TWAC 2020, the race begins!

Doesn’t time fly? This time last year my fellow rower, David Murray, and I went to La Gomera for the start of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2019.

14th December 2020

By Guy Rigby

This is the world’s toughest rowing race, with solo to five person crews rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic unsupported. We were on a mission to find out about the race and decide whether we had what it takes to enter a team in the 2021 challenge?

We decided to proceed, but with a twist. We had originally planned to row as a trio or a quad. In other words, there would either be three or four of us in the team, resulting in a well-shared set of responsibilities and an estimated 35-45 days at sea.  That was until we found the Ocean Rowing Society website and discovered that, if we did it together, we would break the record as the oldest pair to row any ocean.

Rowing as a pair increases the burden of responsibility on each crew member, as well as lengthening the likely duration from an estimated 35-45 days to 50-65 days. Social interaction is also significantly limited, with our shift pattern meaning that we’ll be rather like ships passing in the night!

We eventually managed to convince ourselves that the honour and achievement associated with breaking the record justified a decision to proceed, variously described as “mad”, “bonkers” and a host of other unrepeatable responses from family and friends!

So it was that on 8th December 2020 my wife, Nicky, and I set off for our second recce to La Gomera, with a plan to meet organisers, crews and safety officers and watch the start of the 2020 race.  We would be joined by David, my fellow rower, together with his wife, Aly, and his son, Archie.

As before, our journey involved a flight to Tenerife, followed by a ferry to La Gomera. Due to the Covid pandemic, this was a little more complicated than last year, requiring a negative PCR test and registration in advance with the Spanish authorities.  We flew from an almost deserted Gatwick Airport, where a total of just 13 flights were due to depart that day.

Having committed to the 2021 challenge, I was surprised by the mix of emotions I experienced as we made our way to La Gomera. This was now very real and getting closer by the day. With the ferry pitching and rolling in the windy and grey conditions, my inner demons surfaced. Visions of those first days and nights at sea, along with the undoubted physical discomfort and challenge, swam into view. It wasn’t the first and it certainly won’t be the last time I ask myself what I was thinking of when I committed to this, but I guess one is allowed a wobble from time to time!

David’s arrival later in the day soon dispelled my negative thoughts. We have a strong camaraderie and we set about discussing everything we needed to plan and achieve.

There are 21 crews that make up the 2020 fleet, a significantly lower number than the 33 that raced in 2019, with various crews choosing to opt out or defer their entries. This means is that our 2021 fleet is now full to bursting, with around 35 boats entered.

When we started out, we were told that just getting to the start line would be a major challenge and if someone had told us how much time we would need to spend carrying out even the most basic of tasks, we would have found it difficult to believe.

To begin, we needed to finalise and agree on our cause. Having spent a lifetime working with entrepreneurs and being inspired by their innovation and passion, it was agreed that we would enter as “The Entrepreneur Ship” and support a charity that finds, funds and supports social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs are focused on making the world a better place and we found our perfect match with The Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, which trades as UnLtd.

The question of a suitable boat arose. What type? Should we buy new (expensive and requiring a full fit out) or second-hand (with much of the boat equipment already installed and a plethora of loose equipment)? We decided to opt for a second-hand boat and found Lily, a Rannoch 25 (the most popular boat for solo and two-man crews). Lily was built in 2019 and rowed by Anna & Cameron McLean, the brother and sister team – The Seablings – who broke two records in their race just one year ago. There is a warmth of feeling and a certain “je ne sais quoi” about Lily and we very quickly became attached to the idea of owning her. This has been enhanced by Anna and Cameron who are engaged and supportive sellers, enthused about Lily’s future.

Maximising funding for our charity, UnLtd, has become a massive focus. Smith & Williamson (now part of Tilney Smith & Williamson following a recent combination) has become our first major sponsor. Smith & Williamson works with founders on all things financial and champions the cause of entrepreneurship. We are extremely grateful for their support and partnership for what they agree is an important and hugely valuable cause. Together with funds provided by me and David, and with a year to go before our departure, we are already in a position where every extra £1 of sponsorship will end up going to the charity.

We are continuing to discuss sponsorship with a host of other companies and will continue to pursue this right up to the start of our race on 12th December 2021.

On the public fundraising side, we will begin our Just Giving and other campaigns sometime in the first half of 2021. We are thrilled that Crowdcube, the crowdfunding business that helps so many entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses, and who believe passionately in the power of entrepreneurship to do good, will be partnering with us in promoting our cause.

2021 will see us take delivery of our boat and start our training regime, both on and off the water. We aim to have 200-300 hours on the boat, with the majority taking place in South Devon. We also need to complete all our mandatory courses – navigation, first aid, radio and a variety of other skills for which we will need certification in order to qualify to start the race.

And so back to the start of the 2020 race. Very sadly, on Thursday evening, 10th December, the UK Government put the Canary Islands on its quarantine list, meaning that anyone arriving back in the UK after 4am on Saturday, 12th December, the day of the race start, would need to self-isolate for 14 days. As this would destroy any hope of a family Xmas (we won’t be here for the next one!), and with both work and family commitments, we decided we needed to try to get home. By hook or by crook, we all succeeded in getting on one of the few flights on Friday, arriving home before the travel corridor closed.

So, as I finish this blog, I am watching the 2020 race start live on Facebook, rather than live from La Gomera. Fair winds, safe passage and our very best wishes to all the teams!

We’ll see you next year!