Heads Together and Row: Captain's Log
30 December 2018
It is day 19 of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge and Skipper Toby has written a blog about the realities of living on an ocean rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic. His ‘warts and all’ account provides a fascinating insight into the extreme highs and lows of life at sea…
Two weeks in a strange new world
We are immensely grateful for all of the messages of support and small nuggets of life back home everyone has sent us. Please keep the motivational lifeblood coming!
I’ve been surprised by how quickly I have transitioned into a new routine and how life back home now feels like a distant planet! For the most part I embrace and cherish the wonder of what I am doing out here in the middle of the Atlantic. There are also some things that are hard to truly enjoy but which complete the package - no one said it would be easy!
As the hours pass so too do the unique experiences and thoughts. So I’ve captured some below for me to look back on and in the hope some of you in the dot watcher community will find them of interest.
My day today starts at 4.30pm. We took a decision two days before we left La Gomera to adjust our rota from the classic two hours on - two hours off, to six off (not all for sleep unfortunately!!) then 18 hours of two hours on and one hour off. We overlap slightly so our day begins an hour earlier each day. Hope that makes sense - it seems to be working for us although there is something very wrong about spending the night setting alarms to wake up in 34 / 39 / 27 / 42 mins - I think I set one for 12 minutes yesterday!
4.30pm. Wake from long sleep break (just over 4.5 hours less disruptions). Mop up drool on spare roll mat used as pillow (sleep is face down for the purpose of airing bottom sores), open hatch, clip-on, say good morning to Justin and crawl out into the hot and damp environment as a welcome alternative to the hot and humid bow cabin, or Rose Cottage as we know it.
Do I want the good or bad news? Bad first. The water maker has stopped working and the advice from the duty officer is that we start hand pumping our water. Ok, could be worse, and the good? We’ve been making a steady 2.5 knots towards Antigua. I’ll take that!
I take time out to chat to Rufus* (timing is crucial to avoid talking to him more than once during the hours of darkness) and brush my teeth. During this time the news improves. The team have already spoken to the legendary Jim, the UK’s water maker expert, diagnosed the problem and have a plan. Quick double check, a lever here, a valve there, purge successful and we’re back in business. The hand pump water maker can stay stowed in its hatch for now at least…
Stuff several snacks into my mouth for energy having lost everything I last ate just before bed - the sea sickness still returns on occasion and I’ve been feeling it for a couple of days brought on when I’m up but can’t see the horizon.
5pm. A great shift on the oars. The heat has subsided, the winds are with us, talk is of miles rowed and calculations of how many days we hope will see us 1/3 of the way across. Cheers as Betty** swoops and dives in after some flying fish. Betty always brings smiles and motivation.
7pm. An hour off. Well, 45 minutes once I’ve got in the cabin, cleaned myself and treated my infected belly button to some TLC. Food. Food is a challenge. Anyone who knows me will be as surprised as I was but eating anything is hard. Savoury is now too savoury. Sweet is too sweet. Freeze dried meals now taste of milk powder and sea water to me. Chewing takes serious determination. Swallowing anything is something to celebrate. Even my Christmas fruit and nut toblerone ran out of allure in the end! Protein shakes? Don’t talk to me about protein shakes. I have two a day for 60 days. I haven’t been able to drink one in a week. But I will continue to try…
8pm. Darkness. The night hours will begin soon and with them will come monsters. They mostly come at night, mostly. This first shift of the night is exhilarating. Everything seems faster, waves crash around and over us, we bob and weave in the dark - a rollercoaster! The stars are a wonder to behold. Blondie and Chase and Status see me through.
10pm. Quick clean and grab 39 minutes sleep. Fall asleep listening to the rudder and autohelm be smashed around by the waves. Pray we don’t end up trying to foot steer another 1900 miles. Wake up with six minutes to get dressed. Literally count down 60 seconds more shut eye before I have to climb out of the cabin to relieve Ali on the oars.
11pm. Now there is no horizon. The moon will not rise until about 2am. I will feel sicker and sicker until the inevitable. Hard to embrace this shift! Motivation comes in the form of some of the friends who made this possible - their names lit by our navigation light - Trinity Tide, Adam the legend Gould, mum, Ray O’Neill, Mary-Anne Oates, Alun, Marta and Thomas Vincent, Craig, Steff & Ella Banik, Stone Dog and his Pups. Much love to you all. Xavier Rudd and Massive Attack keep me moving.
1am. Sleep. That’s it, just broken, noisy, uncomfortable, hot, post dry-wretching, beautiful sleep for nearly 40 minutes. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to it and miss it again instantly.
2am. The moon is sneaking above the horizon. One word. Amazeballs! I can now see around and the sickness will subside. Personal resilience levels rise tenfold with the moon. Often a nice rowing shift and to be embraced. I mentioned the stars. As someone who once went dog sledding in the Arctic and compared the northern lights to Clapham Common fireworks I have some making up to do. The stars are glorious. Staring at them, thinking that loved ones may also be looking up despite the distance brings them closer when they otherwise could not feel further away. Just the thought of the simple pleasure of sitting with someone who catches the mind at this time brings smiles and joy. Basia Balut and Josh Pyke suit the mood.
4am. See 1am. But sleep comes easier and waking up is harder.
5am. Dog tired now. Very hard to stay awake. Eyes rolling into back of head. At times rowing is probably counter-productive and Jez may tell me to take five before carrying on. At these darkest times I look to Theo for my motivation. He looks up at me from a picture of when we went ice skating that is in prime position on the stern cabin. I smile. I cry. I wonder how I ever made a decision to put myself out here so far away from him for so long. I’m rowing home to him and will hold him again soon. Snow Patrol.
7am. I re-read a text message from Theo before passing out. I’m not sure about sharing it with you but it’s so beautiful.
‘How meneee meetoos hav you gon Tobeey and how many sentmeetoos hav you dun Tobeey ovmihg hart and I luv you dadeey. Love Theo.’
Despite the noise and conditions I fall asleep with a full heart.
8am. The sun is just beginning to peak above the horizon. I’ve longed for this moment all night and it’s finally here. A very special shift on the oars and as the sun rises so too do weary spirits awakening from the gloom of the night. We start to chat and calculate how far we’ve rowed overnight. One night closer to Antigua! Chores begin too. We usually make water for the next 24 hours at this time and start to prepare food. Incidentally, we’ve eaten all of our meals cold so far. It’s just not been worth prioritising heating water over sleep.
10am. Personal admin, washing, chatting to Rufus, emails, texts, weather, navigation. These things easily use up the half hour before my next big sleep and then some. At 10.30 I can get in the bow cabin and stay there until 15.30. Although often the alarm is set for 4.5 hours and my mind/body insist on waking me up every 40 mins or so, this is it - beautiful revitalising sleep. I ponder briefly the circumstances in which I may awake needing to find the emergency glow stick while clipping on and escaping Rose Cottage. Not worth thinking about for long! Sweat, dribble, sore spots, damp salty sheets - life has never been so good!
Until the next day…
*Rufus. Rufus is the Henley squirrel travelling with us. He’s kept at head height adjacent to the admin or bucket area. Hence the phrase “I’m off to speak to Rufus”.
**Betty. Betty is a bird who first visited on day two or three. She returns several times most days to say hello and fly with us for a while. We will not listen to any suggestion there might be more than one such bird. Betty is our friend and there is only one Betty.”
Toby has described Betty as “about 6-8 inches long from nose to tip, brown with some white back feathers just behind the wings and a kind of hooked nose”. Based on this description we think Betty may be a Great Shearwater (photo below).
As of 1200 GMT on day 19, here’s how the team are getting on:
Position: 20 degrees 37.52 N, 031 degrees 37.28 W
Speed/Direction: 2.0 knots @ 235 degrees
Distance rowed: 981 Nautical Miles (1128.9 Miles)
Distance to go: 1723 Nautical Miles (1982.8 Miles)
13th in Fours crews
Henley Business School is working with Heads Together and Row on a research project looking at individual and team resilience. Click here to find out more.