One Small Step: The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge Two competing teams take Avaunt through what goes in to rowing an ocean

The most remarkable journeys always begin with the smallest of steps. In an ongoing series Avaunt looks at the preparation, training and planning involved in the greatest of challenges.

More people have climbed Everest than have rowed the Atlantic. More have been into space. This year, 28 rowers in 12 teams will attempt to swell those slim ranks as part of the 2016 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Even a journey of over 3,000 nautical miles starts with a single stroke – Avaunt caught up with two teams to find out how you prepare to cross an ocean on muscle power alone.

Given the dangers and hardships involved, cross-ocean rowing is a relatively new pursuit. The small ocean rowing boats can easily roll and capsize, while the limited space and the relentless pace makes the eat-sleep-row-repeat routine a blistering grind. And if your equipment fails you could be three days away from another boat.

The first recorded ocean row was by the Norwegians Frank Samuelson and George Harbo, who traversed the Atlantic in June 1896, taking 55 days and 13 hours. It was over 70 years later, a day before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, that Briton John Fairfax became the first person to row solo across an ocean.

Today, 12 teams attempt to follow in their footsteps. Avaunt spoke to two: Latitude 35, consisting of two Americans, Jason Caldwell and Matt Brown, and two Britons, Angus Collins and Alex Simpson, based in the USA, and a British team Atlantic Endeavour – Sarah Hornby, Kate Hallam, Becky Charlton and Charlie Best.

The men have been here before. Collins won last year’s challenge, setting the current race record, while Caldwell has considerable experience of the hardships that can befall a trans-Atlantic crossing, eventually limping over the line last year as a pair in a four-person boat – two of their teammates having been evacuated because of illness and injury. “It was a great accomplishment in and of itself, of course,” Caldwell says. “But I felt there was unfinished business.”

Latitude 35: Alexander Simpson, Matthew Brown, Jason Caldwell and Angus Collins
Latitude 35 (left to right): Alexander Simpson, Matthew Brown, Jason Caldwell and Angus Collins

Physical preparation is clearly paramount for rowing an ocean. Though both teams have started from a strong position of fitness, pre-race training has been vital. “For those of us who have been working full time until we flew out here, it’s a case of get up, stretch and trying to fit in a gym session at the end of the day,” Best says. “We’ve tried to do a mixture of long sessions on the rowing machine, weight training and some work on our cores and flexibility, mostly to try to minimise the risk of getting injured.”

Both teams have focused particularly on building strength and bulk in preparation for weeks of rowing on open water. As Hallam says, “Sarah and I in particular have had to put on quite a bit of weight before we’ve come to this point. We’ve been waking up and having peanut butter smoothies, trying to get the extra kilos so that when we’re out at sea we can afford to lose a bit of weight.”

Should anything go awry in the middle of the Atlantic, both teams have undergone training to ensure they will come through unscathed. All members of the team have gone for different qualifications ranging from sea survival and navigation to first aid. All crew members also have to train with the equipment on the boat, such as the EPIRB (an emergency position indicating rescue beacon) and life rafts. They also have to be adept at mending equipment at sea if it fails: “We are very familiar with all our systems”, Hornby says. “We carry a lot of spares and know how to fix things.”

Atlantic Endeavour: Sarah Hornby, Kate Hallam, Charlie Best and Becky Charlton
Atlantic Endeavour (left to right): Sarah Hornby, Kate Hallam, Charlie Best and Becky Charlton

As well as the physical and organisational, there is also the mental preparation that is part of such a unique challenge. This is Brown’s first time rowing an ocean and he has lent on the experience of his Latitude 35 teammates. “There’s a whole mental aspect that you hone over 14 years of training at that level, but I didn’t have any of the experience about what to expect out on water that’s over two miles deep. These guys have really calmed my nerves when it’s come to that and I’ve looked to them a lot for that guidance.” Atlantic Endeavour have even gone one step further, undertaking some sessions with a sports psychologist to ensure that they are emotionally prepared for the challenges ahead.

Caldwell acknowledges that it’s only natural to have some reservations when going out on such a challenge, but the key is to be prepared for absolutely anything that might happen. “If you tell anybody that you don’t have any fears crossing the ocean then you’re either lying or just not human. Even though three of us have already crossed oceans we have anxieties about it. I think fear is healthy, because fear breeds preparation and more preparation, and it just all goes back to being able trust your teammates and have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C.”

Behind all the preparation and training, however, is the determination of group of ordinary people. It’s that, more than the emergency drills and intense fitness regimes, that will propel the teams across the Atlantic. As Hallam says: “I think we wanted to show people that we are four ordinary girls. Half the girls were working up to the day before we flew out here. We’ve all got full time jobs, we’re not athletes or anything. We wanted to inspire other women that if you put your mind to it really can achieve something.”

This year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge starts on 14th December 2016. Rowers will head west from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour in Antigua. All solo, pairs and fours must row without outside assistance, carrying all their food, gas, medical kit and safety equipment for the entire crossing.

Words: Mayer Nissim

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