Heads Together and Row: One year on
12 December 2019
Reflecting on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge
It was exactly one year ago today that Heads Together and Row set off on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2018. The crew, who were the focus of Henley Business School research into individual and team resilience, successfully completed the 3,000-mile race in just over 50 days, and shared the highs and lows of life at sea through regular blog updates. Here, crew member Justin Coleman reflects on the race, and shares some words of advice for those about to embark on the same adventure…
It’s 5:30am on Friday November 30 2018. I can see lights coming down the farm track to our little cottage deep in the Leicestershire countryside.
This is it. This is the taxi which will take me to the airport to begin my journey to Gomera and the start of my mission to row across the Atlantic. And as the driver gets out of the car, disgustingly cheery for this time of day, all I can think is, “What the hell am I doing?”
A little over a year on, just writing about that morning still gives me the heebie jeebies. I was so scared and felt so ill-prepared to row an ocean.
It was a feeling that persisted all through my 12 days on Gomera. The spectacular beauty of the island, and Mount Tiede sparkling in the distance, were both completely lost on me as I trudged the 20 minutes from our villa to the harbour every morning to make the final preparations. Past the lizards basking in the early morning sunshine, the shrines, the old women whose front steps could apparently never be clean enough.
All around me, crews were buzzing. Hearty men and women, looking longingly at the Atlantic and raring to go. I was looking longingly at the ferries to Tenerife and raring to go home. The only thing that stopped me was knowing who I would let down. The research team at Henley Business School who, as our main sponsors, had gone way beyond the call of duty with their support: my partner, who would undoubtedly have donated all my worldly goods to charity had I returned to the cottage without an Antiguan stamp in my passport: and of course my crew mates. It had taken us three long, uncertain years to get to this point. I couldn’t leave them in the lurch.
So I didn’t. And on race day I settled in to my rowing seat with the rictus grin of a man whose in-laws have turned up at his front door unexpectedly on Christmas Eve with several suitcases.
We set off. And maybe it was the fact that I had no choice, maybe because life was suddenly so simple (row, eat, wet wipe, sleep, repeat) maybe because at heart I am an uncomplicated beast who is very fond of endurance events, but something flipped inside me. I got stuck in to the rowing: I was a positive member of the crew: I was never late for a shift. I found reserves of mental and physical strength that I never knew I possessed and an extraordinary ability to Just Keep On Going.
There were amazing times – wildlife, the stars, the end of every shift. There were horrible times – rain so hard it penetrated your veins, technical issues that caused huge stress for several days, the start of every shift. But I wouldn’t have missed any of it for the world. It was an incredible experience, and rowing in to Antigua will always be one of the most special moments of my life.
A year on and I’m back in my normal routine of comedy and motorways, food on the go and not enough sleep – in some ways being a stand up isn’t all that different from being an ocean rower – but with one important difference. Whether I’ve had a standing ovation or 20 minutes of being stared at, there’s one thing you can’t take away from me: I’ve rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. A few months ago I ordered a print out of our crossing route and every time I look at it I still can’t quite believe it happened. But it did, and it will forever be my proudest achievement.
Would I do it again? The crossing, yes, in a heartbeat. The preparations, not so much. I nearly fled so many times in the two weeks leading up the crossing. I’m so glad I didn’t – not least because had I done so the bloody thing would still be haunting me – and to all the crews embarking on this year’s adventure, or to anyone starting out on a journey that makes their blood turn to ice, I’d say this. There will be times when you hate everything and everyone; there will be times when every fibre of your being is screaming at you to quit, there will be times when the size of the task looks utterly impossible and running away is the only sensible option. Don’t. I’m living proof that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. When the taxi driver comes to pick you up, don’t send her away. Even if she is disgustingly cheery.
Finish line photos: Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge