An alarm is going off and it’s reverberating through my skull like someone is punching me. I slowly open my eyes and recognise that familiar feeling – a dry mouth and aching head. The hangover feels like I’m trapped in a fish bowl with AC/DC playing ‘Thunderstruck’ live.
I look at my surroundings, and slowly start to recognise where I am. There are oil paintings of tanks and fighter jets hung on the wall, military swords propped up against the wall and camouflage backpacks propping doors open: I must be at my friend Bags’ North London flat.
It’s then I realise I’m supposed to be up and out the door early for a flight – damn! What time is it? Too late – the plane is taking off in 10 minutes and I’m still waking up.
I check my phone: Rob has helpfully tried to ring me a few times and messaged me to wake me but it hasn’t worked. He’s an entrepreneur and awake more hours than anyone else I know. And he was also drinking with me at my leaving party last night.
I send a message to the team and await the rightful barrage of piss-taking. Sure enough, it comes within a few minutes.
This is the first time I’ve ever missed a flight through excessive partying. I chalk it down to experience and resolve to add this to the list of things I’ll be sure not to do again. It’s not until several weeks after that I let myself off the hook; the year has seen me overseas for many months and I'm exhausted.
A quick trawl finds another flight the next day and I send my updated flight details to the team. This still gets me over to Portugal a full 2 days before our final team member – Neil – can join us so I don’t feel too bad.
The start line
It’s early on the Third of December as I get a taxi to London Stanstead airport from a blisteringly cold London. I arrive in sunny Portugal and greet the team excitedly. We spend our days preparing our personal gear and the boat for departure and testing with open water trials. It all feels very real now
Duncan has been elected the deputy skipper and sets about co-ordinating the necessary pre-departure checks. He’s planning to row the Atlantic in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic challenge (TWAC) in 2018 so makes entire sense that he takes on this additional responsibility.
His approach makes me feel more comfortable that we’re going to set out in good order. As a soldier in the Royal Engineers (referred to as a ‘Sapper’) he’s used to planning and so schedules what we need to do and after conversations, assigns each member a task – meaning that we can maximise our free time in this stressful lead up to departure day.
Not having him here would mean we flounder around waiting for the skipper to make his mind up on what we’ll be doing that day. Having experienced ‘concurrent activity’ done well and not; I’m thankful Duncan is here and doing this difficult job.
With the departure date pushed ever back by the winds of Storm Caroline, time starts to drag. I decide to make use of by updating my journal on my next career steps for when I get back home.
It’s time to go
Departure day finally arrives and feels hugely underwhelming.
We’ve been waiting for this for a long time and after 9 days in Portugal, I’ve become restless and a little complacent. But it finally starts.
Albert, Danny and I take the first rowing shift out of the Marina until we get to the edge of the breakwater. Albert phones the Association of Ocean Rowers (AoR) to officially start the record; it’s hugely exciting to hear this phone call and means the clock is now ticking. The start is logged as 12:46 GMT on the 12 Dec 2017 as we set off.
As we row further and further from Portimao, the buildings and coastline get smaller and greyer until they eventually disappear. We have phone signal for many hours after we set off – which only goes to make the set off worse; I want a clean break from land to sea but feel like I’m stuck between the two. Within a few hours we see a small pod of dolphins and even an albatross. Hopefully this will set the bar for the sea life we will encounter on this challenge!
The first day is hard on the entire crew.
Almost everyone except for Albert and I is being sick throughout the first 24 hours. This is the first time we’ve encountered swell and realise that moving around the boat is also going to be a challenge – every time we do a shift-swap, around 450kg stands upright and unbalances Rose. If we’re going to be successful, we must get slicker at this.
The routine starts of as enjoyable, but soon loses it’s appeal when you realise that you never really fully relax. We start of by asking for a knock at the 20 minute to shift change – giving us time to wipe the sleep from our eyes, eat some food and then put on whatever clothes we need for the shift (usually asking for advice from the ‘on’ shift at the time).
Initially, the ocean is on our side – we’re averaging a steady 3 knots per hour for the first few hours before the waves change and we start to get small rollers from our west. This makes the boat rock from side to side and rowing becomes a bigger challenge when you can only get one oar in the water. We remain unperturbed and crack on.
The first week
The first few days pass by uneventfully and the routine – as tiring as it is, starts to fit. We’re all constantly tired and yawning throughout the day. I find that I can get to sleep incredibly quickly on the boat; perhaps a skill that transferred from the Marines – however it draws some consternation from the others when I start snoring within a few minutes of putting my eye mask on!
Our eating routine quickly takes shape also. Throughout each rowing shift, we’ll take it in turns to prepare a dehydrated meal for the other guys. At first, it takes around 20 minutes to find the JetBoil (our onboard camping gas cooker), fill it with fresh water and then boil enough water for the meals - often using too much . But within a few days, we cut this time in half with good gear placement and some concurrent activity. Getting resourceful with some of the bungee means that we can tie it up tight and not have to worry about holding it upright making things even quicker.
By day 4, the weather had changed for the worse. We’re getting small choppy waves rolling into our starboard side at high frequency – reducing our speed to 2 knots (we had to maintain an average of 3 knots to stand a chance of beating the record).
With the weather as challenging as it was, we decided to rehearse our shift changeovers. Whereas before we’d had everyone out on deck trying to move in or out of position (which we’d nicknamed ‘The changeover dance’ due to how hilarious it looked to anyone watching); we now realised this was too risky when trying to changeover in bad weather (if a wave had gone into an open cabin, this would’ve been catastrophic and could lead to a distress call or worse) – so we changed one crew member at a time, ensuring that cabin doors were always closed.
After days without a connection to the outside world (read mobile phone, internet and email), I noticed my mind becoming a lot freer and new thoughts coming into my head. Duncan also experiences the same and we remark just how nice it is to be disconnected. Little do we know, we’d crave this connection as the challenge takes a serious turn.
It’s day 5 and the sea becomes a rollercoaster. We wake up to 5-6 metre swells and the ocean looks like a moving bed of energy. Thankfully the swell helps, and Rose glides through the water as if she’s been turbo-charged with nitrous oxide. I’m transfixed by the speedometer as we slide down these giant blue ramps and see our speed creep in to the 6 and 7kph, my inner child wants to whoop and holler but I decide to internalise it for fear of reinforcing my ocean rowing newbie perception (I was the least experienced rower of the entire team and had never rowed on open water before).
This won’t come easy
The issue of containing my enthusiasm would be short-lived. That day, the dagger board rope snapped. The dagger board – essentially a retractable keel – keeps a small ocean rowing stable in choppy weather by reducing the amount of roll from the waves. In calm water though however, it creates extra drag and slows you down. A minor issue to us but frustrating to know you’re not maximising you speed.
Next up, the batteries weren’t charging for reasons unknown to us. We’d had reasonable sunlight but they were not even replacing the energy we were using to power the autotiller, navigation light, water maker and AIS. So to compensate, we stopped charging all electrical items, turned off the cabin light and hand-filtered water (using a manual desalinator) – this would eat in to the 2 hours of rest time we had between rowing shifts, meaning less sleep (and more frustration).
By the evening, things would get much worse. On the 6pm-8pm shift, Neal and Duncan experience some navigation challenges finding it impossible to stay on the bearing. Whilst ordinarily I’d take the opportunity to jibe Duncan on navigation (it’s a military idiosyncrasy to mock another soldier when they experience navigational issues!) the auto-tiller couldn’t keep Rose on the required bearing. After 2 hours of constantly getting blown off course, Albert made the call to deploy the Para-anchor and investigate the issue in the morning light.
Our first night on Para anchor and three of us cramped into a small cabin with a ton of equipment making it smaller. Even though Danny and I are semi-used to sleeping in cramped conditions due to our military service, none of us get any sleep. It’s hot, uncomfortable and the air is thin. Getting up to wee is out of the question, so we all keep it in until the morning. I decide from that moment on, I’d always prefer to be rowing than on para-anchor; no matter how rainy and cold it is.
We woke up around sunrise when the cabin started to become a sauna and set about pulling in the para-anchor. Seeing it deployed under the surface made it appear like a giant yellow jellyfish as we dragged it through the azure blue water of the Atlantic.
Once it was back in and packed away, we made some breakfast and started running diagnostics on the systems. We found there was very low charge in the batteries even though the AIS was the only thing running that night.
After a bit of tinkering, we tried to set off but found the autotiller still wasn’t holding our position frustratingly. After trying several different remedies and calling a specialist friend on satphone, nightfall had crept up on us and with it – another night on para-anchor.
As the oldest member of the team, Neal was still getting dreadfully seasick – especially when in the forward cabin with 2 other guys (the worst place to be when feeling seasick due to the proximity to waves). Duncs kindly offered to give his position and we formed the ‘Lads and Dads’ cabins respectively (due to Albert and Neal both being fathers and an average age of 54, and the other 3 of us having an average age of 30.
The record is off
The words hit me like a ton of bricks. I wanted to punch something, but realised that wouldn’t help the situation.
“We have to get to the Canaries and replace the batteries. This means it’ll become a supported expedition. And that means the record is off”.
This challenge had been my focus for almost 6 months, and now I was hearing that it would no longer become a world record attempt. I could barely contain my frustration and a stream of swear words escaped my mouth, unedited.
In just 48 hours, this expedition had gone from being a dedicated world record attempt to just another Atlantic crossing. I thought of all the supporters, sponsors and those that had donated – I’d have to face everyone and tell them the double world record wouldn’t be happening; because of some faulty batteries. I hadn’t even thought about asking whether they had been replaced since the last crossing at this point.
With the batteries now at a desperately low 20%, we set off on a new bearing towards Lanzerote. To maintain the remaining charge for the AIS, we were now hand steering and manually desalinating seawater. Little were we to know, the situation would get worse still.
With progress now painfully slow and visibility in difficult at night, we deployed the drogue in the hope that it would increase our average drift speed at night. The drogue is like the para-anchor except it has a massive hole in the centre and so will drag you in the direction of the currents.
You’ve not seen anything yet
With Christmas only a week a way, we were in a race to get to the islands before everything closed down. The repairs we needed could potentially mean having to order new equipment that may not be available on the island. At best this could mean a week sitting around. At worst, it could mean up to a month waiting for the parts.
Having concentrated full-time and unpaid on the world record attempt in the months leading up to the challenge meant that I had to be incredible frugal in my outgoings, but this amount of time in the Canaries – as nice as it would be – could cost a fortune. I had to start thinking about whether I could realistically carry on in the event we were there for that long.
But I’d have little chance to worry about the financial implications of staying in the Canaries when the next problem set in. When the rudder started to malfunction, the likelihood of getting to the Canaries now seemed uncertain. We’d been on the open water for 8 days and Rose had seemingly little appetite for visiting South America again.
In order to save the remaining battery power for our collision warning systems, we resorted to manual steering – meaning that one rower would be taken off the oars and in charge of the steering lines. But now, we’d seemingly lost the ability to steer altogether. We’d get spun around by waves and the bearing would change tens and even hundreds of degrees with little or no warning. If you were in the cabin, you’d feel the boat violently jerk around like someone was doing hand-brake turns.
As we limped towards Lanzarote with the boat now almost completely unsteerable, morale was taking a serious hit. The weather had turned from reasonably kind, to constant rain, strong winds and high waves. To add to the fun, we had to tie off the rudder in its neutral position to keep us moving forward. With the waves pushing us off course, we had to row perpendicular to them – meaning that you could only row with one arm and get blindsided over the head by breaking waves. Days on end being soaking wet reminded me of ‘wet and dry’ routine in Royal Marines training, but out here there was little respite from being wet.
After 2 days of rowing with just one arm, the team developed acute back and shoulder pain from the muscular imbalance. Every few minutes you’d get an intense pain like someone was inserting a needle into your neck and shoulders – useful for keeping you alert, but unappreciated for when you want to switch off at night.
As Rose slowly fell to pieces around us – we had to look for morale in every situation to stop from going nuts. Thankfully, day eleven provided this in one giant hit, to everyone except Duncan.
We had been using biodegradable baby wipes to clean ourselves after every shift. An important element of your self-administration routine as salt build up would lead to rubbing on exposed skin and subsequent blisters. One afternoon when Danny was cleaning himself in the aft cabin (the rearward cabin) Duncan and I were rowing. He tossed the tissue he had just used to clean his groin after a particularly sweaty shift out of the cabin. An unexpected gust of wind carried the used wipe from the cabin to the forward rowing position depositing it right onto Duncan’s face!
The whole boat erupted in laughter – even the offwatch when they heard what had happened leaving a shocked Duncan to size up what had just happened.
With the boat making slow progress to the Canaries, the ‘Dads’ and Danny, decided to try a few different solutions to regain the ability to steer the boat – such as filling the shaft with epoxy resin and recalibrating the compass (which we’d thought was the main issue when the rudder bolt had snapped). Sadly, none of these made a difference so we just had to crack on regardless. For a brief while, I held the Shackleton story in my mind as an example of triumph against adversity. Until I realised that he and his team were probably making more speed than we were and so I switched to imagining the film ‘Unbroken’. We may as well be in a lifeboat for all the control we have over our speed and direction!
We wake up on Christmas eve greeted with the sight of land and phone signal and the boat goes quiet. We’re all receiving messages of support and offers of help. We all post on social media to find spare batteries, a chandlery to check the boat and places to sleep over the festive period. The response is overwhelming and for the first time in a few days, it seems like the expedition might last longer than 2 weeks. But not before Neptune readied himself for yet another scrap.
Christmas eve passes uneventfully as we drift to within a few miles of the Lanzerote coast.
In my mentally and physically tired state, I’d started to imagine Neptune as the Lord of the Rings character Gandalf. He had thrown so many unexpected challenges at us over the previous 2 weeks that I needed to crystallise him into an enemy that I could fight.
As Duncan and I readied ourselves for our shift, we both noticed how much closer to the shore we’d got – the lights from Christmas celebrations now silhouetting the hull as we crept out of the cabins. I let a mild pang of homesickness pass through me as I thought about everyone enjoying Christmas Eve drinks and then readied myself for the shift.
We took over and almost immediately went into a spin. The manual steering lines had been tied off meaning that we shouldn’t be moving around at all. We pulled the oars on the port side to bring us back on bearing and set about our course to Arriceffe – the Island’s capital.
Minutes later, it happened again – more spinning. We woke up Albert for advice. He played with the steering lines and went back to sleep. Not even a minute passed before it happened again – barely 30 minutes into our shift and we were cracking hand-brake turns in the black water.
“Leave it for now”. Albert advised us. So as all (former) soldiers do; decided it was time to get the kettle on and make tea. Little did we realise we’d now be awake until we got into the Marina at 7am.
You will not pass.
We woke up the three remaining crew with hot tea and singing ‘Merry Christmas’ thinking we’d be in bed shortly. We were wrong.
With the broken rudder making steering nigh on impossible, and an unexpected increase in sea state meant it was all hands on deck to get us safely into the Marina. We filled all 3 rowing positions and had one person on the steering lines in an effort to keep us hopefully pointing the right direction, the last crew member of standby to changeover, look out and sort anymore unexpected issues. This would be one of the hardest nights of the entire expeditions – but I strangely relished the challenge.
As expected, the waves spun us around so the rowers counter-steering us by laying the power down on the opposite side. We were following a 2km (check) long concrete breakwater with waves trying to slam us into it. But we vowed not to let that happen. Every hour we swapped crew around to ensure everyone was on point. Rowing was incredibly tough – I was thankful that I put the hours in training now.
4 hours passed and now we were along the side of the breakwater expecting to see the end in a hundred or so metres. In the dark, we couldn’t see an opening and kept re-checking the maps. We could see the green entry light but no visible entrance. One mistake could lead to us being smashed into the wall by the unrelenting sea.
Re-checking the GPS plotter and Google maps said we were right next to the entrance, but all we could see was wall. As the mist parted, we saw a second green light in the far distance and deduced the breakwater had been extended by another several hundred metres but the authorities had usefully kept the original green light. We’d reached a false summit, but had to now ready ourselves to continue the fight with Neptune for another few hours.
3 more hours passed, until we made it to the sanctity of the calm Marina waters. Stumbling off the boat onto the Pontoon, I looked back at Rose and saw the tens of empty energy gel wrappers tucked onto any piece of bungee or crevice. We’d survived, for now.
We're safe, for now
We staggered into town to find some breakfast (and coffee more importantly), blending in with the drunken revellers making their way to do the same. Our legs were like jelly as the stabilising muscles hadn’t been used in over two weeks. This combined with our tiredness made the walk in even longer – yet we eventually found a kebab shop that would serve us breakfast burgers and fresh coffee – win!
But whilst I was feeling chipper to be back on dry land and it being Christmas day; I couldn’t let go of the fact that Rose was falling apart. I’d been deeply gutted and quite angry at the record being called off, but now I was starting to realise the whole expedition may be off if we couldn’t get Rose back online.
I felt a combination of relief at having some space – but I’m also angry at the skipper for not servicing his boat and ensuring the basic life support systems (batteries, rudder and solar panels) were in working order. As a former military officer – I consider this a basic function of leadership; akin to going into battle without checking your weapon works.