The Jetboil is angrily bouncing around the deck, like a trapped rat threatening to spill boiling water all over us at any moment.
Duncan and I both reach to grab it and almost knock it on to each other. It’s 2 minutes past midnight on Christmas day and we’re bobbing off the coast of Lanzerote in the pitch black – like some clandestine boat going to raid the celebrations we can see across the island.
Laughing at the absurdity of the situation (and trying not to imagine what everyone at home is up to) we’re going to wake up the other shift with a present of hot tea. Little do we know, we have a 7-hour battle with Neptune ahead of us just to get to the sanctity of the breakwater. And this is only less than a third of the time we’ll be on the ocean.
How it came about
It’s early July 2017, and I’m laying in bed in the spare room at my Dad’s house in the midlands. It’s 4 am and I’m wide awake – my mind is racing at 100 mph when it doesn’t need to. My body clock is still set to Iraq time where it’s 7am. I’ve been back just 1 day after having spent 2 months working with a charity in the northern city of Mosul. We’ve been in the city everyday to take bottled water, high-energy biscuits and protect unarmed civilians against extra-judicial killings. We’ve had near misses with gunshots, mortars and seen young families endure some of the most extreme violence I’ve ever witnessed.
The mission has taken it’s toll on me – both emotionally and physically, and so I feel the need to do something to fill this gap in my life, to put this chapter of my life neatly into a back corner before I’m ready to deal with it.
I’m scrolling through Facebook when I notice a post in an ocean rowing group advertising a space for a forth crew member aboard a transatlantic world record attempt. My attention is captured.
Truthfully, I’m still after the next big thing and this ticks all the boxes: world record attempt (I was still annoyed from losing my previous one); ocean rowing (a sport I’d started to build quite an interest in) and expeditionary – the reason why I’d joined the Royal Marines. So where should I sign?
I message the skipper there and then. Albert is a mid-40s medical professional that’s been adventuring for the last couple of decades. He’s got quite the CV – having cycled across continents, rowed across the Atlantic several times, almost rowed the Indian (he got ran over by an oil tanker allegedly) and rowed the pacific in 3 stages. I decide with that kind of experience – this crossing should be a cinch for him. He could probably plan and it and do it with his eyes closed.
The very next day, we talk on Skype and within minutes I realise I’ve committed. The next 8 months have now got shape and I’ve got a new mission. I feel like I now have a purpose again.
It’s also around this time that my life starts to take a new direction. Having reconnected with a close university mate - Toby - a few weeks before my world record attempt in 2015, I’ve found myself developing a big interest in mountaineering. And having summited Mont Blanc with him and a great bunch from Brighton, I realise that I want to do more of it.
In fact, I start to realise that it’s replacing a huge element that I got from the military; the controlled application of high-risk activities (which includes a measured exposure to danger).
Having a new challenge fills me gives me drive again. But I’m also beginning to realise that I want to do it for a good cause. A nascent feeling is telling me that it’s not right to just do this for a challenge and that actually it should benefit someone (not just me), so I choose the charity that I’ve been volunteering with for the previous two years.
Team Rubicon – a disaster response charity started in 2010 by two former US Marines, has been doing some great work in all kinds of difficult contexts for around 3 years by that point. Like many good things in my life, I’d heard about it through a TED talk and then kept a keen eye on it until I got wind of a UK arm being set up. In November 2015 - Whilst in transition from the military - I deployed to Nepal to support a shelter reconstruction project in the Gorkha district; the epicentre of the terrible earthquake the same year.
Spending 2 weeks in the communities, living in tents and helping to expedite the construction of earthquake-resistant shelters with communities painfully crammed into the only standing structures was an incredible experience –and told me that I needed to do something with purpose when I left the military.
With a new mission; to fundraise for TR by rowing across the Atlantic Ocean – I feel like I’ve got my game back after the challenges of operating in an active warzone. It keeps me up long into the night and wakes me up early in the morning – but I love the feeling of having fire in my stomach.
Within weeks, I’ve set up a website, sponsorship deck and promotional material. After jacking in my graphic design degree as an impatient twenty something, I’m finally seeing some use for the hard earned skills that costs tens of thousands of pounds in student loans and living costs (as a student from social housing and single parent family, I didn’t have to pay tuition fees). I’m also calling on my social network as much as I can to get support from athletes, adventurers and those in the public eye – in some ways the preparation becomes more challenging than the actual crossing.
Despite many emails and promises of financial support, I would get to the start line having to pay my own way.
The team meets for the first time
Duncan and I drive to Amsterdam with a car loaded full of snacks. Ebullient at the thought of getting out of the boat for the first time; we’re full of laughter and goofing around the entire time. It’s great being in a team again, and I realise I miss this aspect of the military. After several hours of driving – fuelled by multiple coffee stops; we arrive at Albert’s house near Amsterdam. I’m nervous with anticipation as I feel like I’m about to meet a living legend. This guy has done almost all the things I’ve always wanted to do.
He greets me with a warm handshake, which we make into a hug. I notice he seems shorter in real life. And with a missing front tooth and a sun bleached baseball cap – looks a bit like Popeye. He’s drinking wine and smoking a Marlboro red cigarette as he invites us into his house. Walking through the garden, I notice the many different sea vessels: kayaks; dinghies and canoes. He briefly tells a story on each one as we make our way into his house. I notice three Klein mountain bikes hanging on the wall when we walk in and am instantly drawn to them – recognising them from the ‘golden’ era of mountain biking. They’re like living relics. I notice the many photos on the wall from his exploits, and instantly feel like I’ve done very little with my own life by comparison. Duncan has a wry smile on his face as he sees my wide-eyed expression. I’m in adventure heaven right now!
The very next day, Danny and my friend Dom – a photographer for an outdoor brand arrives at the airport. He’s kindly agreed to loan his talents at taking photos, which I’m immensely grateful for.
After a trundle around the local supermarket for two days worth of food; the five of us set out on ‘Rose’ our ocean rowing boat. Rose comes with quite the rowing heritage. She’s originally commissioned by the ‘Yorkshire Rows’ team and built by Rannoch adventures as a 6 person ocean rowing boat to be used in the 2015 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge (TWAC); an ocean rowing race that sets off in La Gomera in the Canary Islands and finishes in Antigua – covering some 3000 nautical miles.
Rose has been across the Atlantic twice before us. Albert skippered a crew of four that set a new world speed record from Portugal to French Guiana in 58 days. Now we – the Atlantic Allies: named because three of us have links to the military – are aiming to beat it by at least three days.
Taking it in turns to have two on the oars, we set out rowing down the Dutch canals, taking in the beautiful scenery as we do. I realise that we’re not going to have the benefit of windmills and canal boats to look at, so I try to focus my attention on a small part of the hull. The training session is social, with music blaring out from the boat speakers – we say hello to onlookers on bridges and cycle paths as we row. One friendly couple even invites us in for a beer, which we kindly accept. Before we realise, several hours have passed and we’re nearing Amsterdam. It’s now that I also realise that Albert has drank two-thirds of a large bottle of Talisker whiskey and now starting to slur his words. I think nothing of it, presuming it’s the done thing if you’re an ocean rowing ninja taking 3 sprogs for a day out.
But as we get closer to the Amsterdam Marina, we all realise that Albert is now really quite drunk and incapable of steering the boat into the berth. As the most experienced, Duncan steps up and hand steers Rose in whilst Albert drunkenly barks directions to Danny and I on the oars. Still seeing it as part of the adventure, I laugh it off and put it down to his character – not realising this wouldn’t be the last time we have an issue with drink.
We pull into the berth and look forward to some hot food, a couple of beers ourselves and a warm shower in a nice Dutch hotel. But we’re let down on two fronts when Albert slips on a wet pontoon and lands on his wrist, breaking it in a few places. It’s then we also find that 5 of us are sleeping on the boat that night also as it’s a bank holiday weekend and seemingly the whole of the Netherlands have descended upon Amsterdam. A long, cold and cramped night leaves the five of us wearisome the next day, but I’ve left the doubts at the back of my mind.
A new team member joins
Weeks pass as we all hurriedly prepare for the expedition. I ramp up the training with heavier weights on my deadlifts and increase my calorific intake to stack the fat on me. With these two lifestyle alterations, my usual 95kg frame increases to 104kg – and boy do I feel it!
With a few weeks to go, Albert messages us through the team WhatsApp group to tell us his wrist isn’t healing as fast as expected and to announce that he’s recruited a fifth team member: Neil.
Neil is a mid-forties divorced father of two who’s intent on making a successful crossing of the Atlantic after having to pull out of the TWAC a few years ago when the race experienced the worst weather in its history. A hugely experienced rower, Neil is also a world record holder after beating the record for longest continual time on an indoor rowing machine – an eye-watering 80 hours. With a team comprising of two mid-twenty year olds and two mid-forty year olds; I realise that at 34 – I’m somewhere near the average age of the team.
Countdown to H-Hour
As the weeks count down, the apprehension starts to rise. I’m now running around like a madman busy with interviews and filming pieces, that I realise I’ve barely had time for my family. I resolve not to let the same thing happen once the expedition is done, but that proves a bigger challenge than anticipated.
It’s early December when the team forms up in Lagos, Portugal. Now it feels real. But there’s no turning back now. Away from the nervous smiles and laughter, the tensions are starting to build up