rower you would not even question it as you’d assume that is how it must be because it was built like that. That is the value of having people who genuinely understand rowing on board – you find the wins you can get to make a boat go faster for no extra effort. Just simply from doing things right, the same applied to pitches for the oars, gearing and even the spec of the oars.
The stanchions were rectified in the end as after sea trials and the personnel for the crew got narrowed down so the same thing came up from Simon Brown and Aodhan Kelly – the stanchions were badly placed and would have to be moved.
To Matt’s credit he took this on board got the changes made by Rossiter’s boatyard. Truth is, it should never have been like that in the first place and must have been a design fault but like a lot of ocean rowing boats at the time the actual rowing aspect of it did not seem to have had as much expertise applied to as them as they could have done. As I learned over time, there seemed to be almost an inferiority complex amongst a lot of ocean rowing ‘experts’ along the lines of ‘This is ocean rowing and not river rowing, the two are not the same and river rowing does not apply.’ Very naïve from my perspective, it was not so much about the concepts of river rowing applying but the years of experience in river rowing that had utilised the laws of physics to making a boat go faster. Those laws applied just as much to an ocean boat as to a river boat but just in a different way, so not paying attention to them properly was a sure fire way of building ocean rowing boats that could never reach their full potential, and lots of them were like that.
The biggest change to that would eventually come from a guy called Charlie Pitcher and his company Rannoch Adventure who have an attitude of leaving no stone unturned to make their boats go faster. Rowing set up, pitches, heights, angles, spans, gearing, spoon size, oar shaft size, all are important to Rannoch. At the end of the day if you are taking over 1.5 million rowing strokes to get across an ocean then why not make sure that at the very least the potential of each stroke to move the boat a little bit further each time is as high as possible by getting the set up right. After all, if that gave you one foot extra travel per stroke it is the equivalent of 284 miles….and that is an extra 3 or 4 days at sea. It might not sound a lot but for a record breaking crew it is everything.
Back to this first trial and I loved it! I loved the rowing, hours and hours of it in continually challenging conditions, striving to get the best stroke you can with the difficulties of the moving sea, the boat and not least rowing in a different seat each shift and all that went with that. I just loved it – the openness of the sea, albeit we were in sight of shore all the time (in daylight) and I guess not least the complete commonality with river rowing, it was in fact just the same in principal as river rowing just in rougher conditions, all the same things applied of aiming to get your legs on to take the work and get the most effective stroke. Length and poise versus the vagaries of what the sea and the boat were throwing up each time you tried to take a stroke, it was bloody brilliant and we were doing hours and hours of it!
It was clear pretty quickly too where the rowing technique lay in the boat; I was shocked and surprised that both Matt and Graham had pretty shocking rowing tekkers and would miss big chunks of the stroke even in relatively benign conditions as their catches were so slow, and that is coming from me, the king of the slow catch on the river. It was almost comical watching them get more halfway through a stroke before their blades were even in the water, and that’s allowing a lot of leeway for the boat and sea movement. The big Irish lad summed up the difference, he was so sharp on his catches, quicker than me and I did all I could to stay in time with him when he was rowing in the middle seat or stroke seat ahead of me. Yaakov was also surprisingly slow as someone with rowing experience but the gold medal went to Walter Mitty who just did not seem able to co-ordinate at all between each oar, holding the handles properly, and simply putting the bloody things in the water and applying any sort of meaningful power. No rowing coaching was on offer, you were dropped in at the deep end and had to crack on – if you made the grade then great if not you were out.
At the end of 24 hours we came in and I was shattered; I’d taken a view I was going to row to every shift to what I felt would be my max to survive the 24 hours. Every time I came off the oars I was drenched in sweat and blowing like a dog, and I loved that physicality and it was a little comical with all the rations I’d brought with me – malt loaf, wine gums, choccy bars, Doritos and pot noodles, the latter on Matt’s recommendation. I never bothered with them and it was always a case of shovel down the easy stuff of snickers bars, wine gums, Doritos, get a gallon of water down you and get some rest and. Such madness in a way but such fun and like I say I just loved the brutality of pushing every shift until you were hanging, brilliant.
I remember Walter Mitty commented on it at one point saying that the amount I was sweating indicated to him I was not fit and yet he could see the work going down which showed I was. I’d argue that if you have just spent 2 hours working your nuts off on the oars then you bloody well should be sweating like a garden sprinkler – if you weren’t then there may be a clue that you are not actually doing any work at all…and there was another indicator of work or lack of still to come.
We came back to shore and tied the boat off and got our kit off her. We headed straight for the shower block and all I wanted to do was sit down and rest, plus come to terms with what I had just done; my first time in an ocean boat and I felt like I had excelled. I had also developed a great relationship with Yaakov with good rowing and good banter plus good chat off shift – it was important to me to build these relationships and the same had happened with Matt. We had had a good time out on the water both on and off the oars and when Yaakov had described me as an ‘animal’ on the oars I was well chuffed as that is the sort of reputation I’d be happy to cement and I had worked bloody hard to make that happen.
Clearly Matt would be leading whatever crew would be finally selected and Yaakov was coming on board too so for me to make a good impression on the trial was massively important, I wanted to be in the boat and I was going to do all I could to make that happen, however much I had to drive myself and hurt myself on the trials to show I was properly up for it.
Me and Yaakov got in the shower block, still in wet kit, and collapsed with our backs against a nice big hot radiator, the heat was amazing and it was so good to sit and relax knowing that we didn’t have another shift coming up! We laughed at the state of our hands as well, still shaped like claws as though we were holding the oars.
One of the things that Matt had recommended was to get gloves – he’d sent a link to these things called Gil Marine deck hand gloves which were leather fingerless gloves. As a rower I thought these would be a bit lightweight as no-one wears gloves for river rowing but it would be reckless to not listen to the skipper so I’d come armed with my gloves. Being me I still thought I’d try without gloves to get a feel for the boat weight and the oars – very quickly I realised that gloves were in fact a great idea and at the end of my first short shift of 40 minutes I already had a nice set of blood blisters which were only ever going to be a one way street! It as the sheer weight of the boat, when you got hold of good strokes the amount of power you could apply was countered by the comparatively huge weight of the boat and so a lot of that power went into taking the skin off your hands really quite successfully. For the record, every shift after that I made damn sure I had my gloves on and despite that the blisters continued to grow nice and successfully until I popped them and was then into a world of puss, tape, antiseptic cream, blood and skin.
So as Yaakov and I sat there with our gloved, clawed hands we were trying to gently peel off the gloves without taking too much skin with them, they had all but welded to the exposed blisters with a mix of blood and puss and it was almost comical doing it. We sat there, stiff backs against a hot radiator, glorying in the horrible state of our hands and how hard we must have worked out on the water, however much they hurt there was that mutual bond that we knew we had done a good job and worked hard for the boat and crew.
We were then regaled by Walter Mitty, who had also just removed his gloves and made an announcement that he had not got any blisters at all. Funnily enough that did not go down well and although I don’t remember for definite saying anything out loud I’d be amazed if it wasn’t as me and Big Yak are sat there hurting and Jonny Lightweight has just announce that he has no blisters, I’m certain I’d have said out loud, ‘That can only be because you weren’t fucking pulling then!’ No wonder he had not been sweating.
The following week I got a call from Matt to say that Yaakov had said I was an animal on the oars – not going to lie, well happy with that description, and as far as Matt was concerned I would make the formative crew if I was on for it. I told him how much I’d loved every aspect of it and of course the rowing more than anything, that I just loved rowing and this was a new and almost purer form of it because you simply did loads of it and had the challenge to meet of getting the best from every stroke so relying on good technique was important to extract every ‘free’ inch you could get from each stroke.
I said to Matt too that the big Irish lad was an absolute rock and I’d row with him anytime. Matt shocked me with his response saying that the lad had decided it was not for him after all and that is a bloody brave decision to make I think. He’d no doubt have told people he was coming on a trial and had made the brave decision that it was not for him, something that can be harder to do than simply stay on board and not say anything. Something that would happen with one of our crew members. It was a shame to lose him, I just remember him as a top lad and a good oar.
Then Matt asked about Walter Mitty! In no uncertain terms I explained that I thought the guy was full of it, that from my perspective what he said was not credible and that followed through into the boat, he was just not a credible candidate for the boat, even if at this stage it was still a crew just looking to cross the ocean. It still would require everyone to contribute on their shift and this lad did not even know what pulling was so he was a non-starter as far as I was concerned. I said to Matt that for me he would be a deal breaker as I was not going to get into any boat, let alone one rowing across an ocean, with a passenger on board who could not even see he wasn’t pulling. I think a line was quietly drawn through his name then.
So, now from my perspective the crew was taking shape. I felt I had done enough and was in, certainly from what Matt and Yaakov said, and now I just had to make sure that I stayed in. I said to Matt that I would be on for any and all sea trials to continue to build my own experience and also if it helped to have input into whoever else may be up for the crew.
The subsequent trials strengthened the bond between me and Matt but it also, looking back, exposed me to a side of him that was less impressive and yet which I refused to acknowledge to myself as I was so obsessed now with making sure I was on board. However, I think we worked well together and had more and more conversations on what a final crew might look like, more technical things like oars and if Matt ordered new ones for the trip what should their specs be, shaft length, spoon size, that sort of thing.
Also coming into the conversation was more talk of this becoming a speed attempt rather than just a paddle across; the latter is all jolly nice and is without doubt tough too, but it is not racing, setting records, it is a combination of paddling and drifting across and making it regardless – not burning yourself to get the best result you can off the back of the best training and fitness you can smash in to make that happen. That was what really excited me and the more we talked about it the more the talk became about a world record attempt and even an attempt on the sub-30day record. This sort of talk was much more like it for me!
The next trial was in August I think and it saw another peg fall into the hole; an even bigger Irish lad came out with us by the name of Aodhan Kelly; another top man with a quiet sense of humour and a stoic manner. I can’t remember how long we went out to sea on this one but I’m sure we got some night rowing in as well as daytime, probably another 24 hour session.
We also had under trial an Italian fella who properly looked like an athlete – all buff muscles, tight tops, aftershave and sunglasses and a good lad despite that! Over the coming hours it quickly became apparent that Aodhan was quality all round, he could clearly scull well and had a great feel for the boat – as it turned out as a former Irish junior international rower you’d not expect anything else. He was great value, maybe a little heavier than he should be (!) but definitely quality both as a person and as a rower.
As for Jonny Italy the same could not be said; he seemed like a good lad but he was all but un-coachable as a potential rower; very stiff, falling into the common thing of trying to do the work on his arms and not his legs yet gripping too hard and in the wrong place to even use his arms. However many times we said about get his hands on the ends of the oars they soon slipped down again, grip, and so not be able to apply any power. The thing with the hands may not sound a lot but oars are set for a level of gearing that should make it possible to lever the boat around where the oar ‘spoon’ enters the water and the power of your body, using the leverage of the oar, will lever the boat round that point. The problem is of course is that if you move your hands down the oars as Jonny Italy was then you effectively change the gearing and make it harder and so make it harder to apply your power and lever the boat round the end of the oar.
It might not sound much but it is significant, if the leverage is wrong you will simply end up trying to lever a weigh that is too heavy for you – which means you are not applying work even of you feel like you are and as a result your team-mates have more work to carry. Remember again, it’s a million and a half strokes to row the ocean so if for any reason at all someone is not applying the work for whatever reason that will have a disastrous effect the further you go.
More conversations followed with Matt – once again I had loved the sea trail, loved the rowing, loved the physical and mental challenge and the challenge of rowing the boat the best you can in far from ideal conditions. Such fun.
We talked of the other candidates which were essentially Aodhan and Jonny Italy; Aodhan was quality and from my perspective a shoe in. Jonny Italy to my mind went the same way as Walter Mitty but for different reasons, he seemed like a good lad made of the right stuff but he just could not row and was un-coachable. As more and more talk was now on record breaking there was no facility to take on someone who could not row right here and right now as there was no time to teach them, being too inflexible to take on coaching was going to be too big a hill to climb.
Now we had four spaces filled and two to go. One of those could well get sorted on a personal recommendation to me. A good friend of mine, Ali Brown, Director of Rowing at Bedford Modern School suggested his brother Simon might be interested and to give him a buzz. He said it could just be the thing that Simon was looking for and so I left him a message to explain a little and give me a buzz if interested. Ali had explained that Simon was not only made of the right stuff, he was a quality oarsman and had in fact beaten Ali’s own Leander Club crew at Henley Royal Regatta in an unexpected result through sheer bloody minded grit and a determination to upset the form book. I today’s football comparison Leander Club would be the equivalent of Manchester City and Simon’s crew were more Accrington Stanley – no offence to either club, the crew or anyone in football!
I got a message back from Si and when we did eventually speak it was like we were long lost buddies; it’s fair to say that we ended up giggling about stupid things like a couple of school kids. Something that would not really change during the course of our growing friendship which carries on today.
So the next trial Simon joined us, turning up in his near death black VW Golf which made my MGF look good, some trick, and we hit it off immediately, the phone calls were just the starter! I can’t remember how long we were on the water on but I do remember that Simon suffered spectacularly from seasickness but cracked on regardless. He was a machine and maintained a superb sense of humour through it all.
The sea trial ended with us trying to run the boat in as the tide was on the turn. We nearly made it but as we turned into the entrance of the river mouth you could see that the tide was running out and so it was going to be an attempt to row ‘uphill’ against the outgoing water. I think in this trial we also had an American fella on board, he’d brought some slightly eccentric supplies in the form of Sainsbury’s assorted sliced meats and salamis plus a four pack of beer! He had some power though and it was him, Aodhan and Si trying to take on the tide. The lads inched their way against it but it was clear that this was not going to work as it was not just about these first few hundred yards but all the rest of the distance back to the boat yard with outgoing water.
The lads battled away and in the end I said to Matt that this was impossible and was simply not going to happen, it was a slightly odd decision to even give it a go as taking on the water was never going to be a winning situation!
In the end we ran the boat aground on the gravelly bed and waited for the tide to turn; even then we had issues as when the time came to try and get off the gravel the incoming tide would sweep the bow round and back aground. The bow side oars could not get any power on to swing the bows round as they would scrape on the gravelly bottom and after numerous attempts I said to Si in the bow seat that I’d jump over the side and pull the bows round until they were right on the edge of the deeper channel, he said he’d row like hell with his bow side oar only and see if that did the trick. We hauled in the anchor, I jumped over the side and pushed the boat round in knee deep water and as soon as it was getting deeper and coming up to my thighs I scrambled back onto the bow and out of the way of Si who was using his sculling blade like a sweep oar and laying down some big ones to get the boat to come round the last bit. Success! We were off and could now head back into the boatyard! The lads were knackered so it wasn’t long until we swapped out and the other three of us rowed the boat back in.
It reminded me of another incident when one poor fella and again I can’t remember their name, and even if I could I wouldn’t use it, but it shows the extremes you had to deal with on the boat and if things went wrong they went wrong in fairly spectacular fashion. I do remember the guy being quite reserved but he was a nice chap who quietly got on with the business on rowing in a competent and determined manner. He wasn’t the biggest chap and as far as being part of the engine for a world record attempt I just don’t think he would bring enough horsepower to the crew. When we came in from what had been a fairly brutal sea trial with tough conditions and a real need to push on as hard as we could and catch the tide there was quite a lot of stress in the boat. I don’t think the guy was well at all, be it from the sea, actual illness, or pushing really hard; he’d puked on the deck and had had to retire to the cabin – we sloshed his puke off which should have been down to him to sort but it showed how much he was suffering and that was to get worse for him.
When we got back in and as usual hit the shower block he came in a few minutes after all of us. At first we did not notice anything untoward until the smell started to creep into the block; this was followed by the fella stripping his waterproof top and trousers off and in his t shirt and shorts heading for the shower cubicle – with his legs covered in his own faeces. It was pretty nasty and the poor fella had no choice but to just get on with it – nobody said anything from memory as that is such an awful position to be in. Looking back, I guess out on the water he had literally been busting a gut and went beyond the limit, quality.
So Simon was on board; he would be invaluable on the Atlantic crossing for his temperament, sense of humour, complete willingness to help others around him and was also top quality on the oars, a really top oar. This looked like another peg in the hole and the subsequent phone calls with Matt summed that up too.
This was a it like ‘The Magnificent Seven’ – except there was six of us! We had five on board and there was just one space left to fill……